From John Ray's shorter notes


This article is a different from most of my articles in that my contribution to it is small. It is a documentation of the unsupported claims made by the bumptious "Baroness" Greenfield over a number of years -- combined with data and argument that undermines her pseudoscience

27 Aug 2007

The "Mindfit" claim

Don't line the pockets of the lady below until an independently replicated double-blind evaluation of it emerges in the journals. It's theoretically possible that it is helpful but my guess would be that the effects in adults are marginal and temporary

Baroness Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, is to launch an exercise programme for the brain that she claims is proven to reverse the mental decline associated with ageing. Greenfield, who is also director of the Royal Institution, maintains that Britain's baby-boomers are discovering that concentrating on physical fitness is no longer sufficient preparation for old age. "What concerns me is preserving the brain too," she said. "There is now good scientific evidence to show that exercising the brain can slow, delay and protect against age-related decline."

Greenfield will launch MindFit, a PC-based software program, at the House of Lords next month, for the "worried but well" - people in their middle years who are healthy and want to stay that way. Created by researchers in Israel and already on sale in America, it offers users inter-active puzzles and tasks that are claimed to stimulate the brain just as using a gym exercises the body's muscles. "There is evidence that such stimulation prompts brain cells to start branching out and form new connections with other cells," said Greenfield.

The baroness's decision to lend her name to MindFit and to take a significant stake in Mind-Weavers, the company promoting it, could raise eyebrows among fellow scientists. Her high profile in the media has rankled with some and she was twice snubbed by the Royal Society.

The idea that the performance of the brain can be improved by exercises or potions has a long and controversial history. There have also been scientific battles over the claims made for dietary supplements, especially fish oils, and so-called smart drugs. The latter have been shown to cause a short-term increase in IQ but the long-term secondary effects are unknown.

Greenfield's decision to promote MindFit, which will retail for around 70 pounds, follows the release of new scientific research apparently showing clear benefits. In the latest research, conducted at the Sourasky Medical Centre at Tel Aviv University in Israel, 121 volunteers aged over 50 were asked to spend 30 minutes, three times a week, on the computer, over a period of two years. Half were assigned to use MindFit and the other half played sophisticated computer games. The results, released at a recent academic conference and due for formal publication shortly, showed that while all the volunteers benefited from using computer games, the MindFit users "experienced significantly greater improvement in short-term memory, visuo-spatial learning and focused attention".

Greenfield, who also runs an Oxford University laboratory researching the causes of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, found out about MindFit through her extensive links with Israel and decided to bring it to Britain. "It is clear that there is no drug on the horizon to treat Alzheimer's or age-related mental decline so I have long been interested in seeing whether stimulating the brain might offer a way of Greenfield is launching a program designed in Israel. Kidman, left, is the new face of Nintendo, which already sells Brain Training games slowing down these changes," she said.

Other researchers are also convinced that people can rejuvenate their brain with exercise. Ryuta Kawashima, professor of neuroscience at Tohoku University in Japan, spent 15 years investigating how mental exertion helps the brain grow. His work became the basis of the Brain Training and More Brain Training computer games, produced by Nintendo, the console manufacturer. Nicole Kidman, the actress, fronts its latest British advertising campaign. Nintendo itself makes no formal scientific claims for the programs but Kawashima said in a recent book: "My brain exercises increase the delivery of oxygen, blood and various amino acids to the prefrontal cortex. The result is more neurons and neural connections, which are characteristics of a healthy brain."

Other researchers accept such ideas in principle but warn that any system claiming to boost mental ability must prove itself in clinical trials.


25 February, 2009

Greenfield shoots her mouth off again

"Social websites harm children's brains". She said much the same nearly a year ago -- with a similar lack of proof. She does have a research background in brain function but she is primarily a science popularizer and can be relied on to support the wisdom of the day -- which is why she has been much honoured in various ways.

Not long ago she was selling a "brain training program" called "Mindfit" but such programs have subsequently been found to be of very questionable use and may do more harm than good. She appears unaware of the contradiction of promoting a computer-based brain training program while otherwise warning of the harm that computer use does.

She has also bad-mouthed Larry Summers for his truth telling about mathematical ability and mocks Christians. So wait for the double-blind studies of social networking websites rather than trust the mere "fears" of this attention-seeker.

Social networking websites are causing alarming changes in the brains of young users, an eminent scientist has warned. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centred. The claims from neuroscientist Susan Greenfield will make disturbing reading for the millions whose social lives depend on logging on to their favourite websites each day. But they will strike a chord with parents and teachers who complain that many youngsters lack the ability to communicate or concentrate away from their screens. [Given the dumbed-down education they get today, that has to be expected]

More than 150million use Facebook to keep in touch with friends, share photographs and videos and post regular updates of their movements and thoughts. A further six million have signed up to Twitter, the 'micro-blogging' service that lets users circulate text messages about themselves. But while the sites are popular - and extremely profitable - a growing number of psychologists and neuroscientists believe they may be doing more harm than good. Baroness Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, believes repeated exposure could effectively 'rewire' the brain.

