The attraction of small rewards

I went to the Y Not Festival last month. It was a bit of a mixed bag because of the weather, and the terrible app that was supposed to function as a map and timetable was a daft idea on a site with limited mobile in the first place and totally useless in practice as it wasn’t updated when things changed. But we saw some good bands, and ate some good food, and it was only half an hour from home so we also slept in our own beds! But the reason I mention it was because of a trivial but unexpected thing: They had an incentive to recycle the plastic pint glasses that were being used and dropped on the floor. They offered 10p per glass to take them to a recycling point in sets of five. For the most part that wasn’t enough for people drinking to bother keeping and pooling their glasses to cash in. But a small economy developed amongst people who found it worthwhile to go around collecting the dropped cups. There were some sets of kids excitedly supplementing their pocket money by collecting piles of cups during the day, and also a few adults who increased in numbers in the evenings.

At £5 per pint the beer was not cheap, and I joked with my husband that I’d see if I could collect 10 cups to offset the cost each time he drank one. But as soon as we started collecting cups, we realised that there were loads of them, and it was easy to make quite good money from them. In three hour-long collecting binges, and whilst listening to bands I enjoyed, I stacked and recycled well over 500 cups. That was enough to pay for all our food over the weekend, and the couple of drinks my husband had. Of course my legs ached like crazy the next day, after all that walking around punctuated by 500 bodyweight squats. But I felt good about being part of the efforts to clear up the site and recycle the cups.

Of course I’d much rather they used reusable cups as they did at Timber festival, or ones that are biodegradable as they did at Woodside. And it doesn’t really make much sense to pay random people more per hour than they pay their bar staff or rubbish pickers, let alone to pay the people who were simply emptying out the plastic recycling bins, stacking up the plastic cups and taking them to the recycling point like their own little black market scheme. And I wasn’t persuaded that they were actually going to recycle the cups at the end of the weekend. But I was interested in the fact that I somehow found it fun to do a dirty, smelly, physically demanding job earning way less than I can earn from work. Apart from the novelty and fact it filled in the gaps between artists, the reason was as obvious as those demonstrated in Pavlov and Skinner’s seminal experiments: The small but proximal rewards were enough to reinforce the behaviour, and make me want to repeat it over and over again. In fact it became quite addictive. The small payments made it feel like a game in which I was succeeding and earning five to ten pounds per trip to the recycling point made it really tangible that I was being rewarded. I could have spent the entire weekend picking up those crushed and broken plastic cups and straightening them out into stacks to cash in, and my kids were jealous that they’d missed out on the opportunity to earn cash because they had chosen to go to their grandparents rather than the festival.

In another example, I’ve been playing a really rubbish game on my iPad called Hidden City. It is a hidden object game, where you have to find items within a picture of a scene before the time limit runs out. For example, there might be a picture of a greenhouse full of caged birds and exotic plants, and you will then be asked to find a pair of binoculars, a fan, an oil lamp, a walking cane, a string of rosary beads, a bunch of chilli peppers, a pair of shoes, a turtle, and various other objects to click on and collect. Each will be visible within the scene, some in plain sight and others tucked away or masked by being in front of similarly coloured items. In certain quests there are also keys to find in the scene that are smaller and better hidden. Whilst this has some inherent mental challenge and novelty, it really is a very simple premise for a game, and quickly becomes repetitive, so you’d think the game would be very boring – in fact it seems boring to have explained it in writing, so I hope I haven’t sent you off to sleep! You would therefore assume that people would drop out of the game very quickly, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, the makers are so confident that players won’t be bored enough to drop out that they make you search each scene for objects selected from the same list and placed in the same range of places in the scene many times. In fact, to complete some quests you search the same scene over a hundred times. The task becomes more difficult because you are expected to find more objects in a shorter time interval, and the scene becomes more cluttered so it is harder to pick out the specified items, and you have to alternative with searching other scenes to get the tokens required to go back to the main scene. To compound that, there are multiple locations in the game, and each needs to be searched a large number of times, so to complete the whole game you probably have to complete about ten thousand search quests.

It sounds like an enormous and monotonous task, and the game itself is full of bugs, glitches and poor translations, yet it is the most popular hidden object game in the world. More than half a million people have played it, and there are tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of players active at any one time. They are not only signing up to play in huge numbers, they are choosing to pay for the optional purchases to assist their searching, making this game and the multiple other games by the same company, and the multitude of similar games available, highly profitable.  Estimates suggest that over £3 million of in game payments have been made since the game launched four years ago, and tens of millions of pounds are being spent in in-game micro-payments across all the games by this maker each year. It seems illogical, but many players spend way more than they’d need to pay to purchase a really good game to play this glitchy game that is constantly interrupted by advertising for in-game purchases and other games by the same company.

