In part two of this fascinating interview with Dr. Martyn Newman, Europe’s leading Neuroscientist – Baroness Susan Greenfield – explains the technology behind mindfulness.
Martyn: Ok Susan, now you’re leading us into an exploration of the whole idea of creativity. Some very basic things like eating together and walking and as you say, telling stories, seem to foster imagination and the creative process. It’s fascinating to me that people at organisations such as Google, Sky and Yahoo, are thinking very specifically about the environments that they create in the workplace these days too.
They are creating structures that drive people together so that there is a casual interactive environment where people do get to cross-pollinate and share ideas and stimulate each other’s thinking. I know the Sky Campus where we do a lot of work, has a wonderful outdoor area and people are encouraged to eat and walk in the grounds, etc. So, you’re confident this all is part and parcel of fostering a more creative environment?
“I think what we can do…is to shape an environment where we optimize the chances of it (creativity) occurring”
Susan: Well, I think it’s giving human beings their full potential, you know, whether they’re going to be creative or otherwise, and you can’t force someone to be creative, and you can’t download creativity and you can’t buy it, which is why it’s such a precious commodity. I think what we can do and what I’m confident we can do, is to shape an environment where we optimize the chances of it occurring. You know, we can’t guarantee it or buy it, but what you can do is to create an environment where a human being has the greatest potential to develop themselves and let’s hope that part of that is being creative in the broadest sense. That’s not just necessarily writing a symphony or a novel or something, but seeing the world in a way no one else has seen it before.
Martyn: Yes, and certainly this is one of the big challenges I think in organizations today; their need for innovation. At fast-paced organizations like Google, Sky, Amazon, Yahoo, and so on; the worry I think for many of them is that the level of interruption, the overwhelming nature of the information they have to process and this constant multitasking, seems to be affecting an individual’s ability to think, or think deeply.
Susan: Sure, well I think people confuse information with knowledge, and they’re not the same thing. Having taught medical students for many years, I know that you can put facts in and the facts can come out again. Whether they understand it is another issue. It’s the understanding which is a prerequisite for having new insights and so on.
Therefore, if you’re putting a premium on speed and accuracy of someone giving the right response, that’s not really the way to go, I don’t think. For example, there’s a story I love to tell. It’s when I used to tyrannize my much younger brother, made him learn by heart Shakespeare. He could recite Macbeth’s soliloquy off by heart such as ‘Out, out brief candle’ etc., but had I asked, “What does it mean? He would have said, ‘Well, I have a candle on my birthday cake and I blow it out’.” He wouldn’t have seen it as a metaphor for death because he didn’t have appropriate frames of reference for that.
“people confuse information with knowledge…Having taught medical students for many years, I know that you can put facts in and the facts come out again…it’s the understanding which is a prerequisite for having new insights”
Martyn: Yes, fascinating. You mentioned earlier, Susan, a reference to mindfulness. In the book I read: ‘Mind Change’; I know you don’t particularly refer to it, but one thing you do is you quote my favorite psychologist, William James. You quote him as saying as babies we’re born into “booming, buzzing and confusion.” Are we having to deal with this again, do you think, now as adults?
“We’re born into booming, buzzing confusion”
Susan: Yes, I think so, and also if you look at my latest book, ‘The Life of the Brain’, I talked a little bit more about mindfulness, because what I think we’re in danger of doing and where mindfulness is a very contrived way, of combating that, is of being in the booming, buzzing confusion. If you think for ages human beings have always liked wine, women, and song and drugs and sex, and rock & roll, and those traditional pleasures, they involve an abnegation of the sense of self. You know, you’re just the passive recipient of raw senses which don’t mean anything, and therefore you’re very distracted – it’s just the experiences imposing on you. Whereas, mindfulness actually, is a very contrived way of stopping you being carried away by the raw senses and actually focusing on what’s happening to you.
In that way, you’re being very conscious of what’s happening to you. It actually makes you focus on things, and therefore you’re enhancing your attention span in a way that’s jeopardized currently, again by screen technologies or if you’re a small child.
Martyn: Recently during my interview with Dan, he told me that he and Richard Davidson had reviewed more than 6,000 studies into mindfulness and they found only 60 really good ones using rigorous research design. Could you give us any insights from neuroscience particularly, about how that process works, how the process of mindfulness works?
Susan: Yes, a little. That is to say there’s an area at the front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex which is very sophisticated. It’s very exaggerated in humans. It’s less in chimps. It goes from 33% to 17%. So clearly whatever it does is evolutionarily very sophisticated. That’s echoed in individual development in that we know it’s only fully operational in late teenage years, early 20’s in humans. So, it’s an example of evolution being reflected in individual development. I think it’s simplistic to say what does it do and what’s its function, because obviously it can do many things, and we have more insight if we look at what happens when it goes wrong.
When it goes wrong, if it’s damaged or if it’s underactive for some reason, the common syndrome seems to be one of recklessness, of short attention span, rather like you might see in some teenagers actually, emotional volatility, and so on. And I think that in mindfulness what you could be doing is re-engaging the full activity of this area of the brain. This enables you to focus and to concentrate in a way that you don’t when it’s not functional, as with small children or animals, or indeed when we take drugs, sex, and rock & roll, wine, women, and song where you literally let yourself go, you literally do that. We talk about having a sensational time, not a cognitive time.
“I think that in mindfulness what you could be doing is re-engaging the full activity of this area of the brain”
So, I think such as it is, and I certainly go into this in both books actually, in ‘The Life of the Brain’ as well as ‘Mind Change’, this possibility that you can switch it on and off, this frontal part of the brain. And when you do, when you switch it off, that’s when you’re having the wine, women, and song. And when it’s fully engaged, that’s when mindfulness would be working.
Stay tuned for the final part of this compelling discussion, which is coming soon…