Susan Greenfield on the effects of digital technology

Susan Greenfield strides into the Press yurt at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on a pair of precariously high-heeled ankle boots despite the uneven, muddy surface. She has quite a presence, but is disarmingly down-to-earth and funny. No wonder Tony Blair was happy to offer her a seat in the House of Lords, where she sits as a crossbencher.

Baroness Greenfield is a neuroscientist, businesswoman, broadcaster and writer, a senior research fellow and Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University, and a holder of the Légion d’Honneur. She is chatting to me before she talks on the stage of the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre later in the evening. Greenfield’s latest book, Mind Change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains, explores the effects of a screen-oriented daily existence on how we think and the way in which the brain, one of the most adaptable of organs, is changing in response.

Her varied career, with 200 academic papers and a string of books to her name, has been impressive, but Greenfield says that she never had a career plan as such: “I always just wanted to be me and to do what I was interested in.”

At school, she studied Mathematics and Classics, which inspired her to read Philosophy at Oxford, but she felt that the course placed too much emphasis on language structure and switched to Psychology. She became especially interested in the physiology of the brain and applied to do a doctorate in Pharmacology, despite having to admit at the department interview that she did not know what a millimolar solution was (a concentration of one thousandth of a mole per litre). “Never mind,” Professor William Paton replied, “You can tell us about Homer in the coffee breaks.”

After research fellowships in Oxford, Paris and New York, Greenfield became Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Oxford in 1996. This is a discipline that studies the effects of drugs to alter the process of neurotransmission in the brain. She has concentrated on finding a pharmacological way to arrest the loss of brain cells in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and is currently developing a treatment that aims to check the remorseless cycle of cell death.

The book Mind Change looks at the way in which the brain might be being rewired by our use of digital technology. But how can we begin to analyse this and examine how the brain and mind work together?

“Well, we can’t treat people like rats and slice and stain their brains, or do anything really invasive, unless you’re doing neurosurgery at the time,” Greenfield replies. “And this begs the question: what are we measuring or looking at? Brain scans are helpful up to a point but because the time resolution is several seconds and the brain operates in thousandths of a second, a lot could be going on that we can’t see. Physiologically, we can start with the brain cells, the neuron, the synapse and all the chemicals and biochemistry, and try to build up a picture, as I do, using animal models.

“That has its limitations though, because obviously a rat isn’t going to sit and work on the internet. We can look at dopamine systems and mechanisms, and the effects of environment on a rat brain. But it’s not like a litmus or pregnancy test; we can’t say, ‘Let’s see if computers are bad for you or not.’ Another way of investigating things people do is to look at behaviour. We can look at reaction times and highly contrived psychological scenarios in lab tests, or carry out surveys. The problem is that both approaches are valid, but it’s still hard to interpret one in terms of the other.”

She called on the expertise of Olivia Metcalf, research fellow at the University of Melbourne, who has undertaken research on the connection between cyber psychology, behaviour and social networking. As a result, much of what Greenfield says in Mind Change seems logical – and worrying. Few parents of a teenage video game addict would disagree with many of her observations in the chapter on video games.

Greenfield works as a consultant with a number of businesses, examining the impact of digital technology on their customers, goods and services. But how can employers deal with the physiological and psychological effects of digital technology on their own employees?

“Employers need to be aware of their employees’ likely strengths and weaknesses,” replies Greenfield. “Their strengths will probably be a higher IQ, not because they are likely to be more insightful but because if they’ve played video games they’ll have a mental agility and probably strong visual and motor co-ordination, an agile brain and lots of good working memory. On the other hand, they will have a taste for icons rather than ideas, won’t be very good at handling abstract concepts, and are likely to have a very short attention span, low-grade aggression, poor interpersonal skills and, above all, be more narcissistic and have lower self-esteem. Of course, it depends on the business, the job level, the pay grades and what businesses want.”

Greenfield admits that she is not immune to the effects of digital technology herself, although she tries to keep it at bay by avoiding social media. “My attention span is shorter, I check my e-mails when I wake up, my handwriting is terrible” – it is – “and I depend on my iPhone in a way that I would never have conceived of 10 years ago.”

Her aptitude and willingness to publicise herself, and the many things she does – including publishing a novel in 2013 – make her an easy target for critics. And despite her long list of achievements, Greenfield’s varied interests must arguably make it difficult for her to be seen as an authority in any one area. People who simplify complex subjects run the risk of being accused of ‘dumbing down’, surely?

She shrugs and says it doesn’t bother her. In an age when collective scientific curiosity and knowledge is often poor, she says any debate about something as relevant to how we live now as digital technology is important.

Mind Change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains by Susan Greenfield (Rider Books, £20, Hardback)

Baillie Gifford sponsored the Main and Corner Theatres, the Imagination Lab and the Story Box at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.


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