All posts by Tam McDonald

Clear thinking needed in the war on quackery

Predictions about the likely judgements of posterity are always grounded on the assumption that there will be a posterity, peopled with sufficient numbers of wise people as can articulate a judgement that amounts to more than simply the idle contemplations of rainbows. So on this basis, let’s assume that there is a president to follow Trump and that this wise sufficiency has so far recovered its wits as to understand the difference between a narcissistic vulgarian and the evolved political culture that enabled his ascendancy to the position, albeit temporarily, of most powerful person on the planet.

As more than just an aside on the proper definition of power, this still potent posterity will acknowledge that the greatest prince is not he who sits at the centre of the widest error. Any sustainable definition of power cannot dwell too long in reflecting on history’s sad parade of grubby psychopaths and sweaty conmen who have humbled nations with their appetites and capacity to wreak havoc, while blighting the hopes of the very multitudes that have been beguiled into supporting them.

Real power lies in the patient dedication to building good that will last, and still more in the gift of nurturing cultures that will enable that good to flourish and endure.

On that definition, Trump’s verdict before posterity would be worse than unfavourable if determined solely on what has been achieved in the first six weeks of his presidency: “worse” simply because he has grasped at every opportunity to posture as a dissembling bully and pantomime villain, rendering risible any articulation of a cultural phenomenon – society, economics, style, reasoning – to which the term “Trumpian” might be applied as a descriptor. In fact, the man’s preternatural promotion of style over substance would render the essence of any Trumpian belief system as being far more concerned with the manipulation of perception that with the discernment of reality.

At the very heart of the Trumpian con is his promise of rendering great again something that was already functioning credibly, before setting out firmly on a course of systemic degradation and desperate brinksmanship, orchestrated with bullying blusters, rants, and whines. The man seen simply as a man, as distinct from a wider belief system and enabling culture, is essentially a clown confected by that culture as a joke upon itself: in short, the deification of Everyman as Loser.

The real pantomime will be the spectacle in monitoring those who are currently colluding with that flimflammer who will surely in time feel inspired to distance themselves before posterity renders its verdict so plainly that everyone will get the point. And those of us who adhere to notions of humanity’s continuing enhancement can bolster our cognitive and political systems against the recurrence of demagogic quackery.

Open letter to PM May: Think to the future

Are you certain that you have a coherent vision for the direction of our country, and a steady hand on the tiller as we plough forward? Anyone watching the news over the past year has experienced growing dismay as key problems spin rapidly beyond the control not only of the beleaguered citizenry but also of the stewards of society whose remit for addressing society’s problems has evolved over centuries.

As a result of two triumphs of populist will over reasoned circumspection, two of the world’s most significant politicians – each one possessing a uniquely problematic mandate from their electorates – met recently in Washington DC to discuss a platform for cooperation in the future in general and, in particular, to establish the foundation for a trade deal.

One distinct difference between these politicians is that one is favoured by her upbringing within a culture that has learned, and is still learning, the enduring merits of exercising soft power over hard. The other politician is an unashamed practitioner of the coarse brutalities and darker arts of hard power.

In the course of this meeting a State Visit invitation was extended that was neither demanded of the circumstances nor consistent with long-established precedent. What has been broadly identified as a collusive and appeasing act had not even the fig leaf of pathetic and transient glistering gain. Within a week of the invitation being extended, almost two million signatures were secured here on a petition decrying that invitation, and prompted this reply from your government’s website:

“HM Government believes the President of the United States should be extended the full courtesy of a State Visit . . . HM Government recognises the strong views expressed by the many signatories of this petition, but does not support this petition . . . This invitation reflects the importance of the relationship between the United States of America and the United Kingdom.”

The “strong views” being expressed are more than emetic eruptions of dismay. They arise from millennia of reflections on the constitution of effective relationships, and what defines the “importance” of sustaining them. They reflect the lessons absorbed by people still living of more recent collisions of collusion and principle. Within a mere lifetime past we have witnessed the price to be paid for nurturing the nursery steps of autocratic egomaniacs simply because we think we can do business with them.

In a world in which “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, have you reflected on the well of inspiration to be derived from a thousand years of British history? Has enough not transpired that we can sense posterity’s judgments on rulers who sacrifice hard-won ideals and long-term prosperity for unseemly grasping after the petty inducements of what glitters today?

At a time when you are on a determined course to re-define the concept of national self-possession, you might reevaluate the prospects for Britain in selling the national soul not through adherence to a grander plan or higher ideal, but to headlong slavering after association with a regime as dystopian, cognitively chaotic and mendacious as Donald Trump’s.

