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The Quest for Identity

March 11, 2009

The Quest for Identity
With Susan Greenfield, Chair: Lisa Jardine

This event took place on 23rd February 2009

Posted by Tania Hershman

I went to the Jewish Book Week session entitled “Quest for Identity” , an interview with well-known neuroscientist professor Baroness Susan Greenfield, with certain, not unrealistic, expectations. I assumed Prof Greenfield would be talking about the connection between our brains and our identity, how one can shape the other, or what shapes both etc.. I wanted some neuroscience and some identity-quest talk, and the intersection between the two.

That’s not quite what I got.

Greenfield was being interview by Prof Lisa Jardine, a friend of hers, professor of Renaissance Studies – so, firmly in the “arts” camp, if we are making that distinction – and a lively interviewer. The impetus for this talk was Greenfield’s 2008 book, ID, the Quest for Identity in the 21st Century.

What were we going to hear this evening? Greenfield began by saying that it was about what we wanted for our children and our grandchildren, what we wanted them to become. Unfortunately, this put me off immediately, not having – or particularly interested in having – children or grandchildren. I wanted to hear about my identity!

Greenfield then talked about the brain’s plasticity, its ability to make new connections between neurons constantly when exposed to new experiences. She described an experiment with three groups of non-piano-playing adults: the control group just sat and stared at a piano; one group had basic piano lessons, and the third group imagined themselves playing the piano. The control group’s brains didn’t change significantly from the piano-staring – but the other two groups’ brains made new connections in almost the same amounts. The power of the imagination!

But where this went next surprised me. Greenfield is apparently very concerned that today’s youngsters spend far too long sitting in front of screens rather than reading books. Her thesis is that reading books and then mulling over what you have read is about the content: it exercises the imagination and turns you into a “contextual” person, one who sees the connections between things. Playing computer games is, for her, about the “process” rather than the content: you have to slay a dragon and save a princess, but you don’t really care about the princess, you don’t want to know anything about her, and if you fail, you know that you can start the game again.

What most concerns her is how this affects activity in the pre-frontal cortex. She talked about how certain sets of people – gamblers, schizophrenics, the obese and others – seem to have diminished activity in this area of the brain, demonstrating that they are more interested in the “sensational”, in the thrill of the activity they are engaged in, rather than the “cognitive”, which would mean contemplating the consequences of their actions. A generation of screen-starers could become a generation of thrill-seekers with no regard for the long term impact of their behaviour.

What I was waiting for next was a return to the neuroscience: do the brains of children playing computer games show a difference from those reading books? Are less connections made? What happens?

But we didn’t get back to science. Greenfield talked more about technology, and how it could erode various aspects of identity: biotech was extending a woman’s fertility, nanotechnology could alter our perception of our physical selves versus the outside world.

What we never got to was a discussion of individual identity, how it is formed and how it is affected by the world around us. What is our identity? What is it to our brain? As a writer I enjoyed hearing, of course, that Greenfield thinks that reading is good for us – but I would take issue with this is a blanket statement. Reading a certain kind of book stimulates the imagination and shows us something about the world, but not all books do this, some are just a quick and easy read. Just as not all screen activity is “sensational” and “thrill seeking”.

To her credit, Greenfield did mention a book that presented the opposite view, Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making us Smarter, which argues that computer games and TV shows are intellectually challenging.

But sadly, this ended up as Greenfield, despite protestations that she wasn’t making value judgements and wouldn’t use words like “damaging”, appearing to be saying, as many generations have before her, “look at young people today, this must be bad for them, it’s not like it was when I was a child”. This is what was said about television, films, and probably about radio, newspapers and even novels!

I have another, more global point, to make. When I left the session, I said to my friends that I had been expecting a talk about neuroscience. They said, “Don’t be silly, not with this crowd, not at Jewish Book Week”. This once again strengthens the idea that science can only be understood by the exalted few, and that a book festival is not the place for that kind of thing, which most of the audience would – it is assumed – not understand.

But… but, Baroness Greenfield was described in the introduction as having begun in the Humanities -she mentioned how she studied Classics – before becoming a scientist, and she is supposed to therefore be perfectly qualified as a communicator of science, someone who can undertake the clear and entertaining transfer of scientific ideas to those without a scientific background. She had a packed hall full of eager audience members who had all come to hear her – and her book is presumably full of brain science – so why not at least attempt to bring us real, hard neuroscience? Or at least, semi-soft neuroscience? This seems to me a great missed opportunity for the true communication of science in a way that everyone could understand.

So, I made some new neural connections during the talk, and afterwards, but they were perhaps not the connections Baroness Greenfield would have wanted me to make. Then again, I would like to read her book and get the “scientific” side, so perhaps her talk did have the desire effect after all!

Tania Hershman

Tania Hershman

Posted by Tania Hershman, author of  The White Road and Other Stories

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