Review: Susan Greenfield’s ‘Mind Change’

MIND CHANGE: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains. Susan Greenfield. Random. 348 pages. $28.
MIND CHANGE: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains. Susan Greenfield. Random. 348 pages. $28.

This is your brain on digital technology. A flick of the thumb sparks a pale glow. You wait for the dopamine rush of an incoming message. Like a pathological gambler, you check again. And again. You feed your narcissistic impulses with tweets. Lacking face-to-face cues, you knock a “friend” down a peg on Facebook. Keeping loneliness at bay, you “like” a few others. Hours of catapulted birds later, you finger the off button. Repeat the cycle. You hardly notice as the synapses of your true self fry away.

In Mind Change, neuroscientist, entrepreneur and British politician Susan Greenfield argues that our technologies are not only addictive — they are an existential threat. The brain, she writes, has an “evolutionary mandate to adapt to its environment,” and the digital world is changing at too rapid a pace for individuals or government regulations to keep up. Lives are destroyed. The extreme is the Korean couple whose compulsive video gaming led to the starvation of their newborn. But the warnings are no less ominous among billions of moderate users: a dramatic loss of empathy over the past decade and a precipitous decline in outdoor activity among children.

Since media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s pioneering work in the 1960s, a bevy of experts has explained what the electronic age is doing to us. Many, such as computer visionary Douglas Engelbart, assert that digital tools “augment” human intellect and foster interconnected democracy. Others, like psychologist Sherry Turkle, whose 1984 masterpiece, The Second Self, studied the first generation of children raised on computers, have shifted from cautious optimism to disenchanted critique. Still others, like technology writer Nicholas Carr, have been hostile, describing the life of the digital mind as a “shallows.”

According to Greenfield, a healthy mind is like a healthy society. Just as individuals change with time, so do neurons, from the exploratory flexibility of youth to the restrained maturity of adulthood. A brain becomes a mind by coordinating “neuronal assemblies,” which work in harmony, gaining efficiency and stability as we emerge from adolescence. We reach the height of mindfulness when we acquire the logic of past, present and future in our decision-making. We experience the opposite, mindlessness, when we pursue sensation, impulsiveness and quick reward.

Greenfield asserts that the digital revolution exploits our biological propensity for mindlessness. She cites laboratory studies finding that social networking and video gaming trigger dopamine in the same manner as junk food and Ecstasy. Moreover, she contends, because cyberspace lacks causal sequence, is devoid of immediate consequences and gives instant access to information without guidance, our attention spans shrink, deeper thinking declines and interpersonal bonds wither.

She offers a four-pronged strategy for confronting Mind Change: providing a larger stage for scientific experts in traditional media, undertaking surveys of societies across the world, ramping up funding for laboratory and epidemiological studies and using software to counteract “deficiencies arising from excessive screen-based existence.”

Greenfield honed this neuro-policy in the public spotlight. Mind Change grew out of a 2009 debate in Britain’s House of Lords, where she serves as a Life Member. Her standing as celebrity scientist with her tendency for provocation has drawn the ire of critics. Mind Change came out in Britain last summer to heated reaction, including that of the Guardian’s science columnist, Martin Robbins, who wrote that it is hard not to take personally the book’s dismissiveness of the younger digital generation. Dorothy Bishop, a developmental neuropsychologist at Oxford, criticized Greenfield for implying that digital technology causes autism, and found it striking, as do I, that Mind Change cites anecdotal evidence such as Daily Mail articles, television psychologists, futurists and emails from friends almost as much as it does peer-reviewed research.

Mind Change is a missed opportunity. A “balanced and comprehensive overview” that puts neuroscience in conversation with psychology, media studies and technology policy could offer real insight into technology and the human condition. There are moments when Greenfield approaches such a synthesis, and she has rare talent for explaining science in accessible prose. But Mind Change is a polemic rather than a primer. It wields science as a rhetorical tool to energize supporters and rile those who would accuse her of what she calls “scaremongering.”

Greenfield begins Mind Change by comparing herself to an early climate scientist confronting a dismissive establishment. If she aspires to a similar paradigm shift, she and concurring experts will need more robust evidence and careful argument. Otherwise, they will change few minds.

Matthew Wisnioski reviewed this book for The Washington Post.