So why do people keep playing, and why do some of them keep paying? I think it is the same idea of reinforcement through small rewards. As a player you experience a lot of small successes. They make the first few searches really easy. Then each time you search and don’t find all the items you are told to try again. If you find them all you are rewarded by a random selection of small icons, and you can collect these items in sets. Completing the set gets you a rarer icon, with some bonus points or magical powers to boost your energy or increase your ability to find other bonus items. In the bigger quests you might also get tokens to unwrap gift boxes containing more icons. You also get overnight bonuses, daily bonuses and components of a magical piece of jewellery each time you play again after more than 8 hours but less than 24 hours. They compound so an unbroken chain of about a month gets you the finished item, and 12% more items to find for a 10 day period. If you break the chain you either have to use or buy in game currency to restore it, or you lose the components you gained. Something about our psyche likes gaining these pseudo possessions and dislikes missing out or losing them, enough that these games are quite addictive. But they are all just small pictures of random things. Why should I care if I have a magical tuning fork in my collection, or whether I get the apple strudel icon that completes the huntsman set that gives me the Austrian clock? There is no intrinsic value in the drawing of the clock, or the strudel or the tuning fork. They bear little relation to the scenes I search, or to the token plot about the magical city trapping people, or the candy-crush style mini-games. My life is not better in any tangible way if I collect 75 keys and open the golden chest to receive 6 bonus items, or if I play the scene 100 times and get a new avatar of the lady of the manor, or the Samuri, or the gardener. Being at a higher level on the game doesn’t convey any greater skill that would garner respect from other players, let alone in the real world, nor does it teach me anything I can generalise outside the game.

So why is a badly made game with such a simple and repetitive premise so popular? I’d suggest that is intentionally designed to be rewarding to play, and to tap into what we know about reinforcement with the number of small rewards it offers. Our brains are set up to love rewards, no matter how meaningless they are, or what the longer-term cost is. Like scratching an itch, or eating something tasty but unhealthy, using drugs or smoking cigarettes, the immediate rewards are often much more effective as an incentive than the longer-term consequences are as a deterrent. The logical decisions we make about changing our behaviour struggle against these proximal sources of gratification. It doesn’t feel like a big effort or commitment, because we are only playing a three-minute mini-game. We are tempted to take the small action to sample the reward, but this then lures us in to take the next step with another small effort, and the result is that we repeat that for far longer than we planned. Even if this means losing out on sleep, or getting things we objectively rate as more beneficial or necessary done.

The same is true of our online behaviour. We chain from one news article to another, or one social media post to another, or one youtube video to another until whole evenings disappear into a black hole. Even when we are going about our daily lives, we constantly check for the small rewards of messages, likes or responses on social media. For many people this becomes something done obsessively, to the detriment of other activities in our lives. As well as hitting our reinforcement pathways, these small social connections also fire up our desire to feel belonging and acceptance in a group, and to gain the approval and/or attention of others. I’ve blogged before about the toxic aspects of social media. Studies have shown that stopping using social media, whether for a couple of hours per day, a day per week, a longer block of time, or permanently, makes people happier (journal articleanecdotes, article citing studies, more anecdotes, even more). Yet for most of us, we are enticed by the sense of connection (albeit often a much more distant and less authentic connection than we make in real life) and the promise of these small rewards.

It makes me think how despite all the progress of technology, we really are quite primitive creatures in some ways, tied to the way our biology has evolved to reward behaviours that had some adaptive function that had evolutionary benefits. So can we make a conscious choice to use these inherent reward systems for more positive purpose? Possibly. For example, we can benefit by building chains of positive behaviours that we don’t want to break – like a colleague who told me he hasn’t drunk alcohol for 92 days after realising he was drinking almost every night. That challenge of having a dry month, or to do without meat, or caffeine, or cigarettes for a set time period seems an effective way to change behavioural habits. It is less final and impossible sounding to have a break from something than to give it up permanently, but it can give you a chance to see what life is like without it, find alternatives that fill that gap and build up some of these rewards for going without. It then becomes easier to continue that pattern, and there can be a reluctance to break the chain, particularly if there have been social or financial or health rewards for the change.