New Year offers promise for foxes and lunatics

As 2017 gears up for its short sprint to the inauguration of America’s next president, the mature media are recoiling at the prospects of the people whom the president-elect is gathering around him to help define the tone and agenda of his presidency. Whether we look at Energy, the Environment, or Education – and that’s just the letter E – the impression is not so much that American political culture will be driven by incompetents, as that the foxes and lunatics whose career missions have been to spread mayhem in specific areas have been put in charge of the very henhouses and asylums that the rest of us have been trying to protect from their rapacities.

A common theme in the media commentary is that this amounts to a war on science. It is certainly this, but it is more: it is a war on critical thinking, on expertise and, critically, on empathy. What may prove most corrosive is the impact upon the key quality that separates human intelligence from its emerging machine correlate. It is empathy that emerged above so many other qualities when the cognitive explosion of some 60,000 years ago set the erstwhile Monkey Mind on its journey to the new and far more expansive cultural horizons of Homo sapiens.

Thinking in another person’s headspace is the cognitive equivalent of walking in another man’s shoes. It requires a theory of mind that allows for another creature’s possession of one, and an active consciousness that an evolving relationship with that other mind will require either conquest or collaboration. Academics can argue over the tactics and indeed over the practicality of “arguing for victory” or they can, in understanding the validity of empathy, agree with philosopher Daniel Dennett as he proposes some “rules for criticising with kindness”.

Amidst all the predictions for 2017 as to how human and artificial intelligence will evolve, we may hear more over the coming months about the relationship between intelligence (of any kind) and consciousness. To what extent will a Super Artificial Intelligence require that it be conscious?

And will we ever get to a point of looking back on 2016 and saying:

Astrology? Tribalism? Religion? Capitalism? Trump? What ever were we thinking? Perhaps in empathising with those who carried us through the infancy of our species, we will allow that at least for some of these curiosities, it was a stage we had to go through.

Intelligence does not grow in a petri dish

As there are neither agreed rules nor a generally accepted definition of intelligence, nor is there a consensus on what consequences of human or machine behaviour betokens intelligence that is either natural or artificial, it will be difficult to measure the surpassing of any point of singularity when machine intelligence matches and exceeds our own.

It may well prove to be the case that, when we think we have got there, we will have supreme exemplars on both sides of the bio/non-biological intelligence divide asking us if it any longer matters. And as our species approaches the moment of truth that may never obviously arrive, there will be a growing chorus of voices worrying if a bigger question than the definition of intelligence is the definition of the good human, when so much of what we might see as intelligence in its natural state is perverted in the course of action by the festering agency of the seven deadly sins, animated by fear and enabled by ignorance.

Given the wide range of environments within which intelligence can reveal itself, and the vast spectrum of actions and behaviours that emerge within those environments, it may be the very definition of the fool’s errand to attempt an anywhere anytime definition of intelligence itself. We can learn only so much by laboratory-based comparisons of brains and computers, for example, balancing physiological correlations in the one with mechanistic causations in the other.

Glimmerings of clarity emerge only when one intelligent agent is pitched against another in a task-oriented setting, the victory of either one being equated with some sense of intelligence superiority when all that has happened is that an explicit task orientation is better addressed when the parameters of the task can be articulated.

What appears to distinguish human intelligence in the evolutionary sense is the capability to adapt not only in the face of threats and existential fear, but in anticipation of imagined projections of all manner of dangers and terrors. We hone our intelligence in facing down multiple threats; we achieve wisdom by facing down the fear that comes with being human.

Fear is not innate to the machine but it is to us, as Franklin D Roosevelt understood. However machines progress to any singularity, humanity’s best bet lies in understanding how the conquering of fear will enhance our intelligence and our adaptive capabilities to evolve through the singularity, and beyond.

After the election: recovering from cancer and “the other stuff”

Following a newspaper feature by conservative commentator George Will, speculating that Donald Trump might serve in history as the American Republican Party’s “chemotherapy”, an oncologist writing in the online magazine Salon reminded his readers that people with experience of the various treatments available for cancer will recognise that chemotherapy is almost invariably a pretty tough gig.

The idea certainly provides for a thought-provoking metaphor, however, not least as chemo seldom does much good for the cancer’s host, while along the way it ravages the body and soul of the patient every bit as much, and sometimes more so, than it tackles the cancer itself. But perhaps the point of the metaphor is to erect the credible claim that the aftermath of the election, given something like an even modestly clear win for Clinton, will enable the GOP to survive and carry on with the bromide that it was Trump’s noxious temperament that lost it for them: but the policies themselves were sound.

