Susan Greenfield tells Daire Brehan why religion beats the void (and football)
Two years ago the distinguished neuro-scientist Rt Hon the Baroness Susan Greenfield, CBE stepped out of the quiet confines of academe and into the homes of millions when she presented the BBC 2 television series BrainStory.
The series followed a list of publications, remarkable for the way they made her particular branch of science sexy. Titles like Journey to the centres of the mind (1995), The Human Brain : A Guided Tour (1997) and The Private Life of the Brain (2000) are testament to her commitment to making scientific education "as enjoyable as going to the cinema" and the photo-shoot that's eating into my time with her is part of an ongoing effort to make her subject accessible. Her image will form part of a campaign to promote IT learning, she tells me as she apologises for keeping me waiting.
In fact this is my third attempt to see her in as many weeks. The problem is that she's twin-sited, sharing her time between Oxford, where she continues to search for an effective treatment for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and London, where she's attempting to 'democratise' the 200 year old Royal Institution. My problem is that she's double booked but if anyone can do two things at once and in half the time it takes the rest of us, it's the Baroness so before I know it I'm being led through corridors teeming with chattering school children (more of that accessible science) towards the privacy of her office.
Children and the Baroness don't usually mix. She has none of her own which she puts down, in part, to the negative impression her baby brother made on her when she was 13. "I remember these ammonia-soaked nappies in buckets around the kitchen and smelly potties and he was learning to walk in this fiendish pen that kind of crashed into my thighs, the whole thing was horrible." Nevertheless she frequently acknowledges that she came from a happy home, where her father (an electrician) and her mother (a dancer) taught her to respect others but not to worry about what other people think of you.
They also encouraged their talented daughter in the studies that would take her to St Hilda's in Oxford and along an extraordinarily circuitous and unorthodox route from Latin and Greek through physiology to neurochemistry.
But education wasn't the only thing that was unorthodox in the Greenfield household. Although Susan's father grew up in a home where a shabbos goy was still employed to turn on the lights on Friday night, in adulthood Jewish practice relaxed to the point where his brother joined a reform synagogue and Reg himself did the unforgivable by marrying out. Not only was Doris a Christian but a dancer too a completely unacceptable match. Neither family took the news of their union well.
The Baroness tells the story of how her Christian Grandmother apparently threatened to put her head in the gas oven if her daughter went ahead with her wedding plans. "My mother promptly packed, gave her the shilling for the gas meter and walked out." It wasn't until Susan was born that relations normalised somewhat in the family but even then "never ever, as far as I can remember, in my whole childhood did the Christian side of the family sit down in the same room as the Jewish side."
As far as the nuclear family was concerned though there were obvious efforts made to unite the two traditions while imposing neither. The Baroness recalls wanting a cross as an item of jewellery when she was a child she was given a cross and a star of David. "I was brought up jangling around with the two of them round my neck and with parents who were completely secular."
The woman who has emerged from this inevitably tense background admits to having no religion herself "in the sense of worshipping God" but she acknowledges that religion can be a source of solace to others. "It's a good thing. It gives people a purpose in their lives and a framework for living. It makes them happy with what they have and not yearn after material things." This is a theme she returns to in our conversation: "I certainly believe that there should be more to life than owning things."
So how does this view of religion fit into the rationalist philosophy she's recently acknowledged by becoming Vice President of the Rationalist Press Association? "For me the happiest course would be that everyone works out their own destiny, everyone is a thinking feeling sensitive individual, everyone's a rationalist that would be wonderful but I think that's a bit idealistic." And in the absence of that ideal she proclaims "I would rather have religion than the void."
At this point Baroness Greenfield, the rationalist, takes off. Speaking off the cuff she occasionally trips over her tongue as her speech organs attempt to keep up with the speed of her brain but she reveals the clarity of thought and the ability to simplify complex ideas that have made her as significant a communicator as she is a scientist.
