August 10, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Mind change: Some thoughts on the moral implications of metaphors

This quick post was prompted by Andrew Anthony’s article in The Observer on Susan Greenfield’s forthcoming book Mind Change and subsequent exchanges on twitter.

Some background

Metaphors are essential to the development of science and indispensable to science communication. I have been fascinated by metaphor for a long time, well before I became fascinated by science in general and climate science and climate change in particular.

For me metaphors make the world go round, so to speak, but I am, of course, not the only who thinks this. Hans Vaihinger said around 1870: “All cognition is the perception of one thing through another.” Gregory Bateson wrote a hundred years later: “Metaphor, that’s how the whole fabric of mental interconnections holds together. Metaphor is right at the bottom of being alive.” And, of course, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pointed out in their 1980 book Metaphors We Live By: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” In short, metaphors let us see or understand something (new, unknown) in terms of something (old, known). They are indispensable to how we think, act and talk in an ever-changing world.

I was therefore pleased when Susan Greenfield gave a lecture on neuroscience in 2007 at the University of Nottingham and said (as far as I remember): “Seeing one thing in terms of another makes connections”; “connections mean significance/meaning” and: “This is how we grow a mind from a brain”. She also told us that we as educators should foster creativity which brings with it a strong sense of self, of being different, of doing something or seeing something that no one else has thought of before. A year earlier, in 2006, I had shared a platform with her at a metaphor conference and enjoyed chatting with her and discovering our mutual admiration for metaphor, for her an important aspect of the brain and mind, for me also an important aspect of science and society.

Change of climate

Since around 2005 I have become interested in the language of climate change and studied some metaphors used to frame climate change and its implications. Since around 2010 I have noticed that Greenfield started to use a specific metaphor, ‘mind change’, to argue that our growing use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and so on) and video games, is changing our brains, reducing our capacity for empathy and also our ability to creatively use metaphor. I also noticed that this metaphor of mind change was modelled on and drew inspiration from the phrase ‘climate change’. However, I never reflected on this issue in detail. Today I asked myself: What does this metaphor of mind change actually mean and is it a good metaphor and if not why not.

Mind change and climate change

In this video Greenfield asks: “Is Mind Change the new Climate Change?” She provides a slightly curious definition of climate change: “Thirty years ago, the term ‘Climate Change’ meant little to most people. Today, it is widely understood as the umbrella term encompassing a wide variety of environmental issues such as carbon sequestration, alternative energy sources, or water use. Some feel that we’re doomed, others that the issues are exaggerated. Many believe that science can still help”. She “suggests there could be an unprecedented feature unique to the 21st Century that, like Climate Change, covers a diverse range of questions and invites controversy and differing views as to how to dealt with it.” This is ‘mind change’.

Greenfield’s curious definition of climate change might stem from trying to map new technologies that impact the environment onto new (digital) technologies that may impact the brain. I am not sure.

In an interview she explains that “just as ‘climate change’ is an umbrella term, a collective noun representing a cluster of issues, we encounter a similar phenomenon when we examine the changing conditions of the human mind” – ‘mind change’. Elsewhere she maps several features of climate change onto mind change: “Like climate change, it’s unprecedented, global, controversial and multifaceted, and it’s one of the big challenges of our age.”

Two features of climate change in particular seem to be important to this mapping between mind and climate, namely that climate change is ‘unprecedented’ and that it is ‘alarming’. And just as climate change poses a threat to humanity so does, in Greenfield’s eyes, mind change. As Andrew Anthony remarks in the Observer article, Greenfield’s detractors have therefore accused “her of being alarmist and a scaremonger”.

Interestingly, the word ‘alarmist’ is also sometimes used by some to refer to climate scientists warning about (and exaggerating the) threats posed by climate change. However, in my view, commentators using this term with reference to ‘mind change’ have better foundations for using it, as mind change has, to my knowledge, not yet been scientifically established as a phenomenon, let alone a threat, while climate change has. So one might argue that climate change as a threat is alarming, whilst positing mind change as a threat is alarmist.

The possible threat posed by mind change is explained in an interview (strangely dealing with the psychology of climate change): “Between a child’s 10th and 11th birthday, they spend on average 900 hours in class, but around 2000 hours in front of a TV or computer screen. The effect of this ‘screen culture’ and strongly sensory environment is to shorten the attention span, to favour processing content rather than true meaning, and to lacking the ability to handle metaphor and abstract concepts. ‘In a sense you are turning yourself into a computer.’” Mind change is seen here as reduction in our ability to create and understand metaphor and therefore to think and talk effectively. If this were indeed true, this would be very worrying, and, indeed alarming. As Greenfield said in 2010: “Whilst of course it doesn’t threaten the existence of the planet like climate change, I think the quality of our existence is threatened and the kind of people we might be in the future.”

In particular, Greenfield worries about an increase in autism related to mind change which for her implies the gradual rewiring of our brains and the gradual shrinking of our ability to create metaphors, to see one thing in terms of another, and our capacity to see the world through the eyes of somebody else: “We are moving from a culture of metaphor to a culture of experience, of literal sensory experiences – a ‘what you see is what you get’ world similar in some ways to that of the sufferer of autism.” Such claims have been hotly disputed by a the psychologist Dorothy Bishop for example.

Playing with fire

Metaphors are little cognitive and communicative miracles. They enable us to expand our knowledge, facilitate social interaction and, as Greenfield has pointed out, probably to ‘grow our brains’. However, creating new metaphors also has ethical implications and should not be done lightly. Some years ago I wrote an introduction to a book that explored some aspects of the politics and ethics of metaphor use in science communication and quoted a psychologist who said that metaphor is the cognitive fire that ignites when the brain rubs two different thoughts together (States 2001: 105; italics added). I went on to say that this can create an instant glow of cognitive and creative satisfaction, but it can also lead to serious problems, as both the use of fire and the use of metaphor have ethical implications.

In the case of ‘mind change’ as a metaphor, we have to think about how it might affect young people who enjoy playing video games creatively and interactively (and their parents!) and who might think they are doing something ‘wrong’. We should also, and more importantly, think about the impact this metaphor may have on people with ADHD or autism who might think that they have been affected by ‘mind change’, despite the paucity of scientific studies demonstrating any of this. And of course many people may think: if mind change is as dangerous as climate change, then I should be worried!

Climate scientists raising the alarm about possible impacts of climate change have provoked angry reactions amongst some people, and one can debate whether these reactions are justified or not. A prominent neuroscientist raising the alarm about possible impacts of mind change, a metaphor that piggy-backs on fears about climate change, has also provoked angry reactions amongst some people (at least on my twitter stream). In this case these reactions are, in my view, quite justified. Metaphors are important in science communication, but they have to be rooted in science and they have to be used with care.

Added 16 August, 2014: Review of Mind change by Cordelia Fine for the Financial Times – calls the ‘book a flight of neurofancy’, focuses on issue of identity and has this to say about the metaphor discussed here: “Greenfield concludes that ‘Mind Change . . . is a phenomenon whose enormity and impact is comparable to climate change.’ Unfortunately, such overblown statements can only leave her whistling into the wind of the storm this book is likely to create.” (HT @deevybee)






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