Likewise we can gamify exercise. When I used to weight lift I would share my achievements with a group of other weightlifters online. This gives a sense of a peer group who can reinforce your behaviour and some social pressure to sustain the pattern (though I was never one to post every gym visit on facebook the way that many runners/cyclists use their apps to, or to post lots of philosophy and photos the way that yoga fans seem to – I just posted to a weightlifters group when I made gains, and could compare my progress to others in the group). But even without this online support I had a sense of achievement each time I went to the gym, or completed my routine, or increased the weight I could lift in a specific exercise. I liked to record my weights in a journal and to feel that I was making measurable small gains. I also liked confounding expectations by being an overweight middle-aged woman who had hidden physical strength. I’ve mentioned my joy in having “ninja muscles” before. I’d like to get back to it, and I’m sure my core strength would return. I’ve still got surprisingly muscular legs, though I wouldn’t risk picking up an 18 stone barbell these days!

So I guess the knack is working out how to make our innate reward systems work for us in a modern world. I’m certainly far from achieving that. Change is hard. But maybe I can at least recognise the patterns better now I’ve thought about it more. Maybe I’ll come back to that theme in a future blog.

 

 

Video games and violence

The relationship between playing video games and violent behaviour isn’t as black and white as most people assume. There is neither the causal evidence that would support the tabloid alarmist headlines that blame Mass Effect, Call of Duty or World of Warcraft for mass shootings nor the evidence that video games are entirely benign.

We know from research that trauma has a significant and lasting impact on the brain, a pattern widely accepted across numerous studies. For those who have already been traumatised and/or have maladaptive social skills, that increase in arousal sensitises the brain to further threat. It also makes them more likely to respond with anger or fear to a neutral stimulus, perceiving it as a threat. We also know from research that when the threat sensor in the the brain is activated (the amygdala and limbic system) the prefrontal cortex pretty much goes off-line until the threat is resolved. That significantly reduces the person’s capacity for empathy, complex reasoning, social skills and ability to be aware of the impact of your own behaviour on others. This effect is amplified where there is an absence of healthy real life relationships and/or physical exercise (which produce oxytocin, and help to mediate cortisol and adrenaline). And of course we know that people who have raised arousal levels deliberately seek out experiences that match or use that level of arousal, so they are often much more interested in violence and gore than their peers.

That’s all well established neuroscience. We also know that these brain changes can be perpetuated by exposure to violence or the representations of violence in our daily lives or the media we consume. Exposure to violence is an unseen public health epidemic. We also know that this pattern of being over-sensitised to threat and in a heightened state of physiological arousal gets ‘stuck’ for a proportion of maltreated children, particularly where there is an absence of secure attachment figures, and that ‘acting out’ with violence in this group is much more common. The neurological basis for moral reasoning and antisocial behaviour implicate similar brain regionsSimilar areas are also implicated in violent behaviour when this is related to a lesion, dementia or atrophy.

Having reviewed the evidence, I think it is clear that video games do not in themselves cause violence. But playing violent video games increases physiological arousal levels (readiness for fight or flight) just as we know is the case for exposure to real life conflict such as domestic violence within the family. This can create a lasting effect which shows in MRI scans. But the effect is quite specific. We know that MRI studies show differences in the brain when people play violent video games but not when the video games do not involve aggression. We also know that it is dependent on the social acceptability of the behaviours chosen in the game.

It seems likely that watching films or TV can similarly cause an increase in physiological arousal, but this would only be the case with a high level of violence/action/drama, something which is not normally sustained for hours upon end the way it can be in some video games. Also, video games are more immersive because they are interactive, and I suspect you don’t become as habituated to them because of the fact that there is variation on every presentation of the stimulus, whereas rewatching the same film gets dull and predictable and no longer gives us that visceral response. Thus I think that it is reasonable to consider violent video games as a particularly concentrated form of this stimulus.

It seems from the meta-analysis that a small scale shift towards higher readiness for fight or flight and lower empathy/insight/reasoning is happening all over the place amongst people who play a large volume of violent video games with the result of small but measureable increases in the risk of aggressive behaviour. I’d extrapolate from this to what is currently happening with the threats and harrassments towards women and minorities in the gaming space, to suggest that this combination of lack of nurture and exposure to violent material may be contributing to the lack of empathy and insight into the impact of their behaviour amongst people involved. But I suspect that the impact of video game play on real life aggressive behaviour is only a significant issue at the individual level where this is combined with the presence of trauma and/or the absence of nurture. After all, the move from enacting violence in a video game to doing so over social media is much smaller than the move to take actions outside of home technology where you can see the impact on the recipient.

