Tuesday, 17 March 2009

880 - Someone, Anyone, No-one...

I'm on the final chapter of Susan Greenfield's book, i.d. - The Quest For Identity In The 21st Century (Sceptre, 2008). Though she is prone once or twice to sneak in an over-blown scare, I like the clarity with which she explores the neuroscience of identity construction, and teases out the possible implications of information, nano- and biotechnologies on the way our brains become personalised into minds. I've linked to a bad review: the book's not perfect, but read it as one scientist's work-in-progress, and be argumentative with it in the margins, and, I think, it becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Like so:

Greenfield is arguing that environmental influence upon the plasticity of neurons within the human brain can bias a mind, over the course of its lifetime, towards one of three possible configurations: an identity can be caricatured either as Someone, Nobody, or Anyone.

Someone is, in Greenfield's words, someone like us. Nobody is someone from her grandchildren's generation, and those who follow. Anyone is someone fundamentalist, though not necessarily religious. And at times I had to work hard to shake free the voice of Greenfield's objective scientist, which is pretty convincing, from her subjective take on the desirability or otherwise of each identity, evident in the summary above.

Greenfield's own summary, worth quoting, is from pages 277-8:

The defining feature in the Someone identity would be relations with others: behaviours that symbolize, and are reactive to, one's own status vis-a-vis others in any particular society. The brain would be characterized by extensive neuronal networks... malleable enough to be constantly updated and changed in response to shifting values and status as a result of ongoing experience...

Meanwhile the defining feature of the Anyone identity would be actions: the ritualized motions and prescribed patterns of living out each day.... Connections here would be as extensive as in the Someone brain, yet less changed by the happenstance of the moment. The stronger, more rigid neuronal network would... allow for a more robust, internally derived and less conditional identity, but also... more uniform and predictable.

The Nobody brain would be the antithesis of this. Here... there would be no frames of reference.... The brain would be maximally receptive to incoming stimuli, but with relatively less neuronal networking to assign any 'meaning': the emphasis would be more on sensation than on cognition.... [Its] defining feature... would be raw feelings.

Two issues have arisen for me in the reading of the text so far. The first is that it is also possible to conceive of a fourth caricature, so that in the same way that Greenfield contrasts Anyone with Nobody, Someone can be contrasted with a fresh identity formation, that of Everyone. I want to explore this in my next post, because it does sound whacky at first.

The second issue concerns the two sustained threads of argument used by Greenfield to make her case.

The first thread is one of detailed neuroscientific description, supplemented by observations from life and social sciences. The second, which the Guardian review, by Jane O' Grady, uses to disarm the book, is the theory that what separates us from other animals is our ability to think metaphorically. If our identity is, essentially, an elaborate metaphor, developed and sustained across networks, sensitive to the concepts of cause and effect, past-present-future, within the prefrontal cortex - rather than the brain's primitive, stimulus-response-stimulus driven older tissues - then excessive exposure to intense stimulation as a result of screen technologies might constitute a neural environment in which the more evolved regions become less and less involved in identity formation.

The trouble, as I see it, is that although Greenfield (correctly, in my opinion) equates metaphorical thinking with narrative, she equates narrative solely with the idea of a past-present-future timeline. Thus narrative and metaphor become properly logical, but are contrasted to the stimulus driven arts, like poetry, of which Greenfield writes: "poetry does not depend on a logical set of steps, or even on a correct sequence of words: by tapping into our half-formed, pre-existing associations it gives us sometimes an insight, but always a powerful here-and-now experience." (pp. 161-2)

Knowing poets, as I do, and the science with which the best of them apply their craft, this seems to me to be only half a definition, and muddies Greenfield's argument. David Edgar, the playwright, at The Story Engine Conference, recently made the same point, from the opposite direction, when he called upon the screen-writers present to remember that a good story is about more than its storyline - it is character and atmosphere and whatever else too.

And it seems to me, with the little evolutionary psychology that I know, that our ability to 'read' a landscape holistically, to compare our experience of, say, tree with tree, fruit with poison, only when combined with a sense of cause and effect, the essence of time passing, will result in metaphorical, and at the same time narrative, thinking. The tools of metaphor are simile and logic - to say that a man is a mountain is first, surely, to say he is like a mountain, then to acknowledge he may only become one through the passage of time. In narrative the story of that change is told; in metaphor time is conflated and the metamorphosis (Ovid's term, of course) laid before us in a moment.

Hardwire this understanding of cognitive processes into Greenfield's neuroscientific model, and, though I am by no means a neuroscientist, I suspect the troublesome kinks in her argument are removed, together, perhaps - and rather interestingly for all kinds of reasons - with the need to panic as our identities evolve.

[These thoughts to be teased out in greater depth later!]

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