Technology is moulding a generation of children unable to think for themselves or empathise with others, says the leading brain scientist Susan Greenfield. Is it time to switch off?
Susan Greenfield’s lower lip pouts as if to blow a raspberry. Then, in soothsaying mode, the solemn utterance: “The global cyber world promises a more reassuring, safer option than the messy world of in-your-face three-dimensional life. But the IT technologies are already blurring the cyber world and reality.” The hooded eyes readjust from Delphic oracle to larky chick as she flashes a face-splitting grin. “There are people,” she chortles, “who can’t believe, eh! that the planes crashing into the twin towers were actually real, eh!” The punctuating “eh!” prompts you to agree.
Professor Greenfield, promoter extraordinaire of science, has written a book that makes routine auguries – global warming, economic downturns – look like mere gloomy hand-wringing. A specialist in brain degeneration, Greenfield is predicting that our teen generation is headed for a sort of mass loss of personal identity. She calls it the Nobody Scenario. By spending inordinate quantities of time in the interactive, virtual, two-dimensional, cyberspace realms of the screen, she believes
that the brains of the youth of today are headed for a drastic alteration. It’s as if all that young grey cortical matter is being scalded and defoliated by a kind of cognitive Agent Orange, depriving them of moral agency, imagination and awareness of consequences.
“They are destined to lose an awareness of who and what they are: not someones, or anyones, but nobodies, eh!” That expressive mouth widens again, the lower lip ripens. “The time is well nigh,” she says, “to explore the impact of these technologies.”
Greenfield, the motormouth publicist of science, who divides her life between an Oxford lab, the Royal Institution in London, lecture circuits, brain-science conferences and the House of Lords, could of course be talking twaddle. As it happens, her new book, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, digresses all over the place in little flash floods of maddening provisos and second thoughts. It’s as if she dictated it while bouncing on a trampoline, fixing an errant eyelash and sorting her fraught schedule on a BlackBerry. And yet, the mainstream of her argument – the coming plight of the minds and brains of our youth – has more than a drift of horrible truth. All involved in parenting and education should pay heed.
Never one for the bluestocking frock and the shopping-parade perm, Greenfield, known as “Springy” by colleagues, leapt to media prominence 20 years back as an academic glamourpuss on chat shows and double-page spreads. Latterly she achieved fame as the director of the Mayfair-based Royal Institution, home of Christmas lectures for children and Friday-evening “colloquiums” popular among amateur-science buffs. Then she very publicly bust up with her Oxford-don husband, Peter Atkins (whose socks and undies she allegedly dumped in bin bags on the street).
The Hammersmith-born scholarship girl, with an East End electrician dad and a professional dancer mum (both still alive), has come a long way since 1968, when at Oxford she switched from classics to neuroscience. She did her doctorate on neural degeneration, but it was for her contribution to the public understanding of science that she was raised to the Lords in 2001. The titles and honours, some less than enviable, have multiplied along with the sour grapes of colleagues (it was leaked in 2005 that she was spurned as a fellow of the Royal Society – an honour she had never sought). In Saudi Arabia, where Baronesses are in short supply, she’s been dubbed “Princess” Greenfield; twice she was nominated Adelaide’s “Thinker in Residence”; once she was voted Woman of the Year by a Sunday newspaper. So, at 57, as she settles into the Indian summer of her prime, who is Baroness Greenfield to issue prophecies of doom about the younger generation?
I come upon her early in her week in the windowless strip-lit environs of Oxford University’s pharmacology department. Here’s Greenfield the research scientist, chairing a meeting of biochemists in regulation plaid shirts. She, in laboratory mode, is dressed down in a beautifully cut Russian-red jacket; a sleeveless, artificial-fur-lined silvery waistcoat; charcoal Armani trousers; a fetching beret (hint of Rasta-chic); and patent platform lace-up ankle boots. Greenfield’s strategy in the fight against Alzheimer’s has been to identify fragments of protein linked to the plaques that form the “tangles” present in the brains of sufferers. She has had a breakthrough with several such candidates, which she hopes could lead to earlier diagnosis and, eventually, a preventive medication. This morning the chemical boys have apparently identified another associated plaque maker. “So,” she says, “why not bung some peptide at receptor T30 and see if it responds?”
