interesting interview on the abc radio national, here's the transcript.
Note: Her tendency to not consider getting out of her brain, and elevating her consciousness to actually study consciousness. She is trapped by her own beliefs. Greenfield bless her thinks that drugs can damage your brain but she's failed into the narrow belief that drugs are bad. there are good and bad drugs, and the idea of any discipline is to change the brain not damage it. she has seen the results of people who took dumb drugs, she should investigate the ones that have used it as a medicine, our plant friends will educate her on the ideas of consciousness and what can be perceived with it's expansion.
Today a feature interview with ‘brain woman’ Susan Greenfield. She’s Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford but she’s become a pop star of sorts amongst scientists.
Harpers and Queen ranked her No.14 on its list of the 50 Most Inspirational Women in the World. She’s a member of the House of Lord and is Director of the Royal Institution in Britain, the first woman in that role. And if that wasn’t enough Susan Greenfield continues to do her science and leads a research team looking at the neurodegenerative disorders Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. She’s also managed to write a handful of extremely popular science books amongst them The Private Life of the Brain.
Susan Greenfield has done a lot of thinking about what makes me, me and you, you, about how each of us comes to have a unique sense of self. And today we’re exploring her ideas about the basis of human consciousness. “There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain” – those are the words of philosopher David Chalmers, author of The Conscious Mind. Words to which, I’m sure, Susan Greenfield would respond – well let’s give it our best shot.
Natasha Mitchell: Few of us would ever really get to see a human brain dead or alive so I wanted to start by asking you what was the first experience like of actually getting your hands on a human brain? This role I imagine obviously struck a cord.
Susan Greenfield: Well exactly, that’s exactly why I decided to do brain research because until that time I’d been much more preoccupied with the arts subjects, literature and history but primarily with philosophy, I was interested as the ancient Greeks were in the concepts of mind and the issue of accountability and responsibility. But in order to do that certainly the course I was doing at Oxford entailed doing some practical work and this entailed dissection of a human brain and I do remember it, actually getting this plastic pot put in front of my partner and I and then getting this thing out. You have these gloves on and you put your hand in and you pull out this pickled essence of a person and I remember thinking if I get a piece under my fingernail would that be the bit that somebody loved with or would that be a memory, what would it be. And it does bring it home to you this absolute normality of what it is and what it looks like. It’s far less exotic and glamorous looking than the heart or the lungs. It does bring home to you the absolute stunning miracle of how the water if you like is converted into wine, how the physical bump and grind and sluggy thing can actually translate into that inner world that we call our consciousness.
Natasha Mitchell: Because it very much is like porridge isn’t it?
Susan Greenfield: It is, in its normal state, I’ve seen a brain operation, it is a very quivery, quakery unstable looking mass indeed.
Natasha Mitchell: Brain operations occur while the person is actually alert and conscious.
Susan Greenfield: Well certainly my friend and colleague Henry Marsh has pioneered that approach and I don’t know if people saw when I recorded my TV series of talking to a very, very nice lady who’d been volunteering to undergo brain surgery in front of the cameras and talking to her face and she was talking on about her honeymoon and her recipes and then you’d go round the other side and look at this six inch hole with this red splotchy stuff which had been talking at me and then it was almost Monty Python-esque you know of me talking to her as my friend Henry was aspirating the tumour which had a sort of sucking noise it’s a bit like a little vacuum cleaner. She said oh, don’t take out too much you know, she had a fabulous sense of humour, don’t suck too much, that was the brain saying that and had she wished, although she didn’t want to, Henry allows them to look at their own operation on closed circuit television. But she didn’t want this because she thought she might freak at it. But if you think about it had she’d agreed to do it that would be the brain looking at itself. It’s the sort of thing makes your mind really whirl and it’s those kind of questions, those kind of issues that I think put centre stage the issues of mind and brain.
Natasha Mitchell: Now the mind, the brain, the consciousness, we often use those terms as if they are interchangeable and traditionally philosophers have been the ones over the centuries that have dappled with the world of the mind and what it might mean, and what is it, and where does it fit and scientists have been a little bit more comfortable in more recent times with actually getting in and looking at the physical mess that is the brain. Why do you think scientists have been reluctant to grapple with this nebulous notion of the human mind?
