Susan Greenfield - science and snobbery
Susan Greenfield, the Topshop dressing Professor of pharmacology at Oxford, is all over the news at the moment promoting her dodgy book The Quest for identity in the 21st century. After a quick introduction to brain science through the concept of plasticity, genetics via single gene therapy, the London cabbie experiment and the piano experiment, she gets to the point – is ‘screen-based’ media changing our brains? All cognitive activity changes our brains, but the real question is - from what to what?
As a species we are unique in our ability to learn and adapt, primarily because of our brain size, which is capped due to our skulls and the need to come down the birth canal. The brain is a very plastic and dynamic organ subject to constant change, so much so that every human is unique and different from every other human in history. This seemed like a very obvious point but she makes much of it. She presents this as if it were sound science but there are many in her field who would see her explanation as leaning far too far towards the ‘blank slate’ end of the spectrum. Indeed she actually uses the phrase ‘tabula rasa of the infant’ on p229, something very few scientists would dare to do. Her argument is that genes are necessary but not sufficient. This is quite simply wrong – insome cases genes are necessary and sufficient. enetic diseases such assingle-gene defects, multiple gene disporders and chromosomal defects are common. As it is the premise for her entire book, if it is false, she’s in some trouble. The mind is certainly not a blank slate, it is also shaped by genetics.
The examples she quotes are well known, and indeed fascinating. London cabbies have large hippocampuses, as they need bigger working memories. The discovery of the role of the hippocampus in memory is fascinating with work by Kandel (Nobel Prize) and others leading the way. Just as interesting was the ‘piano practice’ research by Pasceuel et al (1995), where those that simply rehearsed piano practice in their mind only showed the same brain activity as those who did the real thing. Hold on - this seems to suggest that virtual mental rehearsal, as opposed to real-life experience is just as effective in learning - the opposite of her later arguments.
You’ve got to worry when Baby Boomers like Greenfield boom out the word ‘Cyber-world’, it’s so 1980s, and a sure sign that they don’t actually know much about technology and the web. There’s much talk, but little evidence, about technology ‘softening our sense of identity’. Indeed, she’s drops in unsubstantiated anecdotes like a pub raconteur. For example, on p6, ‘One particularly depressing anecdote I heard after 9/11…there were some who couldn’t really believe that the planes crashing into the Twin Towers…were actually real…so similar were the events to some games’. OMG!
This is where she literally abandons science for speculation. Her big idea is that technology, in particular ‘screen-based culture’, MAY be CHANGING young brains. She was quick to add that she ‘didn’t want to be judgemental on this, as the jury is out’. So far so good. But no, she becomes very judgemental, shifting from MAY to 'DOES' and CHANGING to 'DAMAGING'.
Her categories – Someone, Nobody, Anyone are laughable. The younger generation are in danger of becoming Nobodies, whereas she and her Baby Boomer mates are all Somebodies. This is her crude triumvirate. It’s simplistic, and even if true, her real mistake was to confuse the medium with the message. This is an exercise in crude, unscientific categorisation – and it doesn’t wash. She needs to take a first year course in philosophy.
She quotes, without reference, ‘one recent survey’ as showing that children between 8-18 sped 6.5 hours per day online. She raises this, spuriously, to 8.5 hours due to multitasking. It’s a not so recent (March 2005), a US only survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and is certainly not a respected authority on such matters. This statistic has been used by the right wing press for some time. In fact it’s a con. The statistic includes TV (3.51 hours), radio/music (1.44) and online a mere (1.52).
The book v screen debate is another of her false dichotomie. The web is full of text; articles, blogs, wikis, journals, even books. It’s where I buy most of my many books. Her attack on all things virtual is based on a simplistic idea of what virtual experiences offer. There’s been a renaissance in literacy on the web and has she never seen an e-book reader?
She loves books (text is her thing) but doesn't really understand that the internet is still largely a text medium. Kids read a lot online, used sophisticated communications tools, Wikipedia, Google and so on. It is semantically rich. Her view was that the internet was episodic, all images and no words. Interestingly, she didn’t attack the Baby Boomer media of film or television, the two most dominant forms of screen based media. ‘Suspension of disbelief’ (a phrase she carefully avoids) is OK it seems, as long as it’s on the media she’s familiar with, books, film and TV.
Her solution was a future where creativity was a primary goal. What she forgets is that the internet’has promoted massive levels of creativity, opening up opportunities for personal creativity, user-generated content, music composition, video, personal photography, blogs (text),wikis’ (text), social networking, collaboration, sharing and so on. We are witnessing a renaissance of creativity and communication. More people are better educated and it’s about time the Baby Boomers stopped carping on about the internet, (which they all use to buy books, book their fancy holidays and generally keep the world and wealth to themselves). It’s always tempting for academics to worship the book and their world as intrinsically superior. They’d love us to believe that bookish people are, by definition, better people. I don’t buy this. They really are a smug lot!
This book by the Baroness (only in the UK do we love these feudal monikers) is actually rather rushed, and overlong on personal musings and surprisingly low on science. All pretence at objectivity goes quickly out of the door. However, it does raise interesting cognitive questions, that are probably best answered by others.