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Your brain on the internet: a response to Susan Greenfield

Whenever I hear dire predictions concerning the social impact of new technologies, I recall a similar prediction made nearly 2,500 years ago. In the Phaedrus, Plato recounts a myth, according to which…

Brains are supposed to change in response to experiences; that’s a sign they’re working as they are designed to. Stephen Anthony

Whenever I hear dire predictions concerning the social impact of new technologies, I recall a similar prediction made nearly 2,500 years ago. In the Phaedrus, Plato recounts a myth, according to which an Egyptian god approached King Thamos and offered him the gift of writing. But the wise king refused the gift, arguing that it would allow people to substitute the appearance of knowledge for its substance. If we rely upon writing to preserve our knowledge, our memory will weaken, and we will begin to mistake the living truth for its shadow, Plato suggests.

Today, of course, we rightly think of literacy as essential to education. But bearing in mind Plato’s warning should help us recall that fears concerning new technologies are a natural response to the unfamiliar. The unease generated by the strange causes us to think that it’s risky, and the reasons we offer are often rationalisations of that feeling.

When we hear Baroness Susan Greenfield talk about the dangers of the internet and of social media, we should recall these facts, and alter our responses accordingly. Because she is not a digital native, she likely finds these technologies more threatening than do younger people. But because the internet is transforming the world in ways that are unprecedented, a feeling of unease might arise in any of us.

Her claims that digital culture may cause negative changes in the brains of users – reducing attention spans, lowering empathy, and so on – sound plausible. But surface plausibility is not always a good guide to truth.

Baroness Susan Greenfield speaking at the National Press Club in 2010. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

In order to assess the genuine costs and benefits of digital culture, we need empirical evidence. This kind of evidence is extremely difficult to collect because it’s very difficult to isolate the causal factors at work in human populations. When we are studying animals, we can isolate them from other influences, and carefully control the factors of interest, but with regard to human beings, we are reliant on natural experiments, and natural experiments are usually very messy.

Suppose we compare the attention spans of people who are digital natives with those who are not: what drives any result we find? Since age will correlate with whether one is a digital native or not, is the effect an effect of age or of exposure to technology (there is independent evidence that younger people are more impulsive than older)? Suppose we use groups matched for age: comparing those who had free access to computers when they were children (say) with those whose computer use was strictly limited. In that case, the effect might be the result of different parenting styles (permissive versus strict), or of other factors correlated with this particular difference in parenting (religiosity, say).

That isn’t to say that it’s impossible to identify the genuine causal influences at work in large human populations. It is to counsel even more caution than usual in interpreting existing scientific work. We can be confident that we have identified a cause only when we have a sufficient number of studies, using different methodologies and controlling for as many of the confounding factors as possible. The data must also be sufficiently long-term: costs and benefits may emerge only gradually. Right now, the available evidence is not alarming.

Perhaps multitasking is to blame for the internet’s alleged effect on cognitive processing. Michael Feagans

Consider the empathy finding Greenfield cites. Using self-report data, Sara Konrath and colleagues find that college students today are less empathic than previous generations. Suppose the finding holds up (remember this is one study, using one methodology, on one population; it may turn out that the result is spurious). Can we blame digital culture?

Perhaps, but there are a multitude of other factors that might be at work. Perhaps an increasing individualism is to blame, or an intensification of consumer culture, or economic insecurity. Alternatively, perhaps it’s now more acceptable to report a lack of empathy than previously; perhaps the reports index a willingness to admit to a lack of empathy, rather than a decline in empathy. It is worth noting that the supposed decline in empathy occurred at a time when violent crime was decreasing in the United States, which should surely lower our confidence in the finding.

Konrath’s study was well designed; its limitations are endemic to this kind of study. The same cannot be said for much of the existing work on internet addiction. Many findings are from badly designed, badly controlled studies, by researchers who seem more interested in publicity than truth.

Greenfield doesn’t cite any data on whether and how the internet is affecting cognitive processing. She just cites Eric Schmidt’s worry that the effects might be negative. They might, but the evidence is not persuasive.

There is evidence that multitasking leads to a lowering of performance, and it may be true that people tend to engage in more multitasking today than formerly, because they have tablets, smartphones and laptops constantly available. But, in that case, it is multitasking that is the problem, not digital media per se. What’s more, we don’t know whether heavy multitasking is caused by digital technology or just finds a ready outlet in it (today’s teenagers tweet while also browsing Facebook; perhaps their grandparents had the radio on while they read their comic books).

Raphael’s portrait of Plato. Wikimedia Commons

One particular worry is certainly wrongheaded. A number of people have worried that the internet exerts “an actual physical influence on the neurons and synapses in our brains”, as Nicholas Carr put it. The worry is wrongheaded because all experiences change the brain. If it did not, we would not be capable of learning and storing memories. Brains are supposed to change in response to experiences; that’s a sign they’re working as they are designed to.

