An Interview with Susan Greenfield

Haegwan Kim

Thank you so much for your time. Today I’m going to talk with Baroness Susan Greenfield who is a professor of pharmacology department at Oxford University and a member of the House of Lords. Thank you so much for your time. The first question is why do you study the brain?


Susan Greenfield

I study the brain because for me it’s the essence of the individual. Some people study philosophy, because they’d also study the individual. I used to do that and the problem I had was that although you can have lots of ideas, you could never actually test them. Similarly there’s other things you can test in science, for example you can work on the heart or the lungs or the liver, and although that’s a very important and interesting subject for many people, especially to understand diseases, it doesn’t cut to the big question of what makes you the person you are in a way that can be tested and a way that we can see experimentally.


HK

Can you tell me when did you decide to study about the brain?


SG

I came to it quite late in life. Initially I found science very boring – the way it was taught in British schools at that time – in that no-one showed you why it was relevant to real life. And also I couldn’t see what still needed to be found out. It seemed that everything was already known, I just had to learn the facts, and that actually was quite boring. Whereas when I actually did Latin and Greek, which I did at school, and ancient history, all those subjects interrelated to each other and they formed a very interesting comparison with each other. For me that was more intellectually fulfilling. It wasn’t until I came to university, and I came originally to do philosophy having done classics, and I had to do it with something, and I did it with psychology. Then I started to find out about the brain. So I decided very late in life.


HK

Nobody taught you that brain study is relative to our life.


SG

No. it still is the case in British schools that the brain is considered too difficult a subject for school children to study. And I think this is wrong. Because I give lots of talks to the general public and on one level you can talk very easily about how the brain works, and also people find it very interesting. I think it’s a very good way of getting kids interested in science. Because instead of talking about the amoeba or something, you can talk about how drugs work and what happens when you grow up and why twins are different. There’s lots of really interesting things.


HK

Yea, that sounds interesting. Can you tell me why neuroscience is so important for our society? How does it affect on our life?


SG

Because it is the essence of us, it’s also important for economics because you’ll have to think about the future consumer, the future workforce, the future manager, the future leader. We have to think about the kinds of products and services that they will want. And because the human brain is so sensitive to the environment, if the environment is changing in the 21st century as it is – it’s much more cyber related – there must be differences to the brain. So it’s this dialogue between the cyber world and the brain. The cyber world will shape the brain and by the same token, the brain is deciding what you want. So the two things are like the chicken and the egg.


HK

If we can analyze all actions of brain, can we explain everything in this world?


SG

That’s a very interesting idea that all knowledge has to be seen through the prism of our own minds.


HK

Yes. Human beings cannot surpass our subjectivity right?


SG

Yeah and I think the human brain is the hardest thing to understand because you are asking a system to understand itself. As my father says, “You can’t use a knife of butter to cut butter.” So it’s very interesting that here you have a system which is very unusual that is understanding itself, or trying to understand itself.


HK

Can we analyze self-consciousness from a scientific viewpoint?


SG

Well let’s start with consciousness which is a much more modest aim. The problem with consciousness, and indeed self-consciousness, is a very fundamental concept. If you are conscious now of me talking, you are conscious of being you, you are conscious of wearing sneakers. What is that final thing that your brain is reporting to. The brain obviously is a lot to do with consciousness and the buck has to stop somewhere. Now my own view is that it is signals coming out of the brain chemicals that iterate around the body, and the body feeds back that that is consciousness. But what we mean by that is we have the feeling that there is something that is the final buck stopping with you.

And you see the problem with understanding that, unlike any other problem in science, if I said to you to go to the moon, or I’m going to defy gravity, or I’m going to build a perpetual motion machine. All of those things are very hard to do. But we know exactly what to expect. If I said to you, “I’m designing a perpetual motion machine,” you will have a very clear idea what will qualify. Similarly if I say I am building something that flies, you don’t expect to see beaks and feathers, but you do expect to see something that defies gravity. So if I said to you, “Right, I’ve found out how the brain generates consciousness,” what would you expect me to show you? What kind of experiment would solve that?

So, the thing is that science is objective. Your brain scan or your performing rat, a computer or a formula, these are not going tell you how the objective gets translated into the subjective.


HK

That’s really interesting.


SG

And that's why it's a big question.


HK

I want to ask whether we are becoming smarter or not. Obviously our IQ has grown up but in a humanistic way, the number of dead in the war boosted in a century. The war never ends, People still kill each other. Can I have your opinion?


