All in the mind
LARA WHITMORE DISCUSSES THE SIDE-EFFECTS OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY WITH BARONESS SUSAN GREENFIELD
In previous interviews you’ve described your younger self as a ‘maverick’. Could you explain why you thought this, and whether being one helped you in later life?
The maverick I think was first because my father was Jewish and although that may not sound so marvellous in the multi-cultural society we live in now, I was born in 1950 so at that time it was far less usual to have people who weren’t Anglo-Saxon. So there was partly that, and I didn’t understand what half-Jewish meant. But I knew I was different when I realised that not everyone was half-Jewish like I was, a bit like when you realise that not everyone is English. I suppose that was the first thing. And then it was because I came from a fairly modest background when I went to Godolphin, a very good school in London, which opened up my eyes to lots of different lifestyles, such as lots of foreign holidays and things, which my parents certainly couldn’t afford. So I suppose I was slightly different then. And then the third thing was that I hated Science at school and I loved Classics, so when I did Science I was a bit of a maverick because I didn’t have the background others had. So, for those three reasons I think I learnt from an early stage how wonderful it was to be an individual and just be yourself rather than be in any kind of tribe or group.
And your parents encouraged that, didn’t they?
Totally, and the school, Godolphin, was one of those wonderful schools that let you do as much as you could – any combination of A Levels – and Oxford placed a great deal of emphasis on being an individual, with the one-on-one tutorial sessions, so I feel fortunate in having, at every stage of my life, a benign, supportive environment where people have encouraged individuality and being yourself.
And do you think that has helped you succeed in your career, being a woman in what I would guess is still a male-dominated culture?
Yes, absolutely. Certainly, I think, it’s given me a confidence to stand up to people and up to things – as you’ll learn when you go through life: not everyone loves you, not everyone agrees with you, and if they were to you’d be a pretty bland person, I think.
Inevitably, you have to meet people who rightly or wrongly don’t go along with what you’re saying and that’s fine, but you have to learn how to cope with that and accept that, and if people get hostile you have to learn it’s often because they feel threatened, rather than having a genuine problem with you. You have to try and understand why they’re being like that and not get upset by it, whereas I think nowadays your generation, because of all the trolling of Facebook and so on, that perhaps you haven’t been so well equipped to cope with criticism and difficulties like that, and I think that one of the biggest things we can do for the children of the next generation is help them cope with life’s difficulties and that will include not everyone loving you or agreeing with you.
Could you please summarise your thesis of Mind Change and why you think modern technology is damaging?
I think you might be missing out on a lot of life; it’s not so much damaging, but you’re missing out on important things, like having a real conversation with someone, like having an imagination that takes you somewhere wonderful when you read a book; its not so much that it will damage you in the sense that smoking will damage you. I think people who spend a lot of time in the cyber world are missing out.
My idea is, which I have broken down into video games’ effect on your attention span and so on and addiction, and you can break it down into social networking and empathy and identity and search engines and how we differentiate from information and knowledge, that if you don’t rehearse face-to-face conversation then you’re not going to be very good at it, nor will you be very good at empathy. Sherry Turkle’s book, which is receiving a lot of attention, is about how conversation is essential and how the mobile phone kills conversations, and even the sight of one kills conversation. Second, with video games there’s nothing left for your imagination at all and I think the wonderful thing about reading is that, even when you have books read aloud to you as a little child, that you have an inner world, and if it’s a well-written book you can exclude the outside world entirely, and I think that’s one of the most amazing things that we develop as humans, but we only develop it if we have the opportunity to have stories read to us and then to read books ourselves, so we have that long attention span.
Finally, I think the most damning of all is how people regard search engines, as though knowing or learning a fact or knowing where to cut and paste a fact is actually understanding, and there’s a big difference between information and knowledge, and for me that’s the sad and crucial issue, when people just diet on facts and spew them out back to each other, without actually incorporating them into a greater framework of personal context, where it’ll have a meaning and you’ll understand it in a way that no one else does. So I think they’re the issues that we have to be wary of; it’s not that it will damage the brain, but it’s not going to bring out the best in people or their true potential, and they might not feel as fulfilled as someone from my generation who was able to have the time to be able to live in the inner world and have a firewall protecting your identity, which in turn gives you the confidence to combat the things that life throws at you.
So how do you map, say, the effect of video games on the brain?
Well, you can look at certain things. Obviously there’s no simple game-processing centre or anything, but you can certainly see brain changes in scans, like the release of dopamine or a change in microstructure abnormalities. Bear in mind, though, that this work has only been going for the last five or ten years because Facebook’s only been with us since 2004, so although we seem to take the cyber world for granted, and seem to think it’s the norm, really it’s only of this century, and quite well into this century that the culture has been so pervasive.
Are there really strong links between video games and aggression, reduced attention span and addiction?
Certainly, but I think we have to distinguish between violence and aggression, so while one can look at violence you also have to look at a certain adversarial attitude that sadly you often find nowadays.
Some people must call you old-fashioned, or a technophobe. What do you say to them?
Surprisingly, on my website, which is where people can contact me, 99% of messages are positive, and I think ‘old-fashioned’ is a very easy thing to say, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing; there are lots of good things about being old-fashioned, you know, because every technology and every era has its advantages and disadvantages, and so I don’t see why that would be a bad thing or a good thing. If it means that one is being critical and evaluating things as they come along then bring it on, and I hope one would be like that, rather than just rolling over and being excited by anything new that comes along just for the sake of it. In a sense it’s rather sad because people think they have to comply with something to give a certain impression rather than because they truly believe it.
The same people might say that, since you’re not on Facebook, what do you know?
Yes, but there are lots of things one doesn’t know first-hand that one can still comment on, like bungee jumping, for instance; you may have views on that, but you may not have done it. Moreover, even if I was on Facebook, and I suddenly realised how fantastic it was, and I really enjoyed being on Facebook, that wouldn’t change one iota any of the papers cited in my book Mind Change. So the fact that one person might find something or think something or experience something doesn’t change the facts, which is why one does science, because that’s what gives the actual hard evidence over a large population. My own experience is of no value whatsoever compared to the papers that have been published.
What about people who say that these developments are essential to modern life if we are to achieve today’s goals? In your own field, for example, you must use many state-of-the-art tools?
Of course. I’m not saying we should all live like the Amish, and abandon technology – of course not – but it has to be used as a means to an end and not an end in itself. And my concern is not that we are using this powerful technology for endless wonderful reasons, but more about when it becomes for people a lifestyle of itself.
On which side of the nature/nurture debate are you since, although you’re a neuroscientist, you’ve had a nurturing upbringing that you largely credit for your success?
Well, I think nowadays people accept that the two are linked and can’t really be separated. Certainly when it comes to mental function and abilities, for example, if I had exactly the same genes but had been subjected to the same upbringing as those poor Romanian orphanage children we saw in the Nineties, then obviously I wouldn’t be the person I am. Obviously genes are important, but they are necessary and not sufficient. That is to say, if you have a faulty gene then of course you’ll have an impediment. But that doesn’t mean to say that everything is tied to the genes; the gene will express up to 30,000 different proteins in turn, which works in the context of the messy hierarchy of the brain so that any link between a gene and human behaviour is indirect.
Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE is a British scientist, writer, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords. Specialising in the physiology of the brain, Susan researches the impact of 21st century technologies on the mind, how the brain generates consciousness and novel approaches to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Susan has written a range of non-specialist books on issues relating to the mind and brain for the general reader. She appears regularly on radio and television and frequently gives talks to the public and private sector.