Saturday, 15 October 2011

Don't read this! It'll destroy your brain! (Susan Greenfield article)

Baroness Susan Greenfield has been at it again. Weirdly, out of all people, I was called on to write a rebuttal piece, for the Telegraph of all things.

However, those who know my writing will probably realise that I'm never that concise and clear. My original piece was more verbose and piss-taking in its tone.

(NB: Any Telegraph readers who have found themselves here, this is usually used as a science-themed comedy blog, not a serious science one. Just a heads up, as odds are you were expecting the latter)

Baroness Greenfield has espoused yet again on the potential damage that video games and other technological entertainments are wreaking on the brains of young people.

The key word there is 'potential'. The potential damage could be quite significant. Similarly, if I get hit by a bus, the potential damage to me could be very significant. But this doesn't mean it's definitely going to happen. The mere existence of a possibility is not cause for alarm. As a result, I don't feel like I'm dicing with death whenever I need to leave the house. If I did, I'd probably have massive anxiety attacks whenever I realise I've run out of milk. I don't, though.

As a doctor of Behavioural Neuroscience who works teaching Psychiatry via an online course, I have a special interest in how our brains are influenced by our behaviours, but also the view that electronic media can damage our brains is, by necessity, almost the exact opposite of my own. If Baroness Greenfield is ever proven conclusively to be right, my job will be the first thing to go, so I'm not exactly unbiased when it comes to her claims.

Admittedly, Greenfield's claims have an element of accuracy to them, but it's always aggravating to see people use some basic facts to support outlandish, harmful conclusions, lending them credibility where shouldn't really be any.

Greenfield recently made several comments on the matter of computer games.

"Technology that plays strongly on the senses – like video games – can literally "blow the mind" by temporarily or permanently deactivating certain nerve connections in the brain, the Baroness said".

First off, 'literally "blow the mind"'? Ten points off for a seriously dubious use of the word 'literally'. What does 'blow the mind' literally mean? 'Blow' as in physically cause to explode? Or 'blow' as in force air into or over something? The former would mean the complete physical destruction of the brain by use of force, the latter would mean exposing the brain to the external environment and applying air pressure to it. Neither of these is particularly beneficial to an individual, and those who have experienced such things seldom survive long enough to confirm whether the experience was enjoyable in any way. If video games did literally 'blow the mind', they probably wouldn't be as popular. Or, in fact, legal.

[N.B. Professional pedantry: 'Mind' in scientific terms has no universally accepted definition, and is presently impossible to measure, observe or quantify, so the majority of behavioural and neurological studies simply have to ignore it as a factor altogether. But I'll ignore that matter here (a certain irony there)].

But pedantry aside, the temporary or permanent deactivation of nerve connections in the brain is implied to be a negative consequence of excessive computer game playing, as opposed to a perfectly normal and actually quite essential occurrence in a typical, healthy brain. A great deal of the brain's connections are actually used for deactivating other connections and processes. Arguably the brain's most powerful neurotransmitter (the chemicals used by neurones to communicate with each other) is gamma Aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is inhibitory, meaning it stops activity in other cells. And it's really good at this.

The constant deactivating of parts of the brain is vital to our functioning as normal cognitive beings. There can be times when too much of the brain is active at once, and these are seldom good things, as anyone who's had a seizure or violent hallucination will probably attest to. You could argue that Baroness Greenfield is referring to specific, damaging connections, but I can only be as precise in my comments as she is being in hers. Areas of the brain being shut down or deactivated is as normal a part of development as losing your milk teeth.

She told the Daily Telegraph last night: "The human brain has evolved to adapt to the environment. It therefore follows that if the environment is changing, it will have an impact on your brain.

Baroness Greenfield is right in this, the human brain does adapt to its environment. And changing in response to a changing environment is what allowed mankind to survive as a species. I'm actually impressed by the way she's managed to take this extremely impressive and vital property of the brain and turn it into a negative. That takes some doing.

"If you play computer games to the exclusion of other things this will create a new environment that will have new effects ... every hour you spend in front of a screen is an hour not spent climbing a tree or giving someone a hug."