I started by mentioning Plato’s worry that literacy would weaken memory. As a matter of fact, Plato may not have been entirely wrong: there is evidence that people in preliterate cultures have better memories. It does not follow, however, that the invention of writing had costs as well as benefits, or rather it does not follow that any effect on short term memory is simply a cost. It may that writing did not merely provide us with an external memory store that was superior to brain-based memory (much more reliable, for one thing). By decreasing the burden on our memory, it may also have freed up brain-based processing resources for other tasks.

Something like that might be true for the internet too: it might be that insofar as iPhones take over the task of memory and time management, some brain-based capacities will atrophy and the neural real estate will be repurposed. Right now we have little reason to think that the costs of digital culture (if there are significant costs) outweigh the benefits, and no reason at all to think that these apparent costs will not bring unexpected benefits for our brains, as well as for our societies.

Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but we have no reason to panic, and no reason to think that the challenge of unravelling the causal effects of internet use on minds is especially urgent.

Join the conversation

92 Comments sorted by

    1. Laurie Willberg

      Journalist

      In reply to Tim Churches

      Ben Goldacre?! Seriously?! A good example of a media narcissist, which is what this generation of social media addicts are.

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  1. Joel Mayes

    Bicycle Mechanic

    Until she produces some data and publishes in a peer reviewed journal she has as much credibility as Prince Charles on Homeopathy.

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    1. Laurie Willberg

      Journalist

      In reply to Joel Mayes

      A philosophy journal? Which would you suggest?
      Prince Charles as a patron of Homeopathy has the same "credibility"(?) as anyone who is a patron of any of the arts or sciences.
      The "skeptics" or more correctly pseudo-skeptics are a good example of media narcissism at work. They actually perform no research but spend a good deal of time cogitating about their fundamentalist philosophy about science, regularly mistaking it for technology.

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  2. Michael Lenehan

    retired

    I''m very worried about this idea of having "no reason to panic". Isn't that precisely what academics build their careers out of? And I'm even still a bit nervous about using the proposition at the end of the sentence just then! Is it possible that my use of it is an example of "the causal effects of internet use"? It's all a bit trciky really. Particularly this spending an entire life using the literacy skills Plato so feared to write panicky little articles in boring academic journals that very…

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  3. Laurie Willberg

    Journalist

    Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock" is the seminal work on the human tolerance for changing technology... the author obviously is unaware of it, or is having memory problems caused by spending too much time on the internet. There has been much written on the "dumbing down" of society. University professors routinely complain about "illiterate" students, and the incidence of cheating and plagiarism has never been higher.
    Not only are they dumber, they have no ethics, but hey, cutting and pasting is easier than ever.

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    1. Collette Snowden

      Lecturer in Communication and Media Management at University of South Australia

      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      Long before Toffler wrote "Future Shock" - Lewis Mumford wrote "Technics and Civilisation", Marshall McLuhan wrote "Understanding Media." A guy called Marx also had a bit to say about the impact of technology on human society, although that part of his work is usually neglected. Some would argue with your claim about Toffler's work being the seminal work on this topic, but they might be less willing to resort to insults, or to use the debate to make generalisations about your profession.

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  4. Natalie Bennett

    Lecturer

    Based on my own extensive experience marking exams, digital "text talk" has severely impaired the average student's ability to spell correctly.

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    1. Collette Snowden

      Lecturer in Communication and Media Management at University of South Australia

      In reply to Natalie Bennett

      What is the evidence for this claim Natalie? Has the standard of spelling in student assignments today versus 10, 20, 30 years ago been compared? Have other variables been considered e.g. the use of word processors versus hand written assignments, or the general level of literacy of students? I don't doubt your observations about spelling, but to claim that poor spelling is a result of digital "text talk" without evidence is not justified. "Text talk" might be a cause of poor spelling, or it might…

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    2. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Collette Snowden

      Go get em Collette. I really do tire of people offering limited personal anecodtal reflections to which they assign a cuase without any evidence and then presume to justify this as somehow applying across the human and social experience.

      The study you quote is very interesting. Do you perchance know the sample size of the cohort and how they were collected?

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    3. Tweeting Technology

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Natalie Bennett

      Natalie, the plural of anecdote is not data. That stated, I'll respond with some anecdote of my own.
      In my teaching days - before digital text talk - most students' spelling, grammar and syntax were execrable. In those days we blamed TV. I doubt it was to blame, and equally doubt that texting is at fault.
      It's too pat to blame declining standards of written expression on a piece of technology. We would be better asking about the range of conditions that brought about this decline. We should also ask ourselves - given that language and, god help us, even spelling, is an evolving thing - whether we should care about the new way of doing things.
      For myself, I mind very much indeed. But I'm not at all sure that's not just fogeyism talking.

