Screening Out the Empathy: The Impact of Screen Culture on Our Brains
The impact of screen culture on the human brain merits the same public debate and funding for research as climate change, says one of the world's most eminent neuroscientists.
As the online world continues to expand, Oxford University's Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield has warned excessive screen culture may be changing the way our brains are wired.
The effect of screen culture on the brain is not dissimilar to symptoms associated with attention deficit disorder, such as a shorter attention span and decline in empathy.
Professor Greenfield points to her native England where the number of prescriptions for ADHD has trebled in the past decade.
It is unclear what has driven the rise - it could be that doctors are being more liberal with prescriptions or increased awareness of the condition, or its higher prevalence. Whether there is a link between time spent with screens and the condition is also unclear. But, she argues, this is evidence enough of the need for more research.
''There should be more money for research into why games are addictive, what mental processes are being tapped into ... There should be development with neuroscientists and software writers on how to deliver experiences and the kind of talents that we think might be in jeopardy.''
While we are born with pretty much all the neurons we will ever have, the growth of the human brain revolves around the way connections are made between brain cells.
In Australia to deliver the annual Florey lecture, at the University of Adelaide this evening, Professor Greenfield argues the ''yuck and wow'' scenario of the internet - ''where you live in the short-term world where you have immediate reactions to things that flash up in your face and bombard your ears'' - might drive brain connections and brain cell circuitry in a way that shortens the attention span.
''It's wonderful that we might have high IQs, not be risk-averse, have good short-term memories ... but in a sense we're turning ourselves into efficient computers,'' the professor of pharmacology said.
''But what we do that computers don't do is be very creative and have insights. I would be very sad if the next generation wasn't given the opportunity to do those things.''
She said ''a similar level of sponsorship, effort and diversity'' should be invested in the area to push it into the mainstream as had been done in climate change research and debate.
''Society, governments and teachers really need to start working together on long-term study.
''I'm not going to say that's endangering the life of the planet in the way that climate change is, but for sure it could be changing the face of society and the way we live.''