It is only in the extreme examples, where you combine violent video game use with people with horrendous histories, a lack of secure attachment relationships and/or who have entrenched extreme views (eg about women), nothing else in their lives to constrain them, an echo-chamber of harmful views including incitement to violence, and perhaps mental health problems on top that the mixture becomes truly toxic. Amongst this group a small proportion take the threat-talk that is so prolific online and in video game spaces into horrific real life actions.

I can’t see that being so different to the proposed mechanism for lots of other phenomena. As with the relationship between cannabis use and psychosis, or alcohol consumption and suicide, the former is something most people consume without harm so it cannot be causal in isolation, but for a much smaller number of  people with increased vulnerability (genetic, epigenetic or experiential) it can be a contributory factor towards a more negative outcome.

The battle isn’t won yet: Why feminism still matters and is relevant to everyone

It is easy for me to be complacent about equal opportunities. I’ve never personally been held back by discrimination. I mean, I’ve had people think it is their right to comment about my appearance, and I’ve even had a few individuals who have bordered on stalking because of my internet presence, and my gender has certainly been a factor in that, but I’ve never not been able to do anything because I’m a women. Likewise, although I’m a second generation immigrant and my heritage is from a cultural minority, I’ve grown up as a white British atheist and have never experienced discrimination (even if there have been occasional incorrect assumptions about my religion or politics). I’ve had a broad social network, but I’ve never witnessed my friends or colleagues experience overt discrimination either.

I’ve always seen gender stereotypes as something of a challenge, in fact. I was one of three female students who did A-level physics, compared to about 50 males, and got good marks in maths and hard sciences before I went into psychology. As a student I bought a Haynes Manual and replaced the starter motor of my Vauxhall Astra along with an oil and filter change, because I couldn’t afford the quote from the garage. Likewise I have learnt all about the construction of houses, and was involved in the design and manual labour of various home improvements. I’ve been an early adopter of technology and a fan of video games as an emergent art form. And now I lift big weights at the gym, defying the gender pressure to lose fat through cardio rather than build muscle. I’ve encouraged my daughters to be brave and strong as well as kind, and to want more to the story than for the main character to marry the prince and live happily ever after.

So from my position of relative privilege it is hard not to assume that the battle for equal opportunities has already been won. However, as soon as I look a little more broadly at the world this is clearly not the case. So many different examples illustrate how my experience is the exception rather than the rule.

In the UK women on average earn 21% less than men per hour. This is the case in most of the developed world and the disparity is much worse in less developed nations. Although there has been significant progress over the last 50 years to reducing this disparity, economists admit the gender gap in wages is likely to take at least the next 100 years to close. Even in the most conservative figures, when all the variables that affect wages, such as lower experience due to career breaks and lower levels of qualifications for some population groups are taken into account, women still earn 5-10% less when equivalently skilled and doing equivalent work. In the most senior roles there are far fewer women, and those that are present earn substantially lower salaries. The earnings gap is larger as people get older, and in the higher earning percentiles of the population, suggesting that choosing to care for children does sacrifice status and earnings for the remainder of the woman’s career. These are figures I find appalling.

Thankfully there are movements and books containing advice about how to counter this effect. Cheryl Sandburg’s “Lean In” movement encourages women to take a seat at the table where big decisions are being made in big companies. The excellent “Give and Take” by Adam Grant advises people who are natural givers to advocate for their dependents when making decisions and entering salary negotiations, if they are not assertive/demanding enough when arguing for themselves. And many women and men are advocating helpfully for the value that women bring to senior positions.

In psychology and therapy professions we hit another facet of gender politics, with the dominance of women in the workforce reflecting the idea that empathy and caring are perceived by much of the public as feminine qualities. This message that facts are the male domain and feelings are the female domain is seen to be natural and innate, because of the typical division in gender roles between hunter and home maker in the origins of our species. However, since industrialisation and the invention of effective contraception, these roles seem to be transmitted more as a story based on past experience than in terms of reflecting the current reality (in which we can purchase food by selling other skills, and few of us would be very good at hunting or gathering our own food if this involved strenuous physical activity). After all, women being naturally suited to be the home-maker was ‘true’ in a time that it was also ‘true’ that the earth was flat, bathing frequently would have been seen as a wasteful fad, nobody understood the connection between hygiene/sanitation and disease, and very few people stayed alive beyond their 40s.

