Interview with Europe’s leading Neuroscientist
Martyn: I’d like to welcome Baroness Susan Greenfield to this interview, and thank you very much, Susan for taking the time to join me to discuss your presentation ahead of this year’s EQ Summit. Susan is a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University, and a member of the House of Lords. And you’ve been referred to by The Guardian newspaper as ‘Britain’s Best-Known Neuroscientist.’
But perhaps your greatest claim to fame though is that in 2006 you were selected as an ‘Honorary Australian of the Year!’
Susan: Yes, that is my great claim to fame. It doesn’t help me when I go through Passport Control and so on at Sydney Airport, but nonetheless. It was given to me for showing Australian values. You might well ask what they are, but I think it’s a compliment that I’ve got them.
Martyn: Look, it is.
Susan: It arose from when I was ‘Thinker in Residence’ in 2004 and 2005, and I go back a lot to Australia. I’m in my fourth year now of being a Visiting Professor at Melbourne University, so I go back every November, which is a wonderful time to go, as you might imagine.
Martyn: Yeah, it is fantastic. You might suspect from my accent that I know a lot of Australians, but you are the first Honorary Australian that I’ve met.
Susan: Thank you.
Martyn: It’s very exciting to have you at this year’s summit because we’re exploring this fascinating topic of Emotional Intelligence, Mindfulness, and how these skills contribute to Creativity and Innovation.
Susan, I was speaking to Dan Goleman last week and we were discussing Emotional Intelligence, as you might imagine, after he wrote the definitive book about it some 20 years ago.
Martyn: And back then none of us thought that we’d still be exploring this topic 20 years later. I suspect, in part, it’s because of the extraordinary advances in your field, in particular, of neuroscience which has helped us understand a lot more about the importance of Emotional Intelligence and intelligence generally.
What have been some of the big findings in neuroscience that have helped deepen our understanding of intelligence?
Susan: I think there are two areas. It’s not so much what it is, and we can come onto this in a moment, (insights from neuroscience), but also I think over the last 20 years the advent of the screen culture and the digital culture, which some could argue, (I think I would), that this might compromise Emotional Intelligence. Because if you’re not looking at and interacting with people and not picking up on all the usual cues of interpersonal relationships, it might be harder for you if you live life when it’s through a digital medium.
So, I think there are two things: One is that we’re understanding quite a lot more now about different brain states, including Mindfulness, and Emotional Intelligence, but also I think we are probably confronted by a scenario where this might be compromised by a very big change in lifestyle compared to 20 years ago. So, I think these are the two areas on which I could actually put forward some thoughts.
Martyn: Terrific, Yes, I’ve been reading one of your more recent books ‘Mind Change’ and you certainly discuss the rise of these digital technologies and how they’re impacting our brains and raising some very interesting challenges for this next generation. Would you like to highlight some of them that you might be covering at the Summit?
Susan: Sure. Well, I think it speaks to your first question about insights from neuroscience. One of the most important areas that now is being explored is so-called neuroplasticity, that is to say, how the brain adapts to the environment. And we’ve known this in a vague way for a long time, but over the last 10 or 20 years there have been some very clear, very good experiments showing just how sensitive the brain is to the environment.
So even if you’re an identical twin, that’s to say a clone, you’re going to have a unique mind because no one will have brain connections like yours because no one will have had your experiences, and we know that experiences leave their mark almost literally on these brain cell connections and they’re changing and updating all the time. So, we start with this notion of neuroplasticity, and I think by looking at how individuals interpret the world and how those associations and links can be impaired sometimes, or enhanced sometimes, that can actually give insights into understanding more about Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness.
“If you’re not meeting people face-to-face or talking with them face-to-face, then clearly; how you think and feel will be different from previous generations.”
By the same token it follows that if you have an environment that is dominated by hearing and vision, and not by the other senses, and if it’s an environment where you’re not meeting people face-to-face or talking with them face-to-face, then clearly; how you think and feel will be different from previous generations. I won’t say better or worse, because it’s very complex, but nonetheless clearly it will be a different kind of perspective of the world than previous generations have had, including for example:
- Shorter attention span because things are flashed up very quickly;
- Harder to have interpersonal skills such as the ones we’re really talking about; time for reflection, so the problems of information versus knowledge and real understanding of something if the premium is on responding immediately
- Measures of identity, which I think are very important, which is how you see yourself as well as how you see other people, and that if you’re constantly downloading your thoughts and ideas and seeking and needing feedback, obviously you’re going to be slightly more fragile than if you are, as in previous generations, someone who is very clear about where the boundaries lay between themselves and other people.
Martyn: Yes. It sounds like all the parents at the event will be absolutely fascinated to think about how they’re influencing their own children. But of course, technology has always been a challenge, particularly in the workplace, and today’s technology, I suppose since the rise of the Industrial Revolution through to information technology in the 1980’s. Are there some opportunities here for business though in this digital environment?