This would be a false premise. Not only are the GOP’s policies, broadly considered, not sound, but they have consolidated their appeal over several decades among a now noticeably declining voter demographic largely comprising of angry and less well-educated white males. But it is not in fact the policies (on either side) that have defined the leit motif of this election as much as the degenerate, juvenile, and poisonous atmosphere that has evolved around any articulation or community discussion of those policies.

Messages have been subverted by the increasing puerility of the mediums, or media, and people have quite simply and very largely been repelled by the whole stinking and thoroughly demeaning process.

In looking beyond the result of the election to its aftermath – potential armed unrest, possible litigation from losing candidates, lingering and truly cancerous rancour eating into the body politic of Washington culture for many years to come – it is useful to stick with the chemotherapy metaphor in examining several key themes that might have attracted the media’s attention over the course of a horribly protracted campaign, but did not. For the fact remains that whatever causes a cancer exists independently of any therapy; the cancer can metastasise; and while the quality of life can become increasingly uncertain as life carries on, the patient is still obliged to “get on with other stuff” as the cancer and/or the treatment progresses.

If today’s news is telling us that “one fifth of cancer patients (in the UK) face workplace discrimination”, what will tomorrow’s news tell us about the future prospects of the American body politic given the enervating drain upon its vitality by two years of a news cycle dominated by one deeply flawed, if not downright tumorous, human being? What is the “other stuff” that the world will have to be getting on with while it deals with the aftermath of the 2016 American election: addressing not only the tumour but the conditions that caused it and the likelihood of any metastasis?

The University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) has a page on its website devoted to what it sees as the major risks to humanity, defined as such by their threat to the future of the human species and categorised in four broad groupings. Only one of these categories might with some generosity be seen as having been addressed over the course of the election campaign.

It would still be something of a stretch of the imagination to articulate how Donald Trump established any policy position on “Systemic risks and fragile networks”, which CSER defines as the tensions emerging between growing populations, pressures on resources and supply chains, and the technologies that are arising to address the challenges of a global eco-system increasingly defined by its interconnectedness. Trump would point out the systemic shortcomings of American trade negotiators historically unburdened by his vision and experience. As the candidate who actually possesses knowledge and experience of the nuances in balancing risk and reward in this area, Hillary Clinton at least had her views constantly at the ready whenever the media tired of asking her about her emails.

Heading the CSER list of existential risks and often cited by scientists, futurists and politicians as the greatest risk now afflicting the planet is what CSER terms “Extreme risk and the global environment” – known colloquially as climate change. Whatever the consensus among people who actually know what they are talking about, a significant proportion of the broader American public is disinclined to recognise that this problem even exists. The tools of evidence and critical thinking being largely Greek to this wider population, the American media clearly felt the whole subject to be too recondite to be engaging with the science-deniers in a language they couldn’t understand. Trump certainly couldn’t, and the media largely gave him a pass on this.

Most remarkably, the other two categories of risk on the CSER website were virtual no-go areas for both presidential campaigns and the media whose task it might have been to interrogate them if only they had the slightest inkling of the exponential pace of change that will define humanity’s progress in the coming years of the 45th president’s term of office. At some stretch, consideration of the “Risks from biology: natural and engineered” might be seen to feature in the work of Planned Parenthood and its vital work in the areas of female public health and human reproduction. But here Trump was in thrall to the fruitcake wing of the Republican party and, as this was one of the few areas in which candidate and party were in lockstep agreement, he was happy to blunder into embarrassing policy positions that were consistently and constantly undermined by Clinton’s expertise, her experience, her commitment to the cause and, finally, to simple and understandable gender solidarity.

Given the gap between the candidates on issues of female biology – not to mention the publicity given to Trump’s history of obsession with female sexuality stopping well short of the time that reproduction becomes an issue – this was possibly the area of policy discussion that has left the progressive media nonplussed that this election could ever have been run so close. In any case, the wider issues of existential risk and benefits relating to genetics, synthetic biology, global pandemics, and antibiotic resistance scarcely got a look-in over the course of the election’s somewhat onanistic “news cycle”.

Most tellingly, Artificial Intelligence hasn’t featured very much at all in this election. This is especially alarming given the final summary sentence on the CSER website section that addresses this particular area of risk: “With the level of power, autonomy, and generality of AI expected to increase in coming years and decades, forward planning and research to avoid unexpected catastrophic consequences is essential.” The silence has been deafening.

