Saturday, March 17, 2012

The effects of technology on the brain: opportunity or threat?

In the first of a series of articles examining the impact of technology on our society and ourselves,'s Natasha Lomas investigates the effects of technology on the human brain.

Technology is frequently accused of being the root cause of a raft of social problems.
Texting, social networking, googling - they've all been in the dock in recent years, accused of causing a range of social and behavioural problems.

'Authorities blame games for sword attack', 'Video game cause of murder of great-grandmother by teen', 'Facebook hurts grades, creates more narcissistic tendencies for teens' are just a few recent headlines, while earlier this year, the finger was pointed at social services such as Twitter and BBM for apparently amplifying civil disorder in August's riots.

Brain MRI scan
An MRI brain scan: Is technology changing how we think?

Of course, fearmongering and tabloid journalism make natural bedfellows, but could there be some substance to concerns that technology is affecting the way we behave - and even the way we think?
In the past decade, Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, has publically questioned how the digital world might be affecting our brains, our intellect and our ability to form meaningful real-world relationships.

In 2006, Greenfield was quoted in a Guardian article warning of the impact of electronic media use on children's ability to learn, saying: "I am not proposing that we become IT Luddites, but rather that we could be stumbling into a powerful technology, the impact of which we understand poorly at the moment."

Similarly, in 2009, she penned an article for the Daily Mail targeting social networks as an area of particular concern: "By the middle of this century, our minds might have become infantilised - characterised by short attention spans, an inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity," she wrote.
She has also variously called for more research on whether there is a link between ADHD and internet use, and has also questioned whether increases in autism might be down to too much screen time. The latter suggestion caused fellow Oxford University academic Dorothy Bishop, a neuropsychology professor, to post an open letter criticising her comments as specious, erroneous and uninformed.
Greenfield's public expressions of concern have frequently caused controversy, as Bishop's response illustrates - not least because of the scaremongering headlines her words tend to attract: 'Society should wake up to harmful effects of internet' and 'How Facebook addiction is damaging your child's brain: A leading neuroscientist's chilling warning' are just two examples.
Such headlines have added momentum to a populist notion that internet use is somehow bad for your health - or in Daily Mail-speak, it 'rots the brain'.

Speaking to, Greenfield is quick to distance herself from such headlines: "What I'm concerned about more than anything is...

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