Baroness Greenfield

A Baroness with 30 Honorary Degrees

E&T talks to Baroness Susan Greenfield about her books, degrees and insights.

Your toe nails have turned green, indicating you have high blood pressure. Meanwhile, your heart-rate is being monitored by your t-shirt and the toilet is screening your waste. This is just a small part of Baroness Susan Greenfield's projected future world, which she outlined in her book 'Tomorrow's People: How 21st century technology is changing the way we think and feel'.

A world where our health will be constantly checked, where, among other things, cyberlife flesh-and-blood people may be computer-controlled, where we could have a collective status-free lifestyle, oh and also be able to upgrade our genes. The author quotes geneticist Gregory Stock (adviser on biotechnology to Bill Clinton) on this possible future scenario:

'Her three-gene anti-cancer module pales beside the eight-gene cluster of the new version, 5.9, which better regulates gene expression, targets additional cancers, and has fewer side-effects...'

Virtual reality critic

When I ask the Baroness about the green toes, she jokes that she is not an expert on toenails, but thinks this will be achieved by some kind of fungal reaction. And what would a virtual flesh-and-blood person be used for?

'Hazardous things,' she says. Things like detonating bombs, de-mining and fighting wars.

As for the other projections surely where there are people there will always be status and hierarchies? Greenfield agrees that this is human nature but says that the challenge now is to find a balance between the collective ideology, fundamentalism, and the current egocentric culture, where it's all about me (someone putting their socks on on Twitter is an example of solipsism that Greenfield later uses).

Surely, people will always prefer the village high street to the futuristic virtual environment? Again, Greenfield agrees. 'Virtual reality is two-dimensional, lacking in closeness and someone can switch you off', she says. 'But it's all about balance. So we need to be selective about how technology is used with gene upgrades for instance, which may be possible when there is more access to genes. 'We should be using technology, not the other way around.'

Public addresses

Baroness Greenfield is shortly to step onto a plane. As well as being a neuroscientist specialising in brain degeneration, her hectic life includes being a founding director of three companies, a lecturer, a working peer, an author, and at the time of our conversation director of the Royal Institution (see panel, p28).

I have read an account of one of the Baroness's days; it flitted from Oxford research lab to public address to Birmingham conference to formal dinner to Royal Institution Colloquium lecture in London. I ask her if a typical day usually includes three public addresses in three different towns. She laughs. 'Not necessarily.' But she says it's rare that she doesn't do a few talks in a week.

Despite all of this, there were no scientists in Greenfield's family and she didn't even study science. She read classics at Oxford, later switching to philosophy and psychology. However, her tutor told her that she had an aptitude for science, and she went on to do a DPhil at Oxford's department of pharmacology, becoming a professor of synaptic pharmacology.

She describes this as 'the perfect educational background I don't regret any of it'. Her undergraduate career gave her confidence and the ability to apply herself methodically and logically, she explains. Also, it meant that her approach to science came from a new angle.

How many honorary degrees does she have I've seen figures of 24 and 28? 'Thirty,' she says. And what about her books? She's not sure of the exact number because there are also the books she's edited as well as those she's co-authored (see panel, p29).

One of the ways Baroness Greenfield manages to achieve so much is by not doing things like gardening or cooking. That would be dreadful, she says. Instead, she might write a book over the weekend. On weekdays meanwhile, she gets up at around five. She doesn't want to sound heroic, Winston Churchill-like, she says, but she just is a morning person. To relax, she might watch the occasional DVD, but not television. Greenfield is not impressed with what's on the box and has spoken up about the dangerous effects she believes today's modern technology and screen culture is having on the young brain.

Women and science

Baroness Greenfield was the first woman to give the Royal Institution Christmas lecture (on 'The Brain', in 1994) and has been its only female director.

She could well be described as a rare breed: a female neuroscientist. A quick bit of Internet research turned up a list of 14 women to 165 men. Greenfield thinks that that sounds about right. The next question is why? Or at least, why still?

'It's the usual pyramid slash glass ceiling,' she explains. 'I did a report for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on 'Women in Science, Engineering and Technology' in 2002 and nothing's really changed since then.'

What were her conclusions in the report? She says there were a whole raft of issues, but she picks out the need for schoolgirls to see the excitement of science (they are still largely taking arts subjects), and then later on, if they have picked science, to stick with it particularly during child-bearing years.

