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Screen mania ‘making people reactive, thrill seekers’, says neuroscientist

The ubiquitous screens of the digital age – TVs, mobile phones, computers and video game consoles – are destroying people’s sense of meaning, according to a venerated British scientist and brain expert.

Words by Lauren Gill
 

Screens are also making it easier to interact without face-to-face contact and therefore weakening inter-personal skills, according to Baroness Susan Greenfield.

“It stands to reason if you’re not rehearsing those interpersonal skills then you will have problems with interpersonal communication,” she said.

Speaking at the Melbourne University Brain Centre last week, the celebrated scientist and member of the House of Lords explained how digital technologies are changing human brains — and not for the better.

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Over the course of the hour-long lecture, Baroness Greenfield educated the packed auditorium about the basic neuroscience of interaction and learning, illustrating how today’s digital-savvy generation would rather interact with screens than with people. It’s a subject she frequently traverses, having recently published her new book Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark On Our Brains.

Since screens have come into the picture, people skills have suffered, according to her thesis, making it more difficult for people to form meaningful relationships.

Eye contact, body language, voice, pheromones, physical contact and words are all essential parts of interpersonal communication, yet they can’t be conveyed via social networking, she said.

Instead, people were relying on screens to interact with one another, losing five of the six key elements of interconnectivity.

The science behind it all?

Dopamine is the feel good chemical related to arousal, addiction and reward. When present in high quantities, it also inhibits the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

When this part of the brain underfunctions, people exhibit strong feelings, are more focused on the here and now, are driven by external events, experience a reduced sense of self, have little meaning to their lives and express infantile behaviour.

For these people, “the high trumps the consequences,” making them thrill-seekers and risk-takers.

The lecture followed Baroness Greenfield’s appearance on ABC TV’s Q&A, in which she was accused of having no evidence to back up her claims.

Eye contact, body language, voice, pheromones, physical contact and words are all essential parts of interpersonal communication, yet they can’t be conveyed via social networking, Baroness Greenfield said. Instead, people were relying on screens to interact with one another, losing five of the six key elements of interconnectivity.

She told her detractors: “You’re entitled to your views but not your facts”, before citing 136 research papers, 381 independent tests and about 130,000 participants as evidence for the findings that video games increase aggressive behaviour. She noted that the top five best-selling video games are ones involving violence, such as Grand Theft Auto V and World of Warcraft.

People who regularly played video games were found to have a lower-functioning prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making and personality. They were also found to exhibit anti-social behaviour and feel little sense of meaning.

But those players who spent time away from the screen and time interacting with others had a more active prefrontal cortex and therefore a stronger sense of self, according to Baroness Greenfield.

“We know that they’re essential for communication, yet they’re not available on Facebook.”

Those who spent a great deal of time in front of a screen were more likely to make rash decisions with little regard to the future.

She illustrated her point through the catchy ‘YOLO’, a widely used acronym that stands for “You only live once.” “What happens is you go out and do something outrageous and you justify it by saying YOLO,” she said.

Baroness Greenfield drew criticism earlier this year when she first claimed links between the growth of digital culture and autism.

She pointed out a number of similarities between autistic-like behaviours and those of people who spent a great deal of time in front of a screen. Just as autistic people had difficulty with facial recognition, so did heavy screen users. She also pointed to a link between early screen experiences and later development of autism.

Not only had new digital technologies hurt the development of the brain, they had also contributed to a decreased ability to relate to others. Baroness Greenfield cited a University of Michigan study stating that levels of empathy amongst people had dropped over the last 30 years.

This could be due to the social networking revolution in which people feel compelled to make their lives public. “For the first time ever, people are downloading their lives every single moment,” said Baroness Greenfield. As a result, people were constructing their lives to entertain an audience and not themselves. This led to an increase in narcissistic approval seeking behaviour, which was demonstrated by people posting about their every move on Facebook and Twitter.

Consequently, the age group that had most embraced Facebook  (18-25 year olds) was the same age group exhibiting the greatest incidence of anxiety and depression.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was also on the rise, with an increase in the number of prescriptions issued to treat the illness. Baroness Greenfield attributed this to heavy video game use in which younger brains demanded fast paced responses. As a result, these young people were unable to sit still for extended periods of time.

So what did this mean for a 21st century mindset?

Baroness Greenfield said that people would increasingly develop short attention spans, display little empathy, take more risks, constantly need feedback, have a weak sense of identity and demonstrate low grade aggression. However, they would also have a high IQ and be more efficient at processing information.

In closing, Baroness Greenfield drew on the prophecy of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov who, 50 years ago, had envisioned the world in 2014. 

“Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity,” Asimov wrote in 1964. “This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical speciality in 2014.”

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