Computer games and fast-paced TV shows were also a factor, she said. 'We know how small babies need constant reassurance that they exist,' she told the Mail yesterday. 'My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.'

Her comments echoed those she made during a House of Lords debate earlier this month. Then she argued that exposure to computer games, instant messaging, chat rooms and social networking sites could leave a generation with poor attention spans. 'I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf,' she said.

Lady Greenfield told the Lords a teacher of 30 years had told her she had noticed a sharp decline in the ability of her pupils to understand others. 'It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations,' she said. She pointed out that autistic people, who usually find it hard to communicate, were particularly comfortable using computers.

'Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can - if there is a true increase - be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,' she added.

Psychologists have also argued that digital technology is changing the way we think. They point out that students no longer need to plan essays before starting to write - thanks to word processors they can edit as they go along. Satellite navigation systems have negated the need to decipher maps.

A study by the Broadcaster Audience Research Board found teenagers now spend seven-and-a-half hours a day in front of a screen.

Educational psychologist Jane Healy believes children should be kept away from computer games until they are seven. Most games only trigger the 'flight or fight' region of the brain, rather than the vital areas responsible for reasoning.

Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, said: 'We are seeing children's brain development damaged because they don't engage in the activity they have engaged in for millennia. 'I'm not against technology and computers. But before they start social networking, they need to learn to make real relationships with people.'


22 October, 2009

The internet is GOOD for brains

Some actual research upsets all the "expert" prognostications about how bad computers are for you. One hopes that the sycophantic "Baroness" Greenfield learns some proper scientific caution from this. Crawling up the backsides of the powers that be got a smart Jewish girl a British title but at the expense of her scientific integrity

Adults with little Internet experience show changes in their brain activity after just one week online, a new study finds. The results suggest Internet training can stimulate neural activation patterns and could potentially enhance brain function and cognition in older adults.

As the brain ages, a number of structural and functional changes occur, including atrophy, or decay, reductions in cell activity and increases in complex things like deposits of amyloid plaques and tau tangles, which can impact cognitive function.

Research has shown that mental stimulation similar to the stimulation that occurs in individuals who frequently use the Internet may affect the efficiency of cognitive processing and alter the way the brain encodes new information. "We found that for older people with minimal experience, performing Internet searches for even a relatively short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function," Dr. Gary Small, study author and professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said in a statement.

The UCLA team worked with 24 neurologically normal volunteers between the ages of 55 and 78. Prior to the study, half the participants used the Internet daily, while the other half had very little experience. Age, educational level and gender were similar between the two groups.

The participants performed Web searches while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which recorded the subtle brain-circuitry changes experienced during this activity. This type of scan tracks brain activity by measuring the level of blood flow in the brain during cognitive tasks. While the study involves a small number of people and more research on this topic is needed, small study sizes are typical of fMRI-based research.

After the initial brain scan, subjects went home and conducted Internet searches for one hour a day for a total of seven days over a two-week period. These practice searches involved using the web to answer questions about various topics by exploring different websites and reading information. Participants then received a second brain scan using the same Internet simulation task, but with different topics.

The first scan of participants with little Internet experience showed brain activity in the regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities. The second brain scan of these participants, conducted after the home practice searches, demonstrated activation of these same regions, but there was also activity in the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus – areas of the brain known to be important in working memory and decision-making.

Thus, after Internet training at home, participants with minimal online experience displayed brain activation patterns very similar to those seen in the group of savvy Internet users. "The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," Teena D. Moody, the study's first author and UCLA researcher, said in a statement.

When performing an online search, the ability to hold important information in working memory and to take away the important points from competing graphics and words is essential, Moody noted.

Previous research by the UCLA team found that searching online resulted in a more than twofold increase in brain activation in older adults with prior experience, compared with those with little Internet experience. The new findings suggest that it may take only days for those with minimal experience to match the activity levels of those with years of experience, said Small.

Additional studies will be needed to address the impact of the Internet on younger individuals and help identify aspects of online searching that generate the greatest levels of brain activation. The findings were presented Oct. 19 at the meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, Illinois.


8 November, 2009

Technology doesn't cause social isolation: Pew study

I wonder is the slimy "Baroness" Greenfield listening?

CONTRARY to popular belief, technology is not leading to social isolation and people who use the internet and mobile phones have larger and more diverse social networks, a new study claims. "All the evidence points in one direction," said Keith Hampton, lead author of the report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project released this week.

