Susan Greenfield

Susan Greenfield

"Academics talk about dumbing down.If I saw me,I'd probably say 'She's sold sold out,' but I haven't"

She's a workaholic dynamo who says she likes to do everything to excess - except drugs, which literally blow your mind. The first female director of the Royal Institution and presenter of BBC2's Brain Story is a woman with a mission - to explain the brain in a way that makes sense to everybody

Andrew Duncan

Andrew Duncan She is a whirlwind in everything - career, marriage, eating, talking - bouncing ideas and metaphors with the care- free, but deadly, insouciance of a kamikaze. She invites controversy as she strips mystique and elitism from brain surgery to make it understandable to a lay public, bewildered, as at no previous time, by rapid scientific developments that are changing our lives. Dressed in a black Armani miniskirt, black stockings and red sweater, looking a decade younger than her 49 years, the Oxford professor in synaptic pharmacology has "darted round" to lunch a few yards from the London office where she spends part of the week shaking up one of the world's most venerable scientific research centres, the Royal Institution. She is its first woman director. "My dream is that of an evening people will say, 'What's on at the RI tonight?' rather than 'Let's go to the Roxy'." She orders briskly. "I'm tempted by escargots with garlic, but my husband will kill me, so I'll have soupe du poisson and filet of lotte with mashed potato." She adds, "I've tried to slow down my talking. I'm impatient. I hate waiting around. You know those personalities destined to have coronaries? I'm one of them. I must be hyperactive. I have three people doing my diary and correspondence."

Susan aged 11
By the age of 11,she was a star pupil.

This is going to be an exhausting, but stimulating, couple of hours with a woman who resents boundaries - she has posed for Hello!, written 150 erudite scientific papers and uses her shapely ankles and feet controversially to kick down the fusty barricades of scholastic elitism. "Academics talk about 'dumbing down' and think you can't grubby your hands in the real world. Colleagues may make derogatory remarks behind my back, but none would say things to my face - that's the way of human beings. If I saw me, I'd probably snipe at myself and say, 'She's sold out,' although I haven't, and it's more intellectually challenging to make salient, complex points sound simple."

She worries that there is a growing philistinism, particularly among younger scientists who are too focused on their CVs and frightened of being adventurous. "But that might be a problem with all young people who no longer read classics or ask the big questions of life. They feel they have to fight to survive in their careers, so they toe the line, rather than being challenging and brave. To be heretical, I don't know if we're doing better science than 30 years ago. I understand what it's like to regard scientists as dysfunctional nerds, which is their image, but they're just normal - neither cleverer, stupider nor less emotional than anyone else - although they do sometimes like to make things obscure and can have a monastic attitude, cherishing the idea that academics live in ivory towers. Increasingly, though, the scientific community realises we have to mesh with society - especially if we're raising issues of concern which have real impact."

School Report
Already,in 1960,her school report had highlighted her potential.

Indeed, it is humbling to be told our most sensitive feelings - religious, sexual, emotional - can be replicated by interfering with a few neurons in the brain. "Some people are frightened that when we understand the brain, we reduce it to atoms, molecules and chemicals and lose the magic of all we hold dear. I hope it's not offensive that we question religion, for example. I try to sit on the fence and say if someone has a religious experience, it can be matched by a change in a certain part of the brain, so how do you know if it comes from there or planet Zog? I don't personally believe in God but don't say so in the series. I respect people's beliefs and present them with facts, and because we can describe the brain in terms of its components, it doesn't mean we're reducing it to those components. We're saying they fit together like bricks to make a house, but how you build the house is up to you.

"The brain is an exquisite, individual combination. sensitive to environment. Certainly, we'll be able to stimulate bits of it, but you can't target just sex, cooking ability or criminality. All those functions are net products of the whole house. If you change one component, you alter others. The potential could be frightening, but it's also exciting and if viewers are informed, which is what I hope to do, they can assess it in the right context. I want encourage debate about the questions and ethics raised.

"I run my lab in a less confrontational way than men and when I deal with women,life is magically easier"

There is the vexed, perhaps politically incorrect suggestion, observable by many married men, that the average brain, over a kilogram (around 2 1/2b) in weight with 100 billion cells, is different in women and men. "If you and I put our brains on the table now, you wouldn't know which was male and which was female. But if you took a large number, you'd notice that the connections between the two hemispheres are on average denser in women. Some people think that means women find it easier to multitask [she hasn't, I notice smugly, found a neuron to liberate herself from jargon-speak]. But it's not as if we have a magic bit of brain bolted on. There are also very different hormonal profiles between the sexes.

