Interview with Prof Susan Greenfield

Virtual Autism and Practicing Interpersonal skills

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield’s latest book, 'Mind Change' reveals how digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains. We talked to her about physical touch, neurochemistry and the mental development of our children.


Physical Human Touch

Why do you deem physical human touch to be important, and what exactly does it do to the neurochemistry of our human brains, especially in the early days of life?

We know that physical touch leads to the release of endorphins. These are naturally occurring opiates in the brain. We know from the very early days, when you’re being cuddled by your mother, that physical touch leads to a sense of well-being through the naturally occurring opiates in the brain and there have been various studies on this phenomenon. The interesting thing I found is that the mouth and the hands are the most sensitive to touch. If you look at a “map” of how your body is represented in your brain, and in terms of skin and touch, the hands and the mouth have—by far—the biggest allocation of territory in the brain. When you think about it, they are the most sensitive. And of course: that’s what you kiss with, that’s what you eat with, and your hands are the most sensitive things. I think that’s also what happens with babies in the womb. When they suck their fingers or thumbs, they’re actually stimulating them so that they are the most active and therefore will be the most represented in the brain.
“When my father sadly died back in 2011, I remember someone just putting their arm around me, and this gesture helped me much more than a thousand words ever could have done.”

Human Interaction

What role does human touch play in today’s society and for daily human interaction?

I think it’s hugely important when you think that nowadays, especially young people- instead of being in the same room and actually interacting in a physical way, they are communicating through screens. And I think this is a real issue! It’s something we should be very concerned about. When you first meet someone, touch is really important: you’ll shake someone’s hand, you might pat them on the back or on the upper arm. Where you touch someone, how you touch them and the duration of the touch are all linked very closely to the degree of intimacy you have with the person. That type of relationship is such a powerful form of communication! I remember when my father passed away back in 2011, someone just put their arm around me without saying anything—and that meant more and helped me much more than a thousand words ever could have done. And I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where your natural tendency is—if someone's upset—to put your arms around them. It’s not to speak to them, but rather to cuddle them.
“The brain is constantly evolving and changing.”

Virtual Autism

What does the issue of lacking physical interaction, which comes about due to the increasing use of and communication through technical devices, have on the mental development of children in particular?

Of course, one of the big questions—specifically about how screen technology is impacting children—concerns their ability to empathize. Over the last few years, a new term has crept into use: “virtual autism.” What people are saying is: if you’re not practicing interpersonal skills, you’re not going to be very good at them, because you’re only good at what you practice. And it will be aversive if you don’t have practice looking someone in the eye, smiling at them and cuddling them. You will increasingly resort to going through the screen. However, “virtual autism” is different from autism: it’s autistic-like traits of having difficulty in empathizing with others. And the very good news is: it can be reversible! There’s a very good paper on this, where they took preteens—so kids around 11 or 12 years old, none of whom were good at empathy and with very poor interpersonal skills—and divided them into two: half of them stayed with their digital devices, the other half had these devices confiscated. And they went to a summer camp for five days. Just within these five days, they could see a significant improvement in their interpersonal skills. This shows you that nothing is irreversible. The brain is constantly evolving and changing. So although one could fear that kids are going to have problems with empathy, if we do something about it, and if we give them an environment where they can practice face-to-face communication, then that should be offsetting it.
“If you want to reduce screen time, you have to introduce something that is more fun.”

Interpersonal Skills

Knowing that these technologies won’t go away, but will become increasingly present in our and our children’s lives, how can we address that issue?

The worst thing in life is to tell someone not to do something. A thousand years ago, I was a smoker. And the worst thing was people telling me not to smoke, because they didn’t substitute it with anything else. And it was only when I read a book that said: “Imagine having white teeth, and imagine being able to smell flowers and having a lot more money—it's a very positive thing!” So if you want to reduce screen time, you have to introduce something that is more compelling, more exciting and more fun. A father who wrote to me from Melbourne had exactly the same problem with his kids, and eventually he took them on a bike ride. And he said that as they were on the bike ride, they started giggling spontaneously. He said: “That’s music to the ears of a parent. I never hear that noise when they’re using technology!” I know it’s tough for parents nowadays, because they have a lot of demands. But you have to develop experiences and events for them that are more fulfilling and exciting than just staring at a screen. Now, one of the most exciting things is to have a strong sense of who you are and a strong sense of identity and making things up. And remember back when we were all kids saying: “Let’s make up a game!” Now it’s about reviving that approach. It’s about giving them the box rather than the present in the box. And I think that if you can help children develop that inner world and that inner imagination, it’s way more exciting than just shooting things or interacting with the screen or some second-hand imagination.
Susan Greenfield

Susan Greenfield

CBE, FRCP (Hon.) Baroness Greenfield, founder and CEO of Neuro-Bio Ltd.

Baroness Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist, writer and broadcaster. She holds 32 honorary degrees from universities in the United Kingdom and abroad and has published over 200 papers in peer-reviewed journals. She is based mainly at Oxford University but also at the Collège de France Paris, NYU Medical Center New York and Melbourne University.