"People's social worlds are enhanced by new communication technologies. "It is a mistake to believe that internet use and mobile phones plunge people into a spiral of isolation," said Mr Hampton, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

The authors said key findings of the study "challenge previous research and commonplace fears about the harmful social impact of new technology." "There is a tendency by critics to blame technology first when social change occurs," Mr Hampton said. "This is the first research that actually explores the connection between technology use and social isolation and we find the opposite. "It turns out that those who use the internet and mobile phones have notable social advantages," Mr Hampton said. "People use the technology to stay in touch and share information in ways that keep them socially active and connected to their communities."

The study found that six per cent of Americans can be described as socially isolated - lacking anyone to discuss important matters with or who they consider to be "especially significant" in their life. That figure has hardly changed since 1985, it said.

The study examined people's discussion networks - those with whom they discuss important matters - and their closest and most significant confidants, or core networks. On average, the size of people's discussion networks is 12 per cent larger among mobile phone users, nine percent larger for those who share photos online, and nine percent bigger for those who use instant messaging.

The diversity of people's core networks tends to be 25 per cent larger for mobile phone users, 15 per cent larger for basic internet users, and even larger for frequent internet users, those who use instant messaging, and those who share digital photos online. At the same time, the study found that Americans' discussion networks have shrunk by about one-third since 1985 and have become less diverse because they contain fewer non-family members.

The study found that on average in a typical year, people have in-person contact with their core network ties on about 210 days. They have mobile-phone contact on 195 days of the year, landline phone contact on 125 days and text-messaging contact on the mobile phone 125 days. They have email contact on 72 days, instant messaging contact on 55 days, contact via social networking websites on 39 days and contact via letters or cards on eight days.

The US study involved telephone interviews with 2512 adults between July 9, 2008 and August 10, 2008 and has a sampling error of 2.1 per cent.


9 January, 2010

Big talker finally given the boot

This couldn't happen to a nicer fraud. She is constantly shooting her mouth off and pretending to know what she does not know. She claims that TV and computers are harmful despite evidence pointing the other way. In a polite British way, her colleagues have finally had enough of her. The fact that she was a financial bungler as well as a scientific fraud would seem to have been the last straw. The financial bungling is a bit of a surprise in a smart Jewish girl but her lack of scientific depth is too. Her main talent seems to be for self-promotion and that can easily wear thin in Britain. Background on her here

Baroness Greenfield has lost her job as the director of one of Britain’s oldest and most venerable scientific institutions, The Times has learnt. The neuroscientist and peer, who is one of Britain’s most prominent female scientists, was served with redundancy papers yesterday by the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI), where she was director, the organisation confirmed last night.

Her position at the head of the institution where Michael Faraday and Sir Humphrey Davy once worked is to be abolished after a review of its managment structure and a financial crisis that could threaten its survival. The RI’s trustees decided that the position of a full-time director was no longer affordable in the light of funding problems that has left it more than £3 million in the red. Its chief executive, Chris Rofe, will now head the organisation.

Lady Greenfield, who could not be contacted for comment, is understood to have consulted employment lawyers about the decision, which she is considering challenging.

When contacted by The Times last night, Mr Rofe confirmed that Lady Greenfield was being made redundant. He said: "The trustees of the Royal Institution of Great Britain have completed the first stage of a governance review and as a consequence have concluded that the requirement for the functions of the role of director as currently defined has ceased to exist. We are therefore sad to announce that Baroness Susan Greenfield left the RI on 8th January 2010.

"Baroness Greenfield has played a leading role, not only in the development of the RI, but also in the wider scientific community through her work in popularising science. Baroness Greenfield leaves with our thanks and we wish her all the very best in her future endeavours. "Over the coming months the organisation will focus on strengthening its finances, fundraising, and addressing the organisational governance to ensure the Ri continues to deliver its many, diverse and renowned activities in scientific research, education and public engagement.”

Lady Greenfield’s departure follows heavy losses incurred by the RI during a £22 million refurbishment project she masterminded, which left it so short of funds that its auditors have raised questions about its ability to continue operating. In its most recent submission to the Charity Commission, its auditors said that its future viability would depend on rapid improvements in its finances that could not be guaranteed. "If the charity is to continue as a going concern, the financial projections for the three years ending 30 September, 2011, need to be met,” the audit report said. "There is a significant uncertainty as to whether these projections will be achieved.”

RI sources told The Times that its trustees considered that its precarious finances meant the organisation could no longer afford to employ a senior scientist as a full-time director. Some are also understood to have doubted whether it could improve its financial position under Lady Greenfield’s continued leadership.