"I run my lab in a less confrontational way than men, who sometimes like to establish their power by bullying or the amount of space they have. Women are freed from all your testosterone, so they don't have so much of the killer instinct When I deal with women, life is magically easier. The meetings are smoother and one gets on with the job. I wish women could be more assertive - we often stand back just to make you lot look good - and men less hung up on how powerful they seem. My parents brought me up to fight my own corner, ask questions, be accountable for what I do and always speak my mind, which has got me into trouble. But above all, I believe the individual trumps everything and that is our marvellous birthright - unlike goldfish, which are under genetic tyranny and don't have time to learn anything."

Graduation day
With best friend Shaheen Bekhradnia at their graduation from Oxford University.

She was brought up in Chiswick, west London, the daughter of Jewish electrician, Reg, and a dancer, Doris, who'd left home to go on the stage. "I have a bit of the performer in me. I went to dancing lessons at four and was pretty crummy, but loved to dress up, make up and be in the school play." She studied philosophy and psychology at Oxford, worked on a kibbutz, researched in Paris for a year. "In those heady days - 1973 - it was the start of neuroscience and I became fascinated."Her own expertise is in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and there is some grumbling among academics that she set up, with others, a research and drug company, Synaptica, to patent a novel use for a chemical in the brain. She has four per cent of the equity, Oxford university owns 20 per cent and outside investors have the rest. "I'm not a maverick. There's a new entrepreneurial culture. Oxford has spun out at least nine companies in the last few years, which could provide an income enabling them to stand free of government and to fund scholarships."

Colleagues also criticise her for suggesting it is difficult for a woman to have children as well as keeping abreast of a scientific career. She has taken her own advice. At 40, she married Oxford's Professor Peter Atkins, who wrote the world's bestselling chemistry book, Physical Chemistry. ("Don't dare print his name wrong. The Times called him Brian. Brian! Imagine! I'm always upset by inaccuracies. They could have looked it up in Who's Who." She's there; he isn't, but he's very relaxed about her high media profile.) "I didn't think I'd marry. I stood on my own two feet, with a kernel of friends and boyfriends as an optional extra. I didn't need a dashing prince and I certainly didn't want to dress in white and be a fairy princess. I don't think I could be described as an old-fashioned woman. I'm a lousy cook, and hate housework. And then I met Peter, found a special relationship and the corollary was that we married. "

Awarded CBE
Awarded a CBE by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace,on 27 April 2000.

We get up at five in the morning, seven days a week, lock ourselves away working on Sunday, take our laptops on holiday - which we go on often, in exotic places. I don't blush at that. We've earned it. I sometimes think, as Keats said, 'Oh for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts,' but if you're born with a thinking attitude, it won't go away. I wouldn't like to be more carefree. I feel a strong sense of mortality, that I have only one life and there's so much I want to do and discover." They have no children. "I didn't wake one morning and decide not to. A negative decision like that evolves. When I was 13, my parents had a son and it was horrible - smelly nappies, sleepless nights for mum, loads of mess. It turned me off motherhood - although my brother is a very nice person. Also, I never had that visceral, gut-wrenching desire for babies I gather some women experience, and I married a man who already had a daughter and made it clear he didn't want any more. Maybe there are covert Freudian things as well. I sometimes wonder what it would feel like to be pregnant. But I also wonder about bungee jumping. Some women are fulfilled by having children, but if you sublimate your desires to another individual - usually a man - it leads to frustration."

