New Delhi: Baroness Susan Greenfield, a member of Great Britain’s House of Lords and a neuroscientist at Oxford University, is about as controversial as scientists can get. As head of the UK’s Royal Institution, the world’s oldest independent research body, she did much to boost science communication as well as slap sexism charges on the institution when it ousted her. She spoke in an interview about her controversial opinion on the potentially deleterious effects of social networking sites on teenagers’ brains, sexism in science, as well as her forthcoming dystopian novel, 2121 . Edited excerpts:
You’re known for your controversial views on how prolonged exposure to Facebook and computer games could be changing teenagers’ brains? Is this good or bad?
Well, if you’re a neuroscientist you take it as a given that the brain will change because we know that the brain is really sensitive to the environment and that is why we are so successful as a species. We don’t run fast, don’t see particularly well, and are not as strong compared to others, but what we do fantastically is adapt to our environment. The big question is how we will adapt and whether that will be good or bad. I’m often portrayed as a grumpy, middle-aged killjoy, but this is a bit similar to the 1950s when concerns began to be raised about lung cancer and smoking and people said, “Ah, there’s no evidence.” Some people were making money and a lot of people were having fun, and what you don’t want is people to come along and spoil the party.
Doesn’t that analogy suggest that these technologies are harmful?
Sure, in a sense it reflects my concerns, and that is that anything a human being does to the point of exclusion of other things isn’t good. The first problem that I have is that when kids are spending on an average six hours or more (on social media, computer games), it means spending six hours of not doing other things. They are not climbing trees any more, or going for a walk.
You mean they are interacting much less with the real world?
They are living in two dimensions, because however wonderful and exciting their computer screens, they can only offer hearing and vision at the moment. That’s pretty boring compared to the lovely, fragrant, tactile three-dimensional world. So in order to keep your attention, if I’m a screen, I’d have to be very powerful, very noisy, very bright and exciting (to match that). That means, by definition, the screen will have to get louder, more violent and more exciting to hold your attention, and that concerns me. Now I don’t know the situation in India, but in the UK there’s a threefold increase in the (sales of a) drug called ritalin (for attention deficit disorder) in the last 10 or 15 years. Now it could be that the drug is more easily available, doctors prescribe it more, or the environment (that I was describing before). The other concern I have is about (decreasing) attention spans. We do know that when we are aroused all the time, that releases a chemical called dopamine, and dopamine underlies all sorts of addiction that have in common that they release dopamine in the brain. It could be that in cases such as computer addiction, this is tapping into the same mechanism. Now let’s think about social interaction. Now we’ve just met and are having a conversation and I’m looking you in the eye and sometimes you look away and sometimes I do.
The degree of eye contact you maintain is learnt (through experience) and even more important is the way you touch someone. All these skills are important for maintaining social relations and none of them are available via computer screens. If you are a kid and have 900 “friends” on Facebook, you are not talking to them. You are talking to a screen which is not gonna hug you or smile at you, and if that is your primary form of communication then you are going to be very uncomfortable when you have some sort of a face-to-face interaction. If you are that uncomfortable, you could retreat into the Net and, thus, there could be a whole generation of kids who have great problems in interpersonal communication skills.
So what do you propose? Should we withdraw or restrict ourselves from the Internet?
Well, telling someone you shouldn’t do something will make it more glamourous and more exciting. Rather than regulation, there should be education. A lot can be gained by giving people insight into the way their brains work. I’ve done a lot of work on drug habits in schoolchildren.
When I’ve gone and explained how drugs work on the brain, I’ve seen that it really helps them. The second way—and I’m happy to sit down with Web designers and software writers—can’t we think of cyber experiences which give people a sense of identity and an appreciation of consequences? It isn’t expensive, like particle accelerators, it just requires enough people sit down with an open mind.
As a science communicator, do you think that certain subjects such as radiation and genetic engineering will always arouse popular suspicion and distrust—even if they are backed up by good science and effective communication channels?