Greenfield is not one to endow science with mystique. But as we proceed through her lab with its test tubes, dubious sinks and humming Perspex boxes, she pauses to say: “With the entire human brain itself, I’ve never lost my sense of mystery and total awe. When I pick up a slice of preserved human cortex and a bit comes off on my fingernail, I can’t help thinking, ‘What was that once, eh? Was it cherished memories of a lover, eh? An ability to play the piano? A sense of wonder at the universe, eh?’ ” While she hopes to find a palliative for Alzheimer’s, Greenfield’s special contribution to neuroscience is her talent to stand back from the molecules and make connections across a wide landscape of specialisations, research findings and theories. What her jaundiced peers see as academic attention-deficit disorder, Greenfield regards as a bid to articulate what neuroscience is telling us about human nature in the round.
She offers her apologies for leaving the meeting early. “I’d love to be talking science all day long,” she tells me, a trifle unconvincingly. “But you see how it is… this is my life.” She takes another meeting, this one on grant proposals. She says, with obvious hyperbole yet a grain of truth: “I spend 99.9% of my time chasing funds.”
She also spends it chasing publicity, and not necessarily for herself. Now we’re out in the bracing wind standing in the piazza beneath the old Oxford city prison, converted to a boutique hotel and circuit of coffee shops and restaurants. Worthies, carers and relatives of patients have gathered to release 200 balloons to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Clive Project, an Alzheimer’s charity, one of many mental-health charities of which Greenfield is a patron.
She has the microphone: “I first realised the awful reality of Alzheimer’s,” she tells her audience, “when I heard the story of a patient, once a brilliant father, who was found angrily arguing over a chocolate biscuit with his four-year-old son.” Her voice, and the anecdote, hits an authentic note of empathy. “I’m just a scientist, looking into my Petri dishes. We’re doing our best. There’s no magic pill! It’s like cancer: there will be gradual progress!” The men are mesmerised; the women beadily eye her outfit. It’s cold, and threatening rain, but she has lent a touch of warmth and glamour to the melancholy context of the proceedings.
Now we’re walking along the Cornmarket and she’s talking about loss of identity in Alzheimer’s, and making connections with the potential loss of identity brought about by new information technologies. “Looking at the increasingly common attack by Alzheimer’s on individuality,” she says, “perhaps we can grasp the implications of these newer threats!”
Greenfield has elaborated a theory about the influence of IT on young brains. Given the time young people spend gazing into screens, small and large – reckoned to be from six to nine hours daily – she believes the minds of the younger generation are developing differently from those of previous generations. “The brain,” she says, “has plasticity: it is exquisitely malleable, and a significant alteration in our environment and behaviour has consequences.”
She sets out a catalogue of repercussions: the substitution of virtual experience for real encounters; the impact of spoon-fed menu options as opposed to free-ranging inquiry; a decline in linguistic and visual imagination; an atrophy of creativity; contracted, brutalised text-messaging, lacking the verbs and conditional structures essential for complex thinking. Her principal concern is how computer games could be emphasising what she calls “process” over “content” – method over meaning – in mental activity.
Her theory goes like this. The more we play games, the less time there is for learning specific facts and working out how those facts relate to each other. This can result, she maintains, in a failure to build highly personalised individual conceptual frameworks – the whole point of education and the basis of individual identity. If the purpose of a game, for instance, is to free the princess from the tower, it is the thrill of attaining the goal, the process, that counts. What does not count is the content – the personality of the princess and the narrative as to why and how she is there, as in a storybook. Greenfield avers that emphasis on process in isolation becomes addictive and profoundly mind-changing.
Here is her hypothesis. A natural brain chemical called dopamine is involved in all forms of addiction. Dopamine contributes to feelings of wellbeing on attaining a goal, especially when gratification repeatedly deferred is finally delivered. Falling levels of dopamine accompany the opposite situations, when gratification has been frustrated (for example, waiting for a phone call that never comes).
The area of the brain crucial to the dopamine hits is called the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with the prefrontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain. An under-functioning prefrontal cortex is linked with types of behaviour marked by total absorption in the here and now, and an inability to consider past and future implications. According to Greenfield, excessive dopamine can reduce the activity of brain cells in the prefrontal cortex, leading to its partial shutdown. She is speculating that the intense subjective “here and now” feeling, prompted and accompanied by dopamine “rewards” in computer play, creates a euphoric, self-centred ego boost, the pleasure of which can lead to craving and addiction.
