Identity in a digital world – Susan Greenfield in conversation with Lisa Jardine

Last night I heard Susan Greenfield speak for the umpteenth time (at Jewish Book Week, the place where the punters have the least spatial awareness of any event, anywhere, ever – for example, there I am chatting to my friend in the queue to buy The Lie That Wouldn’t Die: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Hadassah Ben-Itto, a middle-aged man wanders into the small space between us as if we didn’t exist, comes to a stop for, oh, 5 seconds, turns, addresses his companion, take a few steps back, returns, stops again and finally continues on his way).

Susan Greenfield makes her points better each time – and thank God somebody is looking into the implications of technologies for our identities – but she omitted to talk (here) about Facebook, Twitter, and MMPORPGs as a way of re-injecting the narratives she fears have been lost in the child-like sensationalism of the Web.

I haven’t read much about this but it seems to me that we always wanted to connect with computers rather than merely count, and as soon as we could, we did, via the Web. The connections we make with each other are far, far more than informational. But I think most of her concerns below are a heads-up. Technology will change us – and the changes will be quite big, but whether they are fundamental or not isn’t yet clear. As somebody said, one of the most misleading things about historical dramas is that the Tudors and the Benedictines etc weren’t very much like us at all.

Anyway, below are my notes. I was the audience member with the netbook illuminating my face like a spotlight. The pretty young thing, yes. Why they maintain such profound darkness in the auditorium at Jewish book week I have no idea.

So, the notes – just in case it wasn’t recorded, and because tapping away on this thing helps me think:


Motivation – what kind of people will your children be?

Brain is plastic, mouldable – environmentally sensitive. If environment changes, does the brain?

Do you want your children to be noone, someone, anyone – or a fourth which is individual but also fulfilled.

Unlike any other species we learn and adapt to env – occupy more ecological niches than any other species.

Piano experiment. Control. 2nd group 5-finger exercise – brain changes. 3rd group imagined playing the piano. The changes in the brains of Group 3 were as profound as those in Group 2. Old dichotomy of mental v. physical is misleading. “Something happening in the everyday squalour of the physical brain.” Even a thought is changing something in the brain.

Humans have shifted from instinct to learning. Our personhood is made of connections between brain-cells. Up to 100k connections coming out of any single cell. Greater surface area, more and more connections. The personalisation – sensory to cognitive. Things have significance to each of us. This marks us out as human. Dementia is the failure to see one thing in relation to something else anymore.

Have today’s stimuli become fundamentally different from the book?


  • Fascinating feat of conjuring up a ‘real world’ from a novel which is somehow realer than the film of the book.

  • Books are narratives. You come out changed. Embed narrative into conceptual framework – filter, evaluate, compare: understanding one think in terms of something else.


  • quasi real strong images shifting to the here and now. Shift from content to process

  • When you play a game to rescue the princess, you don’t care about the princess.

  • Reaction – yuck and wow.

  • May never make the same connections or deep relationships as children raised with verbal language.

Lisa – all undergrads watched sesame st, so academics have to incorporate images and increase their pace. Mental landscape also shaped by community, kinship etc – how will the fast-paced change here – the new nature of the family – act on children?

Susan – still same number of hours in the day. Portfolio of activities is fine, but too much exposure to screen technologies is worrying.

Lisa – what about TV?

Susan – TV incidental; family was interacting round it. Worried about people buying games to play on their own. “Everything that is bad is good for you” – Stephen Johnson (?). has an antithetical view. Flynn effect (absolutely engrossing  recent presentation by James Flynn on IQ is available as an mp3 on the What Is Intelligence link at the bottom of this page) – shift upwards in IQ. IQ tests are not about meaning, significance or understanding but can you see patterns or connections or relationships between numbers, shapes, letters. But we want people who can empathise or understand.

Lisa – life-enhancing ingenious use of information. SG has a pessimistic view of what you can do with information?

Susan – no but I want it embedded.


disprop growth of pre-frontal cortex (forebrain). Finneas Gage. Higher BMI, younger, schizophrenic, compulsive gamblers all live in the moment, trumps consequences – pre-frontal cortex less functioning. You’re in a moment – characterised by strong sensations without relevance. Condition brain. More solipsistic. Bankers. When you ski or take drugs – “having a sensational time”. Ecstasy (Greek). Not a “cognitive time”. Abandon self-consciousness; passive recipient of your senses. Let yourself go.

What kind of people, citizens, do we want our children to be? Until we know that we can’t form the environment to promote it.

Where is biology taking us?

Evaluating somebody’s age. Working? Reproductive status? Health?

Biotechnology is going to challenge all of these. If you are healthier you look yoounger. Stem cells for male pattern baldness as well as growing organs. Health and appearance blur. Reproductive technologies are increasing – can’t clearly distinguish child, parent, grandparent. Occupation – people can work from home increasingly. (Pension age should go up to keep brain active).

IT challenges fantasy world and reality. Biolotech challenges difference between old and young. Nanotechnology challenges another boundary your body and the outside world – firewall. Transhumanism – enhancing physical and mental powers with technological prosthesis.

We always had compartments and distinctions in our mind – these are now all challenged by technologies on the outside. We might enter a different world without an individual sense of a journey.

Lisa – grandpa hadn’t learnt to process at the speed of cinema. There is not consistency and constancy in the human condition. Historical drama is wrong – people back then weren’t just like us. Contours have gone, changed. But something may come which replaced it.


Q: How important is downtime? Constantly in situation where I can consume something.

A: Stopping and testing – micro downtime. Reading and writing slows down the mind. Fast paced incessant stimulation

Q: What are the organising principles of educating for wisdom?

A: Related something to something else. Encourage contextualisation. Compare: “If that’s true then what follows?”

Q: Damaging?

A: That’s a value judgement. But we don’t make the most of our potential if we remain as children reacting to things all the time.

Q: Telepathy?

A: Noosphere (nodes). Placebo. Atmosphere.

Update: see Yish for a round-up of responses.I do understand that many physical scientists think that much social biology is unrigorous. But I think that Susan Greenfield has been traduced – and for the first time I narrow my eyes at Ben Goldacre because his blog post seems personal given what I heard her say above. Who takes the Daily Mail’s word for anything?

1 thought on “Identity in a digital world – Susan Greenfield in conversation with Lisa Jardine

  1. Pingback: brainbook roundup « Designed for learning

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