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  1. Long reads
8 October 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 2:59am

The NS Interview: Susan Greenfield

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

By Sophie Elmhirst

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.

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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

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