Baroness Susan Greenfield’s origins are humbler than her title might suggest. Her father was a machine operator in an industrial neighbour-hood of London. In Britain, unlike many other countries, it is possible to earn a peerage through your own merits rather than pure heredity. Lady Greenfield is a leading world authority on the human brain. She is concerned that technology has invaded our lives so profoundly that it has begun to affect the way our brains operate and hence our very personalities. “People are longing for experiences rather than searching for meaning,” she says. “They live more in the moment and have less of a sense of the narrative of their lives—of continuity. They lack a sense of having a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have less of a feeling that they are developing an identity throughout their life with a continuing story line from childhood, youth, parenthood, to grandparenthood. The emphasis is more on process than content. You now have people who are much more ‘sensitive’ rather than ‘cognitive.’ ” Susan Greenfield identifies one of the causes of this development as the impressions our brains receive from a very early age. Modern life, she argues, with its hectic rhythm of visual impressions is very different from the past, in which she includes her own childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s in our youth that our brains are shaped: They grow like mad during the first 2 years of life, developing a maze of connections. And in the years that follow, they remain extremely nimble, forming new connections rapidly and changing in response to our surroundings. It is very much the world around us during infancy, childhood, and early adolescence that determines the outcome of this stage of brain formation. The brain displays an immense degree of what Greenfield likes to call “plasticity” during this stage; connections are formed as and when they are needed. The foundations of Baroness Greenfield’s own personality were laid in a similar way during her youth.
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