Susan Greenfield: Someone once said that any scientist studying consciousness and the mind was undergoing a CLM – a career limiting move. And I think perhaps that it was quite telling but the pioneer scientists who are exploring consciousness and the mind such as Gerry Adelman, Brian Josephson and Francis Crick, what they have in common is they’ve all won the Nobel Prize and perhaps after that it’s something you can do otherwise people don’t take you seriously. I think the problem has been why mainstream science is very wary of the study of consciousness is that it is utterly subjective. It is the first person world, as it seems to you. Now science is all about impartial access, third person, clear measurements and here we have something that’s insubstantial and ineffable, some kind of magic and no wonder that is not very practical to scientific method and therefore most scientist would rather be preoccupied with some smaller problem. But as the philosopher John Saul said that’s a bit like saying you’re studying stomach but you’re not interested in digestion.
Natasha Mitchell: I do want to look at the ebb and flow of people thinking about consciousness because it has gone in and out of flavour hasn’t it and it’s certainly had a real revival now. Why are people obsessing about it now?
Susan Greenfield: Well of course philosophers have always been interested in philosophy of the mind but things do go into fashion and there is a mood of the time. In the 80s, 1980s there was a mood suddenly for philosophers, the more adventurous ones to actually start to talk to some scientists and the scientists to actually look up from the parapet. This also coincided with about ten or twenty years of brain research and we tend to take brain research for granted nowadays but until the early 1970s it didn’t really exist. The concept of neuroscience didn’t exist as a concept at all, people were either biochemists, or anatomists, or engineers, or physicists who may tangentially study the brain but it was considered far too mysterious really for anyone to take very seriously. And it wasn’t until the 1970s that people started to have these real exciting multi-disciplinary meetings where because no one knew very much everyone could understand what everyone was saying. So you’d go to a talk on vision, and then one on memory, and then one on language and there was a feeling of real excitement and exuberance and discovery as gradually this fledging science was given birth to, neuroscience.
Having said all that I think nonetheless we do have a confidence now that we know a little about how the brain works. Nowhere near enough but we have a grasp of some of the basic principles, sufficient enough I think to make some of us either the very brave or the very stupid I don’t know what we are, competent enough to start to think about these problems and I get rather angry when people say oh, we don’t know enough yet to understand consciousness because life is too short and we only have now, we might as well start now even if we are scorned by the next generation.
Natasha Mitchell: Well let’s consider some of your ideas about how we come to be subjective, feeling, conscious creatures. I wanted to ask Rene Descarte originally decided that there was a dualism, that the mind and the body operated as separate entities, they were something different, there was something materially different as well. Do you have any sense of what he said?
Susan Greenfield: Yes, he was a very great philosopher but one has to put them in the context of the times, and the context of the times to have denied the spiritual would have been heresy. It was something that nobody did. Sometimes people do say to me what about the soul and my answer back to that is that I’m not a theologian but I do know that the concept of a soul is something that entails immortality. But what is for sure is that the brain is perishable and that dies when you die so if you believe in a soul, if, and you therefore believe in something that’s immortal, that’s nothing to do with the physical brain so the issue of spirituality in the sense of surviving death is something that does not help us understand consciousness or the mind. It might help people understand the afterlife but that’s a separate issue.
Natasha Mitchell: Well the philosopher David Chalmers who actually originates from Adelaide in Australia but is now in Arizona heading up a great consciousness studies team over there, he decided that possibly consciousness might actually be a fundamental property of nature, you know something unique like time, like space.
Susan Greenfield: Yes, I’m familiar with that view, that’s almost what we used to call pan psychicism that is to say that consciousness is out there somewhere in some irreducible way. Obviously one can’t disprove what he says but at the same time it’s not overly helpful, it’s the kind of idea you’d come to once you’d exhausted absolutely everything else because what can you do with something like that. That is not going to help me explain why Prozac makes people less depressed or morphine gives people a dreamlike state and as a neurochemist you can see where I’m coming from.
Natasha Mitchell: Well of course then you consider that consciousness somehow resides in our brain. The temptation has been amongst many neuro-scientists has been to look for a centre of consciousness, a little bit in the brain and there it is, that’s where consciousness comes from. I mean how do you view that quest?