The problem here is that this effect is not specific to video games. Anything you do excessively will create a new environment that your brain will eventually adapt to. If you are a keen fisherman you will spend a great deal of time staring at a large volume of water while holding an elaborate stick. Does this have long-term effect on your brain structure? Most likely, yes. Is it seriously damaging? Not that anyone is aware of, in fact most people will argue the opposite. The fish probably wouldn't, but then they rarely say anything of interest.

And yes, every hour you spend in front of a screen is an our not spent climbing a tree or giving someone a hug. And every hour you spend on a train is not spent on a horse. What of it? Every hour spent doing something is an hour not spent doing something else. You may feel that climbing trees is a more 'positive' activity than video games, but that's purely a subjective view. Climbing trees is undoubtedly a healthy, enjoyable past time, but I think most people would agree though that you have less chance of genuinely falling and breaking your neck while playing on an X-box.

And let's be honest, which is more likely to end up at a psychologist's first? A child who plays a lot of video games, or a child who tends to hug someone constantly for a full hour? I know who I'd worry more about.

... the Baroness urged pupils “to be outside, to climb trees and feel the grass under your feet and the sun on your face".

Yes, as above, indeed this is a good idea, but this black-and-white view that outdoors = good, indoors = bad is seriously simplistic and undoubtedly flawed. A lot of bad things happen outside, as a flick through any mainstream newspaper will tell you.

"Screen technologies cause high arousal, which in turn activates the brain system’s underlying addiction and reward, resulting in the attraction of yet more screen-based activity, the Baroness said.

Again, yes. This is a largely accurate statement. But it's annoying how people (scientists in particular) will use long-winded, verbose methods of describing something in order confuse people, and attribute a meaning to it which suits their arguments. In this case, the phrase "high arousal, which in turn activates the brain system’s underlying addiction and reward, resulting in the attraction of yet more ... activity" is more commonly known as 'fun' or 'enjoyment'. This same effect can be seen in football fans or pretty much anyone who has a persistent hobby. The long-term damaging effects of these aren't being questioned, so what sets video games apart as a negative? The intense visual stimuli? The interactive nature of them? The requirement for concentration? The competitive element? All of these factors apply the any sport you want to name.

The visual aspect of video games is only 'intense' or 'excessive' when considered in technological terms. In real terms, you'll still get a more rich and detailed visual experience from opening a fridge. The brain can handle way more than what even the most powerful console can throw at it (although this seems to not be the case for Baroness Greenfield)

The average child will spend almost 2,000 hours in front of a screen between their tenth and eleventh birthdays, she added.

I don't know where this figure comes from, as no references were provided with this piece. But even if it is right, what of it? Welcome to 21st century Western society. Everything has a screen now. I currently own about 7. I've got one in my pocket at all times, odds are you will have too. That's where we get all our information from now.

A while ago, it was books. Some people would spend a lot of time reading books, which are rectangular, information-rich objects that could cause intense arousal and engage many brain regions. But people who condemn books aren't usually respected for it.

Comparing the dangers to the lack of awareness about the health risks of smoking in the 1950s, she said playing too many computer games could cause a shorter attention span and more reckless behaviour in children.

An unfair comparison which does the Baroness no credit. Indeed, the dangers of smoking weren't know about for a long time, too long for many. But this doesn't mean the same is true for everything else. But smoking involves a process whereby poisonous chemicals are inserted directly into the human lungs. Unless you want to melt them down and directly inhale the fumes, video games cannot do this. All they can do is activate sensory and physical processes in people that were in place anyway. By making this alarming, scaremongering comparison, the Baroness could be said to be implying that stimulation can give you cancer. I genuinely don't think she is doing this, but when you make such alarmist comments, you leave yourself open to such criticisms.

Several scientific studies have suggested that playing an excessive number of computer games or spending too much time surfing the internet can have a physical impact on the brain.