I believe that providing attachment relationships is probably the single most important job in society. That quality of caring about another person, and holding them in mind is essential for each of us to be happy. It is a powerful gift, whether in terms of parenting, friendship or a therapy relationship. However, I have seen no evidence that efficacy in this role is determined by gender. It may be true that in general women have slightly better ‘folk psychology’ and men have slightly better ‘folk physics’, as Simon Baron-Cohen’s research has shown, but apart from the head start that pregnancy and breast-feeding give to mothers, there is a paucity of evidence that the gender of parent who takes the primary carer role affects outcomes for children. Certainly, women feel more guilt about returning to work or choosing not to be the primary carer, but does that reflect a genuine concern about attachment security or the projections of a society where a women is supposed to ‘have it all’ in the form of balancing work, parenting and their own identity, having gained expectations of being an equal provider whilst not having handed over equal expectations of looking after home and family.

By devaluing caring and empathy for men, we lose a significant proportion of the potential workforce for psychological therapies. Those that remain often have less traditionally masculine qualities than are typical for males (whilst women who gain places in clinical psychology typically have more of the ‘masculine’ qualities of assertiveness, ambition and intelligence than are typical of their gender). We also make it unacceptable for boys and men to express their feelings openly, or to seek help for emotional problems without shame. And of course there is the wider issue of devaluing homosexuality, and through association any gentler or more feminine traits in men (for example with the playground taunt of “gay” for disliked characteristics or outcomes). This leads to lower uptake of psychological therapies or treatments for mental health problems, along with greater rates of completed suicide in young men.

More recently social media has provided a new means of networking which have been widely taken up, especially by young people. Mobile phones, text, Facebook, Twitter, chatrooms, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, forums, multi-player gaming and video chat have allowed people to find those with similar interests and to communicate in new ways, but have also been media in which new forms of bullying and harassment have emerged, along with pockets of rampant prejudice including misogyny. In these contexts sexism, racism and discrimination has emerged in new forms, and some media are better at moderating this than others. Online video gaming spaces, Facebook and Twitter in particular have proved to be free playgrounds for “trolls” (those who gain enjoyment by harassing others online) due to their lack of willingness to intervene about abusive content.

There have been remarkably sad examples of what happens when such media allows the predatory minority to find vulnerable targets, such as the tragic story of Amanda Todd, the teenage girl who was encouraged to flash over webcam and then blackmailed with these images by an adult man until the point she committed suicide. There was also the disturbing video manifesto of Elliot Rodgers, a college student who killed 6 and injured 13 before committing suicide due to the perceived injustice of him not being as attractive to girls as he felt he deserved to be.

In amongst the array of content on the internet a subculture has developed that is profoundly sexist and has disturbing ideas about how to “play the game” in ways that “put women in their place”. Some of the members identify as Pick-Up Artists (PUAs) or Mens Rights Activists (MRAs), but the idea that women now hold too much power, and that men have seized upon feminist and progressive thinking to impress women, seems to be a common strand. There is great anger from members of these groups against men who speak up for women’s issues or social issues more broadly, who are often disparagingly labelled “White Knights” or “Social Justice Warriors” (terms which are intended as insults, despite sounding pretty awesome). Many women have learned to use gender-neutral names on social media, and not to speak when playing multi-player online video games, rather than to risk the onslaught of comments, which range from “get back in the kitchen” to violent threats of rape and murder of them and their loved ones (especially when defeated by the superior skill of a female player).

The latest iteration of this undercurrent has been the harassment of women who have highlighted the sexist tropes within video games, or otherwise become a figurehead of progressive thinking within that culture. Anita Sarkeesian’s highly accessible video series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” has been a focal point. When her Kickstarter attracted death threats, harassments and attempts to discredit and silence her the community spoke out by massively over-funding her project and giving it a much bigger audience. However, she has continued to be subject to a variety of death and rape threats for merely casting a light on the fact that a small percentage of the content of many popular video games is a set of tired old tropes in which women are the decoration, damsel to be rescued, or die as motivation for the hero’s vengeance, rather than the protagonist of the story. Likewise a bitter ex-boyfriend’s rant about female developer Zoe Quinn led her to be a target of harassment (with a thin veneer of concern about ethics in games journalism that was not evidenced by similar hounding of the journalists who were wrongly alleged to have given favourable write-ups of her work due to personal relationships with her) and games writer Brianna Wu, for writing an article saying that the old stereotype of a gamer has been superseded by a much wider demographic (perceived as a “death threat” to “true gamers”). In each example, the profound sexism of the antagonists is evident, and the impact on the target has included them needing to move out of their homes due to the severity of threats to their safety, after their identifying information has been discovered and released into the public domain (a harassment tactic know as doxxing).

