Susan Greenfield: A mind of her own

Susan Greenfield, pioneering guide to the brain, worries that new technology will limit our individuality. That can't be a problem for her, reports Gail Vines
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The Independent Culture

Although not quite a household name, perhaps, Susan Greenfield is a star media boffin. She's one of a handful of British scientists who seem to enjoy writing accessible books about science. Braving academic disdain, she writes newspaper columns and presents TV documentaries as well. She has even itemised the contents of her handbag at the behest of an inquiring journalist. With a winning smile and quick-fire verbal agility, Greenfield is at home in the celebrity jungle of media and politics.

This year, the Daily Mail ranked her among its "100 most influential women in Britain", while in 2000 The Observer voted her Woman of the Year. Two years ago, Tony Blair elevated her to the House of Lords: Baroness Greenfield. She's pro-GM food, by the way, and against the decriminalisation of cannabis. On a wide range of subjects, Susan Greenfield has no doubt of her own mind.

Which brings us to the heart of her latest book, Tomorrow's People: how 21st-century technology is changing the way we think and feel (Allen Lane, £20). Fiction, albeit science fiction, was what she wanted to write. One Christmas, on a quiet beach holiday in the Caribbean, she set out to write a racy thriller, a page-turning novel featuring "a science-starlet", "a brilliant and beautiful heroine, a female neuroscientist ... ". Disarmingly, Greenfield says she soon abandoned the attempt, judging her narrative pedestrian, her characters clichéd and her dialogue wooden. Meet this scientist and you soon discover that self-revelation is Greenfield's secret weapon. Openness, outspokenness and sheer self-belief can be highly attractive characteristics.

So Tomorrow's People is, for its author, the next best thing to fiction; an imaginative leap into what the future might be, given a range of advances in IT, genetics, reproduction and nanotechnology. Futurology has its dangers, though. Readers of this book must be willing to journey along the paths she maps out, with signposts provided by her researcher, Milla Harrison.

In Greenfield's vision, the future is peopled by a decidedly dreary lot. They spend more time conversing with household appliances than with one another. Their loos tell them how they're feeling; their fridges tell them what to eat. At least washing machines are not in on the conversation, as clothes clean themselves. (Bacteria embedded in the fabric eat the dirt.)

Tomorrow's people reproduce via test tubes, eat GM food, and go to work on the web. Illness and disability are well-nigh banished by designer embryos, "neutraceutical" food designed to f contain every nutrient known to science, and miraculous medical interventions such as cyber-prostheses and gene therapy.

But futuristic lifestyle scenarios are not really what interest Greenfield. Instead, she's concerned about how this technology is changing the way we think and feel. And no wonder. Most of the time, the denizens of her dystopia are either stoned out of their minds or away with the cyber-fairies. They should get out more, but of course in this hi-tech world there's no reason to.

Forget wholesome walks in the country; nature doesn't feature. When I mention this, Greenfield laughs and says that, "I am a Londoner, I was born a Londoner, and I think I'm finally old enough and sufficiently confident to stand up and say unflinchingly, I'm an urban person. I hate gardening and cooking, but I love shopping, I love wine bars, the diversity and buzz of city life and things to do."

But even metropolitan attractions are off the agenda for tomorrow's people. Cyber-shopping satisfies every material desire, while cyber-sex does for the rest. Even children are expected to bend genders and try every conceivable orientation in virtual reality: "Hetero-, bi- and homosexual boundaries have long been obsolete, as has the old concept of the family."

Yet it's not the prospect of sexual experimentation or post-family life that worries Greenfield, but something else: what she perceives as the threat to the private, solitary individual. In 2050, with everyone wired to everyone else, individual identity has become submerged within a vast public collective. Wittgensteinians might argue that human subjectivity has never been coherently conceptualised as a private affair, but Greenfield's stab at explaining consciousness, The Private Life of the Brain, makes a virtue of distinctive inner worlds. So the stakes are high.

In her universally IT-connected world, "we would no longer have private thoughts; rather, we would effectively be part of a larger network, a mere node in a thinking, conscious system". With the loss of private thoughts, Greenfield believes, go creativity, originality, and the wellsprings of human achievement. The antidote to terrorism and fundamentalist cults, she says, is to foster private lives. It's as though the solution to Osama bin Laden is suburbia.

If there's a whiff of Cold War rhetoric here, her intellectual stance probably reflects more straightforwardly the robust mindset of a self-made woman. She admires the radical individualism of the existentialists, and would most like a time machine to take her back to Left-Bank Paris of the 1950s. The daughter of a Jewish electrician and a Gentile dancer, she says she has always been aware that she doesn't fit easily into standard categories.

A working-class child sent to an academic, middle-class school, and shored up always by the unwavering support of her mother, Susan won a place at Oxford to read Greats, before switching to psychology. Now a businesswoman (a founding director of BrainBoost Ltd), an Oxford don and director of the Royal Institution, she can justifiably feel well-placed to advise on the secrets of success. "Just be yourself," she tells first-year Oxford undergraduates who are reeling from the discovery that they are no longer the brightest in the class.

It's good advice, yet in some ways at odds with Greenfield's central message. For although she speaks strongly of the importance of tolerance and openness to difference, she doesn't really want everyone to do whatever they like. Rather, she wants them to be like her, to improve themselves, to work hard, to reach goals. Stark dualities run through her book: good vs bad; private vs public; active vs passive; and something vs hedonism, though I'm not clear what. "Achievement", says Greenfield, in a flash.

She's suspicious of happiness, of pleasure, unless it springs from improving activity like writing books or healthful, physical activity. (Her mother's daughter, she herself loves dancing.) In her future-nightmare world, humanity has sunk into sensation-seeking passivity, lost in chemical oblivion or mindless cyber-entertainment, living only for the pleasure of the moment.

If that's the threat from modern technology, spelt out in Tomorrow's People in vivid detail, the way to avoid it is less clear. She speaks generally of education, and of encouraging young people to greater personal achievement. We have to work from the bottom up, she says. "Scientific literacy" is the way forward, Greenfield insists.

Tomorrow's People criticises the Technophobe, the Technophile and the Cynic. So what's a preferable stance? I ask. Should the ideal citizen be a Technosceptic? "No," she says, "I think what we need is a techno-savvy populace, who say, now that we have this technology, how can we use it, how can we make the most of it?"

As an entrepreneur, Greenfield does not warm to government regulation as a restraint to technological excess. Instead, she advocates the formation of a Science Peace Corps to develop technologies to tackle the plight of the developing world: "the age-old issues of drought, flood, famine, infection, corruption and contraception". Perhaps "by taking on stark reality," she says, "we might be able to stave off the more alarming excesses of the new technologies that could corrode our human individuality."

"The private ego is the most precious thing we each have," she argues, "and it is far more vulnerable now than ever before." Being human is not a sufficient safeguard; human nature is too malleable, too open to environmental influence. Rather, we need to design and plan a world, she says, in which the individual is celebrated above all else.

Yet the author herself is ample proof that individuality is alive and kicking. Why should someone who exudes such a sense of self - not even afraid to let down her long blonde hair for the photographer in the Royal Institution's poster - be so sure that the private ego is under siege? Could it be that everyone else seems bland in comparison? If so, her next venture - three months as Thinker in Residence in Adelaide - might just reassure her that human individuality shows no signs of fading away just yet.


Born in 1950 in London, the daughter of a dancer and an electrician, Susan Greenfield grew up in Chiswick, studied at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and took a DPhil in Oxford's Department of Pharmacology. In 1985, she was appointed university lecturer in synaptic pharmacology, and a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. In 1991 she married Professor Peter Atkins, the chemist and author of best-selling textbooks. She became a Life Peer in 2001. Since 1996, she has been professor of pharmacology, senior research fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, and an honorary fellow at St Hilda's. At Oxford she heads a multi-disciplinary group researching brain mechanisms linked to neurodegeneration. Her company, BrainBoost Ltd, is developing non-pharmaceutical approaches to Alzheimer's disease. In 1995 she published her theory of consciousness, Journey to the Centres of the Mind, which she developed further in The Private Life of the Brain (2000). In 1994 she was the first woman to give the Royal Institution Christmas lectures, and in 1998 was appointed its director. Her TV series Brain Story was broadcast on BBC2 in 2000 and her new book, Tomorrow's People, appears from Allen Lane this week.