Lady Greenfield, 59, has a reputation as one of Britain’s most colourful and influential scientists, but also as one of the most outspoken and controversial. The Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford, who studies disease of the brain, regularly appears on television and is acknowledged by her peers as one of the most talented communicators of science of her generation.

Her unconventional approach to courting publicity, however, has annoyed as many scientists as it attracts, some of whom claim that her talent for self-promotion outweighs her scientific credentials. She has been rejected as a candidate for fellowship of the Royal Society, the elite national academy of science.


22 February, 2010

The internet will make you smarter, experts say

The brown-nosed "Baroness" Greenfield won't like this. It's just opinion but so is what she says

An online survey of 895 web users and experts found more than three-quarters believe the internet will make people smarter in the next 10 years. Most of the respondents also said the internet would improve reading and writing by 2020, according to the study, conducted by the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University in North Carolina and the Pew Internet and American Life project. "Three out of four experts said our use of the internet enhances and augments human intelligence, and two-thirds said use of the internet has improved reading, writing and the rendering of knowledge," said study co-author Janna Anderson, director of the Imagining the Internet Center.

But 21 per cent said the internet would have the opposite effect and could even lower the IQs of some who use it a lot. "There are still many people... who are critics of the impact of Google, Wikipedia and other online tools," she said.

The web-based survey gathered opinions from scientists, business leaders, consultants, writers and technology developers, along with internet users screened by the authors. Of the 895 people surveyed, 371 were considered experts. It was prompted in part by an August 2008 cover story in the Atlantic Monthly by technology writer Nicholas Carr headlined: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

Carr suggested in the article that heavy use of the web was chipping away at users' capacity for concentration and deep thinking. Carr, who participated in the survey, told the authors he still agreed with the piece. "What the 'net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence," Carr said. "The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking."

But Craigslist founder Craig Newmark said, "People are already using Google as an adjunct to their own memory." "For example, I have a hunch about something, need facts to support and Google comes through for me," he said.

The survey also found that 42 per cent of experts believed that anonymous online activity would be "sharply curtailed" by 2020, thanks to tighter security and identification systems, while 55 per cent thought it would still be relatively easy to browse the internet anonymously in 10 years.


18 March, 2010

Brits finally grow tired of the bumptious Susan Greenfield

The smart Jewish girl who got herself made a Baroness but still wanted more attention. As I also have said on various occasions, her colleagues say that she was more interested in self-promotion than in science. The last sentence below is a polite version of my view about the crap she speaks

During her 12 years at the helm of the Royal Institution, Susan Greenfield has come to be known as "anything but beige”. Undeniably a gifted communicator, she was seen by many as a breath of fresh air blowing through a stuffy establishment when appointed as director. Her supporters see her as an inspiration to aspiring young scientists, a campaigner against sexism in the lab and a smart businesswoman.

However, she has accumulated at least as many enemies as fans. Her detractors accuse her of being more interested in self-promotion than science promotion.

Lady Greenfield has maintained a research career as Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford, where she focuses on brain physiology and has founded three biotechnology companies investigating diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

In 1994, Lady Greenfield became the first woman to give the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and in 1998 she became its first female director. She has appeared frequently on television, written several popular science books and was a recipient of the Royal Society Faraday Medal for science communication. She is probably also the first female scientist to have appeared in photoshoots for Hello! and Vogue and is known for her flamboyant dress sense.

After criticising the Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, for not having enough female fellows, she was nominated for fellowship in 2004. But some who felt that her scientific credentials were unworthy leaked her candidacy, details of which are normally kept secret, and she was subsequently turned down.

Most recently, Lady Greenfield has courted controversy by warning that the internet — in particular social networking sites — may harm children’s mental development. Others argue that there is insufficient evidence to back the claims.


16 June 2010

Violent videogames harmless for most kids: studies

"Baroness" (brown-nose) Greenfield won't want to know about this

Violent videogames can increase aggression and hostility in some players but they can also benefit others by honing their visual/spatial skills and improving social networking ability, scientists said.

In a special issue of the journal Review of General Psychology published by the American Psychological Association, researchers said the games can also help to control diabetes and pain and work as a tool to complement psychotherapy.

"Violent video games are like peanut butter," said Christopher J. Ferguson, of Texas A&M International University. "They are harmless for the vast majority of kids but are harmful to a small minority with pre-existing personality or mental health problems."

He added that studies have revealed that violent games have not created a generation of problem youngsters.

"Recent research has shown that as video games have become more popular, children in the United States and Europe are having fewer behavior problems, are less violent and score better on standardized tests," Ferguson, a guest editor for the journal, explained.

