So connected you don’t have time to think? Susan Greenfield at the RSA

Quite an interesting talk at the RSA this, with neuroscientist Susan Greenfield plugging her new book Mind Change, in conversation with Jonathan Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre (an extremely interesting bloke btw – and more about the Social Brain project is here:,-cognition-and-creativity/social-brain). Greenfield’s talk gets across some of the basic ideas about neuro-plasticity to a lay audience (and I’m very lay).

I liked this little summary of the two-way-street of experience and changes in the brain:

Every experience you are having will upgrade and update your connections and every experience you are having will be judged and evaluated through the existing connections.

So we experience everything with the brain as it is now; but the next time we come to it, our brain will have been changed a little and we’ll experience it differently. And so forth.

What your brain looks like after a night reading Hermann Hesse's 'Siddartha'
What your brain looks like after a night reading Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddartha’

It’s a simple enough concept, but actually not perhaps how many of us are used to thinking of the effect of our own thoughts and habits. We can live with the idea of little changes in our brain, but the effects of that accumulated over time – that it in a real sense changes who we are – is much more troubling.

Rowson appeared frustrated at times, during the on-stage interview section, trying to coax Greenfield into saying what she was really getting at with her book. She seemed strangely reluctant until quite late on to talk directly about her suspicion that digital technologies are having strong effects on how our brains are developing. She was eventually drawn, saying: “We might be looking at unprecedented changes.” Her thoughts echo Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which I reviewed here in warning against making computers and digital technologies an end in themselves rather than what they should be, a means to human ends.

The future of technology: Torben Friis from Borgen being attacked by his own drawing of a toy car. Can we stand by and let this happen?
The future of technology: Torben Friis from Borgen being attacked by his digital drawing of a toy car. Can we stand by and let this happen?

Greenfield urges that we spend more time thinking about what those ends should be – what the good life might look like – and use machines to help us get there. The alternative is following dumbly in the wake of the latest technological breakthrough. Technological breakthroughs happen according to their own logic and while they may thrill tech fans, they don’t necessarily point the direction we should be going. People need to do that for themselves.

The little film is particularly worth watching from about the 40 minute mark onwards, as Greenfield gets into the meat of her arguments after much prompting from Rowson. In particular, she argues persuasively that human creativity is special and something we need to protect and nurture in the digital age. By creativity, she means a three-stage process:

  1. the ability to deconstruct something
  2. then put it back together differently, combining with unusual things in new ways
  3. then, crucially, make it all mean something (the step often missed, Greenfield observes, by “people on drugs who think they’re poets”)

Our “obsession with being connected all the time” is actually an enemy of the creative process. It distracts us towards shallower, less satisfying pleasures. The danger, she says, quoting Eric Schmidt, is “being so connected you don’t have time to think.”

We are living in a 21st Century remake of Hitchcock's 'The Birds'
Are we twitterati living in a 21st Century remake of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’?

An argument, if ever I heard one, in my own field of qual, for taking time over our analysis and giving due weight to individual as well as collective work. We’re great at bringing minds together to move thinking forward; but we also need to let individual participants and collaborators breathe too. Creative pre-tasking as key, again? I do love those scrapbooks …

So, a frustrating performance at times by Greenfield but a strong voice added to a growing argument. Digital technologies will continue to change us, literally, in terms of our habits of mind and our ways of thinking. They can help us; but we need to be on our guard too. It may be time to start thinking much more seriously about how we want technology to improve our lives – and making sure it really does.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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