Talk: Baroness Susan Greenfeld at the HE Leadership Summit, 11/2/10

Closing Keynote: Maximising creativity in the 21st century individual Baroness Susan...

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Gráinne Conole
5 February 2010

Closing Keynote: Maximising creativity in the 21st century individual

 Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE

 Chaired by Ewart Wooldrige

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Susan Greenfield started with an invitation for anecdotes to support her in the debate in the House of Lords on the education cuts. Ideas should be sent to

Her talk took a position of looking at Neuroscience - in order to explain creativity and risk taking. The fastest Neuroscince course in the country explained:

From birth there is a great repertoire for humans. (Susan used the goldfish as the reference point as having no real future - which I am not so sure about!) The growth in the brain from 3months - 2 years is in all the connections: these will be unique and driven by individual experiences even for clones.

Experiment that took people who could not play the piano - the control stared at a piano, second learned to play five finger exercises on the piano, the third imagined playing the piano. The brain scans for the groups should the mental and physical activities produced very similar impact. Thinking is exercise for the brain cells and

The brain posseses "plasticity" that allows it to be shaped by experience. Demonstrated by the greater branching in rat's brain cells who have enriched experience by being placed inmore interesting environments.

A stimulating active environment trains the brain cells leading to more branches, more connections, more personalised signifciance.

The sensations that effect feelings include: attending raves, sport, excitement, drugs, and eating cake. Each of these in extreme can "blow your mind".

The biological basis of the mind is the "personalisation of the brain" itself driven by experiences.

So how are experinces for children changing in C21st: 2000hrs in front of screen v 1200+ with family v 900 at school. This should be looked at and understood. This was referred back to risk taking quoting a study of obesity in children and the link with higher risk taking - explained as obese people have reduced frontal lobe which controls risk taking.

Schizophrenics also have underactive front brain and tend to take such things as proverbs very lieterally.

So obesity, gamling and schizophrenia are linked by the reduction in front brain activity: reflected in excessive dopamine which places the brain in the situation of the "thrill of the moment" rather than cognitive judgement. Set out as:

Mindless world: strong feelings, sensory, here-and-now, external environment, little meaning, ..

Mindful: thinking, cognitive, past/present, internal percepriotns, personal meaning, ...

The big question is does the "world of the screen" place children in the same mindless mode of reduced stimulation? And if so does this correspond to states that are actually associated with creativity along with the willingness to take risks?

E.g. Childhood, excited, drug, schizophrenia all demonstrate creativity through the lack of control and risk taking. Note - this does not mean all these people are creative, or all creative people need to fit this pattern.

True creativity that is recognised has to also mean something. The need to have insight and connectivity.


  • must have identity
  • have a story to tell
  • a past and a future
  • and therefore MEANING

Project entropia was played as an example of the stimulation that children have today - can it promote the risk taking element that leads into creativity?

If we are in the business of generating environments for growing brains we should try to understand these things.

For more (and doubtless a much better explanation than I have managed to blog) there is a new book by Susan Geenfield: id - the quest for meaning in the 21st century.

Patrick McAndrew
16:07 on 11 February 2010

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Robin Goodfellow
3:43pm 11 February 2010 (Edited 4:15pm 11 February 2010)

My comments on Susan Greenfield's talk - 1:

Could the House of Lords intervene to moderate the HE cuts? Would they?

2 pictures - a lightbulb with 'idea' in it (creativity) and a woman scaling a vertical cliff (risk).

A picture of a brain - what if you got a bit under your fingernail - would it be the bit they loved with, or a specific memory?

Picture of a baby - different from a goldfish.

(where's this all going?)

People are unique in their minds (at least in their own minds)

Picture of blobby bits (cells) and stringy bits (connections)

Picture of hands playing the piano... (hope Patrick is recounting this experiment)

2 Pictures of rats being stimulated with ladders & wheels etc.

Pictures of multiple branches of brain cells.

Talking about the shift from sensation to cognition (where's this going?)

Pictures of party-goers at a rave 'stripped of cognitive content' - it's the booming buzzing confusion of the child

Pictures of people skiing, snorting coke, pictures of coloured cakes...

Sensation involves abnegation of the sense of the self - can't dance well if you are self-conscious

the personalisation of the brain = the mind - end of neuroscience course

Robin Goodfellow
4:04pm 11 February 2010 (Edited 4:05pm 11 February 2010)

Baroness G has never said computers rot the brain!

X-ray picture of a famous person with an iron bar through his head (where's this going?)

Picture showing lit up brain areas in children with schizophrenia..

Picture sequence of a schizophrenic's paintings of a cat - becoming more colourful and abstract

the mindless and the mindful (doesn't 'mindfulness' bring us back to Heidegger?)

ah - 'the world of the screen' is where we are going - does it keep the child in the world of the mindless?

picture of extraordinarily colourful and formless human form - an unusual picture

picture of child's painting of a sheep (looks like a magenta cloud) - but it apparently has no meaning

picture of Aristotle saying Eureka in the bath

aargh! ...very loud disco soundtrack in my ear (I'm right in front of the speaker) plus flickering video on screeen

jokes about people's cats sneezing on twitter

will come easily with new technologies - giving people the opportunity to quest for meaning (that's where its all been going?)

Patrick McAndrew
4:11pm 11 February 2010

Q: (Josie Taylor) the end of the argument is a bit hard to follow with the fascinating detail mixed with the generalisation that are needed to help apply the ideas. Drivel on paper is as possible as drivel on screen.

A: (Part of) The speed of interaction can lead to lack of chance to make connections.

Robin Goodfellow
4:14pm 11 February 2010

My comments on Susan Greenfield's answers to questions - 1:

her argument for the importance of cognitively-intensive reading to meaning-making has interesting implications for approaches to using learning technologies in HE but is clearly not sensational enough to be the nub of her talk! Pity.

Patrick McAndrew
4:14pm 11 February 2010

Q: What about the arrival of avatar technology of increasing sophistication will that change the balance.

A: Autistic people work well in second life ("well known") indicates the restricted channel. There will continue to be differences - e.g. in the sanitised aspects - wounds do not hurt. However much it improves it will not be the real world.

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