And brain-altering antidepressants prescribed by GPs? "Exactly," she says. "Look how many housewives were addicted to Librium for decades. If you're in desperate pain, then opiates can relieve it, but that doesn't mean you take morphine if you're a bit fed up. Will it help someone cope with life by marinating their brain in Prozac? There's always a pay-off. That's an example of manipulating the bricks, not the house. What happens is the chemical causes a change in the configuration of the brain, in terms we poorly understand, to alleviate depression. There might be other ways of doing it - playing squash, being happy, laughing, dancing, having an orgasm. We've developed this idea that we should always be happy and there is a solution to everything. In earlier cultures you didn't expect to suffer a bereavement and be happy the next day. It's sad if we reduce our repertoire of emotions by taking a drug. We're getting into a culture where we escape problems, rather than absorb them, sort them out and move on with life. Almost by definition, we cannot change emotions, but we can manipulate them.In the series, we show an interesting experiment where one group is told they've been given amphetamines and a control group is not told. Those who know it's an amphetamine say they feel happy and high. Those who don't feel anxious. It shows the drug itself doesn't have the emotion locked into it - more it reacts to your existing mind set."

RI Campaign
Patron Cherie Booth helps her launch the RI's Heart of Science campaign in 1999.

I wonder if she's ever taken drugs. "Not really. I tried a joint in the sixties, but couldn't stand sitting in corners giggling. I'm the manic type, who likes zapping around. I drink, but given I like to do things in excess, I put very fierce rules on myself- never at lunch, never by myself I used to smoke heavily and drank coffee perhaps every 20 minutes, which is why I have mint tea now. I am so anti drugs. The big risk is you'll change the person you are. Blowing your mind is exactly what you're doing. I oppose the view that cannabis is OK. You need only 0.7mg - as opposed to 2,000mg of alcohol - to achieve an observable effect in the brain. People don't realise that."

"Will it help someone cope by marinating their brain in Prozac? It's sad if we reduce our repertoire of emotions"

Husband:Peter Atkins
She married Peter Atkins,a professor of chemistry at Oxford University,in 1991.

Rapid biological and chemical discoveries mean, she says, we are at a crossroads. We may soon be able to live a life of virtual reality. 'That would take away individuality and make you a sponge. I fear it, but one way of alleviating that fear is to talk about it and make sure it doesn't happen. We could have a restricted gene pool [if foetuses with the "wrong" genes are aborted], a culture of competitiveness where everyone wants the same, which would lead to a higher incidence of psychiatric disorders and drug abuse because people are trying to escape distressing situations. There's always someone cleverer, richer, fatter, thinner than you, so if you don't enjoy being you and all the wonderful things you are, and compare yourself with others, you'll be unhappy. Or we could have a world where we have huge amounts of leisure to learn, think, create and try in improve the lot of the less fortunate. Science has the technology to achieve all those ends and it is a social issue, whether we channel it towards good or ill. I'd hate to see people happy all the time, wrapped in drugs, sanitised against the problems and worries of mankind. To expect fun every moment diminishes the human condition. And you mustn't become sad about the inevitable deterioration of the body. Your brain is your best bit. If you put your faith in it, there's no reason you shouldn't enjoy yourself until you die."
WEBWATCH You can hear extracts from this interview at


School's bid for winning formula

A TOP scientist is backing a high school's bid to become a science college. Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE has agreed to become patron of Fairfield High School for Girls, which is aiming to become a science college as part of the government's specialist schools initiative. This could bring the school £500,000 over three years to pay for more books, equipment and staff, but it needs to come up with 'match funding' of £50,000 by March to make the next round of bidding for the cash. Baroness Greenfield is director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain and professor of pharmacology at Oxford University.
She specialises in research into Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and is well-known in the scientific community for communicating science to the general public. Chris Penter, headteacher at the Fairfield Avenue school, said: "We approached the Baroness who then had a look at us on our website.. "'To receive support from probably the most influential female scientist in the country today is tremendous." The Droylsden school has also received a major boost from the Moravian Church, which founded the school 200 years ago - making it the oldest school in England. It has pledged £5,000 for the bid. - Mr Penter added: "The church obviously recognises the hugebenefits that science college status will bring to Fairfield and the local community. "It has always had a belief in education for women and is very forward-thinking in that particular respect. "This pledge is an excellent and unexpected start to our fund raising and we are extremely grateful. "We have sent out 1,000 letters to parents as we have a long way to go before we reach the required £50,000." Any firms or individuals wanting to make a pledge can contact Chris at Fairfield High School on 0161 370 1488. Tom Rowley
The Advertiser Jan2,2003

A mind of her own

Susan Greenfield,pioneering guide to the brain,worries that new technology will limit our individuality.That can't be a problem for her reports Gail Vines

