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Is technology affecting our brains - for better or worse?

01 August 2012

Baroness Susan Greenfield is petite, vibrant, blond woman who loves shoes: very high-heeled shoes (in fact, she put the 9 in 9-inch stilettos), Susan was awarded the CBE in the Millennium New Year’s Honour’s List and Life Peerage (non-political) in 2001 for her scientific work. In 2003 she was awarded the Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur.

According to her official university bio: she explores “novel neuronal mechanisms in the brain that are common to regions affected in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The basic theme of her research is to develop strategies to arrest neuronal death in these disorders.”

She’s published a few books, including: ‘Tomorrow’s People: How 21st Century technology is changing the way we think and feel’ (Penguin 2003), which explores human nature, and its potential vulnerability in an age of technology. 

She’s also got an interest in “exploiting the parallels between the brains of the very young and very old, and how they are all vulnerable to technology, chemical manipulation, and disease”. 

Some years ago now I met Baroness Susan Greenfield. She was working in South Australia as Adelaide's Thinker in Residence for 2004 and 2005 and had done a couple of keynote addresses at various conferences for which she had received a good deal of media coverage. 

Media is something Susan Greenfield likes and I was the editor of a magazine. Susan and her passion for shoes was good fodder. She’s also controversial and that always helps.

Aside from all that… and in that six-degrees-of-separation coincidence that happen in life… Larke Riemer, Head of Westpac Women’s Markets, recently saw the Baroness speak at the Financial Times and International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group) Sustainable Finance Conference. Larke was at the conference in London as an invited panelist and Susan was the keynote speaker at dinner.

“She [Susan Greenfield] was fascinating,” says Larke. “She compared climate change and our knowledge or lack of knowledge around what it is and what its implications are for us and the world to our brains and what the onslaught of technology – especially computer games, technologically based social networking and the Internet – may or may not be doing to our ‘most precious’ organ. More worryingly, she also wants to know the potential negative or positive – or both – impacts it may have on the brains of our children.”

Susan Greenfield is preoccupied with whether our brains can remain sustainable underneath the weight of technology in all is computer driven guises.

As far back as 2001, she had this to say in answer to questions ‘New Scientist’ magazine asked her for an article on the topic: “What makes social networks and computer games any different from previous technologies and the fears they aroused?”

Susan’s answer went like this: “The fact that people are spending most of their waking hours using them. When I was a kid, television was the centre of the home, rather like the Victorian piano was. It’s a very different use of a television, when you're sitting around and enjoying it with others, compared to when you are going up to your room and watching it until two or three in the morning on your own. So it is not the technologies themselves that I’m criticising, but how they are used and the extent to which they are used…”

In a piece by Adam Gopnik for ‘The New Yorker’, February 14 & 21, 2011, Adam reviewed 20 or more recently published books about the Internet and what it does to our intelligence. He found the arguments of the various authors fell into one or other of three categories: “Never-Betters”, “Better-Nevers” and “Ever-Wasers”. (My reading of where Susan Greenfield sits is predominantly in the Better-Nevers camp. However, she believes, if we have to have it – and we do because it’s already with us – then let’s walk in with our eyes wide-open and understand the potential if not the final outcomes it may have on our brains and the way they work.)

I think some of the argument is remarkably similar to the one I grew up with around the evils of television. According to Adam in ‘The New Yorker’: “Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner… This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user…”

And so the Internet, computer games, social networking and technology…