For all the speculation about what so-called Super Artificial Intelligence may mean some decades hence at the point of the “Singularity” — the thought-experimented point where machine/computer intelligence matches and then exponentially speeds past the capabilities of human intelligence — the real story now, in 2016, is almost as startling as it is inspiring.

In this year when “human” intelligence is grappling feverishly with a presidential choice between one candidate who has been careless with her email and another who is a self-professed sex pest and the most dangerous sort of conman (simultaneously large on attitude but bereft of a clue), this year alone has seen considerable advances in the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence, both for worse and for better.

The downsides include the possible misuse of private and commercial data, the increasing potential for fraud, and the threat of AI-directed/autonomous weapons systems. The upsides include faster and more efficient medical research, advances in virtual and augmented reality, safer cities through self-driving vehicles and infinitely more detailed intelligence-gathering on the workings of biology, chemistry, physics, and cosmology. In short, the wider universe is opening before our wondering eyes.

What is worrying amidst this quickening pace of AI technology is that the sort of circumspection we see articulated in media articles like this recent piece in TechCrunch is, first of all, not being reflected in wider public discussions incited by the American election. Second, there is no evidence that more frequent calls for ethical reflection on the challenges of AI might see progress in the ethical sphere keeping pace with developments in the AI science. This prompts at least three pretty obvious questions.

On the longer time horizon, as we contemplate a possible Singularity, what do we imagine that an emerging and self-conscious SuperAI might make of its human progenitor? If we have filled the intervening decades with steadfast ignoring of our existential threats, ever complacent about the real and enduring achievements of human imagination, and yet determined to elect our future leaders according to the bottom-feeding precedents suppurating forth from this week’s debasement of democracy, could any intelligence – human or “artificial” – be surprised if the post-Singularity machine should decide that man and monkey might share a cage?

In the medium-term, we might galvanise an appropriate response to the above paragraph by imagining what progress we might make over the next four years, given what has happened just over the course of 2016. Will the wise heads of 2020 be looking at that year’s American election in prospect and wondering how much more deliberation will be inspired by the questions so woefully ignored this year?

Specifically, will humanity have come to grips with the technological and ethical issues associated with the increasing pace of AI development, and craft their appreciation of that year’s slate of candidates on the basis of more intelligent policy positions on support for technology, for education in the sciences and in the absolute necessity for our species to evolve beyond its biases and primal fears in the application of critical thinking and greater circumspection as we prise open a deeper understanding of our relationship with the cosmos we look set to join?

Which brings us to the short-term question: if we are to attain the promontories of wisdom implicit in addressing those challenges of the medium term, what do we have to start doing next week, next month, and throughout 2017? If we are to overcome the toxic and cancerous experiences of 2016, what are the fundamentals among “the other stuff” that we will need to address? What must we do to ensure that 2020 finds us clear-sighted and focused on the distant Singularity as a point of possibly quantum enhancement of human potential, rather than a humiliating relegation to the monkey cage?

By no means a comprehensive wish-list, or even sufficient in themselves for guaranteeing the progress of our species to that quantum gate, these twin areas of focus are proposed as at least being necessary areas for reflection given the impact of their collective absence over these last unnecessarily anxious and ghastly 18 months.

First, keep it real: celebrate intelligence. We must not surrender to the pornography of simulation. Cyberspace has echoed with the cries of commentators decrying the ascendance of reality television over the dynamics of real life. The CBS CEO who admitted that the Trump campaign may not be good for America, but is “damn good for CBS” might prompt a useful debate on what the media are for. And he would not say it if people were not watching him, so another debate is necessary on how to encourage people to keep up with scientific progress as much as they keep up with the Kardashians. We need more public respect for science and for the primacy of evidence; and less indulgence of bias and political determinations driven by faith.

And as a sub-text to the promotion of intelligence, the organisers of presidential campaigns might reflect upon their role as custodians of the democratic process when they consider how best, and for how long, the 2020 campaign might proceed. Is an adversarial and protracted bear-baiting marathon an optimal way of revealing the candidates’ strengths and educating the public, or is it okay that it’s deemed to be damn good for the boss of CBS?