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    4. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      I'm the last one to support poor spelling. BUT, how important is it really? As much as we like to be spelling nazis

      "if yuo can raed tihs, you hvae a sgtrane mnid, too.
      Can you raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

      i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! if you can raed tihs forwrad it."

      In my experience - I've never come across anyone who cannot read it

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    5. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Collette Snowden

      Thanks Collette. Very interesting - a reasonable sample size although would be even better if a cohort across a broader range pf schools was available - pretty good thoughtgiven the limitations of any single study.

      The results are not conclusive but the final paragraph is telling

      "This study provides further evidence that children’s use of textisms is associated not with declining standards of literacy, but with better spelling skills. Parents and teachers who become aware of this positive…

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    6. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      I see what you did there but I might suggest that when there is a syllable with a hard sound at the end, such as the ac in according, you should try and keep that intact, otherwise first and last letters is pretty good and yes I can read it and I thought the percentage of people who could was much higher than 55%

      "If you can read this you have strange mind, too.
      Can you read this? Only 55 people out of 100 can.
      I couldn't believe that I could actually understand what I was reading. The phenomenal…

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    7. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      I should add, spelling and grammar are important if you wish to make yourself understood and have your efforts respected by literate audience.

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    8. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      Ian, I did nothing - this particular gem has been around for years. The point is that "accurate" spelling is not a strict requirement for understanding.

      In addition, as I'm sure you know, spelling has a tendency to evolve, along with the language - as does grammatical construction. Reading Chaucer tends to drive this home.

      As Collette's reference to the study earlier on this thread make clear there is evidence available that modern technology such as sms/texting and twitter which encourages an economy with words and characters would appear to have no measurable detriment on spelling ability. By definition in forces one to be concise with expression - perhaps at the expense of extended discourse but then it is not the only medium of exchange available. The study shows texting actually requires some linguistic creativity and flexibility.

      All of which hardly supports the alarms raised by the Baroness

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    9. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      As a person fascinated by language, I see txt-ese as simply another dialect. In order to abbbreviate, one needs to be able to know the entire word initially.

      As a stickler for grammar, style and spelling in certain settings, I am quite comfortable with abbreviation or flexibility in others. In the English language, spelling is merely following a convention, since the language is not phonetic. Therefore, we always spell the word "thorough" in the same way, so that others recognise the word. It…

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    10. Tim Churches

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      When I were a lad, LOL stood for Little Old Lady. I won't mention what PPPPPT stood for. But then in those days, PC didn't even stand for Personal Computer, let alone Politically Correct. QED, qid etc.

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    11. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      An economy with words can be a good thing and many writers (including moi) should try it more often.
      However, a 140 character limit (or is it 400? I don't twit) is (excuse the expression) just a brainfart.
      The Baroness got 2 million US dollars for her work and the results are pedestrian at best, sloppy might be a better word. I might add, I do all sorts of things online, sometimes all day and my brain is fine, if a little "strange".

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    12. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      Fine but strange brain ok, sms 160 limit, tweet 140 limit, both allow considerable concise expression if u try. Dont knock what u don't know

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    13. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Sorry mark but I don't twit and I don't text and I do know some things. One of them I know is the warning George Orwell gave on deconstructing the language. Remove enough words and before too long, people wont even have the skill to express themselves on anything of any substance except to say something like ++Good or ungood (they excised the word Bad, probably because it was too much like the truth).
      "Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we…

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    14. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      Ian I am sure you know many things :) But txting and tweeting is not deconstructing the language - just changing its expressionand form in interesting ways. I'll leave deconstruction to the Derrida ites thanks.

      Of course not everyone is well grounded in the language. But the pertinent question is whether or not modern technology is in any way involved in a causal sense or just a convenient scapegoat for those disinclined to actually make the necessary effort to inquire and investigate based on evidence.

      I urge you to read the paper that Collette provided the link to above. It is both illuminating and encouraging.

      here's the link again for your convenience http://www.newcastle.edu.au/Resources/Research%20Centres/SORTI/Journals/AJEDP/Vol%2011/V11_bushnell_et_al.pdf

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    15. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Tim Churches

      Same when I were a lass, Tim, but many humans are capable of being bi- or multi-lingual - even old fogies like us.

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    16. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      My observation of "digital native" offspring is that the skill in various forms of communication is multiplied, not reduced.

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  5. Kenneth Mazzarol
    Kenneth Mazzarol is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired

    I have been reading a book entitled The Water Dreamers. In it the author says that early settlers suffered from the silence of the Australian bush. My limited experiences with the Aborigines leads me to believe that the indigenous peoples were capable of communicating via Mental Telepathy and needed the silence to concentrate. By being noisy we newcomers destroyed that faculty. Aborigine history was handed down via word of mouth through the Matriarchy. The white man is indeed a noisy, destructive creature.

