An evening with Baroness Greenfield at Coventry University.

The irony of this post will not be lost on the people who came with me last night to attend the lecture on how technology is changing the human brain which was hosted by Coventry University. The guest speaker Baroness Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist who has previously researched in areas such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons disease. She is now researching how the digital world is affecting our brains, the structure and our corresponding behaviour.

Susan began by taking us through an idiots guide to the brain structure talking in general (non- specialist) terms about the brain. She described her wonder at first holding a dissected human brain thinking about how if she were to take part of it way which part of the human consciousness she would be removing; a memory, an emotion or a habit? Her passion and sense of delight about the brain was immediately clear.

She stated that just as our genetics is important so it our environment and the to are interconnected. Using an analogy of a goldfish in a bowl she described how goldfish only has a narrow range on behaviors because of the structure of their brain and the environment, this is clearly unlike more complicated beings such as humans, who have many more behaviors which are to do with interactions between us and the environment.

She then went on to describe and experiment which supported this view A. Pascual- leone et al (2005).

Susan then went on to describe what she considers to be ‘thoughts’ they are not reflexes or emotions but lineal ideas that change from the place that you started. There is a clear order especially when written down. Thoughts are ‘movements within the Brain’ which I mused was an interesting definition. She spoke about her own experiments that she conducted with her students in which she used rats. 1/2 of the test subjects were separated into an ‘ enriched’ environment which they had things to climb and nibble on and the other 1/2 of the rats were just given a cage with no enrichment in. They then scanned the brain of the animals after a week to discover if there had been any changes and of course the rats with the ‘enriched’ environment had developed more synaptic connections and therefore were healthier. She argued that connections in your brain which leads to more more synaptic branches which again leads to more surface area allowing for more synaptic connections in the future. Connections in your brain give your thoughts and world meanings (they create and allow for the creation of schemas) and give the world more meaning beyond the sensory input that we operate with when we are very young. Dementia is apparently when these connections disintegrate and a human reverts back to only understanding and relying on the sensory input from the world around us.

Susan then told us about the two types of intelligences that she has noted from other researchers fluid and crystalline intelligence.  Fluid intelligence is where we learn quickly but don’t understand information such as remembering a poem or out time tables. Where as crystalline intelligence is where we can relate our knowledge to schemas and contexts which we have previously known. A phrase that she then used was that “The biological basis of the mind is the personalisation of the brain through unique and dynamic configuration which is framed by experience”. Something which I think we should all consider.

Baroness Greenfield now went on to discuss how our brains are affected by the technology, briefly mentioning the research of Susan Palmer and her work on Toxic Childhood.

One of the things about social media that Susan Greenfield suggested was that social media only focuses on one type of communication which is through words and other types of communication e.g. body language, eye contact etc are not being used and we are living in a generation where young people don’t learn these skills. Something which I would agree on looking down the halls of my illustrious school before the first bell I would be challenged to see a single child who was actually holding a conversation WITHOUT having a device in their hand and WITHOUT talking about something they had played/ seen/ listened to.

Her conclusions were basically this that children int he future will be able to manipulate icons and not ideas, they will have high IQ’s and higher processing speeds than we have today however many of them will be more agressive and show more autistic like tendencies. Baroness Greenfield has come under fire recently for linking over use of technology and the increase in autism from the Psychological and Scientific community for not completing her own research on the matter although she did provides some other research studies to support her view.

(More to add but I’m stopping for now)

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