What lasting effect does this repeated neglect in the prefrontal cortex have on the brain, and hence the mind? “Excessive dopamine hits might reduce activation in the prefrontal cortex, and in so doing tip the balance away from awareness of the significance, the meaning, of our actions,” she says.
So playing games in which I slaughter scores of all-comers with my trusty sword, as in the Tarantino movie Kill Bill, deals not with the significance of beheading and disembowelling of hordes of Japanese villains, but with the process – the action separated from meaning and consequences.
“When those teenagers kicked that goth girl to death in the park recently,” she says, “was it like a computer game for them? The buzz of the moment? Were they thinking of her as a person with feelings, with parents and siblings? Were they thinking of the implications for themselves the next day?”
For the mind to operate fully, Greenfield asserts, the prefrontal cortex must be active, and content must be a high priority. The world and oneself are then redolent with meaning.
How do the young attain unique and enriched identities? “Through the world of focused conversation, nursery rhyme repetition, recitation and rote learning, of reading and writing interspersed with bouts of physical activity in the real world, where there are first-hand and unique adventures to provide a personal narrative, personalised neuronal connections. This is education as we have known it.”
And what if “education as we have known it” fails? It will lead, she predicts, to the ultimate triumph of process over content: the Nobody Scenario. “For the first time in human history, individuality could be obliterated in favour of a passive state, reacting to a flood of incoming sensations – a ‘yuck’ and ‘wow’ mentality characterised by a premium on momentary experience as the landscape of the brain shifts into one where personalised brain connectivity is either not functional or absent altogether.”
Greenfield is unlikely to earn praise or encouragement from her peers for making connections between basic neuroscience, the culture of youth and views about child development and education. Yet she gives the impression of being drawn to such connections by a genuine spirit of inquiry rather than mere restlessness. In her lab a researcher is studying human higher-order consciousness, and another exploring links between neuroscience and classroom teaching. She is currently seeking funding to study the neuroscience of spirituality. Given the development of her pessimistic views about the impact of IT on the young, it is surprising that she has left the sociopolitical consequences unexplored. As it happens, she is more interested in the neuroscience of ethics, morality and religion – as if such dimensions more readily offer answers to her perception of a coming new dark age. Is she becoming religious?
In Turl Street we are passing Lincoln College, where she has a fellowship. She volunteers: “I’m intrigued by faith. But when people talk about religious experience it’s like I’m autistic – I don’t get it. Yet I want to understand. The other day I borrowed the key to our college chapel and sat there in silence – not praying, just sitting there. Then an organist came in and started talking on his mobile and the spell broke.”
Greenfield tells me that she has friends who have faith and she quizzes them endlessly – Ed Stourton, the broadcaster, Jack Valero, Opus Dei’s spokesperson in Britain, and a neighbour whose faith is helping him and his family overcome a serious illness. She pauses outside New College. This is the college of Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and professional antagonist of religion.
That Delphic lower lip is active again. “I’m not at all saying that all religious believers are fundamentalists; but what distinguishes the believing brain of the extreme kind – I mean the fundamentalist and the totalitarian – from the non-fundamentalist brains,” she ventures, “is the emotion of disgust, eh.
“The anti-Semitic imagery of the Nazis was associated with a virus, a stealthy and elusive infection. So combating such a difficult enemy in the struggle for community hygiene isn’t just a punch-for-punch slugging it out. The enemy is a sickness. You’ve got to be on constant guard. You don’t just get angry with disease – you destroy it, exterminate it.” She nods towards New College. “The invisible viral foe could invade your body and, most importantly, your brain. That’s the language used by Dawkins, who’s developed non-belief into a belief system all of its own, and who constantly refers to religion as a virus.”
I gather there is no love lost between Britain’s two great exponents of the public understanding of science. With her sense that Dawkins is destroying something valuable in the culture (albeit a value she has not yet grasped herself), there is an impression of a standoff that could one day erupt into a spectacular public contest.