Patrick Markey, of Villanova University in Pennsylvania, found in a study of 118 teenagers that certain personality traits can predict which children will be negatively influenced by videogame. If someone is easily upset, depressed and emotional or is indifferent to the feelings of other people, breaks rules and fails to keep promises, they may be more likely to be hostile after playing violent videogames.

"These results suggest that it is the simultaneous combination of these personality traits which yield a more powerful predictor of violent video games," Markey said. "Those who are negatively affected have pre-existing dispositions, which make them susceptible to such violent media."

But on a more positive note Pamela Kato, of University Medical Center in Utrecht in the Netherlands, showed in her research that specially tailored games can help to prevent asthma attacks, and ease pain management and diabetes treatment.


22 June, 2011

Facebook users have more friends

This will be nasty news to "Baroness" Greenfield, the smart Jewish girl who brown-nosed her way to a peerage by pandering to elite prejudices. She condemns the way ordinary people make "too much" use of TV and computers while selling computer software herself

Facebook, it turns out, isn't just a waste of time. People who use it have more close friends, get more social support and report being more politically engaged than those who don't, according to a new national study on Americans and social networks.

The report comes as Facebook, Twitter and even the buttoned-up, career-oriented LinkedIn continue to engrain themselves in our daily lives and change the way we interact with friends, co-workers and long-lost high school buddies.

Released Thursday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the report also found that Facebook users are more trusting than their non-networked counterparts.

When accounting for all other factors - such as age, education level or race - Facebook users were 43 percent more likely than other Internet users to say that "most people can be trusted." Compared with people who don't use the Internet at all, Facebook users were three times more trusting.

The reason for this is not entirely clear. One possible explanation: People on social networks are more willing to trust others because they interact with a larger number of people in a more diverse setting, said Keith Hampton, the main author of the study and a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

When all else is equal, people who use Facebook also have 9 percent more close ties in their overall social network than other Internet users. This backs an earlier report from Pew that, contrary to studies done earlier in the decade, the Internet is not linked to social isolation. Rather, it can lead to larger, more diverse social networks.

Social-networking users also scored high in political engagement. Because LinkedIn users (older, male and more educated) fall into a demographic category that's more politically active than the general population, they were most likely to vote or attend political rallies. But after adjusting for those characteristics, Facebook users, especially those who use the site multiple times a day, turned out to be more politically involved than those who don't use it.

Overall, the average American has a little more than two close confidants, 2.16 to be exact, according to the report. This is up from an average of 1.93 close ties that Americans reported having in 2008. There are also fewer lonely people: 9 percent of respondents said they had no one with whom they could discuss important matters. That's down from 12 percent in 2008.

The report didn't try to dig into cause and effect, so it's not clear whether the widening use of social networks is causing less loneliness. But it did find that people who use the Internet are less socially isolated than those who don't. Those on social networks, even less so - just 5 percent said they had no one to talk to about important stuff.

The researchers also got numbers to back up what's in the mind of many Facebook users past a certain age: Yes, all your old high school classmates really are coming out of the woodwork and "friending" you. The average Facebook user has 56 friends on the site from high school. That's far more than any other social group, including extended family, co-workers or college classmates.

Facebook's settings let users add the high school they attended to their profile, along with the year they graduated. Other users can then search for their classmates and add them as friends for a virtual reunion.

"It's really reshaping how people maintain their networks," Hampton said. In the past, when people went to college or got jobs and moved away from their home towns, they left those relationships behind, too. This was especially true in the 1960s, when women not in the work force would move to the suburbs with their husbands and face a great deal of isolation, Hampton said.

Now, with social networks, these ties are persistent. "Persistent and pervasive," Hampton said. "They stay with you forever."

The survey was conducted among 2,255 adults from Oct. 20 to Nov. 28, 2010. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points for the full sample.


8 August, 2011

The attention seeking Greenfield now claims that internet use leads to autism

Greenfield speculates again. Criticizing TV and computer usage is her shtick but we have not yet heard what she thinks of the finding that regular Facebook users have MORE friends in real life than others

A neuroscientist has sparked a war of words after suggesting a link between increased internet use and autism. Baroness Greenfield, former [fired] director of the Royal Institution, believes digital technology could be leading to changes in people’s brains.

The professor of pharmacology at Oxford University has previously argued that constant computer and internet use could be shortening attention spans, encouraging instant gratification and causing a loss of empathy.

But a fellow Oxford professor condemned her remarks on autism as ‘illogical garbage’. Dr Dorothy Bishop, a professor of neuropsychology, wrote an open letter to Baroness Greenfield saying: ‘You may not realise just how much ill-formed speculation parents of [children with autistic spectrum disorders] are exposed to.

