The brain melting internet

Susan Greenfield has been wibbling to the media again about how the internet is melting the brains of young children.

Quite frankly, I’ve become fed up with discussing the evidence that refutes such outlandish claims but The Lay Scientist has a brilliant parody that manages to catch the main thrust behind her argument.

I thought I caught my brain melting when reading it but it turns out I had actually wet myself.

That’s why science is so hard you see.

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have left a generation of young adults vulnerable to degeneration of the brain, we can exclusively reveal for about the fifth time. Symptoms include self-obsession, short attention spans and a childlike desire for constant feedback, according to a ‘top scientist’ with no record of published research on the issue…

The scientist believes that use of the internet – and computer games – could ‘rewire’ the brain, causing neurons to establish new connections and pathways. “Rewiring itself is something that the brain does naturally all the time,” the professor said, “but the phrase ‘rewiring the brain’ sounds really dramatic and chilling, so I like to use it to make it seem like I’m talking about a profound and unnatural change, even though it isn’t.”…

“I think it’s really important that people aren’t frightened by scare stories about new technology, and I’ve been a big supporter of brain-training software in the past,” the scientist said, “but people’s brains are literally melting inside their heads from all the MyFace waves being absorbed.”

Joking aside, I honestly despair. I genuinely think that Greenfield is motivated by good intentions but it’s difficult to see how her unwillingness to engage with any of the evidence on the issue is anything other than wilful ignorance.

At the very least, the funny Lay Scientist piece will help you feel better about the whole disappointing situation.

Link to ‘Facebook will destroy your children’s brains’.

14 thoughts on “The brain melting internet”

  1. HA!!! Well duh, computers are melting our brains, so is TV. And also, if I hold my face *like this* long enough it will get stuck that way. Didn’t you listen to your elders, dear?

    I actually think there isn’t really enough evidence on what if any effects are there to prove anything either way, and if anything Greenfields “work” will set us backwords in that regard. Using bad science to prove things you made up really kind of, well, you know, hurts your own cause.

    If she wanted to say, “Hey we’ve been doing this research which is really preliminary and not validated in the scientific community, but I’m concerned that it implies our current studies on the effects of comupter use are inadequate and I would like to see more and better long term and extensive research that addresses my concerns” that would be fine.

    I want to see more research on cell phones too. AAAAAH MY BRAIN IS MELTING!!

  2. I know you don’t believe behavioral addictions exist, but neuroscientists doing the actual research disagree. Most of the following studies have been completed in the last few months.

    According to NIDA head Nora Volkow, MD, and her team these three physical changes define addiction: desensitization (decrease D2 receptors and baseline dopamine), sensitization (LTP, Delta FosB) and hypofrontality (decrease in frontal cortex volume and metabolism). These same brain changes (which are now showing up in Internet addicts) also show up in pathological gamblers and drug abusers.

    Here are studies showing the three critical, physical changes in the brains of Internet addicts (two just released in June, 2011): Desensitization: Reduced Striatal Dopamine D2 Receptors in People With Internet Addiction (2011)  A reduction of striatal D2 dopamine receptors is the main marker for desensitization of the reward circuitry, a hallmark of all addictions. In this study PET scans of men with and without Internet addiction were compared. “An increasing amount of research has suggested that Internet addiction is associated with abnormalities in the dopaminergic brain system… [In this study] individuals with Internet addiction showed reduced levels of dopamine D2 receptor availability.” Sensitization: Changes in Cue Induced Prefrontal Cortex Activity with Video Game Play (2010)  In this study, college students played Internet video games for 6 weeks. Measures were done before and after. Those subjects with the highest cravings also had the most changes in their brains that indicate early addiction process. The control group, which played a less stimulating game, had no such brain changes. These changes in frontal-lobe activity with extended video-game play may be similar to those observed during the early stages of addiction.” Hypofrontality: Microstructure Abnormalities in Adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder. (2011)  In this study, researchers found a 10-20% reduction in frontal cortex gray matter in adolescents with Internet addiction. Research on other addictions has already established that decreases in frontal-lobe gray matter and functioning reduce both impulse control and the ability to foresee consequences. “The presence of relatively immature cognitive control, makes [adolescence] a time of vulnerability and adjustment, and may lead to a higher incidence of affective disorders and addiction among adolescents. As one of the common mental health problems amongst Chinese adolescents, internet addiction disorder (IAD) is currently becoming more and more serious. … The incidence rate of internet addiction among Chinese urban youths is about 14%. … These results demonstrated that as internet addiction persisted, brain atrophy … was more serious.” (Also see this earlier Chinese study.)

    A few more studies:

    Confirmation of the Three Factor Model of Problematic Internet Use on Off Line Adolescent and Adult Samples. (2011)
    “As the Internet became widely used, problems associated with its excessive use became increasingly apparent……..Using latent profile analysis, we identified 11 percent of adults and 18 percent of adolescent users characterized by problematic use.”

    Enhanced Reward Sensitivity and Decreased Loss Sensitivity in Internet Addicts: An fMRI Study During a Guessing Task. J Psychiatr Res. 2011 Jul 16.

    ”As the world’s fastest growing “addiction”, Internet addiction should be studied to unravel the potential heterogeneity…….The results suggested that Internet addicts have enhanced reward sensitivity and decreased loss sensitivity than normal comparisons.”

    1. @glarion

      No one’s saying behavioral addictions don’t exist. The article merely makes fun of the reactionary language targeted at technology-related behavioral addictions, as if they are somehow fundamentally more problematic from other behavioral addictions.