A void in people's lives and thinking, she suggests, can be filled in two ways, either by people replacing the unexercised private ego with a public one or by the oblivion of drugs. Both for her hold dangers. Her outspoken opposition to recreational drug use is well known. "They give you the alternative of obliterating the ego altogether. You blow your mind, lose your mind, let yourself go the very word ecstasy in Greek is to stand outside yourself. You don't worry about cults, you don't worry about religion, you're just a passive recipient of the senses coming into you. I feel that's an insult to the human intellect."
Her 'public ego' theory is a relatively new one she is currently exploring for a new book. She cites the emotional outpourings for Princess Diana as a benign example. "It's not that people lost their minds, they were very aware of the situation. It's not that they were behaving in some abandoned way but there was a collective ego." And she goes on to suggest that this public ego can be and has been exploited to disastrous effect.
"That's why when Hitler came and gave people an even more potent narrative a more potent public ego or potent identity , they fell into it." On the scale of desirability, she argues, the moderate practice of religion would not be the most undesirable. "The least desirable would be fundamentalist movements or, I would argue this mindless devotion to football."
Such controversial views are characteristically Greenfield. Not long ago she encountered criticism when she was reported as saying that motherhood and science don't mix. "I've been misquoted on this," she pipes up, clearly anxious to set the record straight.
What she says is that "it is very hard if a woman wants to stay in mainstream science and also have a baby, unless she is mega-rich or unless she wants to have a full time nanny which excludes most people. I'm not saying they shouldn't do it. If someone wants to have a horrible and hard life of course they can do that I'm just saying it's horrible and hard."
Just how horrible and hard she imagines it to be is clear from her views on child rearing in general. On this subject she slips into the trademark truthfulness that sometimes lands the Lady in trouble. "When I look at people and the amount of time and energy and effort that goes into rearing their offspring and you see people in the supermarkets harassed and tired almost like slaves to the children who sit there like pashas in their push chairs throwing toys out and crying and stamping and demanding and poor old harassed parents rushing round desperately trying to appease the little tyrant that's not how I want to live."
But for all that, this woman, who frequently speaks out against the barriers that prevent more women succeeding in science, does not, as her critics accuse her, attempt to discourage them from having their cake and eating it. What she seems to want is for them to have a chance not to choke on it. In her capacity as a newly appointed 'People's Peer' she has prepared a report for the Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, which proposes changes to the funding of scientific research which would make it easier for women to move from the labour ward back into the laboratory after a maternity break that didn't leave them disadvantaged in the workforce.
This she sees as just the start of what she hopes will be greater involvement in the House of Lords. She doesn't attempt to disguise her delight at having been appointed to the upper house but regrets that because she still has a day job she doesn't have much time to enjoy the "absolute civility" of the place. But that won't stop her contributing to debates on the issues dear to her heart.
Education is one of them. Having come from the classics to the sciences she strongly believes that our educational system is too compartmentalised. An education, she says, is supposed to provide you with a brain and a mind and she is not convinced that the current AS/A2 reforms will deliver that. "I would like to see the International Baccalaureate scenario because the most important thing is to have a balanced society, not to keep admissions tutors happy."
Society, she also believes, should continue to criminalize the recreational use of cannabis but allow voluntary euthanasia (with all the checks and balances). "If people have decided that they are in such physical and mental anguish, then who are we to tell them that they are not they should be allowed to choose for themselves."
And so we find ourselves once again contemplating a world in which people are "rugged individuals and everyone works out their own destiny". Fortunately for the Rationalist Press the Baroness' own 'rugged individuality' encompasses the notion of changing your mind. Once quoted as saying "I hate belonging to anything," she explains that, now in her early fifties, the invitation to become Vice President came at just the right time in her life "as one gets older one starts to clarify one's feeling gradually you sharpen up your views and gradually they finger forward."
She is now edging towards the front of her chair we've overrun and I'm conscious that her mind is already on her next appointment. Her body however is still in the room and I ask her quickly about the blond-haired, mini-skirted image that had so captivated the photographer earlier in the afternoon.
"This is who I naturally am," she says, explaining that if anything today's trendy office attire is subdued. "Normally there would be leopard skin leggings and pseudo punk silver anoraks." I took that picture with me in my head as I passed the portrait of Faraday in the Hall and wondered how the founders of the Royal Institution would cope with the package in which one of today's leading brain's is embodied.