9/28/2015 – Mind Change Preface and chapters 1-8

This week we begin our discussion of Susan Greenfield’s Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains. You should read the Preface and chapters 1-8 for Monday’s discussion.

Post your comment (not more than 250 words!) on this week’s reading before 5pm on Monday, as a comment on this week’s blog post.


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15 responses to “9/28/2015 – Mind Change Preface and chapters 1-8

  1. sgussman

    While discussing the impacts of social networking on identity and relationships, Greenfield laments that privacy is now held in “casual disregard.” She cites that Digital Natives regularly post to Facebook, instantly sharing private information with around 500 friends. A person’s entire life-story is now available by scrolling through their Facebook Page and doing a quick Google search.

    However, the push for privacy online has never been stronger than it now is. Perhaps this is because it is more necessary now that people share more information than ever. The push for privacy has manifested in many ways—notably as the Right to be Forgotten in the EU, the Edward Snowden disclosures, and greater privacy controls.

    The foundation of the right to be forgotten was laid in the 1995 European Data Protection Directive, and was codified by the 2014 ruling by the European Union’s Court of Justice (1). The Right to be Forgotten allows individuals to request that search engines and other data-holders de-index search results that appear when querying his or her name. (2)

    However, in the United States the push for data-privacy has mainly been directed towards privacy from companies and government agencies, and less focused on de-indexing searches. The Edward Snowden disclosures in 2013 started an uproar, drastically raising awareness about government surveillance programs (PRISM in particular) (3). Public pressure (not related to the Snowden disclosures) has also resulted in enhanced privacy controls for both Facebook (4) and Google (5).

    (1) http://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2014-05/cp140070en.pdf
    (2) http://ec.europa.eu/justice/data-protection/files/factsheets/factsheet_data_protection_en.pdf
    (3) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/05/opinion/edward-snowden-the-world-says-no-to-surveillance.html
    (4) http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/01/daily-report-facebook-to-enhance-privacy-controls/
    (5) http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/03/google-to-simplify-its-privacy-policies/

  2. Greenfield describes the multifaceted effects of the digital age on us, one in particular being the difficulty in sustaining “a robust sense of inner identity” while increasingly anchored in social networking. Greenfield posits that our inner narrative being opened up to the outside world and becoming constructed externally results in “less robust and more volatile” identities (p. 39-40).

    Although this may be addressed later in the book, this section raised many questions for me. While I agree that the ever-present sharing through social media has deleterious effects on our brains (1), I hesitate to agree that social networking through technology diminishes our senses of inner identity.

    In some ways, technology can help create stronger senses of identity. Greenfield defines identity as an activity that is based on societal context (among other things). Technology has revolutionized the ability for communities to form around unique traits, which otherwise leave thousands isolated within society, such as deafness, dwarfism, and disability (2). These communities help members transition from viewing their disabilities as a hindrance to their basic identity as human beings to something positive and integral.

    Dozens of other social networking sites (Tumblr, GardenWeb, Cancer Forum) exist, which allow communities to form around similar interests or struggles, especially for people who find themselves isolated in society*. When these communities are successful (3), they may lead to more robust, less volatile identities, because the community provides users with “the perception of a safe environment” in which people can explore their beliefs and identity (4) (5).

    *perhaps why it might threaten to “outcompete real life” for some people

    (1) http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/how-facebook-makes-us-unhappy — Sharing through social media results in a physiological rush; while consuming things, we now think about how and who to share it with.
    (2) as seen in Andrew Solomon’s book “Far From The Tree”
    (3) http://archive.is/vDPe0
    (4) http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=250482439837148;res=IELIND
    (5) http://jtr.sagepub.com/content/42/3/261.full.pdf

  3. acamperi

    In chapter six of her book, Greenfield talks about how certain changes in people’s habits and behaviors can lead to changes in the way their brain is structured, namely how gaming is suspected to impact social behavior, potentially leading to more aggressive and less empathetic behavior.

    I would like to elaborate on the idea that changes in the environment can lead to changes in brain activity, focusing more on the culture of sitting at a computer for hours on end, regardless of the activity being performed.

    She hints at this in page 66, when she says that “brisk walking may stimulate the production of new neurons,” which would in turn lead to an increase in cognitive abilities. There has been much research recently about how an active lifestyle can help boost cognitive function, and slow the decay of the brain (1).

