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Another myth in psychology?

One of the psychology myths which is developing in the media is the ‘videogames are rewiring our kids’ brains’ story. Susan Greenfield has been pushing this for years, without any evidence that I’ve found convincing, but about once a year she makes a speech which gets in the papers as though it’s a new story. But it’s not just her. Here’s a press release which, I think , misrepresents what was found, and then a blog post which takes that up and over-applies it.
Here’s an extract from the original press release:
“Viewing two-dimensional images of the environment, as they occur in computer games, leads to sustained changes in the strength of nerve cell connections in the brain. In Cerebral Cortex, Prof. Dr. Denise Manahan-Vaughan and Anne Kemp of the RUB Department for Neurophysiology report about these findings. When the researchers presented rats with new spatial environments on a computer screen, they observed long-lasting changes in the communication between nerve cells in a brain structure which is important for long-term memory (hippocampus). Thus, the researchers showed for the first time that active exploration of the environment is not necessary to obtain this effect.”
Quite properly, the release gives a link to the original article:
If you look at that, you’ll find that the ‘new spatial environments’ were different patterns of four symbols on cards, which were ‘new’ because they weren’t the same arrangement which had been presented previously, not anything like a virtual tour of a maze, the changes in the rats’ brains are rather limited and specific (in memory- and spatial-learning areas, admittedly), the measurement of those changes is rather indirect – and overall the impression I got from the original paper is very different from the impression I got from the press release. Admittedly the original authors do say:
 “Clarification of the latter point could additionally comprise an important step in developing an experimental strategy to examine the consequences of virtual/digital media-derived sensory information (television, computer gaming) for information encoding in the “real” world. ”
– but I couldn’t see any real justification in the article for linking it to the consequences of computer gaming. Of course, suggesting there might be a link would be useful in getting funding or encouraging publication of results.
My interpretation of the article is that when rats see a new pattern there are some changes in their brain which are similar to changes associated with other kinds of novel experience.
OK – so far, so not very satisfactory. Interesting research which probably will contribute in the long term to understanding of learning and memory – one more brick in an enormous edifice – is over-hyped and it would be easy to get the wrong idea. But then the idea goes further, and changes as it goes. Here’s an extract from a blog, which was picked up and tweeted by a colleague interested in elearning:

Learning with Video is as Effective as the Classroom – And that’s a Problem

“In the experiment, one group of rats was actively exploring new spatial environments and another group was watching the new environment on a screen. Both formed new lasting connections in the hippocampus which is important for long term memory.”
No; that would be a pretty effective design, and is the kind of thing you might expect: but that’s absolutely NOT what happened.
“On the one hand, the research can be the basis for new strategies in the classroom to fight against “the apathy in children towards the traditional teaching methods”. On the other hand, it also explains the observations of teachers that each new generation of school children seems to have increasingly shorter attention spans.” 
“According to Manahan-Vaughan children are using an increasing amount of digital media throughout the day. If the findings in the experiment are correct, the information that children learn by playing games or watching videos is simply competing with the information they received and learned during class.”
Yes, Manahan-Vaughan is quoted as saying that kind of thing in the press release, but it’s not in the original article, and I can’t see any evidence for it (or any relevance to those issues, really).

Seems a nice example of how a story gets out of hand, and completely unrelated to the original evidence – and it’s worryingly likely that people will start saying “there’s evidence that rats’ brains are so rewired by computer games that they can complete whole levels of the games without even touching the keyboard”*

*Yes, I know that’s an exaggeration which isn’t supported by the evidence I’ve supplied


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