SG

I think it cuts both ways. In one sense we are becoming smarter, in that it’s been shown that IQ levels are rising in certain countries. People in this field think it’s a good thing, for example there’s a man called Steven Johnson who wrote everything bad is good for you. He has shown that, yes indeed the IQ is going up, but by the same token, just because IQ is going up it doesn’t mean to say that we have more insight into economics. We don’t know anything more about why wars start. There hasn’t been an increase in writing of symphonies or of novels. So just because you are good at doing the kinds of things that computer brains bring out, which is seeing patterns in a very abstract and fast way, and seeing connections and finding an answer to a very abstract question doesn’t mean to say you understand things or you have insight into things. You can have a mental agility, but you don’t necessarily have insight. So on the one hand yes we could be becoming smarter. Now my own worry is that the other skill, the ability to understand things, might be in jeopardy. Because if people play a lot of computer games you are dealing very much in a very abstractive, almost mathematical world where you don’t need background information, you just do it. That’s why it’s so popular, you don’t need to have a background in economics or history or literature or languages, you can just do it. This is the kind of mental process that tests how fast you can process things and reason. So although your IQ and your processes might be sharper and better, really in order to understand something you need to have linked up ideas or linked up facts, like in literature and history, and use those as examples. This is why very young children don’t really understand things. It’s usually maths prodigies are very good at because maths is the subject that’s the most abstract. So how bright a little child is, I would be very surprised if they were brilliant at economics or at history. How could they be? Because they need to have done lots of reading. So in order to understand something you need to be able to make links, make connections in a way that no-one else has done.


HK

Do you consider that kind of education is needed for our society?


SG

Yes exactly. And I think that’s what education should be about, is helping people establish a framework, a conceptual framework where things are related to each other. So if something comes along you can plug it in and see it in the context of other things. Whereas computers don’t enable you to do that at the moment.


HK

Education is long-term policy right?


SG

Yes.


HK

As you can see, politicians are favor of taking short-term policy to get votes and hesitate to have a long-term policy. Do you have any opinion to embody the plan?


SG

Well normally politicians will do whatever they feel will keep them in power. So what will keep them in power – in democracies at least – are as you said the votes of the general public. How will the general public want to lobby the politicians and persuade the politicians because of what they read in the media. So the press, the print and broadcast media for me is much more important than people sometimes credit. And I think that it’s very important for technologists and scientists to talk all the time to the media. Because only when they talk to the media on mass with the general public being informed of exciting discoveries or worries or concerns, and only then will they talk to the politicians. The media reaches more people than anyone else, by definition. So you have to work with the media. You can’t turn your back on them.


HK

As social media develops, more and more people, especially the young, are addicted to use Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and so on. Can you tell me how they affect our brain?


SG

Well it depends what you want to achieve. So I met someone once who boasted to me that they had 900 friends. I’ve got about ten friends. It depends what you mean by a friend, in that a friend normally is someone who shares your life with you, or parts of your life with you. They’ve shared part of your history, that’s why they’re friends because you have given them time. Either you give them lots of time at the moment or they have lots of time. Now if you have 900 friends you can’t do that, there’s no sharing of time. So although you can communicate, you mustn’t confuse communication with friendship. Of course someone can send someone an email but that’s not really being a friend. It’s communicating with someone.

My own view is that although it’s quite fun to have someone sending you an email from a distant country or something, that’s not a substitute. And the second problem I have is that you’re now looking me in the eye, right? On Facebook you can’t look someone in the eye. Looking someone in the eye is 55% of the impact you have on someone. Now if I look you in the eye all the time you’re going to start feeling very uncomfortable. Or if I’m talking to you like this (avoiding eye contact) you are going to feel also very uncomfortable. So eye contact is a very important skill that we learn when we’re small. It doesn’t come naturally, it’s something that comes with rehearsal. Now also touching someone like we shook hands. Or if you know someone more you might put your arm around them if they are unhappy. So physical contact, even in a social sense, or a professional sense and certainly eye contact and voice tone are all very important in terms of establishing a rapport or a relationship with someone. And on Facebook you don’t have any of these things.

Now if all you are doing is rehearsing Facebook, you’ll never get practice. Which means that if someone talks to you, you are going to find it uncomfortable and stressful, which means you are going to avoid doing it. So you are going to go more to Facebook. So it will be a vicious circle. I might just email someone abroad, of course we will. But if that’s your primary means of communicating with another human being it will be I think a problem.


HK

If I take your opinion in a radical way, our life will go to second life on the web, what do you think about it?


SG

Yes I think that will happen. Certainly there’s one group of people who love second life. These are autistic people. Now they are very comfortable in second life, because in second life we are all autistic. That is to say that it’s just actions, you don’t know what people are feeling or thinking, you don’t have to infer or guess what people are feeling or thinking. The whole onus is much more on action, like a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Or like small children, who are autistic. They don’t understand that people feel things differently from them. So what I’m concerning about is it will encourage autistic tendencies in people. They won’t emphasize so much with other people. And also it’s very sad if you think that by medical science has given us longer and healthier lives. Much healthier and longer than any other generation. We are freed up each day, thanks to technology, from doing the drudge that my mother had to do or my grandmother. Lots and lots. So what are we going to do with all this spare time? Are we going to go on to second life? I find that very sad. Science has given us extra time in our lives than no other generation ever would have thought conceivable. Even a few decades ago life expectancy in England was about 65. Now it’s 80. If you had children they would be expecting to live to 100. So decades more of life. And what are we going to do with this time? It’s a big question.