    However, in today’s increasingly technological society, we tend to spend increasingly many hours of our day sitting at a desk, or working at a computer. This sedentary lifestyle coupled with too much gazing at a flickering screen is not conducive to a healthy brain, especially as we get older and our brains become less plastic. Mental health is closely related to physical health (2), and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is paramount.

    I will leave you, though, on a more positive note, about a program being implemented widely in Japan known as Shinrin-yoku, wherein you take time out of your day to reconnect with nature: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_bathing

    (1) http://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/10775012
    (2) http://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/1120453

  4. Greenfield discusses a variety of cases in which children use technology as a means of escape from their personal reality. She highlights tools such as video games and search engines that allow for immediate access, anytime and anywhere, to a deep, hyperconnected, escapist realm.

    A link she does not emphasize, however, is the effects on personal identity and reality when a child does not want to be reached by this technological realm, yet, due to the pervasiveness of personal computing in modern homes, finds it impossible to “unplug.”

    The most profiled result of such unwanted social access in the home is through “cyber bullying.” Cyber bullying, or bullying in usually safe spaces through technological access (1), is a phenomenon that has been at times derided as a trivial modern social conception. In recent times, however, it has been linked to countless abuse complaints and high-profile suicide stories (2). Greenfield links reports of student online behavior as “rude, fake, crude, over-dramatic and disrespectful” to declining levels of empathy in society (p. 36), but does not follow the train of thought through. The truth is that this heightened and far-reaching social access is causing students serious psychological issues to the point of serious self-harm.

    The wave of cyber bullying has caused schools to entirely rethink how administrators and teachers can effectively deal with social problems in and out of the classroom (3).

    (1) http://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/what-is-it/
    (2) http://www.meganmeierfoundation.org/cyberbullying-social-media.html
    (3) http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/partner-zone-zurich/cyberbullying-top-tips-schools

  5. It’s interesting that Greenfield largely avoid any comments about technology’s effect on the brain from Chapters 5-8; I’m guessing her strategy is to first present the reader with an understanding of the relevant neuroscientific ideas before bringing the effects of technology into the mix. I’m sure next week’s chapters will begin to explore this, but meanwhile I’ve been considering the possible connections to what Greenfield has discussed so far.
    For example, in Chapter 6 she makes a point about the effects of “enriched” environments on the brain and mind. Evidently, there is a sizable body of research to defend the argument that “an enriched environments leads to a whole host of physical changes in the brain, all of them good,” including greater brain weight, cortex thickness, etc. (63). An enriched environment has even been shown to defend against Huntington’s disease in mice (64), which I find incredible yet somewhat obvious.
    So I’m curious about what this means for enriched technological environments (this is, virtual environments). There are many cases in which technological environments (e.g. video games) are used to treat things such as autism and ADHD, but these environments are in fact highly specific and are not “enriched” in the way the term is used here. The most enriched virtual environments I can think of are social networking platforms and MMORPGs, and the former is still rather flat in terms of sensory stimulation. Virtual reality environments, on the other hand, could be more enriched than physical environments.

  6. Jack Cook

    I enjoy Greenfield’s non-sensationalist approach to the effects of technology on our brains. She tends towards cautious, predictive reasoning about the long-term trends we are beginning to see from long-term exposure to technology.

    I was most interested in her discussion in chapters 7 & 8 on the difference between “shallow” and “deep” neuronal connections, their importance on our ability to form abstract, conceptual thoughts, and how our over-exposure to dopamine and easy, unlimited access to data is changing how we think.

    At the risk of going off-topic, the thrust of her argument reminds me of a philosophy paper by Jean Baudrillard, “Simulation and Simulacra” (1). Baudrillard argues that a post-modern, hyper-connected society will be marked by a retreat into media channels that provide limitless stimulation but are poor substitutions (or simulacra), for their real-world counterparts. Due to the fact such technology will be abundant and gratification easy, people will accept the simulacra as a replacement, or an equivalent, to the real thing. Perhaps there is a touch of hyperbole to Baudrillard’s work, especially since it is far less scientific in style than Greenfield’s, but there is evidence that the simulacra we use almost daily do not provide the same cognitive benefits as the “real thing”, reading on a screen (2) and virtual communication (3) being salient examples.

    Greenfield’s opinions on online identity also interested me. No doubt the Internet has the capacity to connect disparate communities and connect people who would otherwise be unable to communicate, the Internet is also increasingly becoming a forum where free thought can be punished by mob rule. The last 5-10 years have seen the rise of the ‘Twitter Mob’ (4) in which expressing opinion that is against that of the prevailing online community can be punished by virtual harassment from thousands of anonymous online users. The New Yorker “nobody knows you’re a dog on the Internet” strip was a joke on the anonymity, but that was published 22 years ago. Since that time, it seems that the Internet has left behind anonymity and the ability to completely reconstruct your identity into a desirable form and replaced it with having a permanent “online presence”. One must maintain and constantly vet this presence or risk anybody with enough technological prowess digging through your past to discover something unsavory you may have said a decade ago. A Pew Research Center study found that people were far more likely to assert dissenting opinions in person than they were online (5) – if we increasingly turn to online forums for discussion then many of Greenfield’s assertions on our ability to undertake deep engagement and form our own identities appear to be correct.

    (1) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard/ [control/command+f “simulation and simulacra”]
    (2) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/
    (3) http://national.deseretnews.com/article/2235/face-time-vs-screen-time-the-technological-impact-on-communication.html
    (4) http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/24/is-the-internet-a-mob-without-consequence/
    (5) http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/26/social-media-and-the-spiral-of-silence/

  7. In Chapters 1-4, Greenfield gives a multitude of examples to lucidly illustrate the immense impact digital technologies have made on society and culture. She also scratches the surface of its impact on the brain in these initial chapters, but in order to bolster her argument about the phenomenon of “Mind Change”, Greenfield starts by laying out the basis of how the brain and the mind work in Chapters 5-8. I presume the rest of the book will create the final piece of the argument by connecting the global phenomenon of the digital era to the neurological background that has been given to explain the brain’s plasticity. There are a couple challenges that Greenfield faces that are yet to be resolved. One is the “chicken and egg” conundrum – did the person’s brain cause a behavior or did a behavior cause the brain to change? Another is the ever-puzzling “Hard Problem”, as coined originally by David Chalmers, of which we are still trying to understand even “what kind of answer we need to solve [it]” (72). It is difficult because we know that correlation does not equal causation, and “no attempt is being made to establish a causal link as to how a physical even could give rise to a mental event” (75). Another part of the issue is that consciousness is subjective, which makes it challenging to create an objective scientific argument: “The catch is that conscious states are quintessentially subjective and qualitative and therefore an anathema to conventional scientists” (75).

  8. Jamison Elizabeth Searles

    In Chapter 4, Greenfield refers to the phenomenon in which social media produces a numerical basis of a user’s popularity or network. She writes, “your importance as revealed by social networking activity can even now be quantified”(36).

    With the existence of services for buying followers on networks like Twitter and Instagram (e.g. http://intertwitter.com), the desire for great quantified popularity is undeniable.For a U.S. Facebook user, Greenfield cited that 10% of their friends have only been met once in person or never at all (38). Although many in-person relationships begin online, especially romantic ones (19), one possible explanation for wanting followers with whom a user has not even met is the allure of a public, numerical display of social capital.

    I would like to explore and raise questions about the way in which quantified importance influences perceptions of self and others in our network. Some questions: Are we motivated by a want to connect or to have more followers? How does quantified popularity shape how we regard our online relationships? Are our followers friends or a numerical representation of the reach of our personal brand? Do users with larger networks behave differently on social media than those with smaller followings?

    One way in which quantified reach influences perception of social media users is the judgement of credibility based on number of followers, number of users followed, and the ratio between them. One study found that both too many and too few followers negatively impacted users’ perceived credibility. Furthermore, the difference between followers and accounts followed was negatively correlated with judged competence.(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563211001944)

  9. ccibils

    I was surprised that Greenfield had yet to comment on the effect of this great shift in our perception in privacy on neural plasticity.

    She goes to great lengths to describe the processes through which our brain adapts to changes and repeatedly uses the term “use it or lose it” to make sure the reader understands this overall process. I can only wonder if this shift in privacy, that is, sharing a lot online and having an online presence, is a predecessor to Theilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, where all consciousness is connected.

    If we think about it, opening up our minds to share them more with other people (excluding the fact that it’s an indirect and curated exposure to our minds), could change our personal identity processes, and intuition tells us that identity would be more collective and less individual than before. It’s exciting that the forces of plasticity have the power to change our perception of identity, and because we constantly see a stream of other users online, it may well just be towards de-individualism.

