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The NS Interview: Susan Greenfield

“As a woman in science, you are remembered – but also ignored”

How did you find yourself studying the brain?
At school, I thought science was the most boring thing on earth: you'd just stencil conical flasks. Meanwhile, I had an absolutely inspirational Greek teacher. So I came to it late, from the philosophy side, the "big questions" side. What drew me was how everything happens in the brain. It wasn't until I went to Oxford to do philosophy, and had to do it with something, so did psychology, that I veered more towards the science of this logical thing.

Is it difficult, in your field, to be a woman?
Well, I've never been a man, so it's hard to judge. I don't have the perfect control, as we say in science - I don't have someone called Simon who is identical to me in every regard aside from his chromosomes. I think I've had certain problems and certain advantages. If you walk into a room of people, most of whom are men and you are a woman, that is the thing they'll notice. So it does have an impact. You are remembered, but you are also ignored.

Your research has moved from the old brain to the young one. Why?
They're both areas of concern for the 21st century. There's an ageing population, and social structure is going to be very important if you have people living for a long time but increasingly regressing to be like young children. Similarly, the young brain is facing challenges that no other brain in history has faced. The human brain is very sensitive to changes in the environment, and it follows that if the environment is changing, then the brain will change, too.

What is the challenge for young brains?
With the number of hours kids spend in front of a screen, they live a lot of the time in two dimensions rather than three. It's interesting in terms of how you navigate the world.

What effects do you see this having?
There are one or two things that might be desirable - for example, a raised IQ. The skills you use for IQ tests are the same as those for playing a computer game. You don't have huge recourse to economics or history or literature - it's pure mental agility. But there is direct evidence that you listen less if you multitask, and I am concerned about shorter attention span. And abstract concepts: with a medium that is visually based, how do you explain, say, honour to children? Would you go to Google and show them pictures? How do you convey a concept like that through the visual medium alone?

Do you see a link between computer games and the rise in conditions such as autism?
When we play computer games, we are all autistic. We are not picking up on people going red, or wiping their sweaty hands on their jeans. When you read a book, concepts somehow do things in your mind and conjure up an inter­relationship between the characters. It's a sequence with a beginning, middle and end, so things embed into a wider context. If you're playing a game and there are no consequences, that is not a good lesson to learn in life.

Beyond these concerns for the individual, what might be the effect on society?
You would be looking at people who had a very dodgy sense of identity, who were perhaps high in IQ, who lived for the moment, for whom process overrode meaning. You would have less empathy, but you might be happier if you were just living for the thrill of the moment. Perhaps that's what we want. But what I fear is that the more people are like children and in the moment, the more they can be manipulated.

Do you vote?
I used to, yes. In my time I've voted for all parties.

Do you feel political?
I don't feel party political, but I am political. I don't feel any one party has the magic answer, but what I applaud - and certainly when I was younger it was more obvious - is the balance between political parties, the great clash of ideologies, which I think is a very healthy thing.

Was there a plan?
No. The things I planned have never worked out, and the things I didn't . . . I didn't wake up and say, "I want to be a baroness", "I want to be . . ." I've never had a career path or a plan. But I knew I wanted to make the most out of my life and have fun. All my life, I've been - I wouldn't say an outsider, but an individual, and the joy of that is that you can think: "I don't have to be like other people."

Is there anything you regret?
There's that Morecambe and Wise line: "The one thing I want to do before I die is live a long time." My only regret is that life is so short.

Are we all doomed?
Interesting question. It reminds me of that Mark Twain quotation: "No one gets out of here alive." I also think of Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Who would want to live for 300 years? I think it's important that we have a finite limit to what we are. But it's easy to say that, when one is not, hopefully, in one's last days. I think you're only doomed if you choose to be. Our fate is in what we make of our lives.

Defining Moments

1950 Born in Hammersmith, west London
1968 Psychology at Oxford, then DPhil in pharmacology. Now a professor there
1994 Becomes the first woman to give the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture
1995 Publishes her theory of consciousness, Journey to the Centres of the Mind
1998 Appointed director, Royal Institution
1999 Becomes honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians
2001 Receives life peerage

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood