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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Susan Greenfield, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century


Susan Greenfield's complaints about the impact of technology on society lead this leading neuroscientist to make a series of absurd hypotheses and unsubstantiated arguments. It amounts to a middle-aged grumble about the pace of social change, rather than a rigorous study of the neurological effects of technology.


Susan Greenfield seems to have something of a paranoia about modernity in her book, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, in which she argues that new technology and the rise of fundamentalism are having profound effects not only on the cultural makeup of society, but on the biological makeup of the brain of the modern individual.

I am not qualified to criticise her knowledge of neuroscience, and in fact many of her populist discussions of contemporary findings are fascinating. Her account of her own work trying to discover the causes of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's is emotive and admirable. But even I can see that there are a host of flaws in her application of this knowledge to society, with numerous unevidenced hypotheses that are remarkable for a former head of the Royal Society. Taken together, they suggest this work is not so much a diagnosis of a medical malaise, but more a symptom of her personal alienation from the young who seem so adept at incorporating new technologies into their life and behavior.

The problems start with her opening argument by analogy, which forms the epistemological foundation for the rest of her work. She lists a series of ways in which neural networks are like societies:

The implication seems to be that when societies change, such as by developing new technologies, this must by extension alter the very physical make-up of the brain. This is what she goes on to explore through much of the book, as she makes metaphorical leaps between neuroscience and folk (and often false) social observation.

Arguments by analogy are always risky; they open themselves to counter-argument by different analogies. Here’s one for starters. In spite of Facebook and Twitter, our strongest social relationships still tend to be with those people we physically live near. Contrastingly, in the brain, Greenfield's core thesis is that one part may stimulate an apparently dissociated part in the creation of memories, attitudes, skills. If the brain is like anything, from a social point of view, it is like the distributed internet, not human relations which are enforced by our embodiment in the physical world. Her refusal to sanction what must be the most pervasive metaphor in neuroscience, that brains are like computers, sees her project instead an inherently conservative analogy - brains are like society, so modern society's social and technological troubles must even affect our neurons and synapses. Modern life, it seems, is literally bad for your health.

This social and technological conservatism, albeit couched in apparently rationalistic prose, leads Greenfield to hypothesise the future consequences of technological change, and in the process to ignore some of the evidence of society in the present.

For example, she is deeply opposed to transhumanism - the deliberate modification of human traits through genetic modification, nanotechnology and so on. Now there are all sorts of good reasons why one might object to transhumanism, such as the fact that such technologies might be highly expensive, and thus ingrain class and economic divisions in society. This is something Greenfield rightly touches on, recognising that our modern NHS could not afford to treat people equally in such a scenario.

But more central to her argument against it is the fact that the self is not the product of single genes that can be identified with specific traits: there is no one gene that can be switched on to improve one’s intellect, another which can be deactivated to prevent dementia etc. Instead, the self is a complex interaction of genes and experience, with experience laying down neural pathways that are unique to each individual. Because of the distributed and imprecise way in which our bodies and brains interact biologically to produce that transient and uncertain entity known as the self or the mind, we cannot therefore predict accurately what effect adapting a particular hormone or gene might have. We might think we are splicing in a gene to enhance intelligence, but such a gene may also induce paranoia (an analogy she uses is with drugs used to treat dementia, which can also induce schizophrenia).

Surely this unpredictability, though, far from being a reason to legistate and oppose transhumanism at all costs, actually suggests transhumanism might never be a socially mainstream prospect in the first place. Long the fantasy of science fiction, even if such technologies become possible there is no reason to think that many people in society would want to take them up in reality. If, as Greenfield argues, we are only 20% the product of our genes, active forms of genetic modification will be practically and commercially ineffective because they have fundamentally unforeseeable consequences. To draw upon another analogy Greenfield makes, although drugs such as cannabis are fairly socially acceptable these days, they are still dangerous as they change the brain and behaviour in long-lasting but unpredictable ways; this probably explains why, even as cannabis has become essentially legalised for personal use, the majority of people will never use the drug, confining themselves at most to caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Oddly, nicotine has predictable and deadly consequences - cancer - but is still more popular than recreational drugs which may be safer, but also less predictable. Thus the unpredictability that accounts for Greenfield's fears for transhumanism is the very reason it might well never become commonplace.

