Scientist afraid of what information technology might do to our brains

By Razib Khan | August 4, 2011 1:25 am

Carl pointed me to this really strange interview in New Scientist, Susan Greenfield: Living online is changing our brains. If you removed it from the New Scientist website and put it on the The Onion it wouldn’t really need much editing. Some of the things Susan Greenfield says make you scratch your head. First paragraph:

You think that digital technology is having an impact on our brains. How do you respond to those who say there’s no evidence for this?

When people say there is no evidence, you can turn that back and say, what kind of evidence would you imagine there would be? Are we going to have to wait for 20 years and see that people are different from previous generations? Sometimes you can’t just go into a lab and get the evidence overnight. I think there are enough pointers that we should be talking about this rather than stressing about not being able to replicate things in a lab instantly.

Happy-slapping? Seriously? That was so mid-2000s. It’s going to be really hard to escape the oncoming rush of the “wall of information” in the near future. If it drives our world insane, there are always the residents of North Sentinel Island.

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  • Sandgroper

    Sounds like the good old Precautionary Principle in action – assume something has unacceptable adverse impacts unless and until it is proven to be totally harmless to everyone, regardless of the potential benefits.

  • Darkseid

    Just imagine if they found evidence that computers are genetically modified! I say we should ban them and stick to organic computers.

  • TerryS.

    Sounds like Susan needs to take Scientific Principles 101. As a scientist, you do not come up with a new theory and make the rest of the world disprove it. What a moron.

  • Cathy

    There’s no question that technology is changing the way we think and process information. The question for me is whether or not it’s a bad thing – a mind tightly integrated with the Internet is able to process information differently, but not necessarily better or worse. A study came out that shows evidence that Google is making our memories worse. However, it probably also forces us to think harder about what we’re trying to remember, and thus we have to analyze our thoughts to find exactly the question we want to ask. Wiki-surfing might at the same time weaken our ability to stay focused, but increase our ability to make connnections from vaguely related things. The human mind has a remarkable ability to adapt.

  • phanmo

    How is happy-slapping much different from, say, mailbox baseball from the 50s? It’s essentially just immature people (I won’t say young because they’re not always) acting like idiots just like they’ve always done.

  • Jim Johnson

    We’re a plastic species. We can handle changes.

  • Dean

    Seems like a solid interview to me I don’t get it.

  • Sandgroper

    @7 – She is saying we (i.e. she) needs to (be paid to) start talking about ‘the problem’ before establishing any evidence that there is a problem, and if so what and for whom.

    Technology has always changed the way we think and process information – so what?

  • crf

    Ben Goldacre ( has been criticizing these ideas of Baroness Greenfield for some time.

  • DavidB

    Susan Greenfield is an odd case. She has a public profile as a ‘prominent scientist’ far beyond anything that her fairly humdrum research record would support. No doubt it is partly because (a) she is a keen and effective self-publicist (remind you of any Harvard paleontologists?), and (b) she is a woman. But within the scientific community her reputation is at best equivocal. The Royal Society has conspicuously not elected her as FRS, and the Royal Institution effectively fired her from her post as Director after her policies drove it close to bankruptcy.

  • BruceBudd

    There was a brilliant parody of Susan Greenfield in The Lay Scientist recently (

    ‘Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have left a generation of young adults vulnerable to degeneration of the brain, we can exclusively reveal for about the fifth time. Symptoms include self-obsession, short attention spans and a childlike desire for constant feedback, according to a ‘top scientist’ with no record of published research on the issue…

    The scientist believes that use of the internet – and computer games – could ‘rewire’ the brain, causing neurons to establish new connections and pathways. “Rewiring itself is something that the brain does naturally all the time,” the professor said, “but the phrase ‘rewiring the brain’ sounds really dramatic and chilling, so I like to use it to make it seem like I’m talking about a profound and unnatural change, even though it isn’t.”…

    “I think it’s really important that people aren’t frightened by scare stories about new technology, and I’ve been a big supporter of brain-training software in the past,” the scientist said, “but people’s brains are literally melting inside their heads from all the MyFace waves being absorbed.”’


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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