Susan Greenfield: I think it’s a rather pointless quest, it does echo the phrenology of course of the 19th Century when people thought the bumps on their head would be autonomous mini brains concerned with very specific functions like banality or love of children, and love of country being another bump. Nowadays that we have brain imaging it has tempted some people into thinking that because a certain bit of the brain lights up during a certain task that that is the centre for this and the centre for that. We know that is not the case, there’s two problems with that – one is multiple brain regions will often light up and also imaging, as it stands at the moment is over a second in duration which sounds pretty good but on the other hand we know consciousness can vary on a sub-second level. So if you think about it, it makes no logical sense because you’re talking then about a brain within a brain, you’ve miniaturised a problem you haven’t solved it. You’re no further down the line in understanding what consciousness is.
Natasha Mitchell: OK, so how do you think consciousness is working in our minds, in our brains, oh there you go, you see I’m swapping the two too.
Susan Greenfield: Shall we start off then by drawing a distinction between consciousness and mind? Because having dismissed the soul we might as well now romp on and look at the mind. Many scientists when they write their books on consciousness and there have been a huge rash of them most notably in the 1990s, conflated mind and consciousness, I think consciousness was such an ugly word that mind sat much better on the front cover. But my own view is that that’s wrong because if you think about it, just think in everyday language, we talk about blowing our mind, and losing our mind, and being out of our mind but you are still conscious and ditto when you go to sleep and you’re going to lose your consciousness you don’t think you’re going to lose your mind as such. So let’s think about mind as opposed to brain. It usually emphasises a personal element, some particular way we see the world broadminded, narrow minded, develop your mind and I think that’s just what happens actually that your brain gets personalised, we know that even though you’re born with pretty much all the brain cells you’ll have, it’s the connections between the brain cells that accounts for the growth of the brain after birth and these we are learning more and more reflect the kind of experiences you have. So that even if you’re a clone, that’s its own identical twin, you’ll have a unique configuration of brain cell connections and I think it’s this ever changing constellation of brain cell connections that carries on right up until we die that will determine the kind of person we are, even when we’re asleep even when we’re not conscious.
Natasha Mitchell: This is All in the Mind on ABC Radio National and Radio Australia, with me, Natasha Mitchell. And I’m talking consciousness with neuro-scientist, Baroness, TV star and author, Professor Susan Greenfield. So Greenfield considers that our brains become personalised with our unique memories and experiences over time through local constellations of neurons being activated or hardwired together. But what about that general sort of global consciousness that we all experience, what generates that feeling of a sense of self, connections between neurons suggests Susan Greenfield but on a much larger and more transient scale.
Susan Greenfield: This is the big problem because at first blush it is qualitative and scientists hate qualitative things so if only we could turn it into something we could measure. The one thing that we could measure would be the intermediate level of these connections but not just the hardwired ones but the ones that can change perhaps, that can coral up very quickly and disband we know that the brain can do that, that if you flash lights for example at the brain we know that in a quarter of a second ten million neurons can start working together and then by half a second they are disbanded again.
Natasha Mitchell: So here we’re looking for some physical explanation for a moment of consciousness, the very moment that a thought passes somehow into our brain and out again.
Susan Greenfield: Well I think a big assumption that we all make that’s wrong is that you’re either conscious or you’re not conscious. I glibly said just now consciousness is when you go to sleep you’re going to lose it. Now I think that dichotomy has bedevilled the concept of consciousness and indeed its study of the brain. Let’s question that. What if instead of consciousness being you have it or you don’t have it, what if consciousness grows as brains grow, because it certainly explains the riddle of a rat being conscious but not as conscious as a dog or cat, and a dog or cat being conscious but not as conscious as a baby and even, controversially a foetus being conscious but not as conscious as a child.
Natasha Mitchell: Levels of consciousness whether we have a deeper consciousness or a more shallow consciousness.
