Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains, by Susan Greenfield

A lack of disciplinary expertise in digital cultures undermines this study, finds Tara Brabazon

August 28, 2014

How many neuroscientists does it take to change a light bulb?

One. The neuroscientist holds the light bulb and the rest of the world revolves around them.

How many neuroscientists does it take to change a light bulb?

One. But s/he uses a hammer.

Has anyone else noticed that jokes written about blondes are just as funny when involving neuroscientists?

Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist with a high media profile, and this, her latest book, is aimed at the “general” (Daily Mail) reader. The accompanying publicity material refers to Greenfield as a “professional neuroscientist”. This adjective must be reassuring. An “amateur neuroscientist” would be a problem. Greenfield built her academic career on the study of dementia rather than digitisation, but this latter focus has now become a “professional” fixation.

The book is organised into 20 short chapters. Social networking, gaming, mobile phones and Google make up the laundry list of threats to society. The problem that undermines Mind Change is a lack of disciplinary expertise in digital cultures.

In the preface, Greenfield says she realised that “discovering and collating such a wide range of diverse types of material would be, indeed is, extremely daunting. However once again fate took a hand, and, at a beach party in Melbourne in December 2012, I was fortunate enough to meet Olivia Metcalf. Olivia had just finished a PhD on video games at the Australian National University in Canberra and was unsure of the path she wished to take. Amazingly, she was available and willing to help ensure that the manuscript, then in a first draft, encompassed the wide range of research into digital technologies.”

It appears that this book’s first draft was opinion and commentary, and then a just-graduated doctoral student provided the references. In a footnote on page 287, Greenfield says “preference was given to meta-analyses and peer-reviewed journal publications in instances where the research field of the topic was established”. Evaluating these references shows journalism and pop technology dominating, alongside Marc Prensky’s “digital natives” diatribes and Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur.

The other troubling element of Greenfield’s statement about “the research field” is that she ignores the academic disciplines and interdisciplinary areas that address the relationships between digitisation and learning, and digitisation and identity. These include media literacy, information literacy, internet studies, education studies and media studies.

Neuroscience has a Tourette’s-like tic: assuming causality where none exists. Greenfield is interested in “how insights from neuroscience can contribute to improved performance in the classroom”. What about considering the role of educational research in improving performance in the classroom? What about the role of information literacy? Instead of citing Prensky, what about citing open access journals such as Fast Capitalism and The Journal of Media Literacy Education, which take such topics as their focus? Instead, she quotes Keen talking about MySpace. This is the digital equivalent of quoting Mick Jagger talking about his current relationship with Marianne Faithfull.

Instead, we get stories, and they are bizarre. Greenfield tells us: “At a formal breakfast I attended recently where the main speaker was the British deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the woman sitting next to me was so busy tweeting that she was at a breakfast with Clegg that she wasn’t actually listening to what he was saying.”

Let us consider this scenario. Clegg. Twitter. Clegg. Twitter. This anonymous woman made a good choice. Greenfield overlooked the obvious interpretation of this event: the deputy prime minister was boring.

Mind Change is based on an unproven assumption. Greenfield states “firstly, the human brain adapts to the environment; secondly, the environment is changing in an unprecedented way; so thirdly, the brain may also be changing in an unprecedented way”. Her first statement – post-Darwin – is reasonable. The second point is conjecture and unprovable. Is the impact of digitisation more “unprecedented” than industrialisation or urbanisation? With the second statement debatable, the third is rendered redundant. Instead, she suggests “digital technologies are eroding the age-old constraints of time and space”. Harold Innis, the outstanding communication scholar of space, time and identity, is unreferenced when making this claim.

Life and learning are not filed into analogue and digital folders. They spark and dialogue. But the Daily Mail’s praise of neuroscience and demonisation of media studies has resulted in a celebration of Nick Clegg, Marc Prensky and Andrew Keen. We do not have to send in the clowns. They are already here.

Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains

By Susan Greenfield
Rider, 384pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781846044304
Published 21 August 2014

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