Baroness Susan Greenfield
introduced her main concerns with the web's effect upon human being's adaptable brains and behaviour at the Web at 20 event, asking some of the challenging questions that feature in the developing themes of programme four - is the web changing us?(You can also read the transcript of the video below.)
So, do you feel that the perfect plasticity of your brain is being moulded into a more infantile state by the constant 'yuck' and 'wow' of the web?
Transcript of Susan Greenfield's speech:
And the question I want to ask is not so much what can we do with the web, but rather what will it do to us.
So what fascinates me very much is if human beings, occupying as we do more ecological niches than any other species on the planet, do so because we adapt so brilliantly to the environment; if that environment is about to change, as I think everyone in this room seems to agree it is, then will the brain change in unprecedented ways too? And I think we need to sit back as a society and consider this because on the one hand like with all technology it can be good, and on the other hand I think it could be very bad if we get it wrong.
We might be entering a world that is more sensory than what we would traditionally call cognitive. By definition you have to have something on the screen. Very few, to the best of my knowledge, very few experiences of the screen are just reading words off a screen. So what does sensory images, sounds, what do they do that books do not do, and vice versa?
Of course I don't want to give a value judgement. You have to ask, is it more important and interesting to have a here and now experience, to have a process, to have the thrill of solving an abstract problem versus the rather lack lustre sensory-poor notion of turning pages for example in a rather clunky way, but having something that actually changes the way you will see the world in a much more perhaps deep or extensive way. I'm not saying that that won't happen if you're on the web, say, but I'm just thinking about young brains exposed to different experiences. And it could be that the multimedia, the sounds and the colours and experience, is so great that that becomes the premium - 'yuck!' and 'wow!' - 'yuck!' and 'wow!' And the short attention span, the thrill of pressing a button and seeing something back in your face, is very different from a long attention span, as you plod through following the author, holding their hand in a sort of slavish way.
One of the most important issues I think, as well as the good thing about IQ going up, is the issue of risk. Obama said that the current financial crisis is attributable in part to greed and recklessness. Now greed are recklessness occur as part of something called a frontal syndrome, when the frontal part of the brain is less active in various conditions.
Could it be - and also this frontal part of the brain only comes on stream in late teenage years - could it be, given the brain is so obliging in the way it adapts, that if you're putting it in a situation where you are living for the moment in a rather infant-like way with lots of sensory experiences, that that could be being changed? And I think that's one of the things that would be very interesting to look at.
My final issue is identity, and it does stun me, Twitter for example, where the banality of some of the things that people feel they need to transmit to other human beings. Now what does this say about how you see yourself? Does this say anything about how secure you feel about yourself? Is it not marginally reminiscent of a small child saying "Look at me, look at me mummy! Now I've put my sock on. Now I've got my other sock on," you know? And I'm just being neutral here, I'm just asking questions, right... What does this say about you as a person?