    It’s also interesting to wonder whether the change in privacy will have an effect on consciousness. Greenfield cites the beautiful analogy of the “hard problem” as, “We still don’t know how the water of neural processes transforms into the wine of subjective experience.” By creating a more interconnected set of minds, and more and more open minds each time, we’re actually steadily arriving at a point where we can test the potential answer given by Kurzweil, complexity.

    If we think about a shift in privacy as a key element in bridging the gap between our individual consciousnesses, we could also begin to imagine that in creating a network of tightly connected consciousnesses, we may be well on our way towards the Omega Point.

  10. Betsy Alegria

    In chapter 6, Susan describes how enriched environments lead to a lot of good physical changes (increased cell body size of neurons, increased brain weight, thicker cortex, etc.) in the brain (64-65). I found this interesting because I began to think about a classroom. It made absolute sense in terms of education and a classroom – students who come from schools that are well funded usually have access to more resources. Thus, their learning environment may be more stimulating and more of those good physical changes in the brain occur. Without going off on a tangent, the first thing I thought about was how we test those students and others without such resources the same way – seems unfair to me. We can totally enter the “how good is our education system” debate, but what started to come to my mind was how does ed tech play a role in 1) leveling the playing field (does it?) and 2) how do you make ed tech games truly enriching for students. I am going to focus on the second point. When Susan talked about stimulating environments, she brought up the idea that they are places “where there is no fixed task to perform” (65). I wonder what this would look like because even in a virtual game online, there are always constraints and certain things seem to be fixed. Is it safe to say that creativity/freedom on online learning games has a maximum? What problems does that cause (if any)?

  11. As a senior majoring in SymSys, the topic of the mind and brain has come up several times in my classes. What is the mind? Is the mind rooted in the physical properties of the brain, or does it derive itself from something else? In most cases, the context for this sort of discussion has been fixed from a philosophical standpoint; a place where I have found a person’s opinion, and not fact, to be the driving force behind an argument. That is why I thoroughly enjoyed chapter seven of Greenfield’s book, she takes a more scientific, fact-based approach to addressing the issue of consciousness within the scope of neuroscience.

    The issue I have always found with this topic — and the reason, I believe, that this argument is mostly carried out from a philosophical viewpoint — is that consciousness is a highly subjective, quasi-unquantifiable thing. Whereas science is, by definition, the exact opposite. Greenfield’s innovative approach is to marry the two: define consciousness quantitatively. She argues that rather than defining consciousness as being binary, existing or not, consciousness should be related to as a spectrum that increases in depth in correlation to the breadth of our neural complexity.

    In the end, I found her argument for the physical basis of consciousness to be extremely appealing, specially the science she presents around neuronal assemblies. For me, it was a breath of fresh air to hear a neuroscientist’s perspective on this topic rather than a philosophers. I am extremely curious to see how she develops this idea of consciousness and intertwines it with her central premise of mind change in the face of the technological advancements of our time. Right off the bat, a topic that I have always found fascinating strikes me as being relevant. How could the rise of virtual reality change our perspective on consciousness? (1) Immersive virtual reality experiences have been shown to dramatically alter our perception and sensation of the world. And now that devices like Oculus Rift (2) will become commonplace, how could this alter our interaction with the topic of consciousness?


  12. My biggest skepticism of Greenfield’s overall argument after reading chapters 1-8 is that any mind change from technology will be just that – a change. It seems reasonable to me that an ever-present exposure to technology will result in a decline in certain cognitive abilities, but it’s difficult for me to imagine that others will not be bolstered by this change (a point which Greenfield acknowledges with her explanations of childhood development (58)). An example of such might be the ability to rapidly put large thoughts into pithy expressions, an ever-important skill for instant communication and social media but also a key ability for more “classic” activities like lively debate and stimulating conversation.

    The task for her case then becomes to examine whether the losses conclusively outweigh the gains, as establishing a mere change in the mind doesn’t seem to automatically entail danger. This seems to me an inherently more difficult case to prove, though I’m fascinated by her initial suggestions of a decline in abstraction abilities (14).

