Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist, so she knows her stuff when it comes to the brain. In this fascinating and accessible book, she explores the idea of identity. As you might expect, it's complex and not explained by any simple factor or mechanism within the brain, and in fact is not really fully understood. However she clearly describes three main types of identity, ranging from Someone, through Anybody to Nobody.
In brief, Someone is the sense of self as a unique individual, separate from everyone else. Anybody is being part of a group, where you can lose your sense of individuality and become part of a bigger group identity. Finally Nobody is where neither of these is experienced and in a sense your identity is simply a stream of physical sensations.
These three states are present to some extent in all of us - for example being taken up in the joint thrill of a football crowd (if that's your thing) is to be Anybody, or loosing yourself by becoming drunk (or on drugs) is to be Nobody.
The first part of the book is perhaps the most difficult because she lays down the basics of how the brain works: but it's a necessary foundation for what follows. Then towards the end she explores how the modern digital age might presage change - in fact she argues that the changes wrought could be so profound that a post-digital society might have a completely different way of identifying self as a result.
You may not agree with all her ideas, but they are certainly thought provoking and always clearly argued. It's about 4 years old now, but doesn't feel out of date. If anything the latter parts seem even more relevant now.
- As IT is merging cyberworld with reality, nano technology is merging human bodies with the outside and biotechnology promise to create healthier, enhanced humans with prolonged lifespans - What will the 21st century be like? What should we hope for? Will we be more comfortable and have more fun, but without a real human identity and without experiencing real ''meaning'' in our lives?
This book presents a number of the emerging technologies along with the possible consequences:
In one version of the future, human identity and individuality might be threatened, as people here live ''screen-dwelling' lives with short attention spans, thinking in icons rather than abstract ideas. Good at hectic ''fact''-field activities, but no longer capable or good at placing isolated events in a context. Sure, the absence of self consciousness might be desirable as an intermittent state. Drugs and fast-paced sports (whose dominant feature is the raw quality of the sensations, devoid of cognitive content, where one momentary experience is superseded by the next) have always been popular activities. As have excessively strong sensory stimulus from music/wine/food or sports/sex in rapid succession. All the stuff that leaves us with no time to think about content and meaning.
But in the long run surely you would want a full personal identity, as well as full selfconsciousness from time to time.... Something the reactive,''screen-dwelling'' life of many future cyberworld realities obviously wont give you. At least not if it is a process heavy/content light activity, where personalized brain connectivity is either not funtional or absent altogether.
And if tech doesnt end up making us totally reactive, stimulus oriented - then we might end up in the other extreme, where people are living lives fired up to be creative, excited by revelation and discovery and with a robust sense of self. A future where self realization and creativity reaches new heights. But where such brain modes creates people who are unable to form successful relationships and interact successfully with others. The end of human society.
Finding the balance is of course going to be difficult. The balanced version where there are time slots for being creative with a robust ego, slots for working together in team efforts, slots for creating meaning to our existence and slots for ''letting go'' through e.g. excessively strong sensory stimulus.
But Susan Greenfield does seem to think that it will be possible. Even though many new technologies (in excess) surely will push us away from the balanced future we want.
Biologist Julian Huxley came up with the term ''transhumanism'' in 1957 to describe the future point we are now moving towards - ''on the threshold of a new kind of existence''. Transhumanism optimistically holds that there is room for improvement even in the healthy human brain and body. Francis Fukuyama on the other hand has described transhumanism as the ''worlds most dangerous idea''.
For the body, we might introduce an artificial 24th chromosome to complement the twenty three we already have. The extra chromosome will then act like an extra coathanger for genes. Or we might introduce new genes in germ cells, along with killer genes with enzymes that can destroy it. The killer genes can then be activated by certain pills, e.g. so that your ''unnatural genes'' are ejected from sperm and eggs when you want to reproduce. Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has developed a technique for implanting a microchip into the brain, to translate the nerve impulses into electric pulses - hooking the brain up to computers for doing all the cyborg stuff. Some devices can convert soundwaves into electric signals the brain can understand, and other devices can convert brainwaves into sounds known as phonomes. Ultimately minds can be connected through the internet with this technology.
Still, it is a bit more tricky to improve on the mind, because it is less than obvious what a perfect mind is. But, surely we can improve on even the best of us - Even the current ideal: ''the super-outgoing individual, wih perfect recall, who is monotonously and unconditionally jolly all the time''?
300 years ago most people were cogs in the machinery of feudal society. The concept of individuality, i.e. someone truly and completely unique, not all that obvious. Now we are bound up in an armsrace to own more and achieve more - to be individuals - leading to stress and frustration and an increase in depression and anxiety. The basic needs - to feel secure, part of a group, competent and autonomous- have given way to products that can enhance your status. Where status is important as it gives you attention - i.e. love (The worst feature of a lowpaying job is not the low pay, but that others treat you like a machine - someone who doesnt exist. No attention). In Japan more than 1 million people, mostly young males, are hikikomori, locked away in their rooms - living a screen life. Perhaps already living the ''screen-dwelling' life with short attention spans, thinking in icons rather than abstract ideas. Good at a hectic ''fact''-field activities, but no longer capable or good at placing isolated events in a context? Perhaps a future Google will be able to advise such users on career moves and use of leisure time (all deduced from each users particular history of queries).
But the way back to healthy, unique and creative minds are surely not going to be so easy. Certainly it will take a lot of understanding and wisdom to point to a future of happy,mature minds and a civilised society. Susan Greenfields book is an excelent starting point though.
One of the interesting aspects of these frameworks for identity is the absence of the physical body. As Greenfield is talking about the Consumer Society, which begs us to treat our bodies in terms of having rather than being, this dislocation is strange. Greenfield is enthusiastic - and it is always good to read something written with passion. And, other reviewer: books are three dimensional, highly tactile objects, utterly different from attempting to read or study using an e-book. Try it. I can play computer games for hours, may be it'll be the problems of reading a pdf, but I can only bear an e-book for 30 minutes.
After reading a very positive review of this in the Big Issue I was very disappointed to find it extremely impenetrable with very little for the layman to get his/her teeth into and far too much technical language - it certainly did not make me want to learn more about the workings of the brain. The author presupposes far too lofty a level of understanding in her readership.The subject matter also seems to jump about a huge amount leading to a great deal of difficulty in attempting to sort out what is happening.