Again, I don't know which studies this is referring to, but it's hardly surprising. The key word is 'excessive'. Excess is a negative term, it means 'too much'. You could replace the word 'computer games' in the sentence above with 'poker playing', 'piano lessons' or 'flower arranging' and the outcome would be the same. As stated previously, too much of anything will cause physical changes in the brain (sorry, have a 'physical impact'), as the brain adapts to better deal with your behaviour. That's why we get better at things with constant practice. Again, this is normally something to be appreciated, but here it's a bad thing.

A paper published earlier the summer in the PLoS ONE journal indicated that internet addiction could rewire brain structures in the inner brain, and even cause shrinkage in grey matter.

In a critique of video games, an article about internet addiction is cited. Odd, that. But I've encountered 'the internet'. There are a lot of things on 'the internet'. This term is extremely vague, like describing a hardcore football fanatic as 'fond of competitiveness'. It's essentially correct, but doesn't really tell you the important bits. And once again 'could' stands out like a sore thumb. As far as the brain is concerned, doing anything constantly for long enough could have all manner of detrimental effects. This is not enough to base firm conclusions on, far from it.

Also, if we're being pedantic, the use of the term 'addicted' means the brain has already been rewired. That's essentially what differentiates addiction from 'excessive use'. So brain rewiring can cause brain rewiring? Quite a tautology.

Another study by Japanese scientists ten years ago warned that because video games only stimulate the brain regions responsible for vision and movement, other parts of the mind responsible for behaviour, emotion and learning could become underdeveloped.

'Could' they now? Funny how some so many bad things 'could' happen. I 'could' develop an aneurysm while reading one of Baroness Greenfield's books. It's a distinct possibility, but not enough to have them banned. I wouldn't even think about demanding it.

Every one of Greenfield's arguments seems to boil down to 'Too much [X] causes a normal brain to adapt in response. These brain changes may have negative consequences', where [X] is video games or other electronic distractions, which seem to be her personal bugbear.

But other scientists have claimed that certain games can help the brain in a variety of ways such as treating post-traumatic stress disorder, boosting intelligence and developing the memory.

This is just a positive spin on my main argument. The brain changes, you use certain parts of it a lot for certain tasks, those parts will alter and possibly grow in size and complexity, whereas lesser used parts will atrophy somewhat. Video games are very complex activities, so the brain will become more efficient at performing more complex actions in response. It's unsurprising that this may have beneficial consequences, as well as potentially negative ones.

There are undoubtedly many things to criticise about video games. They can be needlessly violent, they can be quite unrewarding, perhaps it is unwise to subject children to such graphic themes, perhaps they do teach children unrealistic or dubious things. But each of these criticisms can easily be levelled at any entertainment format. I struggle to see how an hour spent coordinating a detailed assault on a virtual enemy stronghold is more detrimental than an hour spent watching naive young people having their ambitions crushed in front of millions on the X-Factor. But that's just me.

The use of electronic media is an undeniable fact of life now, and is changing the way we see the world. In many ways, it's encouraging that so many children become adept at computer-based activities from such a young age; it'll give them more of a chance of making it in an increasingly technical society. It certainly did for me.

Baroness Greenfield clearly has her reasons for disliking computer games and other electronic entertainments, and they well be noble, well-meaning ones. But this does not justify the use of junk science or the public stating of overblown conclusions based on little or no evidence. With every unsubstantiated claim that video games cause children to become socially deficient or distant, Baroness Greenfield in turn distances herself further from the scientific community that once had such respect for her.

Twitter: @garwboy


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Dr. Burnett,

It seems you are not responding to what Dr. Greenfield actually said, but are instead relying heavily on indirect quotes, misleading paraphrases, and misquotes, and basing your responses on erroneous assumptions arising from these. Dr. Greenfield did not say that too much internet, video games, etc., will "blow the mind".

That misrepresented and inaccurate quote was based on a talk she was giving to a general nonspecialist audience (see link below), where at one point she was talking about the sorts of casual metaphorical phrases people use to describe their experiences of recreational activities like "sex, drugs, and rock and roll," or dancing or downhill skiing. Greenfield was not, herself, directly employing these phrases but was merely citing these familiar phrases in relation to her distinction between sensory versus cognitive functions of the brain. You can find the actual quotes (e.g., we say we "let ourselves go," or "we say we've blown our mind,") between about 48:00 and 50:00 into the talk according to my viewing.