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  6. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    Plato's ambivalent attitude to writing and the effect of writing on human memory and culture generally is considered by Ong (2003) [1982]. In the early Renaissance printing's making books ubiquitous was also criticised for undermining students' notetaking and memory (Blair, 2008: 64).

    Blair, Ann (2008) in Campi, Emidio, De Angelis, Simone, Goeing, Anja-Silvia and Grafton, Anthony (editors) (2008) Scholarly knowledge. Textbooks in early modern Europe, Librairie Droz, Geneva, pages 39-72.

    Ong, Walter J (2003) [1982] Orality and literacy. The technologizing of the world, Routledge, London and New York.

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  7. Siobhan O'Sullivan

    Research Fellow, School of Social and Political Sciences at University of Melbourne

    Thanks Neil. One of the first sensible things I have read about the internet and its impact on culture and the human brain. It makes me recall a school friend's mother who was of the opinion that calculators were making children more stupid. I have a funny feeling that calculators allow students to perform much more complex maths than was possible on the abacus.

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    1. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Siobhan O'Sullivan

      Throughout history, people have mistaken the change of skills in the next generation as "dumbing down". On the contrary - they are replaced by new skills. Some illiterate cultures have been suspicious of writing because it is a threat to the superb memory skills that are required to retain and transmit knowledge. Now people who appreciate the skill of writing lament the loss of those skills to newer technologies.

      There has never been so much instant access to information and knowledge as there…

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    2. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Siobhan O'Sullivan

      They may now, but not in the early days of calculators and computers. The abacus is a simple device that is not complex to master but can do extremely complex equations if you know how to do it. I don't, I'm not pretending I do.

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  8. Mark Harrigan

    PhD Physicist

    Actually, absence of evidence can be evidence of absence depending on one epistemological situation in relation to the topic. In this instance there appears to be little evidence to support Baroness Greenfield's claims

    I would be interested to see what studies have actually been done, and we would need a variety of them before conclusions could be drawn (agree 100% with the article on this). In any event interent and mobile technology, instant communication, socail media etc are now part of…

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  9. Joseph Bernard

    Director

    Everything in the universe is in a state of flux and evolving..

    Do you know what the difference between humans and primates?

    The difference between ourselves and primates is a level of consciousness.

    If our firmware is soft coded is the very act of becoming more conscious altering our own genetic code and creating a new species of humans?

    here is an interesting TED presentation:

    "Juan Enriquez: Will our kids be a different species?"

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Syi9bqfFIdY

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  10. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    Plato was right. It has been proven, over and over and over again. The written word, may contain truth when it is written but unless that truth is kept alive in the minds of the tutors and the students, words can be twisted into nothing more than a grotesque parody of their true meaning. Wars have been thought over interpretations of certain texts, for centuries all caused by losing sight of the fundamental truths contained within those texts. Who knows how much we have lost since the time of Plato…

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  11. Leo Kerr

    Consultant

    omg, wtf r u awl talkin bout bro lol!!

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  12. Anthony James

    logged in via Twitter

    Whether you agree with the way she has gone about it or not, at the very least Baroness Greenfield is to be commended for having raised the issue because given the pervasive influence of technology on our society, it would be foolish not to consider its affects on our brains. True, she should go about properly publishing her concerns, but I think people have been too quick to shoot her down despite her knowledge and authority in the field of neuroscience, which she can rightly apply to a technological context.

    Either way, I believe this article did a good job of respecting the relevant positions and arguments so all props to Neil Levy.

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    1. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Anthony James

      I will state it again. Technology is benign (neither good nor bad) but the applications of that technology and the intent of those applications can shift that in either direction.

      People carry their weaknesses and illnesses around with them. Going online and displaying the symptoms/behaviours of those weaknesses and ilnesses isn't the same as being infected by using the internet, full stop. I hope you can understand this critical point Anthony.

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  13. Kelly O'Neill

    Journalist

    Like other Neil Levy articles, this one is typified by setting up a straw man. The article by Susan Greenfield that Neil references does not say what he says it says.

    In the article Susan focuses on computer based gaming, not to the internet per se. She also does not form firm conclusions but posits possibilities and asks for more research.

    Neil needs to lift his game. This is a very unconvincing smear.

    How many commenters above actually read the SMH article?

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    1. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Kelly O'Neill

      "This is a very unconvincing smear"? Seriously?

      I have read the piece in the smh. Greenfield does not only focus on computer-based gaming - she mentions multiple uses of the internet. Quoting:

      "Inevitably, there is a variety of issues. Let us look at just three."

      "First, social networking."
      "Second, video games.
      Third, search engines."

      Greenfieeld comments "The problem is that efficient information processing is not synonymous with knowledge or understanding." This has always been the case. In the past, we distinguished "book learning" from real world experience. There has always been plagiarism - previously it came from books.

      What do the catastrophists suggest we do - ban the internet?

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    2. Kelly O'Neill

      Journalist

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Once again we see the straw man technique.

