Saturday, May 2, 2015

Book Review: Mind Change

One of the books selected for my evening book club is The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Although that book is not on the reading schedule until July, I jumped when I saw this alternative title available at our library. I wanted a second book to evaluate Carr's book against. Of course, I cannot make any comparisons until I read The Shallows, but for now I will offer up a brief description of this book by Susan Greenfield, entitled Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains.

Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist and member of the House of Lords, where she has argued her premise that the digital age is altering the way we think and relate. Hers is a cautionary tale which argues, similarly to the perils of climate change, that we are on the brink of cultural mind change with just as possibly devastating consequences. She begins by introducing her term "mind change" and asserting that it is a highly controversial global phenomenon. She then breaks down technological advances into three separate categories of concern: "social networking and the implications for identity and relationships; gaming and the implications for attention, addiction, and aggression; and search engines and the implications for learning and memory."

As she dissected how social networking is changing the way we think and relate, I could easily see both positives and negatives in my own life. How often, indeed, do I log onto my computer in the morning hoping to see some sort of feedback from friends, be they virtual, close or distant, to something I have shared or simply hoping for news from someone else's existence in order to spice up the boring nature of my own existence? How often do I share something on-line that I may not have shared with more than a handful of people prior to the advent of Facebook? My life would be entirely isolated without social networking. It would be like living in a desert. But how often do I compare myself, unfairly, to others whose lives are presented in technicolor for the digital world to envy and admire? How does my own sense of identity profit from or bear harm from my involvement in a wider society of friends available through social networking? These are tricky questions.

The gaming section was perhaps the most sobering of all, because I fear the effects my own sons are reaping from their involvement with multi-player on-line role-playing games. On the one hand, it is cool to watch their ability to play a game and interact with their cousin while he is miles away in his own home. However, my sons play games their cousins would never be allowed to play and many of them are violent in nature. They have seen far more graphic episodes of violence than I ever experienced in my own childhood. Although this is most definitely a negative thing, the author doesn't paint the scenario as entirely bad. There are some positives to the use of video games for developing certain skills and reactions (indeed, video games like "Fruit Ninja" are actually used to help rehabilitate stroke sufferers). Still, her focus is primarily on the chemical responses of the brain to such gaming and how close those experiences are to the chemical responses occurring in the brains of those with severe addictions. Gaming addiction is a serious problem to consider and I fear my sons might be at risk for this, given the satisfaction they seem to receive (achievements, status, manliness, etc) from playing such games.

The final section focuses on the changes brought about by surfing the Web. We have become a culture with the knee-jerk reaction of "I'll just Google that and find out the information I need." The ability to find information so quickly and freely doesn't necessarily mean that we are becoming smarter. If anything, we are less inclined to retain information because we are under the impression that such information is always just a click away. Moreover, we do lose something in acquiring our information via a screen instead of through books. The immediacy of information and entertainment is shortening our attention span and drawing us away from traditional methods of learning. Students are interrupted far more frequently when trying to study because there is a constant stream of distractions from text messaging and multi-tasking. The pull of You Tube is quite fierce in my own household, with both of my younger boys watching videos others have recommended because they are funny or because they show information for tackling some aspect of a game they are wanting to play.

While I found the book fascinating and frightening, I also found it a bit difficult to digest fully and found myself skimming through bits because it just didn't hold my interest or I wanted to get to the next bit more quickly. Perhaps my own response is an example of the arguments the author frames. Perhaps I just wasn't entirely in the mood to focus in with more depth to the study at hand. For whatever reason, I don't think I absorbed as much from the book as I could have if I had been more careful in my reading and retention (say, if I had been given the assignment of reading this for a class). I will be anxious to see how Nicholas Carr's book measures up to this one. Hopefully, I will remember enough of what I read here to be able to form an opinion about which book was more effective in discussing this modern day problem of the alteration of the brain in response to our technological advances.

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