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Book Review: ‘You and Me: The Neuroscience of Identity’ by Susan Greenfield

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Susan Greenfield. ‘You and Me: The Neuroscience of Identity.’  London: Notting Hill Editions Ltd. 2016

Knitting and Purling: Cross Threads in Mind, Neuroscience, and Consciousness

© 2017 Linda E. Chown

In a compact, deftly organized book, which author Susan Greenfield always refers to as an essay, she ambitiously attempts two formidable quests: 1) to determine a physical basis for identity, and 2) to pin down what she calls “subjective firsthand experience of what it’s like to be you and me” (p. 130). With barely a preface or introduction, she gets right down to her topic systematically.

There are six chapters, four from four different perspectives – social, psychiatric, neuroscience, and individual – and then two direct overviews of identity: in its place and in its time. Her goal is apparent from the start: “I’m going to try and persuade you that, despite the high-tech, impersonal terms in which we live, there is a way we can understand identity from a neuroscientific perspective.” In the same objective vein, she expounds, “what’s needed is some kind of tangible and irrefutable proof of our individual uniqueness” (1). As a former student of intellectual history and a phenomenologist by persuasion, I was fascinated by this audacious goal and wanted to learn everything I could about it from a woman with such formidable grounding in current studies of the mind.

The reader finds two overlapping approaches playing out: first, the naming of parts, to borrow the title of Henry Reed’s famous poem, in other words the germs and terms of neuroscience and the history of the brain; and a second area, the cross-threaded one which opens doors and byways to what Greenfield agrees at the end is as yet unanswerable: “As far as neuroscience alone can take us, we appear to be at the end of the road” and, a bit ruefully, “Neuroscience will never be able to throw light on the subjective first-hand experience of feeling what it’s like to be me, or you” (70, 130).

Suddenly, I recognize that the book’s definite thrusts forward into definition and closure alternate rhythmically with intermittent question marks, the ubiquitous burning dead ends, what I think of as the gestures of a loomer actively knitting and purling in unpremeditated alternation. This far-reaching book “weaves” a knitting and a purling of the objective scientific and that other, as yet indeterminable area.

The book’s linear looming takes tangible shape and august beauty in Greenfield’s impressively clear writing and in repeated comments which let the reader know that, in spite of the explicit thesis, it’s really not only all about finished facts, but rather also poses an open question of whether she can help you see more perspectives on identity, consciousness and the human brain in these times of accelerating digitalization.

Finally, the end of the book turns the original objective thesis inside out and upside down to cast a brilliant and steady light upon you and me, our brains, minds, identities and consciousnesses, so as to engage us to question more confidently the field of mind studies, neuroscience and consciousness as they work in our lives.

Greenfield could have produced a book full of remote neuroscientific definitions with the appearance of closure, but if she had done so, she would have neglected you and me, the beginning words of her title. Since she wanted to establish hard and fast principles for her study, or essay, let me provide a couple of her objective definitions.

She explains clearly that the “mind” is the “personalisation of the brain, made up of unique configurations of brain-cell-connections,” or put another way, “The biological basis of the mind is the personalisation of the brain through unique dynamic configurations of neuronal connections, driven by unique experiences” (57). Later, in another definitional moment, she explains undefinable consciousness as “most likely to be a continuously variable property of the brain, in both phylogenetic and ontogenetic terms” (67).

Her neuroscientific definitions of identity are far away from you and me: “In order to have a stable and consistent sense of identity, the prerequisite, as far as the brain is concerned, appears to be a determined and over-arching organization of unique temporal sequencing within which is a nested hierarchy of ever more extensive neuronal circuitry that is endlessly dynamic in response to each moment of interaction, real or imagined, with the outside world” (111).

There is before this definition another voicing, though, a purling which puts you back into play: “While the mind makes sense of the world about you, identity enables the world to make sense of you” (80).

It is impressive how Greenfield maintains the dominance of the objective, straightforward scientific knitting, while simultaneously subversively undermining it in thoroughly unpredictable purling moments which stand out and agitate. This purling or cross threading takes place in four ways throughout the book: first, what I call the Tidbits; second, the appearances of “I” as opposed to the more remote “we”; third, Literary Asides; and fourth, the daunting unresolved mysteries of consciousness and subjective experience.

“Tidbits” are unrelated, unexpected, tangible pieces of scientific or personal information. A few examples will indicate how Tidbits personalize and add immediacy to her study. We find out with pleasure that our singular fingerprint configurations depend upon our particular unique places in the womb before birth (4). We learn that Alzheimer’s disease was named after Alois Alzheimer who was “unusually and unjustifiably paranoid” (40). We find out that the “Halle Berry Neuron” becomes active only when the person whose brain was being studied actually saw photos of Halle Berry (63). We learn of the forgotten Sir Alec Jeffrey who developed a way to do genetic profiling in 1985.

We read the tantalizing account of the 2000 study of London cab drivers who stretched what is now called their “working memory” and actually dramatically enlarged the size of their hippocampus in the process. This Tidbit suggests that the brain like our muscles can get stronger with exercise. You and Me has a plethora of such Tidbits which not only add a personal narrative tone to the book but also increase our unique conceptual understanding in a pleasurable way. Each Tidbit serves as an inset story interrupting the linearity of a scientific study, educating in an immediate way.