Susan Greenfield

ALTHOUGH NOT quite a household name, perhaps, Susan Greenfield is a star media boffin. She's one of a handful of British scientists who seem to enjoy writing accessible books about science. Braving academic disdain, she writes newspaper columns and presents TV documentaries as well. She has even itemised the contents of her handbag at the behest of an inquiring journalist. With a winning smile and quick-fire verbal agility; Greenfield is at home in the celebrity jungle of media and politics.
This year the Daily Mail ranked her among its "100 most influential women in Britain", while in 2000 The Observer voted her Woman of the Year Two years ago, Tony Blair elevated her to the House of Lords: Baroness Greenfleld. She's pro-GM food, by the way and against the decriminalisation of cannabis. On a wide range of subjects, Susan Greenfield has no doubt of her own mind.
Which brings us to the heart of her latest book, Tomorrow's People:how 21st century technonogy is changing the way we think and feel (Allen Lane, £20). Fiction, albeit science fiction, was what she wanted to write. One Christmas, on a quiet beach holiday in the Caribbean, she set out to write a racy thriller a page turning novel featuring "a science-starlet", "a brilliant and beautiful heroine, a female neuroscientist ..". Disarmingly, Greenfield says she soon abandoned the attempt, judging her narrative pedestrian, her characters cliched and her dialogue wooden. Meet this scientist and you soon discover that self-revelation is Greenfield's secret weapon. Openness, outspokenness and sheer self-belief can be highly attractive characteristics.
So Tomorrow's People is, for its author the next best thing to fiction; an imaginative leap into what the future might be, given a range of advances in IT genetics, reproduction and nanotechnology futurology has its dangers, though. Readers of this book must be willing to journey along the paths she maps out, with signposts provided by her researcher Milla Harrison.
In Greenfield's vision, the future is peopled by a decidedly dreary lot. They spend more time conversing with household appliances than with one another. Their loos tell them how they're feeling; their fridges tell them what to eat. At least washing machines are not in on the conversation, as clothes clean themselves. (Bacteria embedded in the fabric eat the dirt.)

Tomorrow's people reproduce via test tubes, eat GM food, and go to work on the web. Illness and disability are well-nigh banished by designer embryos, "neutraceutical" food designed to contain every nutrient known to science, and miraculous medical interventions such as cyber-prostheses and gene therapy.
But futuristic lifestyle scenarios are not really what interest Greenfield. Instead, she's concerned about how this technology is changing the way we think and feel. And no wonder. Most of the time, the denizens of her dystopia are either stoned out of their minds or away with the cyber-fairies. They should get out more, but of course in this hi-tech world there's no reason to.
BORN IN 1950 In London, the daughter of a dancer and an elertrician, Susan Greenfleld grew up in Chiswick, studied at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and took a DPhil in Oxford's Departmant of Pharmacology. In 1985, she was appointed university lecturer in synaptic pharmacology, and a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. In 1991 she married Professor Peter Atkins, the chemist and author of best-selling textoooks. She became a life peer in 2001. Since 1996, she has been professor of pharmacology, senior research fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, and an honorary fellow at St Hilda's. At Oxford she heads a multi-disciplinary group researching brain mechanisms linked to neurodegeneration. Her company, BrainBoost Ltd, is developing non-pharmaceutical approaches to Alzheimer's disease. In 1995 she published her theory of consciousness, Journey to the Centres of the Mind, which she developed further in The Private Life of the Brain (2000). In 1994 she was the first woman to give the Royal Institution Christmas lectures, and in 1998 was appointed its director. Her TV series Brain Story was broadcast on BBC2 in 2000 and her new book, Tomorrow's People, appears from Allen Lane this week.

