A neuroscientist skillfully explains how our unique identity and consciousness develop from the “biochemical banality” of our physical brain, and then strains to reveal how today’s dazzlingly intrusive technology may change it.
Pop psychology requires vivid character types, and Oxford Professor Greenfield (Inside the Body, 2006, etc.) obliges. Up to now, she writes, the typical persona is a Someone who defines him/herself by relations with others, absorbing experience in a linear manner. Since reality is question-rich but answer-poor, Someones struggle to make sense of this; the result is individuality but often little fulfillment. One exchanges individuality for fulfillment by becoming an Anyone through adopting a belief that answers all questions--e.g., an extreme political group or fundamentalist religion. Drugs, schizophrenia and 21st century bio- and electronic technology eliminate both individuality and fulfillment, substituting an avalanche of stimuli for cognition. The result is a Nobody; if this question-poor, answer-rich environment becomes the norm, we can look forward to a busy, often fun-filled life with little insight. In the mandatory how-to-fix-it conclusion, Greenfield introduces the Eureka persona, creative and fulfilled, and the educational reforms that might encourage it.
From H.G. Wells to Alvin Toffler to Francis Fukuyama, writers who predict the future based on a snapshot of the present have a mediocre success rate. Readers will appreciate Greenfield’s description of brain development and function but should allow a few decades to pass before agreeing that dramatic changes in computer technology will mark the end of life as we know it.