Yet another “Trouble in River City” Article – this one by SUSAN GREENFIELD

Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes

I’ve actually been pondering this since it first came out. I’m getting pretty tired of the “Games are bad for society” rhetoric. Why can’t people get past hating things and look at something that can actually make a difference, like *how*  are they useful; what are they good for; is there something we can do better with games than with other media?…  I’ve decided that rather than try and draft a careful response to this article, I’ll just give a somewhat emotional one. I’ve taken the liberty of re-printing large parts of the article; the link to the original is just below:


The original text is in green and my responses are in black italics just so there is no confusion about who said what.

The REAL brain drain: Modern technology – including violent video games – is changing the way our brains work, says neuroscientist

By SUSAN GREENFIELD – Last updated at 22:17pm on 9th May 2008

Human identity, the idea that defines each and every one of us, could be facing an unprecedented crisis.
It is a crisis that would threaten long-held notions of who we are, what we do and how we behave. It goes right to the heart – or the head – of us all.

This has been said before – it was said of television, radio, telephones, and of the Bible when it became possible to print it and allow mere common folk to read it for themselves. Oh, and there is this story of a boy crying about a wolf that comes to mind….

This crisis could reshape how we interact with each other, alter what makes us happy, and modify our capacity for reaching our full potential as individuals.

Parts of this might actually be true – I believe it WILL reshape how we interact; I have serious doubts about it altering *what* makes us happy (though it might change how we get those things), and, if anything our capacity is likely to be INCREASED – especially if we believe theories put forth by people like Michael Tomasello and Merlin Donald.

And it’s caused by one simple fact: the human brain, that most sensitive of organs, is under threat from the modern world.


Crisis? What Crisis?
*Scroll down for more…*

Video games are weakening the ability to think for ourselves

Unless we wake up to the damage that the gadget-filled, pharmaceutically-enhanced 21st century is doing to our brains, we could be sleepwalking towards a future in which neuro-chip technology blurs the line between living and non-living machines, and between our bodies and the outside world.
It would be a world where such devices could enhance our muscle power, or our senses, beyond the norm, and where we all take a daily cocktail of drugs to control our moods and performance.

Whoa there, Tex. All of us? Don’t you think you are overstating things, maybe a teeny weeny bit?

Already, an electronic chip is being developed that could allow a paralysed patient to move a robotic limb just by thinking about it.

Now, I suspect, that if I were a quadriplegic, I just MIGHT be able to see the benefits to this…

As for drug manipulated moods, they’re already with us – although so far only to a medically prescribed extent.
Increasing numbers of people already take Prozac for depression, Paxil as an antidote for shyness, and give Ritalin to children to improve their concentration.

Of course, doing something about the fact that bullying in the workplace is commonplace, and whistleblowers are routinely fired and punished MAY actually have something to do with that. I have on good authority from an annonymous source that the medical plan at my former institution lays out more money for anti-depressants and the like than for any other kind of prescription. I can tell you from personal experience that this is because the environment has become poisonous and toxic to anyone who has integrity. Correct the toxic environment, and I can guarantee the need for mood-altering drugs will go down.

But what if there were still more pills to enhance or “correct” a range of other specific mental functions?
What would such aspirations to be “perfect” or “better” do to our notions of identity, and what would it do to those who could not get their hands on the pills? Would some finally have become more equal than others, as George Orwell always feared?

Any chance we recently watched the movie Equilibrium?

Of course, there are benefits from technical progress – but there are great dangers as well, and I believe that we are seeing some of those today.

I’m a neuroscientist and my day-to-day research at Oxford University strives for an ever greater understanding – and therefore maybe, one day, a cure – for Alzheimer’s disease.

I also know from personal experience that each institution has its share of goofs & quacks. Now I am not saying that this woman is one – that would be goofy as I have never met her. However, simply being a member of a particular profession or being from a particular institution, does not, in and of itself, guarantee any kind of credibility. Sorry.

But one vital fact I have learnt is that the brain is not the unchanging organ that we might imagine.

This is a GOOD thing, and part of the reason I still have hope for our future.

