Susan Greenfield, now Baroness Greenfield, is one of the most familiar figures in modern science
, through her writings, lectures, and media appearances; and is now a role model
for females in science, and one of the best spokespeople for the public understanding of science
, and a key adviser to the government on science policy.
Her primary research is as Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford, where her group studies Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. Her work focuses on trying to arrest neuronal death. Educated at St Hilda's College, Oxford, she has also been a fellow, lecturer, or visiting scholar in Paris, New York, La Jolla, and Belfast.
In 1994 she was the first woman to give the Christmas Lectures at The Royal Institution, and she became head of this body in 1998. In 1995 she was elected to the Gresham Chair of Physic, which is for giving lectures in the City of London. She is a trustee of the Science Museum, and an advisor to the Social Issues Research Centre for guidelines on practice and reporting in science and health. In 1998 the Royal Society awarded her the Michael Faraday medal for the public understanding of science. She was awarded the CBE in 2000 and the following year was chosen as a life peer in the reformed House of Lords. Baroness Greenfield has had many other honours and posts, relating both to her specialist work and to her evangelisation of science in general.
Her published books have been on the subject of the human brain and consciousness: Journey to the Centres of the Mind in 1995, The Human Brain 1997, a best-seller, and Private Life of the Brain 2000.
These together with her newspaper columns, her availability for radio and television appearances, her striking beauty, her clarity and readability, her constantly exuded sense that both science and life are fascinating and fun, all contribute to the public percepton of an outstandingly intelligent, dedicated, and important woman. Though she herself might baulk at what we mean by intelligence.
I'll close this with some of her ideas on how the mind works.
First, as we've just seen, is that there is no centre for consciousness. So, if we're postulating individual groups of neurons we have to say that it's potentially spatially multiple. At the same time most of us would say that we only ever have one consciousness at any one time. So the first property of consciousness, as I see it, is that it's spatially multiple, but temporally unified.
Department of Pharmacology official biography of her: http://www.pharm.ox.ac.uk/academics/greenfield.htm
The second issue is again a very simple one, to my mind. Which is that we are always conscious of something. By definition, if you're conscious of nothing, you're unconscious. So we somehow have to think of an epicentre, like the stone in a puddle or the epicentre of an earthquake or boss in the middle of a load of telephones. Something that triggers a neuronal assembly to be large enough to somehow mediate consciousness in some way.
The third property of consciousness ... [is] ... that consciousness grows as brains grow. That it's not an all or none phenomenon. Rather it grows in proportion to the sophistication of the brain. And if you went along with that idea then you'd also be able to explain animal consciousness. That a rat would be not as deeply conscious as a cat, which wouldn't be as deeply conscious as a chimpanzee, which in turn wouldn't be as deeply conscious as say George Bernard Shaw or Van Gogh. So, my third possible property of consciousness is that it's a continuum. That is to say, it's continuously variable.
If we put those three properties together one can then go back to the brain. What we are looking for, then, is neuronal assemblies that are forged transiently. Which are triggered by different epicentres: by things in the outside world or in more sophisticated brains, inner thoughts, in some way. And that vary in size, and according to the variation in size of the neuronal assembly, then you would have a certain degree of consciousness at any one moment.
Interview discussing consciousness at http://www.culture.com.au/brain_proj/grnfield.htm
Another profile at http://www.britishcouncil.org/science/science/personalities/text2/women/greenfield.htm
Part of JudyT's Golden Jubilee celebration of Britain.