So whilst I observe from the safe space of being a successful female professional, who to date has had very limited personal experience of sexism, I am reminded that feminism is far from being a battle that has already been won, and equality is far from ubiquitous in the hearts and minds of the whole population. The internet has always been a great leveller, by forcing us to judge people on their words and not on their gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or any other aspect of their physical self, and I think that is an amazing thing and as close to a meritocracy as we will ever experience. So I am saddened by the resurgence of such hate and vitriol into places where these variables shouldn’t even be relevant, and that there are now seemingly topics about which women cannot write without fear of a personal backlash. It shames me that I have a little bit of fear about the repercussions each time I express an opinion online through this blog, or twitter or my forays towards podcasts/videos. We all need to do our little bit to change this, to speak up for equality and against harassment, and to reclaim those spaces in which prejudice is showing – for the benefit of everyone.

High on scare, low on science: a tale of charity, politics and dodgy neuroscience

In 2011 when I took a voluntary redundancy from the NHS I was asked to help set up a parenting charity* focusing on the period from conception to age 2. I agreed to be the founding Clinical Director and to help them set policies, sort out pathways of treatment and recruit staff. I worked for them one day per week. After less than six months it was clear that there was a divergence between what I felt was most clinically helpful to say about supporting parents in this critical period and the primary goals of the charity**. This was particularly evident in what was being said to promote the launch event of the charity. The title of the launch conference was the dramatic and pessimistic pronouncement, “Two is too late”. This title was cast in stone despite my repeated protests that parents would feel blamed and might think that there was nothing they could do beyond the age of two if they had not had a perfect attachment relationship before this point (when the evidence suggests that there are in fact many effective strategies for enhancing attachment relationships beyond this point, and many therapies for helping children and even adults to learn to emotionally regulate, mentalise and have successful relationships, even where there has been poor attachments, neglect or maltreatment).

The media were given soundbites to promote the event that suggested a baby is born with only one third of their brain active, and the rest relies on the quality of parenting received to grow. The news coverage in the Telegraph*** said that “a failure to help troubled mothers bond with their babies can stunt the development of the children’s brains”. The BBC coverage*** stated “a growing body of research suggests that the amount a baby is loved in the first few months of its life determines to a large extent its future chances” (when love and the quality of the attachment a parent is able to provide are quite different things, the most critical period is usually cited as 6-18 months of age, and the change in prognosis is most impacted by significant maltreatment).

Although our tiny pilot had kept 5 children out of 6 at home with parents successfully, despite them being referred on the edge of care, we had feedback from service users and user groups that they felt stigmatised by some of these messages. I am passionate about the value of improving attachment relationships and I had written a brief literature review on the impact of poor early care to ensure that the project was informed by the evidence. I was also writing a book about attachment and the impact of maltreatment, but I couldn’t match my views up with the politics of the organisation. I felt that to stay would conflict with my professional ethics, and my desire to honour the evidence base and respect the people who needed the service, so I quit before the launch. My colleague decided it would be unsafe to practise in my absence and left at the same time, leaving the charity with no clinical staff. Nonetheless, they decided to make a very big launch event, that I could only describe as one third professional conference, one third stately home wedding and one third party political broadcast for the blue party. It sold 500 tickets to health professionals and other interested parties, and I went along to see the show.

The speakers included a Conservative Peer, Ian Duncan Smith and Andrea Leadsom, along with Dr Amanda Jones (who shared a case study of parent infant psychotherapy). The fantastic Camilla Batmanghelidjh was also present (and made a good job of challenging the lack of empathy from politicians for the people they serve and quipping that this reflects their avoidant attachment styles). I had invited Dr Michael Galbraith (a Consultant Clinical Psychologist who has run community children’s services in Liverpool for many years) to talk about the health economics of early intervention. He did so persuasively and he also challenged the politics that came before his talk (with genuine zeal, as his entire service had been closed in a cost-saving ‘reorganisation’ a few weeks prior to the conference). But the biggest draw was that Baroness Susan Greenfield was invited to talk about the epigenetic effects of early attachment experience on the infant’s developing brain****. As I had not heard of her work prior to this event I was intrigued.

