In that last 12 months alone we’ve been fortunate to feature many of the brightest thinkers within the fields of life extension, of artificial intelligence, and more – but until recently had spoken with few experts specifically focused on psychology. Oxford’s Baroness Susan Greenfield is one of the most recognized figures in brain physiology – and is renown for her research as well as her outspoken perspectives on the interaction of technology and humanity. Our conversation honed in on the current and potential impact of various technologies on our psychological condition.

 

With a great deal of Dr. Greenfield’s work being honed in on the potentially insidious impact of various technologies, I began our conversation about the progress of deep brain stimulation (DBS), and it’s potential ramifications. As I’ve written about it previous pieces, it would see as though a technology that allowed for the manual modulation of emotion might be particularly dangerous (we all know what happened with the rats, for example) in a “slippery slope” kind of way.

For Dr. Greenfield, this technology doesn’t appear to be one that’ll “go bad” any time soon. She mentions the successful treatment of Parkinson’s disease by a great many researchers – including Tipu Aziz at Oxford. Though the treatment has been shown to demonstrate a “transformational effect” on reducing tremor in folks suffering from Parkinson’s, Dr. Greenfield doesn’t believe that any healthy person would volunteer for such a treatment merely to feel better.

The up-and-coming technology and Susan sees as potentially more “sinister” is Google Glass. “My own view is that this will be ten times more ‘invasive’ – as it were – than mobile phones… and once you get used to having reality augmented, bombarded withe mail and Facebook all the time… it will be very hard to take them off. I can imagine that after augmenting reality, it might be boring to go back to the boring old simple five senses.”

Susan also believes that the distinctive appearance of Google Glass will quickly make them a kind of “trendy” or “hip” item, increasing demand and increasing engagement. This kind of adoption may occur rapidly even among those who wouldn’t have ever have purchased the device outside of the desire to “fit in.”

I would add that much like smart phones, Google Glass may enable a vast number of additional efficiencies which might draw us in to adopting and using them more often. Though I don’t consider it to be inherently “good” or “bad,” they may be a necessary as a cell phone is today. Five or 10 years ago, how many of us would have laughed at the idea of “needing” a phone with GPS, email, Facebook, and a camera… and how many of us (myself included) practically do “need” that functionality today? No matter where you stand with regards to an opinion of Glass and like technologies, it seems a more than apt point to seriously consider the ramifications of a society living in an augmented reality.

“What it means is profound, and I don’t think we’ve thought through exactly what being so hyper-connected is really going to mean… it’s going to be way more significant than even going around with your mobile or your laptop.” I think that this is an interesting observation, and that technologies like Google Glass may drastically alter the way we interact with the world and with each others that makes cell phones and traditional computers pale in comparison. Will these impacts be “positive” or “negative” we couldn’t be bold enough to state, but like any technology it would seen to have the potential for either.

We moved along next to the topic of drugs and pharmaceutical “enhancement,” where we started things off with so-called “smart pills.” This particular class of drug – including “modafinil” and ADD drugs like prescription Ritalin – are often used to improve memory, wakefulness, or creativity. Dr. Greenfield believes this entire practice to be misguided in it’s overall aim.

First, because there is no drug which has the ability to impact memory specifically, but only to bath the brain in chemicals to excited or depress certain brain areas. In this respect, no drug can be honed in and targeted to just “memory.” Second, Dr. Greenfield sees the effort to increase brain efficiency as missing the point of what “efficiency”  is after in the first place. “Lets take brains what we respect, like Shakespeare or Einstein or Mozart, they weren’t respected because they had super memories, but because they were highly original thinkers.”

In her opinion, people who are after cognitive enhancers are “barking up the wrong tree… because the whole point is to have an original insight or a creative or imaginative view of something, not to turn yourself into a second-rate computer by making yourself have a better memory.”

On the one hand, Dr. Greenfield’s advice certainly has legs to stand on. In many cases – it may very well be that what is being pursued by these  “smart pills” is not something that they are even capable of providing. On the other hand, laying out “the whole point” might be a difficult net to cast. College students might argue that doing well on finals to make it into grad school. If “cognitive enhancers” were to improve and yield better results – the aim of “having an original thought” may not be the defined aim of some people who might take the drug to keep their job (the way many athletes feel about steroids).Some professionals (like those on Wall Street) undoubtedly feel this kind of pressure today.

Some people might place no value on original ideas at all – but on their specific job performance. On the other hand, many creatives might posit that the use of certain drugs helps aide creativity – an argument that’s been made in the past of many a substance before the dawn of the “smart pill.” In this respect, my instincts with respect to health and mental sanctity are more than congenial with Dr. Greenfields, but I believe than an argument about “the point” of their use be no less vague than “the point” of baseball, or “the point” of philosophy.

After about 25 minutes of conversation of conversation across the pond, we had to part to go about our respective days (Dr. Greenfield’s, mid-day; mine, early morning). If there’s anything that I gleaned most – in addition to the fun of learning from a brilliant mind, and the specific insights I picked up – it’s that psychology should have a say in the conversation of technological development, as well as the creation of policy. Unfortunately, as Natasha Vita-More pointed out in an interview not too long ago, most psychology researchers and thinkers have not put their focus on what may be the most pressing factors ever to influence the mind.

Anyone interested in the intersection of technology an psychology might be served to visit Dr. Greenfield’s website at www.susangreenfield.com, or to watch some of Susan’s talks on topics like social media or consciousness. I’d also like to personally thank Dr. Greenfield and her assistant Emily for putting together an opportunity to talk before the holidays.

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