‘Over the years they’ve been told their children’s problems are caused by a cold style of interaction, inoculations, faulty diets, allergies, drinking in pregnancy – the list is endless.’

She believes Baroness Greenfield, who was speaking in an interview with New Scientist magazine, has ignored a body of evidence which suggests most, if not all, of the rise in autism is down to a widening of the diagnostic criteria and better understanding of the condition.

She said: ‘Most cases are diagnosed around the age of two, when not many children are using the internet. And this rise has been documented over the past 20 years, long before Twitter and Facebook.’

Baroness Greenfield said: ‘I have never claimed new technologies are causing autism. Rather, I’ve said that the increase in lack of empathy, that is documented scientifically, may be leading to behaviours like that and this should be explored.’

She said one recent Chinese study found excessive internet use can cause parts of teenagers’ brains to waste away. She added: ‘We may be in danger if we are creating an environment for the next generation where a premium isn’t put on eye contact, body language and hugging someone.’


18 October, 2011

Baroness Greenfield, junk neuroscience, and the dangers of video games

By Tom Chivers

Dr Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist at Cardiff University and the author of the Science Digestive blog, has kindly written the following guest post in response to yet another ill-thought-through rant from Baroness Greenfield, the former director of the Royal Institute and prominent critic of video games and the internet. It's a good thing Dr Burnett did so, because if I'd done it, it would probably have been a very short post: "Please stop talking, Baroness Greenfield. Please." Anyway, here he is:
Baroness Greenfield, the former director of the Royal Institution, has once again been holding forth about the potential damage that video games and other technological entertainments are wreaking on the brains of young people.

As a doctor of behavioural neuroscience who teaches via an online course, I have a special interest in how our brains are influenced by behaviour and technology, so the Baroness’s pronouncements were of particular fascination to me. But her view, that electronic media can damage our brains, is almost the exact opposite of my own. While some of her claims have an element of truth to them, it's aggravating to see a well-known public intellectual misuse basic facts to support outlandish and harmful conclusions. I’ll take a look at a few of them in turn.

* She says technology which plays strongly on the senses – like video games – can “blow the mind" by temporarily or permanently deactivating certain nerve connections in the brain.

First things first: 'Mind' in scientific terms has no universally accepted definition, so the majority of behavioural and neurological studies simply ignore it as a factor altogether. But pedantry aside, the temporary or permanent deactivation of nerve connections in the brain is implied to be a negative consequence of excessive computer game playing, as opposed to a perfectly normal and actually quite essential occurrence in a typical, healthy brain. A great deal of the brain's connections are actually used for deactivating other connections and processes. One of the brain's most powerful neurotransmitters (the chemicals used by neurones to communicate with each other) is gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is inhibitory, meaning it stops activity in other cells. And it's really good at this.

The constant deactivating of parts of the brain is vital to our functioning as normal cognitive beings. There can be times when too much of the brain is active at once, and these are seldom good things, as anyone who's had a seizure or violent hallucination will probably attest. You could argue that Baroness Greenfield is referring to specific, damaging connections, but I can only be as precise in my comments as she is being in hers. Areas of the brain being shut down or deactivated is as normal a part of development as losing your milk teeth.

* "If you play computer games to the exclusion of other things this will create a new environment that will have new effects … every hour you spend in front of a screen is an hour not spent climbing a tree or giving someone a hug."

The problem here is that this effect is not specific to video games. Anything you do excessively will create a new environment that your brain will eventually adapt to. If you are a keen fisherman you will spend a great deal of time staring at a large volume of water while holding an elaborate stick. Does this have long-term effect on your brain structure? Most likely, yes. Is it seriously damaging? Not as far as anyone is aware.

And yes, every hour you spend in front of a screen is an hour not spent climbing a tree or giving someone a hug. And every hour you spend on a train is not spent on a horse. What of it? Every hour spent doing something is an hour not spent doing something else. You may feel that climbing trees is a more 'positive' activity than video games, but that's purely a subjective view. It's undoubtedly an enjoyable pastime, but I think most people would agree though that you have significantly less chance of falling and breaking your neck while playing on an X-Box.

* She goes on to claim (the article is paraphrasing): “Screen technologies cause high arousal, which in turn activates the brain system’s underlying addiction and reward, resulting in the attraction of yet more screen-based activity.”

Again, yes. This is a largely accurate statement. But it's annoying how people (scientists in particular) will use long-winded, verbose methods of describing something in order confuse people, and attribute a meaning to it which suits their arguments. In this case, the phrase "high arousal, which in turn activates the brain system’s underlying addiction and reward, resulting in the attraction of yet more … activity" is more commonly known as 'fun' or 'enjoyment'. This same effect can be seen in football fans or pretty much anyone who has a persistent hobby. The long-term damaging effects of these aren't being questioned, so what sets video games part as a negative? The intense visual stimuli? The interactive nature of them? The requirement for concentration? The competitive element? All of these factors apply to any sport you want to name.

