It might seem rather obvious to state that technology and the internet have changed our lives on a fundamental level. But just how fundamental are we talking? This is a rather challenging topic that neuroscientist, writer and broadcaster Baroness Susan Greenfield addresses in a recent book entitled “Is Social Media Changing our Brain?” I attended a lecture she gave on the emotional and neurological impact of social media and digital technology at a packed out theatre in the Barbican and I want to share some of her insights. Seeing as the core objective for many digital marketers is to influence user behaviour online, it’s interesting to consider how the medium itself has an impact on our brains.
Baroness Greenfield is a British scientist whose research on this topic has proved somewhat controversial, with her views prompting science journalists to speak out against her. A passionate communicator, her talk started out with a brief lesson in neuroscience before she began constructing her argument around how the nature of the brain makes us vulnerable to social media and screen technology.
Human experiences in an increasingly digital world
Baroness Greenfield gave detail on how humans’ evolutionary development has resulted in our brains being highly adaptable, the result of which means we can survive and thrive in so many different environments. Our intelligent minds are the reason we have become the apex predator – from the arid desert to the arctic tundra. Any experience we go through builds connections between different brain receptors and the repetition of such experiences will strengthen those neural pathways. The more new experiences we have, the more connections we make and the richer our experience and deeper our learning.
Beyond just adapting to our environment, our advanced cognitive ability also allows us to imagine abstract concepts, such as defining our sense of self and identifying our individuality. This, Greenfield says, is the quality that makes us uniquely human and is fundamentally influenced by our experiences in life. So how much do these new tools for communication and expression influence our sense of self? And to what degree does that bring about changes to the brain? How do changes in the brain then translate to mind and personality? Some big topics to ponder!
At the heart of Greenfield’s argument is the question of whether digital interactions are a poor substitute for seminal human experiences that might shape the neural pathways in our brains. As so many human experiences now take place online, there is a question of whether this will stunt our cognitive development. Although all of this technology means we connected more than ever, our smartphones may be distracting us from each other and, in the long term, actually altering our neurological make up.
Your brain on social
Why do we love social so much? As pleasure seeking creatures, we are keen on indulging in activities that suspend our logical processes and conscious mind. Greenfield uses the classic examples of drink and drugs, citing the release of dopamine from these activities, which only encourages repeated behaviour to satisfy that pleasure.
Greenfield went into detail on the ways in which social media is changing our brain, which you can get the gist of in this short video:
Speculation on the potential detrimental impact of spending so much time online is not a new topic. There are plenty of articles that explore social media and smartphone addiction, and modern conditions like the fear of missing out. There’s also a counter-movement present, with increasing amounts of self moderation when it comes to social (there’s even a National Day of Unplugging and apps for smartphone addiction), and we’re under no illusion that our social relationships are being impacted as well. I am reminded of this tweet:
The challenge of modern relationships: how to prove more interesting than the other's smartphone.
— Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton) December 20, 2014
Other new cultural phenomena that have dawned with the digital age – whether it’s the impact of cyber bullying, online pornography or online gaming – have been the subject of many scientific studies. Greenfield draws on many of these, citing study after study (human and animal), to help craft a strong argument that social media and the internet is changing our brains. However, she’s repeats several times that she’s not trying to say it is bad or wrong, but with all the parallels to drug addiction and other mental conditions such as schizophrenia, it doesn’t paint a particularly positive picture. Furthermore, Greenfield did seem to refer to social media and what I would class as more “screen-time” somewhat interchangeably, which perhaps fails to address more subtle nuances in user behaviour and so sweeping generalisations may be made.
Unplug to rewire?
Greenfield finished her talk with a somewhat romantic anecdote about human nature and our development of the self. Going back to her earlier point, if we have fewer physical interactions with our fellow humans (being replaced with social media), is this impeding the development of the self? Greenfield says that this is an area which should be studied more extensively, before ending on a wistful note about longing for children to continue to climb trees, frolic gaily in gardens and wiggling their toes in the long grass, rather than end up as withered creatures glued to iPhones.
But as I left the talk, I wondered about the perceived benefits of social media on society. Are these changes to our brains are good or bad? What is “good” or “bad”? If our brains are so quick to rewire, how permanent is this change? I felt like that aspect was missing from this discussion, which we perhaps did not have time for – particularly given the scale and complexity of the topic!
Although I was left with many questions, I did leave agreeing with Greenfield one thing: everything in moderation. Put your phone and laptop down once in a while and go play – forget the likes, retweets and hearts – go get some real face time and grass stains.
That said, maybe we’ll all end up as cyborgs anyway?