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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 New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times