- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- "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
- 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
- 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
- "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
- 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,
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.