Susan Greenfield: Now we talk in our adult lives about raising our consciousness, people go to raising their consciousness sessions or deepening your consciousness and I think that’s also helpful not just because it does start to make sense of these riddles but as a scientist now converted something that was completely elusive now we’ve converted it into something that we measure. And what I think happens is that you’ll have a trigger or a stimulus, a bit like a stone being thrown in a puddle, and that stone could be the hard wired hub of brain cells that by the normal systems I was taught in Oxford when I was teaching visual systems for example, we know all the pathways that would activate a hard wired hub that’s easy, but then what happens this will coral up, very transiently, a large scale assembly of brain cells a little bit like the stone being thrown into a puddle, the ripples that will emanate will be highly transient but their excursion will vastly exceed the diameter of the stone. So what will happen is in the brain I think that you’ll have a trigger from a hard wired hub when you see something or someone that means a lot to you, the meaning being of course proportional to the number of connections and then that will coral up a very large population of brain cells.
Natasha Mitchell: It’s a bigger network of neurons firing in that moment.
Susan Greenfield: Yes, that’s right. The way you can get lots of ripples going in a big assembly of a deep consciousness is either to have a big stone that is to say a lot of associations built up over your life and that person will mean something to you or the stone thrown with great force, the alarm clock going, and I think that every moment of our life that’s what’s happening.
Natasha Mitchell: Are you really saying that the subjective world that we experience and live in is but a constellation of neurons firing on and off?
Susan Greenfield: No, it’s not that, what the assembly is, is an index of consciousness and that’s very different from being consciousness any more than if you look at your light going on in your iron you’re not going to say that the iron is all about that little flashing red light it’s an index that is sufficient as well as being necessary to signify degrees of consciousness but that if you put an assembly of brain cells in a jam jar thats not going to be conscious, of course not, it’s more what it is indicating and referring not just in the brain but in the whole body. And many scientists as indeed the philosophers tend to think of the brain as some isolated organ, very few of us, myself included, no much about immunology, or intra-chronology or below the eyebrows of the body very much but my own firm belief is that factors influencing the formation of that assembly and hence the depth of your consciousness don’t just include things within the brain but there’s feedback from not just your autonomic nervous system but also from your hormones and your immune system. Because if there wasn’t you’d have biological anarchy and we know that’s not the case, we know that when you are depressed you get ill and I think this is a new area again one requiring a multi-disciplinary scope and perspective. Having said that we know there are certain classes of chemicals that can, if you like, be tri-lingual that can work as neurotransmitters as chemical messengers in the brain that can talk to the hormone system and they can also talk to the immune system and I think that by studying these cocktails of peptides which is what they’re called then one could perhaps start to match that up with the size of the brain cell assembly. Now I think that would be the way to go but we mustn’t lose sight of the brain being part of the body.
Natasha Mitchell: Because it is intuitive that when if you think of say an emotion as being a fundamental unit of consciousness and experience of consciousness it’s intuitive that emotions are very much felt in the body. You feel sick, our heart beats or whatever, consciousness it seems is very much a full body experience.
Susan Greenfield: Yeah, we talk about gut reaction for example and indeed lots of these peptides were first discovered in the gut so I think it’s very important to not lose sight that it is a brain in the body and it’s this traffic in the peptides between the three great control systems that from my view is consciousness. Now that’s not to say you can reduce consciousness to the brain cell assembly but what we can’t do as yet is know how the one causes the other and I’ll be the first person to admit that we don’t know how that happens. But I can’t see what else there is because I certainly don’t believe it’s beamed in from anywhere else.
Natasha Mitchell: This is All in the Mind on ABC Radio National and Radio Australia and I’m talking to Professor Susan Greenfield. What about the notion of the collective consciousness? Very interesting concept.
Susan Greenfield: There are several things there I think. One is the ecstasy taker who says they feel and I’m told you feel that one with everyone else. Now one idea there would be that you have stripped the world of some much cognitive content that you put yourself back into being a baby again. There you are with a beat going something like techno, techno, techno, like this I gather, (duff, duff duff) well OK very good because obviously you’re more of an expert that me. But it has no meaning as far as I gather the music you know, It’s there, you’re putting a premium on the beat and you’re putting a premium on the heat and possibly the smell and certainly lights and it’s arguable therefore you’re back to being like a small infant again where you would feel the same as everyone else cause you’re not differentiating one for another. The idea of what a very ancient monk called anosaphere, that is to say we are perhaps the future of human beings will be that we will hook up with each other is another thought and a very different type of thought but some people in the future predict that with the web being as pervasive as it is that what might eventually happen is we’ll all be plugged into the web and we’ll be so interfaced with the web, and using it so much, we won’t be able to draw boundaries anymore between our individual minds as such and that we’ll be a great collective consciousness across the world.
