Grand Theft Neuro

I like Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist and director of science education charity the Royal Institution, but recently she’s lost the plot. Bad Science picks up on her recent crusade to warn everyone about the potentially ‘brain damaging’ effects of computer games and the internet in the face of absent or contradictory evidence.

And when I say I like her, I genuinely do. Not least because she wrote Brain Story probably the finest neuroscience documentary series ever produced, presented the Christmas Lectures in a red leather cat suit, and replied to me when I was a lowly MSc student after I emailed her following a talk she did on consciousness.

But she’s got a bee in her bonnet about computers and the internet, and keeps making headline grabbing pronouncements that are completely divorced from the actual science.

She keeps warning about the ‘neurological dangers’ of electronic media, saying that it might be causing ADHD, obesity, social impairments and the like, despite not citing a single study on the topic.

In this month’s Wired UK she argues that the credit crunch could have been caused by bankers brain damaged by computer games they played as children.

Her arguments almost always take a similar form: computers are about the “here and now” (whatever that means), frontal lobe damage makes people impulsive, children play computer games and experience affects brain development, therefore children could be being brain damaged by computer games.

Apart from the obvious problem with the logic, studies actually on computer use and attention, or computer use and social functioning actually tend to show that people who have experience of electronic media generally show slight benefits in these areas.

This evidence seems to have entirely passed her by. In her chapters on the ‘dangers’ of electronic media in her (surprise, surprise) recently published new book ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century she cites not a single study that shows a negative effect of computers on the mind or brain.

And in fact, Greenfield has promoted, wait for it, some ‘brain training’ software that she claimed improved mental performance.

Now, I’ve got no problem having wacky theories, or even reasonable fears, but if you’re the head of a science education charity you should at least read the literature. Oh, and refrain from promoting scare stories.

Link to Bad Science on Greenfield digital worry mongering.

7 Comments

  1. Posted May 16, 2009 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I wish there was more research. I have read some that indicates that multitasking makes tasks slower because of the change in focus. I’ve also read research that virtual learning is not as effective as 3d handling of physical materials. What I know from personal experience is that my children learned better with pencil and paper than with computer games that ostensibly taught the same things. They enjoyed the games without retaining anything. My children don’t use the internet at home–they have opportunities at school and at an afterschool program. At home they read, write, use a computer (not hooked in) for writing, draw, build things, play make believe and board games, and they have more patience and initiative than most of their friends who spend more time on the internet. A friend of mine has noticed that her son quiets down when he visits relatives in the summer who don’t have computers. When he comes home, within a couple of days of gaming, he is more agitated and rude. Both of those stories are just anecdotal. I’d like to see more study, not specifically of ADHD because that is a neurological dx, but of the effects of computer use and gaming on childhood development.

  2. Posted May 16, 2009 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    I think it could be one of those association is not cause situations that we all fall into from time to time. A google scholar search on “computer games attention deficit” does reveal some studies showing a positive correlation between “internet addiction” (a horrible term in of itself) and symptoms of ADHD.
    I’d like to suggest that having an attention problem, especially in terms of the motivational aspects of ADHD, might make people more prone to spending time on the internet or playing games. A child with an ADD type condition might well end up spending many hours online gaming instead of doing their homework. This hypothesis agrees with my own subjective experience of procrastination anyway…
    One problem with determining if there is a causal link of the games/net cause attention problems is that the development of computers has coincided with an increased frequency of ADHD diagnosis in the population, but this could simply be because we weren’t diagnosing much ADHD in the 1970s. Its not as easy to disprove as say, the simplistic Cannabis causes Schizophrenia, which is easy to disprove on the basis that cannabis use has increased whereas diagnoses of Schizophrenia have been relatively constant since the 1950s.
    It could be a similar situation with the attention and games/internet. Certain susceptible individuals are more likely to spend too much time gaming/surfing/chatting, which may also worsen their symptoms. This might explain correlations with ADHD and also invalidate poor theories such as “internet addiction” in the general population.
    Speaking from personal experience with depression, I know that I tend to withdraw socially and spend more time at my PC if I’m feeling low, which then becomes part of a bad positive feedback loop of behaviour and feelings, but I’d never attribute my PC use to being the initial cause of poor mental health.

