The plastic mind

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BitDepth#987 for May 05, 2015

Baroness Susan Greenfield discusses her neuroscience findings at the Chamber. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.
Baroness Susan Greenfield discusses her neuroscience findings at the Chamber.
Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

Baroness Susan Greenfield launched this year’s Bocas Lit Fest literary festival with a talk at the T&T Chamber of Commerce last Monday.

As you might expect, the Baroness has a book out, Mind Change, which discusses the way that modern technology affects the way the mind works.

Greenfield is a neuroscientist with an easy conversational style in person and a sensible, levelheaded way of making her points that’s seductively agreeable.

Greenfield backs up her theories with hard research into the way the brain works and the fundamental changes that an increasingly screen-based culture is wreaking on the way we think, the way we picture ourselves and the way that culture and human interaction have fundamentally changed in the high-speed arena of social media interaction.

At the core of her thinking is the idea of the individual.

“Nobody’s ever wanted a brain transplant,” Greenfield notes, underlining the importance of the self to everyone’s world view.

Baroness Greenfield is a witty and charming speaker, quite keen to pivot the seriousness of her subject matter with humour and sudden, sharp groundings in reality.

Repeated behaviours, she explained, have a profound effect of the hippocampus, but it’s a change that can happen either through direct physical action or mental practice.

Imagining that a thing has happened can change your brain almost as effectively as actually doing it.

“Thinking,” Greenfield explained, “is movement confined to the brain.”

And that makes all the difference in a world in which enriched environments, whether real or digitally crafted, can create and amplify brain connections.

The obverse of this, dementia, is the progressive dismantling and shrinking of these brain connections.

These physical changes are tied to the development of the mind as it develops from one which is engrossed in the purely sensory to cognition, the evaluation of that sensory input in order to construct an ordered reality.

The neuroscientist is concerned about the impact of a pervasive computing reality in the face of these findings, particularly one in which she notes, “we now spend more time in front of a screen than in bed.”

The impact of social media, a medium that removes all but one of the traditional cues of interpersonal communication, removing eye contact, evaluation of the tone, rate and volume of a voice, body language, physical contact and pheromones, leaves just words, which carry 10 per cent of normal communication value.

In the face of this, Baroness Greenfield asks an updated existential question of online communications, “If I don’t draw attention and engagement online – do I exist?”

“The brain will incessantly adapt,” said Greenfield.

Gaming, for instance is great for brain plasticity, but she is concerned about what is being learned.

Fifty per cent of popular games offer violent content and such games inevitably lead to desensitization and increased states of arousal.

These games also increase dopamine production, reducing inhibition.

Greenfield identifies two modes of the human brain; one concerned with the meaningless and the other with the meaningful.

Meaningless pursuits are immediate, confectionary, thrill of the moment choices which trump consequences and the resulting dopamine release provides an immediate reward for those who choose to “release and to let go.”

Such behaviour encourages addictive cycles as the brain seeks more surges of dopamine release.

Meaningful activities encourage deeper contemplation. Reading a long book and engaging with complicated storylines play a very different role in brain development.

In the Q&A that followed at the Chamber event, several folks seemed to be seeking validation about their perception of the impact of technology.

But while there didn’t seem to be many champions of rampant technology, the Baroness remained scrupulously neutral in her evaluation of the impact of computing, though she admitted a preference for the haptic feedback of a book read in print instead of on a tablet.

Bridging the gap between information and knowledge, the sensory engagement with data and the capacity to analyse and leverage it remains a challenge at the core of digital interaction.

Computers have given us unprecedented and astonishing access to masses of raw data, but have also stripped away the markers that enable us to make better use of it.

Until that gap is bridged, moving from access to information to the development of new ideas and concepts, the fresh pivoting of established knowledge in unprecedented ways will be needlessly stunted.

It’s critical to challenge the mind to understand and query rather than to simply accept an Internet’s worth of facts.

The world,” she lamented, “is answer rich and question poor.”

Listen to a discussion between Baroness Greenfield and architect Mark Raymond