The book unpredictably looms definitive conclusions in multi-syllabic words and Greenfield’s unexpected introduction of the first person, of I. Sometimes, Greenfield hints at the intimacy of I: “in my opinion,” “my own view,” even “I have argued” (31, 127, 139). She increasingly mixes the apparently objective talk of the field with her own suppositions and conclusions. It is noteworthy that she has the once frowned-upon personal I in the thesis of the book, affirming, “I’m going to try and persuade you that, despite the high-tech, impersonal times in which we live, there is a way we can understand identity from a neuroscientific perspective” (1).

It’s revealing that she mentions the current impersonal times because her book does much to bring I back into an impersonal equation, in spite of its title which rather obviously leaves the word I out. Sometimes, she talks as “we,” as if to join with the scientific perspective: “we have managed to distinguish,” “We saw in the previous chapter,” “we must abandon the notion that ‘mental phenomena’ do not have a physical basis in the brain—they do, even though the question of how it all happens remains subject to much speculation” (22, 49, 55).

Increasingly, though, she takes herself out of the scientific pocket, confessing that although she is awed by what machines seem to do, she still is interested in and allured by what consciousness portends and holds forth on its own. She frequently fluctuates between I and we unexpectedly, sometimes talking of what “we now have” and what “I have suggested” (68 ).

By the end, however, Greenfield explains how much a part of the book she had to be, how much that she was: “Trying to understand it [the problem of subjective…knowledge] has made me, as a scientist, peculiarly conscious of my own thought processes during the writing of this essay.…I cannot completely remove myself from the equation. I have done my best to assume a scientific attitude but I cannot deny that in this matter I am both the presenter and the subject of the presentation. I am also aware that in discussing identity my own identity comes into question” (139). On the last two pages of the book the pronoun I occurs a significant nine times.

Her Literary Asides are perhaps the wonderful purl stitches of the book, standing out and holding everything together. For instance, she concludes with a wonderful thought from Emily Brontë about life dreams “that have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind” (140). Versions of this wonderful quote occur transformed twice in the book as a thematic lodestone. Before citing the entire Brontë quote, Greenfield writes, “Nor is it obvious even what kind of scenario one could expect to address the riddle of how the water of the physical brain and body is transformed into the wine of first-hand experience” (140). And the same riddle recurs earlier when Greenfield again confronts the great unanswerable: “The great question is still the causal, water-into-wine relationship of the physical brain and body with subjective mental events…we do not even have any idea—and it is a truly fascinating question on which to ponder—as to what kind of scenario would answer this question” (70).

These purl stitches, her Literary Asides, burn open the problem of subjective experience and consciousness. She starts with Oscar Wilde who dismisses self and identity, saying “most people are other people” (1). Immediately, Greenfield says no, he can’t be right; she’s going to find “some kind of tangible and irrefutable proof of our individual uniqueness” (1). She looks at the Greek playwrights and shows which had more clearly differentiated, identity-driven characters.

When she brings in the glorious William James, inventor of the term stream of thought, who believed that we live in “booming buzzy confusion,” or Peter Sellers who felt he had no identity but the parts that he played, the reader is brought immediately closer into the cross threads, into to the zones of consciousness and awareness which neuroscience has no way to handle or measure (56,109).

At the heart of the issues of identity and me and you has always been Consciousness. From the beginning, Greenfield has shown that her idea of consciousness is not that of a phenomenologist, like yours truly. She says that earlier on, people “would have had little time for introspection, [and] that the very notion of ‘individuality’ would have been completely alien” (69). She presents once her own objective definition of consciousness: “Hence I have suggested that consciousness varies in degree from one moment to the next, and the extent of a conscious state at any one time is correlated with the extent of a transient assembly of neurons” (68). She argues that identity depends for its being on the external: “identity is predicated on each interaction you have with the outside world, the momentary consciousness of each experience of interaction in different contests with different people” (109).

Her notions of the actions of subjective experience are thus based on something external to itself: “While the mind makes sense of the world about you, identity enables the world to make sense of you” (80). I ask myself: What happened to the incipient sense of I here? In one of her many wonderful half-questions, she notes that memory and consciousness are “hard to disentangle” (45). This neuroscience approach needs perhaps too many “yardsticks for objective standardization” (17). As a poet, I don’t need such proof for identity.

In talking about identity, she comes close to consciousness by calling it “subjective awareness”: “It is this subjective awareness of this unique story at any one particular moment that constitutes the ‘feel’ of your identity” (87). In terms of her methodology, however, perhaps there can be no tangible place for consciousness: “within the brain, there is no single brain region dedicated to consciousness” (63). Furthermore, “A neural correlate of consciousness consisting of parallel brain circuits fails, as it stands, to account for any of the following features of consciousness, all of which relate to the important subjective phenomenology of the experience” (64-65).

Early on and in the delicious purling moments, Greenfield refers to “inner you,” an “individual uniqueness “(10, 1). Although her objective approach may preclude sustained examination of consciousness at this time, she wants to protect what it is, admitting as a scientist that “we…may never be able to understand what it actually feels like to be you or me. But we may be able to point to the best possible environments in which that feeling can flourish” (140). But I can dream, can’t I?

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About Linda Chown