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Baroness Susan Greenfield: Someone, Anyone, or Nobody?

This is my final blog about people who spoke at the Mind & Its Potential Conference in Sydney in early December 2009.

Greenfield is a leading researcher on brain physiology, particularly the aetiology of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, but she is best known as a populariser of science. She is a striking speaker and as a result of her talk I bought her latest book ID: The Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century.

The book is not an easy read but it does raise some stimulating ideas. It also provides a useful up-to-date summary of the current state of neuroscience and the role played by the emotions. One key concept is that the biological basis of the mind is the personalisation of the brain by the development of neural networks as we mature. Children have not yet formed these networks and the neural networks of adults can be severely damaged by drugs, schizophrenia or dementia.

Another suggestion by Greenfield is that current technology via screens and the internet is dramatically changing how we are developing our neural networks. Previously in a book-based culture there were many questions and few answers and people searched for authoritative content. Now in the screen/internet culture process has become king and truth is assembled by many interactions. Many young people now have short attention spans, are very sensory, lack the ability to think abstractly and have reduced empathy.

Greenfield predicts this technology may lead to people following one of three scenarios:

In the "Someone" scenario people become gain a sense of identity by what they own and what they do. This is the route being followed by most of the Western bourgeoisie. One interesting suggestion by Greenfield was that our individuality arises by how much we submit to the Seven Deadly Sins of pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Such people do become individuals but lack fulfilment.

In the "Anyone" scenario people subsume their individuality to a mass collective mindset, typically revolving a David and Goliath story. The Nazis believed there was a Jewish world-wide conspiracy while Al Qaeda thinks the same about the US. Group members generally all behave the same and lack individuality. On the other hand they are generally emotionally fulfilled, content within the group but angry and contemptuous of outsiders.

In the third scenario, the "Nobody" people put the notion of self on hold and are no longer "self-conscious". They abandon themselves to raw sensation either drug induced or in front of a screen playing a computer game. The sensory triumphs over the consequences; "Nobodies" lack the ability to delay self-gratification. These people lack both individuality and fulfilment.

In case you get too depressed Greenfield does finish her book on a more optimistic note hoping that one of major benefits of the new technology will lead to people becoming more creative, calling this the "Eureka" scenario.

My next blog will be in about six weeks. I am off to Qatar to deliver a seminar and then going to Central America for about a month.