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Guest post: Baroness Greenfield, junk neuroscience, and the dangers of video games


Baroness Greenfield

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." Anywhere, 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.

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