  3. Posted May 16, 2009 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Reading the Dailymail article (I never normally read the Daily Mail) it seems that Susan Greenfield makes a similar point to my ADHD argument about autism. She admits we can never know if increased rates of autism are due to a changing IT environment or just increased diagnosis.
    Her direct quotes talk about her fears and her speculations, but the article then quotes Sue Palmer, author of the book Toxic Childhood as saying “We are seeing children’s brain development damaged because they don’t engage in the activity they have engaged in for millennia.”
    As always, its the press taking quotes out of context and paraphrasing what shes saying in more certain terms. Or perhaps being a TV psychologist is damaging to ones scientific rigour and scepticism?

  4. Posted May 16, 2009 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    If you look at some of her direct quotes, Re: attention and empathy here:
    Computer use could be cutting attention spans, stifling imagination and hampering empathy, she said.
    As a result, the parts of the brain involved in these traits will not develop properly.
    The workings of a highly sophisticated region called the pre-frontal cortex are of particular concern, she told a science seminar at the House of Lords.
    ‘You use it or lose it,’ she said. ‘And if you don’t use it, you are infantilising the brain, it won’t come on stream as much, that’s the hypothesis.’
    More…
    Burger King to launch burger gastro holidays
    Studies show that when the pre-frontal cortex is damaged, making it less active, people take more risks and become more reckless.
    And the fatter people are, the less active the brain region.
    ‘Perhaps it could be the case that screen cultures might predispose brains to have under-functioning pre-frontal cortexes,’ she said.
    Lady Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, also believes that the quick-fire world of modern technology might be behind the ‘alarming’ rise in ADHD and the growth in the use of anti-hyperactivity drug Ritalin.
    She said: ‘This is just a suggestion, I am not saying it is a causal relationship. But surely if we are exposing our brains to an environment that has a short attention span, if that happens to you in your first few years of life for long periods of time, might it be the case that when they go to school and are asked to sit still for half an hour, might there not be some cases of fidgeting?’
    She does clearly say that its a hypothesis, perhaps etc… but the added mention of Dysexecutive brain injury is just scaremongering (on the part of the journalist). Gaming does not equal the Dysexecutive syndrome.
    Right I’m off to shoot some Zombies…

  5. Posted May 17, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I think its not just an issue of whether or not computer usage is harming us, but what are the effects of losing those things that computers are replacing. Its no secret that the internet is supplanting other forms of communication, not to mention things like reading, board games, and sports. I don’t think its far-fetched to think that might be harming our society.
    And as for the internet and ADHD I don’t know much about the evidence for a connection but my own personal subjective experiences seem to confirm that hypothesis. I’ve personally struggled with Adult ADD over the last few years, which seems to correlate strongly with my internet usage. I’m on the internet most of the day now and my ADD has never been more severe. If I lose the internet for a couple weeks (if I go camping or visit a relative without wifi) my ability to focus on tasks noticeably increases.

  6. Posted May 17, 2009 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    “Its no secret that the internet is supplanting other forms of communication, not to mention things like reading, board games, and sports.”
    That’s a valid concern but is it actually happening? What are the figures on book sales, sports participation, board game sales?
    This is what most annoys me about Greenfield. She raises a serious point but does so in such a stupid way that the real issue is forgotten. She doesn’t seem to have any desire to go beyond speculation and look at the actual evidence.

  7. Posted May 18, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    @Neuroskeptic: Agreed. When such “academic hypotheses” are spewed through the media megaphone, so much is lost. And when coming up with these publicly-consumable neuro tidbits, too often literature such as this study (http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v12/n5/abs/nn.2296.html) are overlooked since it complicates the tidy story. There is a reason we conduct peer-review in academic journals before sending things on to the media. Let’s not vet these issues in the pages of the The Daily Mail…


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