We meet the next day in Mayfair. Greenfield has spent the morning in meetings at the Royal Institution, which has had a recent multimillion-pound makeover under her direction. We’re off to Birmingham, where she is to give a lecture to an annual meeting of vets. She’s dressed in a tight-fitting grey-blue trouser suit, snug suede casuals, sharp-looking cotton shirt – white and russet stripes. Curled up in the back of the S320 Mercedes, she takes one call after another on a mobile until we’re out on the M40.
She wants to tell me about the two other threats to human identity in the 21st century already afflicting the older generation. “We’re in identity crisis!” That lower lip is swelling, and the lower whites of her eyes glint with predictive promise. “How do you see yourself? What defines you? What makes you happy, eh? These questions are right up there with the crisis of climate change in the coming century.”
For people in midlife, she asserts, the identity problem is affluence. “The reason we crave more clothes, cars, goods, brands, is that they’ll say something about us, symbolise our distinct, preferably superior identity.”
If the impact of IT on the young is creating a hedonistic, mindless generation that are becoming “nobodies”, she says, then the pursuit of possessions is creating an older generation of consumers striving to be “someone” with their status symbols. But there’s another scenario to add to the future darkness: the growing numbers of people who strive to be “anyone” – those who wish to lose their individualism in a collective identity of political or religious extremism.
“Fundamentalism,” she says, “is the suppression of uniqueness and preference for the collective. If this collective identity prevails, then the dominant defining emotion will be continual anger. Remember in Orwell’s 1984, those collective sessions of popular anger?”
I am less impressed by her “anyone” and “someone” scenarios than by her “nobody” hypothesis, and we bicker in pleasant vein until we’re minutes away from Birmingham’s International Convention Centre.
She leans forward and takes a sheaf of papers and a memory stick for the PowerPoint presentation from her bag. “What am I speaking about?” she says to herself. “Ah, consciousness – a bit academic, eh?”
We arrive on the dot of 4.30pm and she’s ushered straight onto the stage. There are some 500 people in the audience and she gets an enthusiastic welcome. Her theme is the mystery of consciousness, and how the brain gives rise to it. It’s a topic that most neuroscientists steer clear of, but for Greenfield it’s inseparable from her passion for understanding human identity, what makes us unique. She keeps it simple, outlining what she calls the “hard problem” of self-awareness and how it works like a dimmer-switch rather than an on-off light.
She speaks flawlessly without notes and with occasional jokes – “Still conscious out there?” – and elegant off-the-cuff asides about consciousness in animals. She finishes after 50 minutes to the second and leaves to a standing ovation and bouquet.
Back on the M40, she talks about ways for 21st-century people to avoid a dark age of identity crisis. She has this idea about “creativity” as the answer, and she waffles about government and educationalists. It’s enough perhaps that she’s identified an ominous link between brain development and the young, without providing all the answers.
As we reach London, I can’t help asking an unwelcome question that has hovered over our conversations: how does she define her own individuality? And is there a significant other in her life?
She looks skittishly nervous for a moment. “The answer is yes and no,” she says with finality. Then she adds with one of those sudden fantastic grins: “Perhaps I’ve got a number of significant others in my life, but it doesn’t mean that I go to bed with them.”
And how does she relax? She doesn’t like holidays, she tells me, and she plays squash three times a week in Oxford with her personal trainer. “He’s very fit – he’s only 30.”
Then we’re at the BT Tower, where she leaps out, just on time for a formal dinner. “They’ll have to take me dressed as I am,” she says. As she bids me goodnight, she hands me the bouquet. “Here,” she says, “I’m sure you’ll find a good home for these.”
Next day and it’s the Friday evening colloquium at the Royal Institution. The two doors that open onto the podium swing back. The speaker, in evening dress, enters by one; Baroness Greenfield enters by the other. A gasp goes up from the audience.
She’s in a magenta minidress a full seven inches above the knee, I reckon, and it’s covered in pink sequins. As she walks forward on dizzyingly high platform shoes, she wobbles slightly. Her Sugar Plum Fairy dress is flashing and shimmering in the arc lights. She sits to one side, settling down deep into the seat, legs stretched out.
The lecture is by a quantum physicist who’s going on and on about quarks and neutrinos, and strings, and 11 dimensions of space. She appears engrossed; or could that be a look of anxious preoccupation? She has every reason to be apprehensive about the stir she is set to make with her dire predictions about the younger generation.
One thing she knows by now, or ought to: prophets are seldom honoured in their own country.