    On a largely unrelated note, I’m intrigued by the contrast between Greenfield’s characterization of the uncut nature of Digital Native social media activity (34) and recent media reports of the relationship between “millennials”, trigger warnings, and free speech (see the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/10/the-hell-you-say or the Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/). If we assume both characterizations are correct, I wonder if the movement toward light censorship could be a real-world reaction to a digital phenomenon millennials are witnessing. At first glance, this suggests that Digital Natives care deeply about the preservation of the non-digital world as almost a place of respite from the digital world, which indicates to me that some sort of natural check and balance is taking place. I’d be interested to explore this further, however, and see if other explanations are more plausible.

  13. I don’t think Greenfield’s generational cutoff for “Digital Natives” is particularly useful (6). It simplifies a nonlinear cultural transformation into a distinction between (Leave it to) Beaver and zombie-like 4-year-olds attached to their screens. It masks the fact that many 4-year-olds prefer toys over screens. Computers, video games, and TV were fixtures of my childhood and my daily routine. But I never held an iPad at the dinner table, watched TV shows with headphones, or played video games alone. I participated in family dinner conversation every night, I played sports with friends, and I spent as much time with Legos and toy soldiers as with Mario and Dexter’s Laboratory.

    My parents grew up in neighborhoods like mine, and they could walk to the local park and expect to see friends playing. It was easy to organize social playtime because there wasn’t much to do in the house. I was partially, though not completely, deprived of this experience. My friends and I met up at the school playground, and I expected to see people there on snow days and Friday afternoons, but it was hard to organize kickball on a weekend. Like me compared to my parents, kids today are past me on the digital nativity spectrum. The increasing allure of isolating technologies makes me fear a day when the social and playful outside culture of Hey Arnold is as foreign to kids as Leave it to Beaver is to me, but this is not inevitable.

  14. As mentioned in previous comments, it is exceedingly refreshing to read a popular neuroscience book written by a respected neuroscientist (and not a ‘science journalist’, or a philosopher, or a ghostwriter). Greenfield’s anatomical expertise shines throughout the first chapters of her book, though at time she seems prone to reducing only moderately complex concepts to unnecessarily rudimentary analysis and personal anecdotes.

    So far, Greenfield’s prevailing thesis seems to be that neuroplasticity is something that very much exists and is very much understudied. An uncontroversial thesis, it would seem, is anything but – she points, repeatedly, at her ‘vilification’ (http://www.theguardian.com/science/the-lay-scientist/2011/aug/08/1) in the notoriously ruthless British tabloid press as testament to how controversial her statements actually are.

    Yet the first eight chapters of her book don’t suggest anything of the sort. Although perhaps a little basic to the ‘digital native’, chapters one through four provide a solid foundational explanation of the digital age and the impact connectedness has on society. Chapters five through eight do an excellent job describing the complex neuronal chemistry involved in the brain, and how little is truly known about the way ‘the digital age’ could change our brain.

    It’s particularly interesting to me that Greenfield cites 4chan, an imageboard, as an example of a “form of self-expression… with consequences as extreme as the medium itself”. Greenfield seems to be heading towards the conclusion that limiting exposure to such resources until it can be established how harmful the ‘consequences’ might be is a prudent course of action. As a child of the 4chan age, I wholeheartedly disagree with attempts to limit self-expression, online or elsewhere. It will be interesting to see the direction in which she takes her argument.

  15. aselvan2012

    I enjoy the writing style of Susan Greenfield and from what I have read, I am excited by the theme of how “the human brain will adapt to whatever environment in which it is placed”. One thing I worry about is that barrage of one-directional views that make up the “trending” opinion pages can influence our brains too much and not give us enough space to make up our own minds.

    I enjoyed more Greenfield’s descriptions of how the brain works and look forward to reading her conclusions on how it may change. I suppose that having lived through the age of dial up internet to the advent of Facebook and Snapchat, my generation is the beta testers for how technology has affected our minds in contrast to previous generations – I would be interested in having a discussion on this in class. I was particularly interested in reading through her chapter on dopamine – I have read that simple things such as receiving texts and Facebook messages actually cause dopamine to be released in our brains. I wonder whether this could be a strong influence to why we choose to now spend so much time online and leading to how online content can influence us.

    I am also concerned by the ‘professional’s’ description of the behavior in millennial as over-distracted time wasting individuals. I feel that this is classic view of people that do not fully understand what it is like to be a millennial and perhaps because people have not really thought that our brains have changed – though not for the worse.


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