Susan Greenfield – a strange mixture of ‘mind change’ and humanistic naturalisation

While I enjoyed some of the first section of Susan Greenfield’s recent talk on ‘The Internet and ‘mind-change’, drawing some relations between the theories of plasticity in neuroscience and notions of learning and development, the later phase appeared to contain an inordinate number of questionable assertions about technology use.

Greenfield’s thesis is essentially that human beings ‘personalise their brain’ through the development of neural cell branches, increasing the likelyhood of connections with other cells, and these resulting networks are a consequence of individual human experiences in the world. However, Greenfield’s presentation becomes undoubtedly pedestrian when she begins to naturalise the human condition, a position that seems entirely contradictory to the fundamental notions of plasticity articulated earlier.

In introducing this section she begins with the question ‘will this be changed by an unprecedented 21st century environment’ (referring to her earlier claims of brain sensitivity and mutability), and this phrase seems to encapsulate the fundamental incomprehensions of humanistic thinking. This occlusion appears all the more stark for the sheer inability to grasp the full implications of notions of plasticity outlined previously. Greenfield’s whirlwind tour of the brain’s neural development was fairly coherent in demonstrating the way the mind is constructed by the external environment, from which one might conclude that the brain adapts to whatever might present itself as stimuli in the external world. Yet this introductory question appears to ignore this proposition, and suddenly Greenfield appears to be talking about what the brain develops for, rather than how it develops. Has not the dawn of every century offered an unprecedented forthcoming environment? We have certainly never been able to predict the future as far as I am aware. The real question Green field asks is ‘will the sense of being human that we have constructed and fabricated in the brain be changed…?’ And of course I agree with Greenfield that it undoubtedly will…but that is what it has always done, and her description of brain development appears to support this.

Greenfield’s subsequent analysis of the statistics of media use amongst young people reveals the substance of her views concerning the ‘natural’ state of the human being. For Greenfield, hours spent in front of a screen mean that young people are ‘not climbing a tree, not giving someone a hug, not walking along a beach, not feeling the sun on your face’. It seems to me slightly baffling that someone could not view such a specific (one might say Western, white middle class) view of childhood as a very nuanced, and narrow view of what being human might be. Greenfield appears to assume that the Swallows and Amazons childhood is the right, proper, civilised and true essence of development, and to deny this is to attempt to deform and distort humanity.

The section on reduced (self-reported…that is a whole other blog post!) empathy is also fascinating, where the use of social media is suggested to contribute to a decline in the ability to identify with the feelings of others. Greenfield appears to fail to see that a human being with empathy is a constructed norm, formulated, and justified by discourse and expertise in the disciplines of psychology. To experience empathy is not a natural, innate state of the brain, but a concept that is solidified into our behaviour through experience in the social (and non-social) world, perhaps with the very same connecting and networking of brain cells described in the first section of Greenfield’s talk. The section on the prescription of Methylphenidate also seems to reflect this view. While Greenfield appears to admit that the children in her example will adapt to the fast pace of digital media ‘as is their evolutionary prerogative’, she views this as a paranormal state because it conflicts with the ‘natural’ environment of the classroom. Is the classroom not a technology and a mediator in itself? One might contend that the educational institution has done far more to modify, discipline and shape human behaviour than digital media has done, admittedly in its infancy.

The example of googling the term ‘honour’ appears to indicate Greenfield’s epistemological tendencies. In this section, she contends that an ‘abstract concept’ such as honour cannot be understood from simply entering the term into a search engine and surveying the results. Greenfield appears to assume that in a non-digitally-networked world, a concept such as honour has a rigid, stable and singular meaning. This seems particularly questionable given that honour is surely a concept that has developed and altered over time, and that has quite distinct meanings across cultures and language systems. This point leads on to the rather tired assertion that digital media does not present itself sequentially, and thus is opposed to the way that the mind learns in a rigid and linear manner, exclusively through language. Once again, despite promoting notions of neural plasticity, Greenfield seems to be making the confusing claim that the mind operated in a linear, sequential fashion before the development of spoken language and particularly written word. By the very doctrines of cognitive maturation introduced in this talk, we must surely have to contend with the notion that the brain learned to process in a linear way as a result of language, rather than being the naturalised and optimum form of development advanced by Greenfield.

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