Technology: brain hindrance or help?

What have studies to date shown us about the effects of technology on the human brain?
19 September 2013

Interview with 

Baroness Susan Greenfield


A pair of headphones


Now, Rodents don't spend their time of Facebook, wander around with Twitter open on their mobile phones, and continuously bombard their brains with information with the online world.

So, what have studies in humans shown us about technology and the human brain? I caught up with Baroness Susan Greenfield....

Susan -   Certainly, it can be having an effect on attention span.  Certainly, we know that there's an important chemical called Dopamine that's released in the brain during gaming and that's related to arousal and addiction, and reward.  There's also evidence suggesting that that too would be released during social networking.  In social networking, it's neither stressful nor relaxing, but it is very pleasurable.  But social networking, there's also issues of empathy and sense of identity, evidence that perhaps with social networking where you're relying on that as your main vehicle for relationships.  There's evidence of narcissism and low esteem, but I don't want to do simple sound bites because that doesn't do justice to the work because it's only really been going for the last few years.  If you think about it, Facebook has only been around since 2007 or so.  So, it's not as if there are cut and drive definite proof that X or Y is the case.

Hannah -   I think that was the major point there, that the technology is moving so fast and the social structure is changing at such a high rate.

Susan -   Exactly. To do a proper study takes 6 months or so.  First, you need to get the funding.  You need to apply for a grant to get the funding and so on.  So, the science is sort of always lagging behind and I think people have rather strange expectations of what the science can show. 

I often say to my detractors, "Well, you told me a single experiment, the single smoking gun experiment that will prove conclusively either way this is all good or bad."  And that of course is not going to happen because it's obviously neither all good or bad and you have to frame a specific question you're going to test in a specific situation for a specific thing.  So, I think people that expect of science or scientists, simple proof one way or the other need to really recalibrate their expectations of what science can deliver.

Hannah -   Thanks to Susan Greenfield.


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