Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Quest for Identity and Why I Was Left Scratching My Head

Last weekend I listened to two talks given by Baroness Susan Greenfield. She was here in Norwich as the guest speaker and presenter of prizes at Norwich School. Both speeches were, substantially, the same; the subject matter being based upon her latest book ‘ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century: The Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century’. Not the catchiest of titles, so I shall refer to it as ‘ID’.

Susan Greenfield is not one to shy away from courting controversy, be it rattling the cages of the Royal Institution or questioning the effect on children of too many hours a day spent in front of screens of one sort or another.

Friday evening’s lecture took place under the auspices of the ‘Thomas Browne Society’ – a philosophical group consisting of various teachers and sixth-formers at the school. This was an inaugural meeting to involve a wider participation within the interested community and was open to parents, other schools and the public in general. It was a (not quite) death by Powerpoint presentation and included a 30 second explanation of neuroscience – from genes to consciousness; genes being the necessary but not sufficient conditions for consciousness. On the Saturday afternoon she spoke, without screens, to a much wider audience including a significant number of teenagers. Susan Greenfield has clearly given this talk many times before and is totally fluent. She is a good communicator who is so on top of her subject that the lay-person can only sit back and admire.

Her argument is that each human brain is unique. We start off with what our genes have supplied, but the development of that brain is not determined solely by genetic inheritance. Over time and through external stimuli, the human brain develops as connections are established and all those little root and branch-like parts of neurons multiply, grow and spread. It is in these connections that creativity is generated. This is how a person moves from merely ‘sensory’ to ‘cognitive’ experience. Those connections can, however, be broken. Having once been established with maturity they can be interrupted, temporarily, by the misuse of alcohol or drugs, or permanently through degenerative brain disease and dementia. It is on these latter conditions that Susan Greenfield’s area of research is concentrated. She stresses how important such research will be for coming decades when people will live till a very ripe old age and the proportion of elderly to young will increase significantly. In her talk to pupils (as well as their parents) on the Saturday she emphasised the children’s responsibility for ensuring a good quality of life for their elders. Here’s hoping they were listening.

The 21st century, she argues, brings with it new challenges and opportunities in the form of biotechnology; nanotechnology and information technology. It is with regard to her comments on the last of these that she has had much media coverage and criticism. She questions whether exposing developing brains, and by this she means the brains of anyone under the age of 20 years, to an unmitigated diet of screen related experiences (video games, social media websites etc.) might not be harming the development of those brains. Is it possible that the lack of traditional social interaction and the abandonment of imaginative thought and active physical play in favour of electronic substitutes could be stunting the full development of the brain? True, such activity may enhance IQ levels, but what about creativity and empathy? She has been much maligned (by Ben Goldacre among others) for her promulgation of this view. However, on closer questioning of her, I discovered that she is merely seeking to raise the question. She is making no dogmatic assertion. And maybe the brain development of the future of mankind is important enough for the question to be posed. Anyhow I, for one, will read ‘ID’ to see how she explores these ideas in more detail before deciding how far I go in agreeing with her.

By the way, it is clear that the Baroness does not ‘get’ Twitter and that’s a pity as it can be a great forum in which to begin a discussion of ideas such as this. In fact I spent about an hour, on and off, tweeting on this very subject on Friday evening. Twitter is what you make of it; please don’t dismiss it too readily.

Whilst I was waiting to hear the Saturday talk....

Anyhow, from the higher intellectual musings on Baroness Greenfield’s speech to the far more mundane: I spent much of the prize-giving ceremony wondering just how many head lice the young girl (aged about 7) sitting in front of me was harbouring. She was one of three young children and so presumably must have had an older, fourth, sibling at the school, receiving a prize. Maybe her mother should have decided before so readily popping out quite many children that she should spend just a bit of time and effort checking one child’s head from time to time. If I could see the 30-odd lice crawling around on the top of the head from a (safe) distance of three feet away, then I conclude that the woman must be blind or woefully negligent not to have done something about her child’s infestation sooner. All children get a few head lice from time to time (thanks mainly to having to share classroom space with children of mothers such as this). But this was infestation on a grand scale. And this would not have been some socially deprived family. This was the prize-giving ceremony at an independent school where the fees are around £3,000 per term, for God’s sake! Anyway, what sort of person brings such young children to two hours of speeches which can generate long periods of ennui even in someone as old as yours truly. I suspect that, in this instance, the children’s brains would have received greater stimulation had their mother simply plonked them in front of a TV screen for those two hours, despite what the Baroness might say.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

Dorset is heavily populated with head-lice. A friend came to lunch one day and brought her daughter with her. I asked, in a friendly way, why she was not at school. It turned out she was being bullied. In the short list of things other children said about her was that she had head-lice. As politely as I could, I pointed out that she did, indeed have head-lice, I could see them walking about. One way to reduce the bullying might be to get rid of them?

About the book. If you find it is good, then I'll follow suit and read it too.