Is Social Networking Harming Our Brains?

brain_scanBaroness Susan Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, has been busy for the last few years warning the public about the dangers of computers.

One of her more sensational suggestions — “suggestions” because none of this is rigorously proved yet — is that computer games cause underuse of the prefontal cortex, the center of mature judgment, with a consequent increase in risk-taking of the kind that characterised our recent economic meltdown (by a cohort raised on such games). Miranda Devine, writing in “Digital Life,” explains it this way:

Speaking at a lunch at the Centre for Independent Studies in Crows Nest this week, the eminent British neuroscientist theorised that the global financial crisis may be a portent of worse to come, as recklessness becomes the norm for technology-warped brains.

The bankers, brokers and traders, mostly young and male, whose impulsive decision-making and poor judgments fuelled the collapse of financial markets last year, may very well have possessed a version of a newly evolved human brain, physically changed by prolonged time in front of computer screens.

From a generation “brought up in two dimensions”, they are used to playing computer games that deliver thrills and risks without consequences.

But Greenfield’s concerns go much deeper. She suggests that the new technologies — including social networking — may indirectly result in a sort of atrophy of the interior life. Again, from Miranda Devine:

Greenfield suggests prolonged computer use, particularly rapid-fire computer games, which drive the brain synapses into a frenzied state, may … lead to an underuse of the area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, the centre of higher executive functions, where judgment, planning, personality, goal-setting and social moderation occur.


Developing friendships on social networking sites means you miss the subtle skills essential for real-life friendship. You may avoid real people and become like the Japanese hikikomori, the 1 million young men who have withdrawn from society to their bedrooms to play computer games by themselves.

“Have we gone through 100,000 years of evolution for this … adults sitting in a room spending their leisure time on ‘yuck and wow’ activities [instead of] having love affairs, walking in the rain and thinking about things?”

Greenfield acknowledges she is straying from science into philosophy, but sees no distinction between the brain and the mind. The idea of an examined life, rather than an existence awash with sensation, is crucial to the idea of being human. It is the essence of what we call our soul.

I see a conundrum, or at least an irony, in Susan Greenfield’s warnings about the vulnerability of the human brain, as it has evolved over millions of years. Dianne Dumanoski, whose new book I recently reviewed here, found a shred of hope (for the fate of human civilization now confronting severe climate change) precisely in this plasticity of the human brain.

So, which is it? Will it be our salvation, as Dumanoski hopes, or our downfall, as Greenfield implies?

If you are interested in Greenfield’s work, you owe it to yourself to see the intelligent comments made by her critics, a good example of which may be found here.

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3 Responses to “Is Social Networking Harming Our Brains?”
  1. Dixie Redfearn says:

    Don, I agree with a lot of this — people becoming socially inept, for example. But I had to change my opinion on video games when one of my gamer grandsons showed me his report card: Straight A’s. Hard to argue with success!

  2. depelton says:

    Dixie, thanks for your comment.

    While I believe what you say is true — and it’s my favorite answer (because it’s so hopeful) — I’m also aware that psychological forensics of the Columbine killers suggest that the skillful pattern of gunfire they used in killing their fellow students was precisely the pattern they were required to master in playing their favorite arcade games. Chilling.

    Maybe the chilling truth is that the human brain is nature’s most impressive tool, and can be used — as history abundantly demonstrates — for good or ill.

  3. Zuri says:

    In the midst of this “real life” discussion I’ve been off in fantasy land reading one of America’s favorite authors Dan Brown in his new book, “The Lost Symbol.” I mention this because in his often factual fiction (as I like to call it) he highlights noetic science, which is the intuitive science of the brain. It allegedly is the untapped thought power we humans just don’t know how to utilize. Methinks there’s a lot of attention on what are brains can do, won’t do, and aren’t willing to do. Are we thinking too much about thinking? Let’s think about that.

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