CHILDREN who spend hour after hour on the computer may be damaging a vital part of their brains. Here, in a stark warning, Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and Oxford Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology, explains how this could be creating a generation blighted by obesity and gambling. One can look at the world through experience or poetry, or one can view it in terms of science. Science does not invalidate other ways of perceiving things, but it can help explain what we see. And it can do so with regard to young people who spend several hours of the day playing computer games, or in online chatrooms. The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to every event. We cannot complacently take it that our ways of learning and thinking will remain constant. Humans are highly responsive to change and so quick to adapt - in part because of the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is more evolved in humans than in any other creature. It also forms late in our development, not becoming fully active until our teenage years. If you damage the prefrontal cortex, your senses and movements are not impaired but you change; you become more reckless, lose a sense of sequence and consequence, of narrative and of your place in these sequences. We know this from studies of gamblers. We know it from obese people: the fatter you are, the lower the activity of your prefrontal cortex. We know it from small children in whom the area is not developed and from schizophrenics, whose prefrontal cortex is damaged. What do all these people have in common? Well, a gambler is aware of the consequences of gambling but does it, regardless, for the thrill. DM People know that if you eat too much you get fat but an obese person will keep eating. Small children have no understanding of consequences. The schizophrenic inhabits a world of dazzling colours but it is all about them: they live entirely in the moment. These conditions are about the sensory, self-centred 'here and now instead of sequence and consequence. What I am advocating is a hypothesis. That if we were to scan the brains of young people who spend a lot of time playing computer games and in chatrooms, we would find that the prefrontal cortex is damaged, underdeveloped or underactive - just as it is in gamblers, schizophrenics or the obese. We would find that they become confused between reality and screen life in their virtual world. And that in this confusion, they risk losing, neurologically, the ability to think. For centuries, humans have listened to stories that have long working memories. When you read a book, the author takes you by the hand and you travel from the beginning to the middle to the end in a continuous narrative of interconnected steps. We can then compare one narrative with another and so build up a conceptual framework that enables us to evaluate further journeys which, in turn, will influence our individualised framework. We can place an isolated fact in a context that gives it a significance. The narrative - the basis of traditional education - enables us to turn information into knowledge. Now imagine there is no robust conceptual framework. You are sitting in front of a multimedia presentation, such as a computer game or chatroom, where you are unable, because you have not had the experience of many different intellectual journeys, to evaluate what is flashing up on the screen. The immediate reaction would be to place a premium on the most obvious feature - the sensory content, the 'yuk and 'wow factor. You would be having an experience rather than learning. The sounds and sights of a fast-moving multimedia presentation displace any time for reflection or any idiosyncratic or imaginative connections we might make as we turn the pages, and then stare at a wall to reflect upon them. Screen life has no memory: it is reaction-action-reaction-action-reaction. If you live in that cacophonic environment for six hours or more a day and at a time when the prefrontal cortex is forming, becoming developed and active, what is going to be the effect? The brain has many chemical reactions, one of which is the release of dopamine. This is associated with immediate sensual gratification, and can influence the prefrontal cortex. Taking cocaine or amphetamine will release high quantities of dopamine. And it becomes addictive. Now consider screen life - life playing computer games and spent in chatrooms. What you see is what you get. Screen life is a series of logical tasks that demand immediate attention, which are to do with process, and not with content or substance. To understand sequences and consequences is to think, to proceed from the sensory to the cognitive, to be able to consider and understand the development and interrelation of things beyond the here and now. The notion of sequence, the order of things, is what we mean by thinking. It is crucial: it is your life. You cannot live your life backwards or start again. The notion of narrative is that you cannot go either way with a click of the mouse and then go backwards again. But in a computer game, you can. You can start again. Take the tale of a princess locked in the top of a tower. Read the story in a book and you are concerned for the wellbeing of the princess. But try to rescue her on a computer game and its about you. You dont give a damn about the princess: she is just a goal. The story is about you completing a task, with a reward if you win, frustration if you lose. In neurochemical terms, it is similar to gambling or taking drugs. It shows the same disregard for consequence and a confusion between reality and screen life as if you beat up an old lady on the street, recorded it with your mobile and put it on YouTube. The hypothesis is that those exposed to this environment over a period of time become emotionally stunted. If nothing has narrative and meaning, you do not have narrative and meaning, nor do the princess or the old lady. It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains becoming different from those of previous generations. And I feel sad that this is happening after 5,000 years of civilisation. We have to ask ourselves: Is this what we want? - Daily Mail