It not only goes on developing, changing and, in some tragic cases, eventually deteriorating with age, it is also substantially shaped by what we do to it and by the experience of daily life. When I say “shaped”, I’m not talking figuratively or metaphorically; I’m talking literally. At a microcellular level, the infinitely complex network of nerve cells that make up the constituent parts of the brain actually change in response to certain experiences and stimuli. The brain, in other words, is malleable – not just in early childhood but right up to early adulthood, and, in certain instances, beyond. The surrounding environment has a huge impact both on the way our brains develop and how that brain is transformed into a unique human mind. Of course, there’s nothing new about that: human brains have been changing, adapting and developing in response to outside stimuli for centuries.

Again, no argument here.

What prompted me to write my book is that the pace of change in the outside environment and in the development of new technologies has increased dramatically. This will affect our brains over the next 100 years in ways we might never have imagined. Our brains are under the influence of an ever- expanding world of new technology: multichannel television, video games, MP3 players, the internet, wireless networks, Bluetooth links – the list goes on and on.

But our modern brains are also having to adapt to other 21st century intrusions, some of which, such as prescribed drugs like Ritalin and Prozac, are supposed to be of benefit, and some of which, such as widely available illegal drugs like cannabis and heroin, are not.

Actually, I believe Ritalin and Prozac are 20th century “intrusions” (the choice of word here is purposefully inflammatory – and probably insulting to the many people who have had positive benefit from these drugs). And, seems to me, cannabis and heroin are MUCH older – the active ingredients in heroine have been recognized and used for thousands of years. I’m not saying this is a good thing, just that these are most definitely NOT new. Oh yes, Bayer used to sell Heroine, much like Aspirin.

Electronic devices and pharmaceutical drugs all have an impact on the micro- cellular structure and complex biochemistry of our brains. And that, in turn, affects our personality, our behaviour and our characteristics. In short, the modern world could well be altering our human identity.

Each “modern world” has affected our human identity – that’s kind of the whole idea behind evolving as a culture.

Three hundred years ago, our notions of human identity were vastly simpler: we were defined by the family we were born into and our position within that family. Social advancement was nigh on impossible and the concept of “individuality” took a back seat.

Ah yes, the good old days, when, as Ron James puts it, “lives were short and teeth were rotten”. Those were the days, eh?

That only arrived with the Industrial Revolution, which for the first time offered rewards for initiative, ingenuity and ambition.

AND an opportunity to be treated like a little tiny cog in a big impersonal machine. Oh, and we must not forget the factory model for formal schooling. Ah yes, those were the days….

Suddenly, people had their own life stories – ones which could be shaped by their own thoughts and actions. For the first time, individuals had a real sense of self.

Only in the developed world, and then only if you’re not poor.

But with our brains now under such widespread attack from the modern world, there’s a danger that that cherished sense of self could be diminished or even lost. Anyone who doubts the malleability of the adult brain should consider a startling piece of research conducted at Harvard Medical School.

There, a group of adult volunteers, none of whom could previously play the piano, were split into three groups. The first group were taken into a room with a piano and given intensive piano practise for five days. The second group were taken into an identical room with an identical piano – but had nothing to do with the instrument at all. And the third group were taken into an identical room with an identical piano and were then told that for the next five days they had to just /imagine /they were practising piano exercises. The resultant brain scans were extraordinary. Not surprisingly, the brains of those who simply sat in the same room as the piano hadn’t changed at all. Equally unsurprising was the fact that those who had performed the piano exercises saw marked structural changes in the area of the brain associated with finger movement. But what was truly astonishing was that the group who had merely imagined doing the piano exercises saw changes in brain structure that were almost as pronounced as those that had actually had lessons.

“The power of imagination” is not a metaphor, it seems; it’s real, and has a physical basis in your brain.

Yup. And it’s art of what has people involved with serious games so excited. It is also why more and more Brain Games are making their way into retirement and seniors homes.

Alas, no neuroscientist can explain how the sort of changes that the Harvard experimenters reported at the micro-cellular level translate into changes in character, personality or behaviour. But we don’t need to know that to realise that changes in brain structure and our higher thoughts and feelings are incontrovertibly linked.

What worries me is that if something as innocuous as imagining a piano lesson can bring about a visible physical change in brain structure, and therefore some presumably minor change in the way the aspiring player performs, what changes might long stints playing violent computer games bring about?

OH, I have an answer….. Some people find it quite cathartic. They find it helps them to REDUCE their feelings of anger and frustration that result from being bullied or treated like they don’t have value. Do you suppose that for some people, a person’s desire to play long stints of violent games is a SYMPTOM rather than a treatment? Most people who go on about “media effects” tend to presume that “violent games” are all the same and easy to identify. Hmm, is Mario violent? (I kindof like that one – blasting those Kuppas with my fireball is kind of fun.)

