ID jacket

ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century by Susan Greenfield (Sceptre)

In this short book neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, well known for her work communicating science to the general public, attempts to explain what it is about the human brain that allows it to become host to a mind, self-conscious, aware and able to reflect on its own existence and mortality.

While it is billed as “a stark warning” of the threats to individuality which arise in “the modern world” it is really an exploration of the latest thinking in neurophysiology and the physiological basis of thought, consciousness and identity.

Greenfield bases her book on an exploration of the characteristics of three different personality archetypes, “Somebody”, “Anybody” and “Nobody”, which she loosely identifies with individualism, collective fundamentalism and the blurred lack of self that results from a life lived in front of the screen. She later adds a fourth, the creative “Eureka” mindset, and ends the book with a set of policy recommendations for the education system designed to promote this creativity.

The warnings are there, of course. Castigating the “hyper-stimulation” of children in the online, screen-based world of the internet, console games and television, she speculates that the nature of mind – and the brains in which it inheres – will inevitably be altered by this new environment.

It’s a good argument, based around the idea that temporal sequencing is a distinguishing characteristic of self-conscious intelligences and that it is being undermined by new, screen-based entertainments where narratives do not unfold but have to be uncovered.

Her physiological and neurological model of how belief systems emerge, are reinforced and can be transmitted from human to human through shared behaviours – or rituals – is remarkably entertaining, not least because she focuses on religious belief and so offers a mechanism that humanists could use to explain how and why religion seems to take such a hold on the vulnerable.

Indeed, whenever we are dealing with what we might call “brain” issues this is an impressive book written by someone with a deep understanding of the complex nature of the physical brain and an appreciation of the necessary uncertainty about the way chemical signals like endorphins translate into subjective experiences like pleasure.

Greenfield is an entertaining writer, a brilliant neuroscientist and an excellent exponent of the latest advances in brain chemistry, neuroanatomy and the chemical basis of personality, but sadly she is a poor anthropologist, an inadequate literary critic and no philosopher at all. It is when she strays into these areas that the book fails to convince.

She quotes Oliver James, Kevin Kelly and Alain de Botton, but has not read Elizabeth Anscombe, Donald Davidson or even, it seems, Wittgenstein. As a result her arguments lack any serious philosophical underpinnings once she strays from neuroscience and psychiatry into the wider issues of the nature of the self or the emergence of consciousness.

ID is published by Sceptre