      I didn't say she focused ONLY on games. If you read the article carefully, not just to mine it for your own bias, you will see that that is an important part of the article.

      And once again we see the silly attack.

      Labelling a scientist who calls for research a "catastrophist" is stupid hyperbole designed to push a point of view, not designed to discuss the issue dispassionately.

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    3. Collette Snowden

      Lecturer in Communication and Media Management at University of South Australia

      In reply to Kelly O'Neill

      This seems to be a mis-reading of Neil's article. It appears to me, at least, that he labels her a catastrophist NOT because she has called for research -- which is what people working in the field of media effects have been doing for more than a century, a point which Baroness Greenfield seems to be oblivious to - but because she makes unsubstantiated, and potentially damaging public claims about the effects of Internet technology on the brain. Therefore, she is merely hypothesising, yet the media report her statements as fact. That is the problem. She should know better, and yet she persists in making these claims.

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    4. Kelly O'Neill

      Journalist

      In reply to Collette Snowden

      You seem to be a bit confused here. Hypothesising is not making claims. To support your assertion you need to show what "claims" you object to. Which media have reported her statements as fact and where? Perhaps you refer to Neil Levy?

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    5. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Kelly O'Neill

      Kelly O'Neill first posts:

      "In the article Susan focuses on computer based gaming, not to the internet per se"

      then

      "I didn't say she focused ONLY on games."

      then

      "You seem to be a bit confused here."

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    6. Collette Snowden

      Lecturer in Communication and Media Management at University of South Australia

      In reply to Kelly O'Neill

      Hypothesis :- A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. For a hypothesis to be a scientific hypothesis, the scientific method requires that one can test it.

      The whole point of this discussion is that Susan Greenfield has not tested her hypothesis that the Internet causes changes to the human brain and has no data to support her claims, therefore at the moment all of her speeches, statements, and arguments are merely hypothesising.

      While it is worthwhile for her to raise the issue…

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    7. Collette Snowden

      Lecturer in Communication and Media Management at University of South Australia

      In reply to Kelly O'Neill

      You asked the question "Which media have reported her statements as fact and where?" In response, I quoted the article from the SMH, providing a link to the whole article, not just the headline. You suggest that a sub-editor made up the headline -- it's not clear to me why that is significant. Are you proposing that sub-editors make-up headlines, and therefore that headlines are irrelevant and should be ignored? But, surely that is what readers see and read!! Are you proposing that the work of…

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    8. Kelly O'Neill

      Journalist

      In reply to Collette Snowden

      Thanks for the links. I acknowledge she seems to overstate her case. My knowledge of her is now greater than before, though I still support her attack on the notion of free will.

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    9. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Kelly O'Neill

      Full marks for being willing to adjust your conclusions when presented with evidence. I personally applaud such intellectual integrity. It is difficult for all of us, being human, to acknowledge where we may have made an error or be off on the wrong track - it is far too common for us to argue unsustainable positions.

      Of course, being human, it's hard to be even close to 100% self-aware of this. Regardless it happens all too infrequently.

      I am always reminded of the famous saying attributed to Keanes when quized by a ournalist (some dispute the attribution but it is regardless, appposite)

      "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

      The dialogue above and your contribution to it are valuable IMHO and an example of TC at its best :)

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  14. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    King Thamos was right, of course, as Plato's Myth of the Cave is as pointedly critical of such pretense at knowing, such delusion of knowledge. It is characteristic of the whole of 'civilisation', which means not human advancement merely citification, urbanisation, living in buildings, with constructs, as against 'pagan', rural, of the countryside, living in nature. Jack Goodie wrote of this especially, in his Domestication of the Savage Mind.

    While I would not myself prevent people from learning…

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    1. Dino Legovich

      Researcher

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Thank You Gil.
      Excellent comment.
      The effect of too many choices and 'fear of loss' is akin to the South American monkey trap where a hole in the trap will allow a hand to enter but a fist clenching the bait no escape.
      We seem to be almost 'tied' to electronica.

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  15. Phillip Ebrall

    Professor of Chiropractic at Central Queensland University

    Neil's comments look at the introduction of technology into society. I would respectfully offer that the issue with twitter (and facebook and so on) is not that they exist in our society, but how they are used.

    Neil Mitchell, a popular radio commentator in Melbourne yesterday read aloud, on air, an email he had received from a supposed listener. It was horrifically offensive.

    Imagine being an athlete, fine-tuning for your event and receiving a vulgar, hurtful twitter or other personally destructive…

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Phillip Ebrall

      They are called trolls, Phillip, you learn to live with them, no different from those you find on the street.

      Everyone using the Internet for any length of time runs into them usually sooner than later, including yours truly. I even have people saying to me, I know you, I've followed your nepharious career on the Internet for the past 20 years, including an estranged brother I haven't even seen in 45 years!

      Que?

      They'd know?