* The average child will spend almost 2,000 hours in front of a screen between their tenth and eleventh birthdays.

I don't know where this figure comes from, as no references were provided. But even if it is right, what of it? Welcome to 21st century Western society. Everything has a screen now. I currently own about seven. It's where we get our information from. A while ago, it was books. Some people would spend a lot of time reading books, which are rectangular, information-rich objects that could cause intense arousal and engage many brain regions. But people who condemn books aren't usually respected for it.

To be clear: there are undoubtedly things to criticise about video games. They can be needlessly violent, they can be unrewarding: perhaps it is unwise to subject children to such graphic themes, perhaps they do teach children unrealistic or dubious things. But each of these criticisms can be levelled at any entertainment format. The use of electronic media is an undeniable fact of life now, and is changing the way we see the world. In many ways, it's encouraging that so many children become adept at computer-based activities from such a young age; it'll give them more of a chance of making it in an increasingly technical society.

Baroness Greenfield clearly has her reasons for disliking computer games and other electronic entertainments, and I'm sure they're noble ones. But this does not justify the use of junk science, or the public airing of overblown conclusions based on little or no evidence. With every unsubstantiated claim, Baroness Greenfield distances herself further from the scientific community that once had such respect for her.


The establishment has been very indulgent to the loud-mouthed Jewish girl with her hunger for attention but her dumping from the Royal Institution and now this rebuke in the Telegraph would seem to indicate that she has finally gone too far. Her pronouncements were always designed to pander to elite prejudices and were always poorly founded in science. See here and here

12 February, 2012

Facebook is GOOD for you: Social networks relax the heart rate and trigger 'a natural high'

Another nasty one for "Baroness" Greenfield

Websites like Facebook may actually be good for you, according to the latest psychological study on users. Researchers found using social networks can spark a natural high leading to a relaxed heart rate and lower levels of stress and tension.

While it seems like a solitary activity, the interaction with others via these networks has a positive effect on body and mind, said joint American and Italian research.

And that buzz could explain the massive success of social networking in general and Facebook in particular.

University researchers in Milan wired up 30 students aged 19-25, monitoring the reactions of their brain, blood pressure, skin conductance, pupil dilation and heart rate. These readings show levels of arousal, excitement, stress and relaxation said the study for online journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking.

The students were then given three minute exercises - either looking at panoramic landscapes, a short time on Facebook or a complicated mathematical task.

Not surprisingly the first made the students the most relaxed and the maths test made them the most stressed.

But the Facebook time threw up a whole new set of unexpected results that were neither stressed out or over relaxed. Instead they found it brought out reactions suggesting the person had found high levels of attractiveness and arousal.

The research was conducted jointly by the Auxologico Italian Institute, the Catholic University, both in Milan, and the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It found: 'The success of social networking sites might be associated with a specific positive affective state experienced by users when they use their account.'


Facebook can produce "natural highs" in users - study. Social website "makes users more healthy, joyful"

Another report of the study above

USING Facebook is like attending an online party, mental-health experts say.

Until now the popular social-networking site has been blamed for all manner of ills - bullying, depression and antisocial behaviour. But scientists have now discovered it can also produce "natural highs" in many users, lowering levels of anxiety and stress.

The so-called buzz created by the site could help explain the massive success of social networking, and of Facebook in particular, according to a new study for online journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking.

The Italian study monitored 30 regular Facebook users' physical reactions, such as their pupil dilation, blood flow and breathing, while they were on the site and concluded it made them more healthy, "joyful" and "intellectually aroused".

Melbourne psychologist Dr Simon Crisp said using Facebook provided an interesting social challenge for its users. "It is like an online party, and the more it gets closer to that type of interaction, the greater the engagement is likely to be and therefore the greater the enjoyment for people," Dr Crisp said.

With 845 million people using Facebook regularly, it is little wonder more people are joining the party.

Rowville's Lynn Bain, 46, spends about eight hours a day on Facebook catching up with friends and family. "If you post something, usually you will get a response quickly and usually it is a positive response," she said.

Social networking is also a constant companion for the stay-at-home mum while her husband is at work and her two sons are at university. "It is someone to talk to because I am home alone. It makes me feel good knowing that there is someone there to talk to," Ms Bain said.

Science has proven happiness is a mouse-click away.