Forget wholesome walks in the country; nature doesn't feature. When I mention this, Greenfield laughs and says that, "I am a Londoner I was born a Londoner and I think I'm finally old enough and sufficiently confident to stand up and say unflinchingly; I'm an urban person. I hate gardening and cooking, but I love shopping, I love wine bars, the diversity and buzz of city life and things to do."
But even metropolitan attractions are off the agenda for tomorrow's people. Cybershopping satisfies every material desire, while cyber-sex does for the rest. Even children are expected to bend genders and try every conceivable orientation in virtual reality: "Hetero-, bi- and homosexual boundaries have long been obsolete, as has the old concept of the family."
Yet it's not the prospect of sexual experimentation or post-family life that worries Greenfield, but something else: what she perceives as the threat to the private, solitary individual. In 2050, with everyone wired to everyone else, individual identity has become submerged within a vast public collective. Wittgensteinians might argue that human subjectivity has never been coherently conceptualised as a private affair, but Greenfield's stab at explaining consciousness, The Private Life of the Brain, makes a virtue of distinctive inner worlds. So the stakes are high.
In her universally IT-connected world, "we would no longer have private thoughts; rather we would effectively be part of a larger network, a mere node in a thinking, conscious system". With the loss of private thoughts, Greenfleld believes, go creativity originality, and the wellsprings of human achievement. The antidote to terrorism and fundamentalist cults, she says, is to foster private lives. It's as though the solution to Osama bin Laden is suburbia.
If there's a whiff of Cold War rhetoric here, her intellectual stance probably reflects more straightforwardly the robust mindset of a self-made woman. She admires the radical individualism of the existentialists, and would most like a time machine to take her back to Left-Bank Paris of the 1950s. The daughter of a Jewish electrician and a Gentile dancer she says she has always been aware that she doesn't fit easily into standard categories.
A working class child sent to an academic, middle-class school, and shored up always by the unwavering support of her mother Susan won a place at Oxford to read Greats, before switching to psychology. Now a businesswoman (a founding director of BrainBoost Ltd), an Oxford don and director of the Royal Institution, she can justifiably feel well-placed to advise on the secrets of success. "Just be yourself" she tells first-year Oxford undergraduates who are reeling from the discovery that they are no longer the brightest in the class.
It's good advice, yet in some ways at odds with Greenfield's central message. For although she speaks strongly of the importance of tolerance and openness to difference, she doesn't really want everyone to do whatever they like. Rather she wants them to be like her to improve themselves, to work hard, to reach goals. Stark dualities run through her book: good vs bad; private vs public; active vs passive; and something vs hedonism, though I'm not clear what. "Achievement", says Greenfield, in a flash.
She's suspicious of happiness, of pleasure, unless it springs from improving activity like writing books or healthful, physical activity (her mother's daughter she herself loves dancing.) In her future-nightmare world, humanity has sunk into sensation-seeking passivity lost in chemical oblivion or mindless cyber-entertainment, living only for the pleasure of the moment.
If that's the threat from modern technology spelt out in Tomorrow's People in vivid detail, the way to avoid it is less clear. She speaks genenally of education, and of encouraging young people to greater personal achievement. We have to work from the bottom up, she says. "Scientific literacy" is the way forward, Greenfield insists.
Tomorrow's People criticises the Technophobe, the Tehnophile and the Cynic. So what's a preferable stance? I ask. Should the ideal citizen be a Technosceptic? "No," she says, "I think what we need is a techno-savvy populace, who say now that we have this technology how can we use it, how can we make the most of it?"
As an entrepreneur Greenfield does not warm to government regulation as a restraint to technological excess. Instead, she advocates the formation of a Science Peace Corps to develop technologies to tackle the plight of the developing world: "the age-old issues of drought, flood, famine, infection, corruption and contraception". Perhaps "By taking on stark reality" she says, "we might be able to stave off the more alarming excesses of the new technologies that could corrode our human individuality."
"The private ego is the most precious thing we each have," she argues, "and it is far more vulnerable now than ever before." Being human is not a sufficient safeguard; human nature is too malleable, too open to environmental influence. Rather we need to design and plan a world, she says, in which the individual is celebrated above all else.
Yet the author herself is ample proof that individuality is alive and kicking. Why should someone who exudes such a sense of self -not even afraid to let down her long blonde hair for the photographer in the Royal Institution's poster - be so sure that the private ego is under siege? Could it be that everyone else seems bland in comparison? If so, her next venture - three months as Thinker in Residence in Adelaide - might just reassure her that human individuality shows no signs of fading away just yet.
[The Independent Magazine prior to 27Sep 2003]

| Problem of Consciousness | Brain Tour | Machinery and Intelligence |

Further Reading

Brainpower Susan Greenfield (Editor) Element Books Ltd
The Human Brain Susan Greenfield Published 1998 Phoenix Press Paperback
The Human Mind Explained Susan Greenfield Published 1998 Ward Lock Paperback





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