Natasha Mitchell: Well I mean the cyborgian reality is a fascinating one, this notion that we might be able to one, hook ourselves up to a matrix, a data base a piece of machinery and become one with it and there’s also this notion that we might be able to download our brain and its essence so that we exist in virtual reality. That we exist without our body, I mean it’s all fantasy but the closer we get to these things the more freaky and real they become.
Susan Greenfield: Well I certain think that the downloading is harder to conceptualise because any memory you have is predicated on a host of other memories, feelings and emotions so it would be hard to actually isolate a single memory so for that reason I would say that that was impossible. But we don’t even have to think about implants. If you and I were talking let’s say in 10 or 20 years time when computers will be ubiquitous and invisible, they’ll be in a jewellery and our ear rings and they’ll be voice activated, they’ll speak back to you in the voice that you choose, so that if we were talking we wouldn’t have to remember anything, we could just keep referencing as we were talking this joint cyber space. So where would you end and I begin? And ditto with these highly interactive personalised computers embedded everywhere in us they will be interactive with our environment all the time, changing the colour of the walls, changing the temperature according to how our body is sensing. I think we’re going to question the future, the very boundaries of our bodies and the very boundaries of our minds and that is both frightening and exciting in equal measure. But I want to talk about it and think about it and explore it because I think the more it’s out there in a forum the more we can harness it for good and minimise the threats it poses. What we can’t do is pretend it doesn’t exist, it’s a question I think that concerns and fascinates everyone and we should be in on the party.
Natasha Mitchell: Do you think we may ever cultivate a conscious machine? It’s the sexiest question of the 21st Century and I’m intrigued by the possibility of what it would mean to live and coincide with a conscious machine. I mean Terrance Deakin who I spoke to recently nominated that we will do evil things to the first conscious machine, it will be a moral engagement.
Susan Greenwood: Talking of sexiness, Stewart Sutherland, psychologist said he believed a computer was conscious when it ran off with his wife and I don’t know whether you or I would fancy a philandering computer and then someone might decide to bash it up anyway. More seriously the problem I have with that question is several. One is when people talk about modelling consciousness, artificial intelligence, then you immediately have a problem because if you model something you are taking the salient features and leaving behind the baggage you don’t need. So if you or I were modelling flight say then we would put at a premium something that could defy the laws of gravity but it wouldn’t have to have feathers or webbed feet or a beak or anything like this, aeroplanes do not have these things but they fly. Now in consciousness we don’t know what the salient feature I, so therefore if you were designing it you wouldn’t know what to leave in and what to leave out if you’re modelling it within the body. The other problem I have is that people designing machines at the moment put a premium on learning a memory and that’s easy because it’s something that delivers a response whereas you can have someone just there with the sun on their face at the end of a hard day absolutely conscious but emitting no response at all. If a computer could do that you’d chuck it out. As yet, and I’m sure I’ll have a flood of people telling me I’m wrong, the AI models have not really addressed the issue of emotions and feelings but on the whole, people I come across are still very proudly pointing to robots which are wonderful, I’m not denying robots and I think robotics is a very, very important aspect of 21st Century life, especially if it does the housework and if they will do dangerous or boring things and free up time for us to think about how the brain generates consciousness.
Natasha Mitchell: And of course we wouldn’t want those robots then if we get them to do all our dirty work to have any sense of consciousness cause that of course throws up all those moral questions of exploitation.
Susan Greenfield: Absolutely, and moreover if the robot was conscious then you couldn’t find out how it was working anymore than you could with a human being cause it would cause it pain. I think it’s very useful to have machines that are the , as to say they operate on a this and that basis yeah, but I don’t see the point anyway of having them conscious unless Stewart Sutherland’s right and you get these hunky ones that run off with wives that might be a quite interesting scenario but apart from that I can’t see any use.
Natasha Mitchell: Well it’s a brave new world, one that you’re definitely exploring Susan Greenfield, thank you very much for joining me on the program today.
Susan Greenfield: My pleasure, thank you very much.