      The world simply divides in two, those who do know you, who…

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    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Phillip Ebrall

      The definition of troll here appears to be someone who thinks differently from you.

      Or as Oscar Wilde said: "My idea of an agreeable person is someone who agrees with me."

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  16. Keith Hammond

    Retired technician FAO of the UN

    This is a rather poor contribution - rediculously subjective (how much genuine Biology did Plato etc know?), and leaves one with the impressions such as 'it's all too hard' and 'no problem really'! Professor Greenfield restricts herself to three (important) elements, outlines what little research there is and suggests specific needs. If the author is going to criticise another author in a destructive (or constructive) way they surely need to read the original article with care.

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  17. Collette Snowden

    Lecturer in Communication and Media Management at University of South Australia

    While I agree with Keith Hammond that raising the issue is valid, the attention given to Susan Greenfield's hypothesis is more of a concern. "Media effects" have been debated, well, forever really, - one can imagine arguments around ancient fires about the merits or otherwise of drawing on the cave walls rather than listening attentively to the elders' stories. It is frustrating, however, to see so much attention and credibility to someone who has not studied or conducted research in this field…

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  18. Amber Marshall

    PhD Student

    Neil, your mentioning of Plato's scepticism about the written word is an apt example of how, since the dawn of time, people have become alarmed about technological changes. Surely we have higher functioning brains because of the written word – for example, writing allows us to capture and play with many complex ideas simultaneously. And surely exposure to, and use of, new technologies (such as the “big bad internet”) helps our brains to evolve in new ways. Even if some of us “lose” something in the process (e.g. lengthy attention spans), surely we gain something too (e.g. being able to acquire and hold more knowledge in our minds, not to mention our increased collective knowledge capabilities)! Aren’t change and adaptation the pillars of evolution? You can’t have one without the other.

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  19. Dorothy Bishop

    Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at University of Oxford

    From this website http://www.futuremind.ox.ac.uk/people/susan-greenfield.html we learn that in 2005 Greenfield was awarded a US$2 million research grant to form the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind
    A major goal was to answer these questions:
    How does the environment shape brain development?
    What are the brain regions that are most susceptible to environmental changes?
    In what way do these key brain regions influence behaviour?
    Does teaching schoolchildren about their brain…

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  20. Geoff Smith

    Research Scientist

    Its not the technology its what it delivers - Rather than draw comparisons with technological advances such as the written word, I think a better analogy would be to think about whether we will have an epidemic of "mental obesity" and resulting health issues. As with health problems such as diabetes and obesity from the sudden availability of an almost unlimited supply of food, it seems highly likely there will be similar problems with an almost unlimited availability of information, good and bad. How long will it take to learn which is good and bad and how will we judge. We already know so much about diet yet getting people to eat healthily is still very difficult.

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  21. terry lockwood

    maths/media/music/drama teacher

    Is it just me or is the term 'digital native' vaguely offensive and mildly bigoted. When I moved to my small town, I wondered when I would be considered a 'local'. After a while, I noticed that I had done more in 6 months than some of the true locals had done in 20 years. I stopped caring. I am sure some 'digital natives' do nothing more than gamble and access porn while some of the 'digital immigrants' will do more worthy things on the net. And, of course, vice-versa.

    Kids have always wasted time. They always will. I spent far too much time listening to progressive rock. Time I will never get back.

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    1. Joseph Bernard

      Director

      In reply to terry lockwood

      @Terry

      re: "wasting time"

      "Time wasted and enjoyed, is not wasted"

      I suspect that there is a new generation gap of immense proportions evolving.. Those that expand their minds and embrace the net.. and those that complain and wish things remained the same.

      country people are a mixed bag, and your point regarding "stopped caring".. seems like you do care about many things that matter rather than caring about opinions that just do not matter at all.

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    2. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Joseph Bernard

      Time wasted and enjoyed is one definition of recreation. It's a funny old world when we can't take some time to relax and have some fun. Especially when, the chosen (lack) of activity is harmless when it's done right.

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  22. Christopher Chen
    Christopher Chen is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Engineer

    "Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence..."

    Yes it is. If the existence of damning results would make Baroness Greenfield's concerns more credible, then their absence must make her concerns less credible -- even if only by the slightest of degrees. Otherwise we'd be in a situation where *whatever* happens, we'd believe her more.

    [See, e.g., http://lesswrong.com/lw/ih/ , for a more statistical/scientific approach to this idea.]

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    1. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Christopher Chen

      Christopher. Off topic but the absence of evidence argument is interesting in and of itself so thought I would respond (see my earlier post). I agree with the thrust of your post but would expand as follows

      The Bayesian perspective is relevant - but must be considered in relation to one's epistemological perspective.