The talk that Prof Greenfield gave was baffling from the off. It massively overran her time-slot, and the program was rearranged to give her a second slot in the afternoon to complete what she wanted to say. My recollection was of a chaotic set of shock images and headlines, with provocative statements which appeared to contradict my knowledge of the literature, despite the fact she claimed they were scientifically founded in hard neuroscience research. Thankfully the pdf of the PowerPoint she used was circulated after the event, so you can see the content for yourself (zip file to download here).

Her title was “The mind of the 21st Century Infant” overlaid on a stock photograph of a baby using a computer. She immediately moved on to dramatic images of a youth celebrating in front of a fire during the recent riots, blaming the riots on the lack of attachment young people have grown up with, which she said had been replaced by technology. She then showed scary images of “artificial intelligence” before trying to define the mind. Then she made a knight’s move to demonstrate that “environment trumps genes” through a single study of rats given genes that cause Huntingdon’s Chorea which had less symptoms if they lived in a more stimulating environment. Then back to human babies, and images of how neurones proliferate during the first 2 years of life. Then a study showing that the Hippocampi of taxi drivers are enhanced, and then some blobs designed to indicate that mental practise of piano also activates the brain like physical practise. Then back to rats, showing more neural connections in a richer environment than when rats are isolated in boring cages. Then a description of how the mind shifts during development, from sensory processing to cognitive experience and gives greater meaning over time, with the view this is driven by experience.

She then claimed the mind might be “changing in unprecedented ways” due to interaction with technology, and showed alarming headlines circled in red, and book titles reflecting her view that internet use is changing our brains.

Prof Greenfield then showed a study counting children’s hours of screen time reported by parents, according to the child’s age. The source cited turns out to be a report saying that children have always used whatever media is current, mostly watching TV (which has been on for 7 hours per day since the 1970s) and although digital media is rapidly proliferating including learning toys, music and phones, total media use by white children had only increased by 38 minutes between 2004 and 2010, though it was more prevalent in low income families and had increased more in BME families. It states there is no evidence yet about how much is too much when it comes to media consumption but states that “media platforms by themselves are neutral; what matters most are the choices made by parents, educators, educational production companies, and other content providers in order to encourage a balanced pattern of consumption” using the metaphor of needing a balanced diet. This was not reflected in Prof Greenfield’s narrative about this amount of media being harmful, and it is unclear how she extrapolated the figures in her table.

Another leap, and we were onto how dopamine is the reward chemical and behind all addictive behaviour. Prof Greenfield said that it changes neural activity, inhibiting the frontal lobes. This is why children are becoming fat, sedentary and obsessed with technology. They are all addictions, and disrupt our frontal functioning. Then a leap to schizophrenia not having sufficient frontal lobe activity, and reverting the brain to sensory processing which is fragmented and without meaning. Another slide full of brains: The prefrontal cortex is not mature until your 20s. Then a claim that schizophrenia, gambling, over-use of screen technology and over-eating have a common pattern of prioritising our senses over reason, due to dopamine making us mindless rather than able to synthesise meaning. It felt very alarming to have schizophrenia and addictions linked to the same pathways as attachment difficulties and technology use. The implication was that parents could cause these difficulties in how they parented babies, or by allowing children to use digital media. These are claims for which I have never read any scientific evidence, despite being a clinician working in this area and trying to keep abreast of the research literature.

Another leap to social media and how it makes us “alone together”. Prof Greenfield told us how real communication is three dimensional, and little of the meaning is conveyed in the words, whilst 90% is in eye contact, body language, tone of voice, perhaps even touch and pheromones. But online we have only the words. According to her, this is why empathy has dropped over the last 30 years (another newspaper headline, not a scientific study, and with no reflection on the socio-political changes that might explain this). The lack of empathy required is why people with autism are so at home with technology and on the internet. People also have reduced identity, so they have to record their existence online. Prof Greenfield characterised the development of online communication as going from describing your cat sneezing on Blogger, to putting up a photo on Flickr, to a video on YouTube, to live Tweeting the action, saying that such activities reflected the author as a disconnected “nobody” who needs to prove they exist. She postulated that a rise in social networking is the cause of reduced empathy and people having a less robust identity, but it seems to me that even if these two things co-occur the direction of causality could be the reverse.