HK

The definition of human beings is changing. Especially how we fulfill our life. Can you give me your sense on this transformation?


SG

Living life isn’t about avoiding problems, it’s about making the world as we want to. So I think it raises a very interesting question that we all ask for students what is the meaning of my life? What is the perfect life? This is what the Greeks said. So these are not new questions, but for the first time we are being faced with new possibilities that we never had before. My mother lived in London in the war, and if you’d asked her at that time what’s the meaning of life? She’d say, “I don’t care. I just want to survive. Frankly, I want to survive the bombing tonight." They wouldn’t have had time to sit around thinking of these things. Sadly a lot of people nowadays are still in that position. Someone starving and hungry in Africa, they’re not going to worry about the meaning of their life, they just want to live. We have been given in this very privileged society, this advanced society in which we live in, this luxury of looking beyond survival.


HK

As my research is on the law of success, can I ask your definition of success?


SG

Okay. For me there’s a nice phrase that I heard which is that you should aim to optimise rather than maximise. I’ll explain what I mean. Optimise rather than maximise. Someone said that when a tree grows, a tree doesn’t just grow as big as it can, a tree will grow to its optimal size for its environment. Let’s apply that to people. Some people think that success is having a better memory, or taking cognitive enhancers. For me that’s not the answer, that’s maximising rather than optimising. We should be optimising our brains, not maximising them. By optimising your brain it’s making the most of you as a person. So it’s not saying that you should have a better memory than the next person. I think a lot of human endeavour is directed at the moment to try and make people qualitatively better. And that’s the wrong idea because you’ll never be happy that way.

There will always be people, richer or poorer. But each person has their own unique portfolio of talents; for example I can’t sing, I can’t cook, I can’t drive. I don’t therefore even try and do these things. But in fact I’m very happy to admit this to people that everyone in the world is a better cook than me. That’s just fine. I’m not going to have a problem with this. You have to accept in life that there’s certain things that you’re not interested in. But there's the things that you enjoy, or you feel that is right for you. For example I’m writing a book at the moment, I’m writing a novel, and this feels right for me. I’m feeling it very fulfilling, very exciting, very interesting.

Now I’m not saying everyone should write a novel, but it’s right for me at this time in my life. I’m finding it a very interesting experience. Even five years ago it wouldn’t have been right but it’s right now. What we need to do is to try and help people have the confidence to stand back and actually ask, “What are you good at doing?”, and to make people comfortable in that. The French say, “Happy in their skin.” Not to worry that they’re not good at everything. And I think if each individual had their own portfolio of things then that would make the world a much more comfortable.


HK

I remember I wanted to be like Michael Jordan when I was a kid. Then I tried to maximize my ability by practice. Don't you think it's meaningful thing?


SG

It’s good to have a hero, to admire someone, but you should also be yourself. You don’t want to 'be' them. I admire Einstein but I wouldn’t want to swap place with … I want to be me. So you can admire things in people, but that’s a big difference to wanting to be them, and feeling jealous because you’re not them. You’re you. No-one is you and you’re unique. I think what worries a lot of people is this highly competitive world, which is good in a way. But I think once people realise that the thing to concentrate on is competing with yourself. That’s the best thing, that’s what I used to say to my students. I used to say, “You’ve got one rival only and that’s yourself last week. Have you made progress since last week in your studies, in your sport? Are you better than you were last week against yourself?” Then you know you’ve done something good. If you haven’t, you’ve wasted the week. And that’s how to be competitive, not against other people. It’s pointless, against yourself, and that means you do push yourself to do better and better.


HK

As a final question, and I am asking this to all interviewees; can you give me your advice to be successful in general?


SG

The first thing, the most important thing is you have to have a sense of humour. Because if you think about it life sometimes is just so absurd, you have to laugh at it. I think people that don’t laugh at themselves, and can’t stand back and actually see how absurd it sometimes all is. People take themselves too seriously. I think they are doomed to not be happy. I do a lot of work in Australia, and there people are a lot more open and find everything a lot more funny.


HK

Compared to the UK?


SG

Yeah compared to the UK, very much so. I love going there because they just find everything so funny; when you arrive back in the UK and everyone looks so miserable and grey.


HK

[Laugh] I agree with that.


SG

The second thing is you have to work hard. If you don’t work hard there is no sense of fulfilment. I have one or two friends who spend a lot of time at clubs or on holiday or playing golf or doing this kind of thing, but it’s a rather empty life. I think however rich you are if you don’t have a passion or something you care about and you work at, and when I say work I don’t mean working physically necessarily in a factory, but working at something you care about to fulfil yourself.

It doesn’t have to be a job, but it has to be something that you put a lot of effort into, something that’s yours. Something that no-one else does quite like you do it. And I think that gives you a sense of identity and fulfilment. The other thing absolutely is you have to be honest. You have to be honest with people and not lie. So I think honesty, hard work or passion and a sense of humour are the key to success.


Susan Greenfield is a Brain Scientist and a Member of the House of Lords.

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