That eternal teenage protest of ‘it’s only a game, Mum’ certainly begins to ring alarmingly hollow.

Already, it’s pretty clear that the screen-based, two dimensional world that so many teenagers – and a growing number of adults – choose to inhabit is producing changes in behaviour.

Attention spans are shorter, personal communication skills are reduced and there’s a marked reduction in the ability to think abstractly.

Ever heard of grinding in games? Now, I’m nearing 50 and I FOR SURE don’t have the patience or attention span to spend the time and effort many online games require. “Kids today” absolutely have intense attention spans – they are just for different things. Whether that is good or not remains to be seen. It’s different.

Reading this article one might get the impression that anything different from what we boomers know and like is bad.

This games-driven generation interpret the world through screen-shaped eyes. It’s almost as if something hasn’t really happened until it’s been posted on Facebook, Bebo or YouTube.

As opposed to what, the 11:00 o’clock news? Actually, any kind of happening, pretty much anywhere in the world is likely to make it onto a social site or media sharing site about the same time that the news catches wind of it. In fact, many news agencies now routinely monitor these places for tips and leads.

Add that to the huge amount of personal information now stored on the internet – births, marriages, telephone numbers, credit ratings, holiday pictures – and it’s sometimes difficult to know where the boundaries of our individuality actually lie.

Ain’t that the truth! And it’s a challenge too – now we have to learn so much more in order to live in this modern world. We do have choices tho, but if we continue to sit around going, “Oh Waley, Waley” someone else is going to make the rules. Maybe even Susan Greenfield.

Only one thing is certain: those boundaries are weakening.

Nope. They are CHANGING. And change is often scary. But, not always bad.

And they could weaken further still if, and when, neurochip technology becomes more widely available. These tiny devices will take advantage of the discovery that nerve cells and silicon chips can happily co-exist, allowing an interface between the electronic world and the human body.

One of my colleagues recently suggested that someone could be fitted with a cochlear implant (devices that convert sound waves into electronic impulses and enable the deaf to hear) and a skull-mounted micro- chip that converts brain waves into words (a prototype is under research).

Hey, I know a little bit about universities and research – I suspect there are MANY protoypes, of MANY things under research (ranging from the ridiculous to the divine)- only a very tiny fraction of them ever end up working. This statement is pure fear-mongering. Artificial Intelligence researchers have been predicting the advent of thinking machines too – FOR DECADES. Still don’t have one.

Then, if both devices were connected to a wireless network, we really would have arrived at the point which science fiction writers have been getting excited about for years. Mind reading!

He was joking, but for how long the gag remains funny is far from clear.

Check the perditions about, oh, natural language recognition (which has apparently been “on the horizon” for about 30 years), or thinking machines, or any number of things. For that matter have a look at futuristic predictions from the past. It is very easy to cast aspersions – much more challenging to come up with solutions.

Today’s technology is already producing a marked shift in the way we think and behave, particularly among the young.

I mustn’t, however, be too censorious, because what I’m talking about is pleasure. For some, pleasure means wine, women and song; for others, more recently, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; and for millions today, endless hours at the computer console.

This is insultingly over-simplistic. There’s really not much point in going on statement by statement. The rest is mostly unsubstantiated or thinly supported claims.

Here is the truth: the jury’s still out on the effects of playing violent videogames, though there is a book that has some fascinating things to say on the matter (“Grand Theft Childhood, by Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson). There is still no real indication that games are addictive to anyone who is otherwise normal and moderately well-adjusted, and there is growing evidence that videogames have a myriad of benefits.

Well, that debate must start now. Identity, the very essence of what it is to be human, is open to change – both good and bad. Our children, and certainly our grandchildren, will not thank us if we put off discussion much longer.

I agree that we should be talking about this – but as rational humans – not as the Voice of Doom.

• Adapted from ID: The Quest For Identity In The 21st Century by Susan Greenfield, to be published by Sceptre on May 15 at £16.99. To order a copy for £15.30 (p&p free), call 0845 606 4206.

Ah, here’s the punch-line! BUY MY BOOK. We all know how well fear sells. I wonder if she offers any solutions that do not involve some form of censorship (i.e. banning) or curtailment of freedom. Sheesh, did she learn nothing from reading Orwell?

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