      The statement "in probability theory, absence of evidence is always evidence of absence" is true but incomplete. It depends on whether or not one is in a position to expect…

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  23. Glenn McLaren

    Philosopher/Lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology

    Hi Everyone,

    I had a paper published on this topic recently looking at some much deeper philosophical aspects if anyone is interested and as someone who teaches Philosophy, Media, Culture to undergraduates I am not as relaxed about digital technology as the author seems to be. Neither are most of my young students for that matter who are looking to live more authentically. The paper is at:
    http://www.cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/292/462.

    Glenn

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    1. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Glenn McLaren

      Interesting paper but long on assertion biased by anti-technology political perspective and very short on evidence to sustain the thesis.

      To argue that "institutionalized retardation of human development" is taking place becuase of the internet and how it is used is a massive claim and not supported by any evidence on offer.

      It reads like a pience of neo-luddite sophistry - long on eloquent claims but short on facts.

      And what on earth does "to live more authentically" mean in this context…

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    2. Collette Snowden

      Lecturer in Communication and Media Management at University of South Australia

      In reply to Glenn McLaren

      Glenn, being concerned about the effects and consequences of the use of technology is one thing ( and an important one), but claiming that it changes the functioning of the human brain, causes people to become less empathetic and even produces autism, is something else entirely. Neil's article clearly raises questions about Susan Greenfield's unsubstantiated claims about PHYSIOLOGICAL effects.

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    3. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      To quote Edward Spence, who has resarched and written on philosophy of the information age (paraphrasing):

      To move from information to knowledge, you need to understand and acquire the knoweldge.

      To move from knowledge to wisdom, you need to apply the knowledge.

      These principles don't change, whether you have limited verbally-transmitted or book information, or whether you are flooded with digital information - there have always been "knowledgeable" people who were not wise.

      The current challenge is one of scale: there is an enormous mass of information, but you still need to understand and acquire it to have knowledge, and you still need to have applied it an borne the consequences ofyour action to get wisdom.

      The fundamentals haven;t changed.

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    4. mitchell w. eddy

      Bartender

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Mark, I think you have misinterpreted Glenn in a number of ways.

      Firstly, the left-right hemisphere duality is based on a recent publication (2010) by Iain McGilchrist. Far from being outdated, McGilchrist's work is an acknowledgment of the brain's bi-cameral but interrelated nature. It is not the work of phrenologist in disguise, and, even for a non-specialist in the area of neuroscience, is particularly important reading. For an interesting review of the book see

      http://www.cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/290

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    5. mitchell w. eddy

      Bartender

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Mark, I think you have misinterpreted Glenn in a number of ways.

      Firstly, the left-right hemisphere duality is based on a recent publication (2010) by Iain McGilchrist. Far from being outdated, McGilchrist's work is an acknowledgment of the brain's bi-cameral but interrelated nature. It is not the work of phrenologist in disguise, and, even for a non-specialist in the area of neuroscience, is particularly important reading. For an interesting review of the book see

      http://www.cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/290

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    6. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to mitchell w. eddy

      Mitchell. I do not agree with you and think you are wrong. I also think you are presumptuous in assuming that my request for evidence and studies is facetious. What could you possible know of my motivations?

      Perhaps it is you who are confused about ways of knowing and their mis-applications?

      http://www.acperesearch.net/waysofknowing.pdf

      I contend that in this instance Glenn is applying Reason/Logic (and perhaps some inspiration) as a way of knowing to a situation that is far more amenable…

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    7. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Quite agree Sue. I think the challenge of the age of the internet might be to develop ways to help those who have grown in the age of the internet/mobile technology and google to learn how to move from information to knowledge to wisdom rather than decrying some imagined doomsday of "human retardation"

      I might also draw attention to the many surveys that show that those who enjoy only a diet of Fox news (nothing to do with the internet) are seriously ill informed and far from "wise".

      The fundamentals have not changed because of the internet.

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    8. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Following on from my comments above - that is why you need different "ways of knowing" for different areas of speculation.

      When the ancient philosophers were alive, ways of knowing were limited by the available technology. So, it the earth appeared to be flat, and that model fitted the observable phenomena best, there was no way of testing or confirming it. Then those methods became available, and the model was discarded.

      The potential impact of the information age on brain structure and human…

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    9. mitchell w. eddy

      Bartender

      In reply to mitchell w. eddy

      I use the term facetious in the sense that I thought it perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek to continually request hard empirical evidence after reading a piece that had attempted to locate itself within a tradition which has attempted to set itself apart from the moderate Enlightenment. I was evidently wrong about that, and apologise for any offence caused. The final paragraph was also not meant to assert that YOU were simply a holder of informed opinions, rather a more general statement about the reluctance…

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    10. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to mitchell w. eddy

      Mitchell, thanks for your considered reply. In brief. I do not dispute all of Glenns claims, or his paper. It raises important issues and I found his reflections interesting and his concerns genuine. I hope you realise from my posts that I have respect for more than just my (trained for) epistemtology and some modest skills outside it.