25 March, 2012

Parents don't need to worry about TV dulling their kids' senses as Harry Potter movies make them MORE creative, say researchers

Another blow to the stupid "fears" of "Baroness" Greenfield

Watching Harry Potter films could make young children more creative, claims a study. Carried out by Lancaster University, it’s the first attempt to study whether there are any educational benefits in exposing children to magical content like witches and wizards, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy.

The study examined if there was a link between magical thinking and creativity in preschool children – and it found that there was.

The small-scale study involved 52 four to six-year-old children. The youngsters were split into two groups and shown two 15-minute clips from Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone.

The findings show that after watching the clips, the group who watched the magical scenes in general scored ‘significantly better’ in all three areas than their peers in the other group.

Researchers Dr Eugene Subbotsky, Claire Hysted and Nicola Jones from the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University concluded that: ‘Magical thinking enables children to create fantastic imaginary worlds, and in this way enhances children’s capacity to view the world and act upon it from multiple perspectives.

‘The results suggested that books and videos about magic might serve to expand children’s imagination and help them to think more creatively.’

Magical thinking involves believing in supernatural events like animals speaking human languages, or a witch flying on a broomstick.

This involves the ability to construct an alternative world and research has shown that most four to six-year-olds think magically in everyday life.

Some of the scenes include animals talking and witches and wizards performing spells and using wands, while other scenes featured the same characters but without any magical content.

The children were then tested for creativity which included being asked to pretend they were a rabbit or driving a car. They were also asked to think of different ways of putting plastic cups in a bin and for alternative uses for the cup.

The children who had watched the magical scenes performed significantly better on the creativity tests.

The researchers concluded that rather than just being used for entertainment, ‘magical thinking can be viewed as an additional source of development of imagination and divergent thinking in children.’


8 March, 2013

Computer use linked to literacy for pre-schoolers

The bumptious Susan Greenfield won't like these findings. A truly odious woman. For nothing more than her own attention-seeking reasons, she has done her best to upset the world's children

PARENTS of screen-loving pre-schoolers can relax. A new Australian study has found four-year-olds who spend more time on the computer have better knowledge of the alphabet than others.

The Murdoch Children's Research Institute survey of 1500 four-year-olds found more than half used a computer at least once a week.

They found this was closely tied to letter recognition, which is linked to reading and spelling ability.

Researcher Professor Sheena Reilly said greater computer use among pre-schoolers "appears to have a positive association with emerging literacy development" and was much better than watching TV.

Computer products, such as keyboard games, are marketed to children as young as nine months old.

"These days you do see lots of kids playing games on iPads and iPhones and even reading books on them," Prof Reilly said.

She said the link between literacy and computers remained significant even when researchers controlled for factors such as socioeconomic status and parental reading ability.

"It is possible that the kinds of activities pre-school children engage in when using a computer, including interacting with the letters on the keyboard, stimulate letter knowledge," Prof Reilly said.

But she acknowledged it was "also possible that pre-school children with strong emergent literacy skills and good letter knowledge are more likely to choose to engage in computer-based activities than those with weaker skills".

Prof Reilly said the study did not distinguish between educational and recreational computer use.

Canterbury mother of three and GP Kirstin Charlesworth said her son Lachlan, 5, played letter and number games on the computer.

"It's no replacement for one-on-one time with a parent, but high-quality computer time has its place," Dr Charlesworth said.

"I think it's important that kids go to school with some idea about computers and how to use them."


24 March, 2013

Court rightly finds a scientific "consensus" to be wrong

Do gooders regularly condemn computer games despite a lot of evidence that they do no harm. The collective body of American psychologists has regularly ignored the body of research in their own field and joined the alarmists. Chris Ferguson has written a long paper showing that SCOTUS was right to hose down the alarmists. Below is just the summary. I wonder what, if anything, the obnoxious Susan Greenfield will have to say about it

In June 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that video games enjoy full free speech protections and that the regulation of violent game sales to minors is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court also referred to psychological research on violent video games as “unpersuasive” and noted that such research contains many methodological flaws. Recent reviews in many scholarly journals have come to similar conclusions, although much debate continues.

Given past statements by the American Psychological Association linking video game and media violence with aggression, the Supreme Court ruling, particularly its critique of the science, is likely to be shocking and disappointing to some psychologists.

One possible outcome is that the psychological community may increase the conclusiveness of their statements linking violent games to harm as a form of defensive reaction. However, in this article the author argues that the psychological community would be better served by reflecting on this research and considering whether the scientific process failed by permitting and even encouraging statements about video game violence that exceeded the data or ignored conflicting data.

Although it is likely that debates on this issue will continue, a move toward caution and conservatism as well as increased dialogue between scholars on opposing sides of this debate will be necessary to restore scientific credibility.

The current article reviews the involvement of the psychological science community in the Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association case and suggests that it might learn from some of the errors in this case for the future.


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