Social websites, the brain and Baroness Greenfield

Websites Harm Children’s Brains”. That is the “chilling warning”
 Baroness Susan Greenfield is supposed to have issued to parents,
according the the UK’s Daily Mail.  I have just had the good fortune to hear Baroness Greenfield speak entertainingly and persuasively at the Flamingo Big Ideas Breakfast, an event that is part of London Internet Week. I did not hear her say anything like that.

What I did hear was a plea for collective reflection on the possible
benefits and harms social technologies might present for all of us, but
young people are particularly vulnerable. The following observations are
culled from my notes, with apologies for any misunderstandings and
mangled interpretations of what Baroness Greenfield actually said.

When the child was a child

She started off saying that babies are born into a world of “booming,
buzzing confusion”. Their early engagements with the world are sensory
and in time they move to making cognitive sense of the world. She
amusingly related how she used to try to teach her baby brother to
recite Shakespeare to explain children’s limited, two-dimensional
thinking. Of course her three year old brother might be able to recite
“out, out brief candle” but could not interpret this as a metaphor for
death and our brief existence in this world.

The brain

The brain is constantly making neural connections. As well as growing
new neural connections, they can be lost (through Altzheimer’s disease,
when adults revert to a child-like and sensory state that can be scary
and confusing), can be dysfunctional (through conditions like
schitzophrenia) or impaired through taking recreational drugs. The brain
is very sensitive to the environment, which is why we need to be asking
questions about the effects on children – good and bad – of social
technologies, which would include multi-player games.

The Baroness Greenfield said that the biological basis of the mind
enables unique sense-making, which wires our neurological pathways. She
spoke about how neural connections are made, for example constructing
meaning through critical reflection, and drawing on insights and
understanding from past, present and future – and making mental leaps
across inter-disciplinary fields of knowledge. We read books with a
sense of continuity between past and present, and contextually in
relation to other factors. She stressed the sensory world of the child,
where they deal in literal interpretations and not the metaphorical,
conceptualised elements of cognitive knowledge.

Adults are “metaphorical beings”
who need and develop robust cognitive structures to help them make
sense of the world. Baroness Greenfield senses that people are
increasingly striving for meaning and rejecting the “thrill of the
moment”. This seeking meaning might explain the rise of commitment to
fundamentalist causes.

Processing information, she said, is not the same as developing
knowledge. Seeing and responding to information is not the same as
seeing and understanding. If my notes are correct, I have recorded that
she said that “there is no cognitive element in-the-moment”. Feedback
and reflection is necessary to provide the continuity needed for
cognitive sense-making.

The neuroscience of creativity

This was my favourite bit of the many things Baroness Greenfield had
to say, not all of which can be covered in this post. Creating new
insight begins with challenging dogma, which means challenging existing
neural connections. She showed a picture painted by a 4 year old, which
depicts a sheep. It was straight line! So challenging dogma is not
enough. The next thing is to de-construct to bring together unusual
elements, to “see one thing in terms of something else”. The next is to
have an ‘aha’ moment. This is where new cognitive connections are made.

Quite serendipitously, @MJCarty on Twitter recently sent me a link to John Cleese speaking about the process of creativity,
in particular the role played by subconscious. This resonated exactly
with my recent experience of writing a book. My ‘aha’ moments happened
at the point where I was not quite awake and just arousing from sleep.
 I suppose new neural connections were being made as I slept, which has
been amazing to experience.

Baroness Greenfield questioned the role of leaders in developing
creativity. She pointed to the fact that what Einstein, Beethoven and
other creative geniuses had in mind was their uniqueness, their
individuality. She said one role of the creative leader is to be alert
to the importance of meaning to people and the crucial need to
appreciate the unique individuality of each person. Creative leaders
provide environments that encourage people to act out their individual
identities and to construct meaning in their work. She also said
something lovely: that people feel special when they realise that they
have reached a new way of seeing things. Effective leaders help people
to feel special by being creative. Isn’t that great?

It just so happens that IBM, in their most recent CEO Global Survey,
say that the CEOs responding to their survey “selected creativity as
the most important leadership attribute”. The report continues:

Creative leaders invite disruptive innovation, encourage
others to drop outdated approaches and and take balanced risks. They are
open-minded and inventive in expanding their management and
communication styles, particularly to engage with a new generation of
employees, partners and customers.

Creative leadership is obviously a very timely topic. How do creative
leaders deploy social and communication technologies in building
facilitating environments within which people perform, innovate and

The brain and technology

Baroness Greenfield identified three categories of technologies:

  • Nano technologies, which can be embedded within artefacts, the built
    environment and within our bodies. These technologies sense changes and
    merge with the outside world.
  • Bio technologies, like stem cells, merge with age. She spoke about
    such technologies having the potential to alter our appearance, to make
    us look younger.
  • Social technologies, which merge fantasy and imagination with reality. See for example the recent Economist special report on Smart Systems, which claims that the physical and virtual worlds are merging.

She said that it is certain that the brain will change as it engages
with information technology; that is a given and definite. What is not
known, is in what ways might this be for both good and bad?

She referenced Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Making Us Smarter,
saying that she found it a good book. Social technologies are enabling
us to make connections and hold multiple bits of information in out
heads. But as already noted, information is not knowledge.

She said that the adult brain oscillate between the sensory and
cognitive modes. On the one hand is a strong drive for sensation rather
than cognition, in which the here and now dominates. This is associated
with  arousal, addiction and reward. Her fear is that the social
technologies encourages focus on the here and now, with its associated
dopamine highs and instant gratification. Communication processes are a
rich interaction of cues that come from voice, body movements and words.
Are we in danger, especially for children, of limiting opportunities
for rehearsing body language if more time is spent on screen than in

I did not perceive any dogmatism from Baroness Greenfield. I heard
questioning and a challenging of dogmas. She concluded by saying that
the IT industry is in denial of the dangers, just like the tobacco
industry was in the 1950s. The difference now is that social
communication technologies, unlike tobacco, present us with exciting
possibilities that can be unleashed to the benefit of mankind. It is,
however, important to consider the potential downsides.

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