      BUT there are too many claims Glenn makes, I suggest, that ARE both observable and testable empirically and are not substantiated . Most egregiously a claim…

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  24. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Plato tended to take a very long view, so I think it is distorting Phaedrus to view it as a warning against new technology.
    Apollodorus (Gift of Apollo) has a similar theme in his Jason and the Argonauts. Jason is brought to a field shown with dragon teeths (dragon's teeth sometimes being connected with the invention of the alphabet). The teeth sprout into warriors which are defeated by Jason, relying on the advice of beautiful but not good at dealing with relationship breakdowns Medea, by imitating…

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  25. Glenn McLaren

    Philosopher/Lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology

    Thanks for reading my paper Mark and responding. Unfortunately, like most of my students, you have only skimmed the surface and not engaged in the deeper roots of my arguments. I have several problems with Neil Levy's approach and with most of those commenting. I'll focus on two.

    There is crude determinism evident in the belief that the past was just like now and therefore, despte these technologies the future will be the same as the past. My ontological pre-disposition aligns with cutting edge…

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    1. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Glenn McLaren

      Still no evidence.

      That's a lot of verbiage full of presumptions about me.

      I'm a physicist - I think I might understand a bit more about the physics of non-linear emergence and it's implications for consciousness and knowing - not to mention about Godel etc than you allow.

      I beleve that inter-subjective empiricism, based on evidence, and realised through the practice of proper scientific method is the best way of knowing reality.

      Without any evidence to back up your grandiose cliams it's just a whole lot uf unfounded speculation of no more validity than belief in a sky fairy or the tooth fairy

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    2. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      The discourse between Glenn McLaren and Mark Harrigan appears to represent a fundamental clash of cultures.

      Philosophy is a discipline that relies on a purely intellectual discourse ("My ontological and epistemological pre-dispositions are not based in logical empiricism but in hermeneutics, dialectic and historical narrative,...") which offers speculation and explanation without "confirmation" by technology.

      In this sense, the ancient philosophers were also the scientist of their time, because…

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    3. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Sue, another useful (IMHO) contribution. Although I wouldn't describe it as a clash of cultures so much as a misapplication of ways of knowing.

      It's not that the concerns here (what is the internet doing to us as humans and our cognitive abilities and wisdom) are illegitimate. It's that the Baroness, and now Glenn, are making sweeping claims which (1) are clearly claims that can be tested empirically (2) have not been so tested and (3) contain a number of challengeable assumptions (see below…

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  26. Glenn McLaren

    Philosopher/Lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology

    The problem is Mark that my paper is littered with footnotes. Every claim and assertion I make is based on the arguments of others who I reference, many of which base their own work on the evidence you so highly regard, but certainly not all. Iain MacGilchrist' s Master and his Emissary, for example, has been widely regarded as one of the most impressive scholarly works for decades. I have some respect for scientific method and its achievements, but clearly you have no respect at all for mine. The best evidence I could have of an over-dominant left hemisphere.

    Glenn

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    1. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Glenn McLaren

      Glenn, in addition to have a problem with providing substantiation based on actual studies to support what are fairly outrageous claims

      "The internet is a technology which draws us in, obliterating the distance required for critical thought. Unless we can find ways to distance ourselves from this technology with which we create high fidelity virtual realities, we will become trapped in our hi-tech representations of reality. This will be the triumph of virtual reality and perhaps the end of civilization…

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    2. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Glenn McLaren

      dear Glenn McLaren
      thanks for the link to your essay/paper/article; i'm reading it now and enjoying it greatly. remember harold innis:- "the use of a medium of communications over a long period will to some extent determine the character of knowledge to be communicated.... [E]ventually ... the advantage of a new medium will become such as to lead to the emergence of a new civilisation." or not.
      yours sincerely
      alfred venison

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  27. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    dear editor
    readers old enough to remember when their family got its first t.v. set might find re-reading marshall mcluhan a salutary blast in light of this topic. mcluhan's works "the gutenberg galxay: the making of typographic man" and "understanding media: the extensions of man" are available on the internet, free & unabridged. for all readers, including those whose families have always had a t.v. set, the best introduction to mcluhan's thought is the playboy interview of 1969, also on the…

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  28. Dino Legovich

    Researcher

    Thank you Neil,
    I recall a similar discussion many years ago.
    Cybernetics etc.
    As long as 'output' is greater than 'input' the internet is a wonderful resource.
    Consilience, most likely by AI, will be fascinating.

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  29. Emma Anderson

    Artist and Science Junkie

    This article doesn't make clear what kind of memory is better in preliterate cultures or if that is associated with what is lost that is not exactly memory based, in literate cultures. Consider this proposition:

    In literate cultures we can make mistakes in what we say or write and simply correct things later with further writing. An addendum of sorts. Knowing this, and also having social time constraints associated with an increasing focus on the written word, we're less careful about the verbal…

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