She then skipped on to the evils of video games, inserting a slide with MRI scans to show reduced listening when looking at something else, before blaming video games for the increase in methylphenidate prescriptions. Prof Greenfield claimed ADHD could be caused by video games because they lead to “fragmented attention, shorter attention span and increased recklessness” because they activate the dopamine system. Another headline in a red circle saying children who love video games have “brains like gamblers”. Then she showed us her own work bringing this together: a proposed cycle of how the intense stimulation and immediate feedback lead to high arousal and dopamine release, reward seeking behaviour and this makes brain changes which cause “conditions of childhood, schizophrenia, obesity” and a drive for sensation over cognition increasing the appeal of screen based stimulation in a continuous cycle. Again, I don’t believe any of these claims have appeared in peer reviewed publications or have any evidence to substantiate them, and even if there was evidence of co-occurrence the direction of causality is far from certain. There is however a growing body of evidence that some symptoms that could be interpreted as ADHD-like are caused by early trauma and maltreatment having an impact on neural development. To end that section, Prof Greenfield juxtaposed the “mindless” brain slide with a shot of World of Warcraft and mocked the lifestyle she believed was typical of those who play the game.

Then Prof Greenfield turned her attention to search engines, claiming they give fragmented information but nothing about meaning. By way of example she claimed that you can’t possibly understand what honour is from the search engine results produced by that term. Again, she claimed digital media is all fragmented content, lacking metaphor, depth and meaning. She strongly asserted that nobody could care about a character in a video game like you care about characters in a novel. Again, I would disagree with this. Like any media, video games are very diverse in style and quality and you pick ones that fit your taste, just as you would with a book or a film. If you don’t like violence, don’t pick a violent one. You don’t have the same expectations for the latest chick lit/flick as you do a weighty classic. Some examples are also of better quality than others, some focus on special effects over plot, others are low budget and whimsical. In my opinion if you feel immersed and the story is told well it feels like time well spent and you care about the characters and outcomes, whether the media is a video game, a book or a film. Its disingenuous of her to pick a random game she has probably never played and say nobody could care about a character in it as much as one in War and Peace.

Prof Greenfield then talked a little about the benefits for children of reading with a parent, and how we need to “make up our own minds”. She finished by advertising her books, and claiming that “mind change is the new climate change, the biggest issue facing us in the 21st century”. I’d share the comments on this claim raised here.

The whole felt to me like a mishmash of pseudoscience, headlines and speculation that didn’t even address the topic of the conference. Even if there was persuasive scientific research about the impact of using digital media (which I wasn’t persuaded), it wasn’t relevant to the conference as babies don’t use it. Her talk wasn’t about the importance of relationships between conception and two, which was what the conference was designed to highlight. She had come with a single agenda to sell. And it was clear that she was very much an outsider looking in when it comes to technology; judging it with minimal knowledge of social media, the internet, or video games.

As someone fairly immersed in that world, I could pick out numerous examples of violence in TV, film and video games, particularly violence against women and children. I might even be able to make a prima facie case that we are being desensitised to human suffering (and violence and sexism is being normalised). It is possible that the manufacturers of such products are buying into various ‘exciting’ neurochemical pathways that deal with arousal and reward (cortisol, adrenalin, dopamine), over those that deal with relationships, empathy, love and the ability to soothe (oxytocin and the work of the prefrontal cortex). But I think Susan Greenfield is making a huge correlation-causality error when she blames new media for people becoming isolated and lacking social skills and healthy relationships. I think there is much more evidence that real life experiences of maltreatment prime certain brain changes that make people more sensitive to later triggers and confer vulnerability for later mental health problems (see the work of Prof Eamon McCrory, for example) than that digital media is the cause of the problem.

I do think that if people lack templates for how to do real relationships in a healthy way, and haven’t learnt empathy and self-soothing skills, then these kind of media have a stronger attraction and a different effect on their brain, and can perpetuate rather than ameliorate this pattern. However, in the end I figure that people can always fill their time with something that disconnects them from others, or anaesthetises their pain. In other words, it isn’t the availability of the internet or video games that is the problem (any more than the presence of cheap alcohol, or drugs), it is the unhappiness and isolation that creates the void people want to fill with those things. And that has much more complex solutions, though it might generate less click-bait headlines.

* It is now nearly 3 years on, and I am confident that the clinicians recruited after I left have been able to establish a high quality service, so I would not wish to imply any concern about the services they provide.

** I felt, cynically perhaps, that there was a second agenda designed to promote the MP who founded the project and her political party which was of more importance than our clinical goals, although this was never explicit.

*** http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/mother-tongue/familyvideo/9273569/New-post-natal-depression-charity-will-address-huge-gap-in-provision.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-northamptonshire-18117945

****The promotional flyer for the event said “We are honoured to announce that Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Oxford University, whose speciality is physiology of the brain will bring you up to date on the Science, Neuroscience and Epigenetics”.