Greenfield was not claiming that video games per se were bad. She was raising questions about the possible effects of the amount of screen time (TV/internet/video games), the kinds of cognitive processes engaged, and the possible long-term effects on attention span, personality, and abstract thought.

Overall, I found her talk to be thoughtful, reasonable, and well-balanced. I find her to be well-qualified to raise reasonable concerns and questions about these issues. In the talk in question, she cites evidence to support her concerns and is clear where she is speculating.

The attempt to portray her as some kind of quack is really unwarranted. I suggest you listen to her talk, then write corrections and an apology for your misleading and erroneous characterization of her views.

Susan Greenfield: The Future of the Brain

Anonymous said...

Correction to my previous comment:

The link I provided is to an earlier discussion by Dr. Greenfield on this same topic; it is not the more recent talk at the Sherborne Girls school mentioned by Nick Collins in the Telegraph article. My apologies. My suggestion then would be to listen to that more recent talk.

Nevertheless, from Greenfield's previous talk, it seems pretty clear that Nick Collins or whoever reported this quote has misrepresented Greenfield's views. It's clear from the context in the previous talk that Greenfield cited "blown our minds" as an example of casual familiar phrases that people use to describe some types of experiences.

Dean Burnett said...


Thank you for your comment and follow up amendment.

When I was asked to contribute a piece to the Telegraph, it was specifically for a critique/rebuttal of the original Telegraph article, not a comprehensive view of the merits or lack thereof of Greenfield's views. If she was misquoted or misrepresented in the original article then that is the fault of the writer of that article, not me. I can only respond and assess what was presented in the original.

For the record, I have no issue with a public figure using their position to promote a more active lifestyle in children and raising concerns about increasing sedentary or what have you, but that does not appear to be what baroness Greenfield is doing. She appears to be using her reputation as a respected scientist to make alarmist conclusions and predictions founded on a personal prejudice rather than any scientific evidence, and when engaging with lay audiences she appears to use her position as a respected scientist to add complexity and credibility to her claims.

This is not an isolated incident. She's been doing this for years

You may feel she's been misrepresented and misinterpreted by the mainstream media in this instance, in which case it's only fair for me or anyone other qualified scientist to use the same medium to try and correct or balance the erroneous conclusions any non-scientist may take from reading it.

Logically, if Greenfield really felt her views and theories were being distorted, she would be in a far better position to request and obtain corrections herself, or at least stop providing the media with material until she is assured of a more accurate representation. Thus far, however, she seems completely unwilling to do so, or even engage with any other scientists who have concerns over her misleading views.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Burnett,

Those are all reasonable points. I especially agree that the published claims you rebutted needed to be rebutted, even if the claims weren't accurate representations of Dr. Greenfield's views. I applaud you for that.

Yet I still think that you have some degree of responsibility for getting her actual statements right, if only after the fact, even if the journalist has erred. Who knows, maybe the journalist quoted her accurately from the talk at the Sherborne Girls school, but that doesn't seem likely. It's more likely that the journalist has erred to some extent here.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Burnett,

Hopefully my last comment in this thread on this subject, as I am giving up my attempt to defend Dr. Greenfield on this issue. My apologies to you for my misguided attempt, posted above.

As I posted on Dawkins' site, where this latest controversy was also discussed:

" attempt to defend Dr. Greenfield has weakened. A bit of additional searching indicates that in other contexts she has used, not just cited, the phrase "blow your mind" or "blow our minds". My objection to this is not that she literally believes the mind is "blown"--whatever that may mean in real terms--but that it is an unhelpful, misleading use of rhetoric. The problem is then compounded when the media pounce on these terms and present them, leading to further confusion."

Anonymous said...


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Dean Burnett said...


Feel free to do anything like that, but you'd be best to email me about stuff like this as I don't know how to contact people who just leave comments

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