The way a message goes out is more a consequence of the interaction between scientists, politics and the media. They all have their own different agendas. If you are scientist, your interest is in finding the truth and you have years to do this. If you’re a politician, you are trying to giving the public what they want and your timescale is two-three years if you’re a democracy. And the media’s agenda is to sell papers or get viewers, else you won’t be in business and your time scale—from my experience with the press—is about half an hour (laughs). None of these are right or wrong. These three have to work together, and the problems arise when there is a mismatch. Frankenfoods (a term for genetically modified, or GM, food) may sell papers but won’t help in the long term (understanding the pros and cons of GM foods). Now consider (these statements)—“I won’t eat GM foods till they are proved safe” and “I will use mobile phones until they are proved harmful”. What’s the difference? It’s a matter of self-interest. Mobile phones are so useful and helpful, people are willing to take a risk.
I guess that could also extend to the use of spending a lot of time on social networking sites. Unless we have strong compelling empirical evidence that these could damage the brain, do you think people are going to keep off them?
Certainly. But damage is the wrong word to use. I said we would have different brains and whether they are good or bad is not for us to judge. It isn’t damage like in cancer or another disease. As regards evidence, there are epidemiological trends like an increase in violence, drug addiction and distraction that we are seeing in young people and there’s a book called The Shallows by Nicholas Carrwhich has a whole chapter on evidence. More importantly, what evidence can we bring about? Are we going to take a kid, wait 20 years and (then) show he’s dysfunctional and say “look i was right”. We can’t design a simple experiment to decide so quickly that involves something so complex and involved as how people are changing. Showing the effects of smoking is relatively easier, and to an extent it involves subjective judgement.
You’ve founded three companies. Have any of them focused on these issues?
No, not at all. Those were attempts. Those were a long time ago and currently the climate in the United Kingdom isn’t conducive to testing such ideas. Everyone is very risk averse.
You’ve been referred to as a “Prada-wearing scientist” and quite a departure from the stereotypical dowdy scientist...
Well, this is Armaniactually (laughs) and Topshop. But this is interesting. If I were an advertising executive or a banker, would I have been referred to as a “Prada-wearing” advertising executive? It does go to show that the perception of science still needs a lot of work, and I think that’s especially true for young girls and women who want to do science. If they perceive that it’s unusual for a woman to be a scientist and she is even more unusual in that she spends money on clothes, this is going to deter girls from doing science. If people have a perception that I’m unusual, then it’s a shame. It’s not like I’m (dressing like) Lady Gaga.
Do you think being dressed fashionably has a positive effect on the public image of science?
At the Royal Institution, I had a special series of lectures given by women scientists to schoolgirls to try and inspire them. They were given questionnaires after the lecture, and one of the girls had written about one of the lecturers that “if that’s what women scientists look like, count me out”. Well, sure, this woman scientist was a bit dowdy. That put me in a problem. Should I only invite women scientists who look like Madonna, in which case it would’ve been a very short lecture series, and if the woman wants to look dowdy, well, that’s her right. Well, when I looked into it further, it turned out that the lecturer actually was a bit boring and what those girls were tapping into wasn’t so much as to whether she was wearing Pradaor not, but the fact that she wasn’t interesting or exciting. If you’re exciting, it doesn’t matter what you wear or look like, though, that said, at least in England we need a lot more gender and ethnic diversity in science.
So there’s a problem with sexism in science in the UK?
Sexism, yes, and even ethnicity, too. It’s a very conservative image that is given out.
You had a rather public falling-out with the Royal Institution and you filed charges of sexism?
Yeah, it was an ugly, difficult time. Unfortunately, for legal reasons, I can’t talk very much about it.
You’ve done a lot of work towards treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. In some ways, isn’t it a losing battle? Better medicine and technology are only making people live longer (and neural degradation is inevitable). So what kind of solutions are realistically possible?
Well, there are two approaches. One is you could go to your doctor for a routine blood test and imagine if it was possible to detect a marker in your blood that showed that before the symptoms came on that you had Alzheimer’s. We know that this is possible because for Parkinson’s disease as well as Alzheimer’s the neural degeneration starts a long time before you see the symptoms, partly because the brain adapts. If you could know this in advance, it would be helpful because the person could plan their life. The second scenario is that if you knew how to stop any more cells from dying, and someone came to you with memory problems and seemed a bit confused, you could give them a pill that would keep them from getting worse, people would take a such a thing with both hands. That would be a monumental breakthrough.
Are you working on any more books?
I’ve written a lot on the future of technology, but now I’m contemplating a novel and it’s set about a 100 years from now and called 2121. The best review I could get is if it could be the 1984 or the Brave New World of the century. I’ve written it but there’s more work to be done. The hero is a neuroscientist and we have eerily similar views.