“The opportunities are huge in terms of catering for a new type of consumer”
Susan: Yes, they’re huge – in terms of catering for a new type of consumer. In terms of the goods and services that people might need and want compared to previous times, then I think there are huge changes. For example, any product that you want to sell that has a premium on smell and touch: for example; most cosmetics or things like that, one has to think of ways in which these can be presented to people through just a hearing and vision medium almost by proxy senses. So, that’s one very small example.
I also think any business that was able to provide goods or services that gave people a more secure feel about themselves rather than just having tattoos, that again would be very rewarding and popular. Anything that gave people a feeling of meaning to something, other than fundamentalism, would again be very helpful and valuable rather just giving people experiences. So, I think that really now, you are looking at the potential consumer, if you’re a business that is very experience-based. Now you either can pander to that and actually enhance it, and/or you can think of ways in which one can compensate for it in ways that were not needed in previous generations.
“You note the importance of relationships, and yet in your own research you note that some of these abilities appear to be atrophying, and you highlight research that indicates a decrease in empathy.”
Martyn: Fascinating and very practical too. You mentioned earlier the importance of relationships, and yet in your own research you note that some of these abilities appear to be atrophying, and you highlight research that indicates a decrease in empathy, for example, or a reduced ability to communicate effectively. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you’ve observed there?
Susan: Yes. There’s a lot of data coming in now which shows parallels between, and I will say autistic-like behaviors rather than autism as a narrowly-defined clinical condition. For example, it’s been shown, (this is not my work, it’s just citing others), that most people if you’re recording their EEG’s, (their brain waves), can have a different response if you show them something inanimate or if you show them a face. So, you’ll have a much more exaggerated EEG response to a face than, say, a door. However, people who are in the autistic spectrum won’t differentiate. They’ll have similar responses to both a face and a door, and sadly people who are heavy internet users have that same kind of inability to differentiate. That’s one example.
Martyn: Yeah, wow. That’s frightening, isn’t it. I know in our own research we’ve looked at about 8,000 workers across 11 different geographical regions, and we found that those people particularly involved in roles that might involve emotional labor, (that is where you’ve got to manage your own or other people’s emotions to be really effective), we found their scores on emotional intelligence, (as Dan Goleman defines it), was really correlated with far more success.
And what’s interesting to me as I talk to business leaders, is that there seems to be an increasing focus on demanding that these skills: emotional skills and relationship skills in particular are part and parcel now of the recruitment process as more and more roles within organizations and business seems to be managing customers and colleagues and establishing emotional connections.
“I think there are three things that can be done.”
What’s the most significant or most important factor in establishing a successful relationship from your experience?
Susan: My own view, I think there are three things that can be done.
The first is eating together. I think that’s really important. I mean I’m no anthropologist, but the very concept of “companion” is with bread, and every society, every culture, has ritualized the eating of food and the eating of food with people. So, my own view is it’s a very important and deep-seated human trait to eat together as you’re talking, you know, without any mobiles on the table and so on, because as you’re doing that you’re sort of having other senses stimulated at the same time, and it’s a bit like walking and talking to someone. You know, if you have some ongoing activity as you’re thinking and talking, it actually helps those things. It’s almost as if the process of chewing or walking actually enhances the thought process in a very deep, linear way, the sequence of events.
And also whether it’s walking or eating, it actually anchors you in the present moment as you are talking to someone rather than just letting your mind wander. So, I think eating together is really important. It’s something that we are the first generation to have that as a problem. Every other society and generation by definition has had to do that. You’ve had to eat together because of the lifestyles, but now people have sandwiches in front of their computers, and I think that is a real problem and a real issue.
A second one is being outside. I’ve just mentioned walking. We know that there’s a lovely study…In my latest book, ‘A Day in the Life of the Brain’, I quote this work about being in rural environments and walking with people enhances creativity compared to the control group that are not doing that. And of course, it’s good for your body mass index, it’s good to have fresh air, and physical exercise is very stimulating for the brain. So, you know, it ticks every box to be outside.
“I think it’s giving human beings their full potential…”
Then the third area that I think is important that we’re losing now is the notion of stories and the importance of stories. That is to say, we have a beginning, middle, and end to something, because that’s the sequence of steps which I think echoes human thought anyway. Someone once said thinking is movement confined to the brain, and I think that the thought process itself is a linear process, A=B, B=C, A=C, and in order for that to be optimized you need a timeframe, and the longer the timeframe the more extensive the thought can be. We talk about trains of thought and being on track and thinking straight. And I think that is something, again, that’s at risk with the screen technologies where you’re hypertexting and easily distracted by things.
Martyn: I am confident you’re going to make an enormous contribution to this day Susan, and you’re going to have a tonne of fresh insights and practical strategies to share with us, I know. So, we’re very much looking forward to having you there, and I know delegates will have an opportunity to ask you some questions during the Q&A period as well. So thank you for your time today and we will see you soon.