As a woman at the top of her career, Greenfield has talked about 'Imposter Syndrome' where senior women feel they have got where they have by fluke. Does this apply to herself?

'Oh, I think so.'

But she adds that some senior men have told her that they have experienced this too, so her gender can't claim a monopoly on it.

As to working in an overwhelmingly male-dominated world, she says that men tend to be more focused and less emotional, however they can also be more egotistical, aggressive and posturing. The female, however, has more connections between both sides of the brain. Is this an advantage? Greenfield explains that the corpus callosum what she describes as the 'motorway' between the left and right sides (joining the cerebral hemispheres) is thicker on average in women. She says this may mean that we can multi-task more easily, but adds that this is dubious, because the complex brain mechanisms involved in multi-tasking are still poorly understood.

Yuk and Wow

Greenfield's views on 'screen culture' have left a durable mark on her time as the director of the Royal Institution. She has identified a state of passivity and hedonism characterised by much of today's primetime television viewing for adults, which has become infantilised: bright lights, noise, more process than context and instant gratification. This she dubs the 'Yuk and Wow' factor.

Greenfield has been outspoken about this in the media: how social networking sites and too much screen-watching could be having an unprecedented effect on the young brain. Commenting on this subject, a Times online reader described a family get-together with his six grandchildren, who spent the afternoon collectively on their mobiles and games consoles: 'Talk was pointless and I gave up.'

'To unpack this a little,' Greenfield explains the effect on the brain: when it is aroused it releases dopamine, which is linked to reward, giving us a sense of wellbeing when we achieve a goal. This then could induce the brain into more reckless and anti-social behaviour, she says. Dopamine acts on the nucleus accumbens in the pre-frontal cortex. Excessive dopamine may reduce activity in the latter. When it is damaged, the person is absorbed by the immediate present and is rendered less able to consider past and future implications, which could result in less attention to meaning and consequence. Can this change also be linked to attention deficit disorders?

Greenfield admits this is a daring statement, but adds that there has been a three-fold increase in Ritalin prescriptions, which is used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

What about TV interviewer Jeremy Paxman's 'Newsnight' counter-argument that the telephone was accused of making people anti-social in its time, when in fact it had the opposite effect? And television hasn't ruined our lives either.

Yes, says, the Baroness, 'but we're not on the phone and watching TV every waking moment.'

Eleven-year-olds haven't been spending 2,000 hours a year about six hours a day in front of a screen until now, she adds.

Exercise for the brain

Instead of watching reality TV shows or social-networking remotely, how can we stimulate our brains? By memorising streets, perhaps? Greenfield has written about the expanded hippocampi which governs long-term memory and spatial navigation of London black-cab drivers, who are famous for having to acquire The Knowledge a punishingly comprehensive recollection of London's streets.

She also describes how the music of Mozart and only Mozart makes the brain's cortex light up all over. This is because Mozart pieces have 20-30-second repeating sequences, which harmonise with our 30-second brain-wave patterns.

'Rather than a better memory,' the Baroness answers, 'creativity is reached by insights...'

Her recipe for growing your brain is very simple: read novels, go for walks and engage in social interaction.

The end product should be new insights, new experiences, increased creativity and new patterns of connection. Reading a novel is a particularly good (and cheap) way to get your brain to a different place, time and experience, the Baroness adds. Brain work-outs could help the elderly too. As we get older and live longer, the onset of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's becomes more likely. These are diseases where connections between brain cells are lost. The Baroness describes this as 'a hub of cells in the primitive part of the brain'. She has been researching non-invasive approaches to curing Alzheimer's, some of which could simply mean stimulation of the brain.

Such self-development of the brain is especially important where huge aspirations and ever-shortening attention spans appear to be taking hold. In the Independent Greenfield is quoted as saying: 'Human beings always listened to stories and had long working memories. Now it's action, reaction, action, reaction.'

Does she worry that soon vast swathes of our population will be out of touch with the real tangible corporeal world and have no living memory of hardship, shortages and old-fashioned skills like growing food and mending? Greenfield is more worried about a future cyberworld.

'Each generation has its own memories; mine was the baby boom...', but in cyberworld everyone will have the same experience, she says. Her conclusion? In 'Tomorrow's People' she writes that we should all keep our individual egos.

She means the Self of course. Not the 'Me me me'.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them