The above example comes in the early stages of the book. It is when I reach the midway chapters that I really start to feel that this argument is derived more from a gut reaction against the state of the nation today, and a nostalgic desire to cling to the past, than by any coherent scientific theme. In a chapter called "Twenty-First Century Thinking," Greenfield makes an interesting suggestion that reading and writing, by placing experience into a necessarily linear form (prose), help to lay down stable neurological pathways that generate our coherent sense of self: Writing is very different from ordinary conversation because it's more rigidly structured, from the preordained ordering of grammar through to the clear, sequential, "logical" or at least associated steps by which one statement succeeds another. By having these requirements routinely imposed upon it, the brain will in turn adapt to functioning in this way. The structure of language fashions a comparable neurological structure that is, in Greenfield's term, "personalised"; it is what makes you a unique individual. And the strong neuronal connections laid down by language are, Greenfield asserts, key to civilization. She makes a strong plea for the value of novels, and why we should nurture poetry. Conversely, the decline of reading in favour of fragmentary encounters such as computer games or the internet, threatens the substance both of our neurological makeup and our social structures. These effervescent forms of narrative may account for the rise in mental disorders such as schizophrenia among the 1990s generation, disorders in which the sense of self has broken down.

In the background to this, one can almost hear the assenting mutter of middle aged, middle England lamenting an unhinged generation of kids weaned on computer games, who refuse to bury their heads in a good book. But what Greenfield - and the muttering classes - fail to recognise is that for most of human history, the vast majority of people (and a significant minority even today) never learned to read or write. They may have told oral stories and narratives to each other, but will never have practiced the deep skills that Greenfield claims are so fundamental to our present, civilized society of stable individuals. If Greenfield's prediction is true, and the brains of modern humans will change radically because of digital multimedia, wouldn't we expect to see in history some evidence of a comparable divergence between those pre-literate humans possessed of "ordinary" brains, and those lucky, literate humans who developed into trans-humans by their encounter with that new technology known as the book?

Additionally to complain about the lack of narrative in multimedia experiences overlooks the fact that there is good evidence that, through all their apparently random button bashing, people still try to project coherent narrative onto their experiences. Gamers, for example, who run through multiple possible routes in a hyperactive game world, when asked about those experiences try to reflect and put them into a logical sequence, ironing out the rough edges and branching paths to form a linear account of their behaviour. This is not so different from the novelist imposing a narrative on the complexities of human consciousness, or to the diarist keeping a journal to reinforce their sense of identity both textually and, Greenfield would argue, neurologically.

Although personal experiences and culturation may have an effect on the individual brain, it is hard to believe that these can accumulate to change the very direction of "human nature" in the way Greenfield implies, at least not to the point of crisis that she suggests is imminent this century.

So if not on the basis of science or logic, where are Greenfield's arguments coming from? The clue comes in another ideological comment that does not match with common sense. She suggests that cannabis use is on the rise as people seek an escape from media-rich societies, over-burdened by the demands of new communication technologies. Yet surely cannabis use is most popular among the young, who are also those who are most accepting of new technologies. Working in a university as I do, I am confident I could wander round any halls of residence and find plenty of joint-smoking students merrily poking their friends on Facebook. What we seem to have here, then, is a paranoid reaction not against technologies per se, but against a younger generation that Greenfield herself feels alienated from.

New communication technologies may seem baffling to the uninitiated, but it is hard to see how they alone or primarily can be responsible for a rise in anti-social drug use. The whole thing strikes me as something of a middle-aged grumble about modern life, couched in the language and metaphors of neuroscience. I am not surprised to see that on the back of my copy of the book is an endorsement from that arch-curmudgeon, John Humphries.

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This page was published on June 24, 2011 | Keywords: Susan Greenfield, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, neuroscience, technology

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