      And it MAY BE that technological addictions ARE more fundamentally problematic than other behavioral addictions. However, no one has yet experimentally proven that, or even formed a testable hypothesis about that.

      Brain changes, or “rewirings of the brain!!!11”, happen all the time and behavioral addictions are nothing new (see also eating disorders). It’s the less-than-helpful reporting around new technology-related addictive behaviors that’s being parodied here, along with the (incorrect) notion of there being solid science behind any of it.

  3. It’s true, the social media hype is ridiculous…people have ALWAYS been self-absorbed and insecure. They just wrote long-winded letters about it with fountain pens instead.

  4. I don’t think there’s any doubt that radical technological changes alter the way we think along with our behavioral habits. There seems to be both negatives and positives to most technologies in their effect on our thinking. There’s no real consensus on whether this is “overall” a good thing or a bad thing, the question is probably best framed as how we can make best use of the environment we find ourselves in, rather than fighting the trends we can’t effective buck even if we wanted to.

    Socrates was no doubt right that the widespread use of writing would have a negative effect on people’s memory in some sense because we would be less challenged to remember having written things down, but we learned ways to compensate for it. Books and newspapers each had their own negative and positive effects. Computer technology is no different in principle.

    To take a superficially related but perhaps instructive example, I know that the convenience of using Kindle has hurt my thinking patterns in my reading because of its awkward and limited note taking abilities. I used to rely a lot on being able to diagram and summarize and cross-reference freely when reading, and the technology currently hampers rather than facilitates those activities even though there is nominal “annotation” and “bookmarking” provided. It is extremely primitive compared to what I can do freehand.

    My hope would be that in cases like this people recognize the value in the older methods and incorporate them into the new technologies, rather than just making fun of the old or despising the new without understanding the value of each.

  5. Hi Vaughan,

    it’s the same thing “they” said about cell phones and texting and the telephone to begin with.

    I am puzzled how an interactive, social medium like the internet would be worse than a completely passive, antisocial medium than television which the average American apparently sits in front for hours and hours a day.

    Of course it’s great to do sports, frollick in the grass, have a friendly physical get-together with your friends, but as I saw some research on the implications of texting, modern media may even enhance socializing rather than turning us all into digital zombies.



  6. social networking sites are very narcissistic but the internet is about information and sharing that information there are always negative character traits to an individual but overall it is incredibly significant as an evolutionary tool for the advancement of mankind. I think it is very important to note as well the number of atheists online who are able to discuss things more in depth than you would be able to normally discuss in many smaller communities where you may not fit in so to speak. I think the internet is a real shining beacon of hope for the reasoning mind which all of humanity will eventually evolve into. Learning is power. and if the internet is able to stay free and open and accessable to all the world will be a much better open and loving place. More innovation more cooperation more sharing and learning. People are social animals as has been said but its important for us to define our own place in the universe and standardized education is suffocating the potential of humankind. Children are the future their innocent and childish dreams are the only thing that can propel our race into a brighter future, blind obedience is a more and more common evil the internet offers people a place to congregate across vast distances that would never have been possible even 20 years ago. I see no downsides to this, the positives outweigh the negatives.

    1. As an information junkie, I definitely have benefitted a lot personally from the free availability of information on the Web. As in introvert with a small number of specialized interests, I have found and gotten involved in social networks of like minded people that I would not have either found or been in involved with face to face. These are especially good things for people with a niche like mine, so I strongly appreciate the positives of Web technology and the Internet backbone. Web tech is also a big part of my profession as a consultant.

      On the other hand, as a reader and lifetime student, I also note with some dismay the downplaying of depth of individual learning and the cultivation of the individual mind and responsibility for individual development as the focus shifts more to “crowdsourcing” and “collaborating” through skimming and accumulating the easiest information available rather than digging into the hard parts of learning and mastering them.

      The part that I fear about the cultural shift toward increasingly exclusively networked culture is not the melting of our brain (and that really seems like a straw man target to me sometimes) it is the increasingly taking more for granted the kind and amount of work required for people to think for themselves with deep expertise in particular domains. We are replacing our shared conceptual model of what it means to be smart, and I think that involves a serious tradeoff that people who should know better really aren’t taking seriously enough because they get “bored” withe overdramatized or straw man brain melting arguments.

      I don’t think deep study will go away … because people motivated to be really good thinkers will still use web technology the way they traditionally used books and will naturally be motivated to dig into the hard parts. But the prevailing cultural support for digging in to really understand the hard parts, aspects of the metacognitive and logistical support of serious scholarship, seems to be gradually fading so it seems like the trend is for it to become more and more the province of more and more speciallized thinkers rather than a broadening of knowledge. That’s the crux of the tradeoff to me.

      In science writing I’m seeing less and less really serious depth accounts by people who truly know things and more and more nice summaries that appeal to a broad audience and can be best formatted for an e-book. This results from a mixture of popular culture and changes to the publishing industry.

      We are more and more concerned with combatting superstition of various kinds, at a time when we should in theory need to worry less and less about that sort of thing. Even the good thinkers are relying more and more on mediocre easily available sources. That improves their speed and breadth of learning but sacrifices depth.

      Just my own impression as both an avid netizen and an avid old school book reader.

      1. I can see how depth is a problem when it comes to internet a.d.d. On the other hand there are places where you can find peer-reviewed articles and databases with lots of real up to date analysis of current issues in science and technology. It cant be overstated that the real value at this point is accessibility and community. The social value alone of community is far greater than the initial lack of depth I think because the social aspect of emerging cultures online is the missing link in local culture. If a kid is in the middle of africa and has an interest in some obscure subject he/she can look that up and find a community and therefore the beginning of depth is initiated.

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