Baroness Susan Greenfield: The Brain of the Future

Wow. Wow wow wow. Reeling. Having just gotten in from the abovenamed talk, details still fresh in my mind, I thought I’d start drafting this right now. OK, so by the time this has been posted, the lecture will be but another day in the past, but right now… Wow.

OK, maybe I should explain. I spent the day with my lovely friend (and fellow MSc’er) Rebecca – we did “intellectual stuff”, which culminated in a long anticipated BPS talk from the wonderful Baroness Susan Greenfield. The talk was entitled: “The Brain of the Future: The impact of new technology on how we think and feel”. I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect, but that was fine, because Greenfield covered an awful lot in one hour. It helps that she is incredibly charismatic, concise and fast-talking.

She began by telling us that we were in a century of change. Maybe a throwaway idiom, but it set the scene for the lecture. She proceeded to briefly recall her personal experience of holding a human brain whilst she was still a student: I don’t know if it was the first time she had held a brain, but she reflected on her feelings from the time – what if she were not wearing gloves? Would she catch under her nail that part of someone’s memory, someone’s capacity for love, or creativity? The material brain, so fragile, holds host to our own individual minds, our unique, profound experiences.

Greenfield thus illustrated in this way the fundamental uniqueness of human experience – “no one can see the world through your eyes”*.

This is why it is so wonderful to be a human being. But what is it that we do best? We learn, of course. We, with our big, human brains, have a fantastic ability to adapt. The brain is very plastic (able to be moulded, that is): our neuronal connections and the configurations of brain grow as we grow, responding to our experiences and building on rehearsal. The exciting thing is, you don’t need to be physically DOING the actions to forge the connections: imagination is incredibly powerful. Greenfield quoted one of the developers behind L-dopa, “thinking is movement confined to the brain” to highlight this phenomenon.**

Greenfield went on to show what a great impact “enriched environments” can have on neuronal network developments in rats. The difference between these and “isolation” controls was astounding. It’s quite obvious that the development of our brains is incredibly sensitive to our environments. Our personal brain (i.e. our own configuration of neuronal connections) is driven by our unique experiences.

So there appears to be two major “states” – the sensory brain (like that of children, a “booming, buzzing confusion”) and the cognitive brain. A healthy balance of the two is perfect in adults, but it’s obvious that this is not true of everyone: there are people who are overly cognitive, and those of us who get lost in the buzzing confusion again (senility, schizophrenia, drug abuse and so forth).

Greenfield went on to cover the slightly controversial topic of children’s growing “screen time” – is our increasing exposure to and immersion in a virtual world eroding our ability to think cognitively? Research suggests that whilst computer games may help our children’s increasing IQ scores (by helping to practice mental agility, and so forth), this does not equate to knowledge: just because we can perform certain problem solving tasks with ease does not mean that we are “smarter”. Our children are beginning to live in a strongly sensory environment that fosters a short attention span – there is no room for metaphor and abstract concepts. Information processing they can do, but anyone interested in theory of mind will tell you: information processing is not equal to understanding. We need our conceptual framework (a strong argument behind why computers can’t think).

In human communication, words play a limited role: we communicate through body language, physical contact, tone of voice… With the Facebook generation, these skills are falling by the wayside – will our children grow up to be poor communicators? It’s a genuine worry.

Baroness Greenfield covered more ground than I could possibly relay here: our sense of identity, Yaka-Wow, the consequence of our actions, the under-functioning prefrontal cortex, and even one of my favourite topics: cyborgs (she referred to transhumanism, and used the delightful phrase “brains on chips“).

It’s clear that technology is revolutionising our lives, and our brains are able to adapt to accommodate it. We now have a generation of “digital natives”: but what consequences does this have for humans as a social species? Maybe Baroness Greenfield’s book can tell me.

Oh yes. And a final thing:

Oh, the geeky glory 🙂



Image credits: HAH. They’re mine. MINE. Well, Rebecca kindly took the photo of me and the wonderful Baroness Greenfield. Thank you, Rebecca 🙂



*I may have mentioned this before, but this links in to one of the base causes behind my depression: the fundamental loneliness of human experience. No one will EVER know what it is to be you.

** Google tells me that she has used this quote quite frequently in talks. I can see why.


3 thoughts on “Baroness Susan Greenfield: The Brain of the Future

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « Unravelled

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