Finally, the American Republican Party is in need of a re-boot. To finish where we set out with a thought for what might be good for what ails it if trumped up chemotherapy should fail: are they clear on their voter demographic’s direction of travel for the next four years, given what’s going on in the world? This same question applies to any government that would profit from enduring xenophobia or from exploiting atavistic bias and resolute ignorance. There is only so much to be gained by gerrymandering and pandering to inchoate fears, and no credit at all in impugning any authority to which the cynical seeks election.

And there is absolutely no glory in taking countries back, or “making them great again”. Humanity reaches out, it moves forward, and looks up.

Ha ha bloody ha, AI is getting into scary

A feature on Motherboard (and available from quite a few sites on this particularly frightening day in the calendar) informs readers that “MIT is teaching AI to Scare Us”. Well that’s just great. Anyone insufficiently nervous anyway about the potential perils of AI itself, or not already rendered catatonic in anxiety over the conniptions of the American election, can go onto the specially confected Nightmare Machine website and consult a specially prepared timeline that advances from the Celtic stirrings of Hallowe’en two millennia ago to this very year in which AI-boosted “hell itself breathes out contagion to the world.”

The highlight – or murky darkfest – feature of the site is the interactive gallery of faces and places, concocted and continually refined by algorithms seeking to define the essence of scary. So much of what we sense about horror is rather like our sense of what it is that makes humour funny: it is less induced from core principles but is rather deduced from whatever succeeds in eliciting the scream of terror or laughter. It cannot be a surprise, therefore, that the Nightmare Machine mission is proving perfect for machine learning to get its artificial fangs into. Website visitors rank the images for scariness and, the theory goes, the images get scarier.

Another school of thought, reflected in articles like this piece in Salon on the creepy clown phenomenon, sees the fright not so much in what others find frightening as in what serves as a projection of our own internal terrors. The clowns and gargoyles that stalk the political landscape are to a large extent projections of ourselves: of our own deepest fears for the more empathetic among us, or as simple avenging avatars for the morally bereft or culturally dispossessed.

When AI moves beyond its current picture recognition capabilities into deeper areas of understanding our own inner fears and darkest thoughts, the ultimate fright will no longer lie in some collection of pixels. It will seep from the knowing look you get from your android doppelganger — to all intents and purposes you to the very life — as your watching friend asks, “Which you is actually you?” Your friend doesn’t know, but you know, and of course it knows . . . and it knows that you know that it knows . . .

Bailey on books: making the brain accessible



Attempting to describe the workings of a human brain in just six chapters of a 246-page paperback might seem like an impossible task but David Eagleman has had a very creditable go at it in The Brain, The Story of You.

Further, what he has put into print has lived up to the expectations generated by his recent and highly acclaimed TV series on the same subject. (Interestingly, Eagleman writes that in childhood he and his family rarely watched television; Carl Sagan’s Cosmos being a rare exception but no surprise.) In fact much of what he rehearsed in that TV series is refreshed in this slim volume. But the real value of The Brain, The Story of You is its style; punchy, straightforward and mostly written in a simple style that requires little if any re-reading, so clear is Eagleman’s exposition throughout. To match his style the layout follows on admirably with a large readable typeface, good line spacing, plenty of white space and some interesting graphics.

The author has avoided over-elaboration by the use of scientifically verified examples. The danger is that developments in neuroscience are moving so fast that new discoveries are likely to surmount some of what has been set down here almost before the ink has time to dry. But no matter, because there is at present no more easily digested review of what has been described as the most complex structure in the universe.

Eagleman deserves every success for providing readers with such an easy-to-follow guide as to who we are and how and why we think the way we do. One of the positive features of the text are the boxed summaries that give readers time to absorb the significance of what has been read previously. These include clear interpretations and examples of how research and experimentation have helped determined brain function.

Nothing is left out in this comprehensive review including details of operations that didn’t work out well but added to the scant knowledge of brain function as recently as the mid-twentieth century. Experiments that were always dubious or chancy on those who were clearly unwell also are covered. Added to this, the Endnotes, of which there are plenty, form a very useful bibliography and the descriptive glossary is invaluable in furthering better understanding of what Eagleman has described.

This book is worth carrying around to read of course but also to use in translating and understanding our own behaviour and that of others with whom we interact.

The Brain, The Story of You is published by Canongate Books. For further information go to or have a look at David Eagleman’s website.


Books editor John Bailey was for many years one of London’s best known journalists and spent most of his career in what was Fleet Street. He is an avid bibliophile and record collector, champion advocate for press freedom, and a student of history whose guided tours of London are known to and fondly recalled by exhausted walkers on all five continents.

How does consciousness evaluate itself?

If “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, perhaps the attempt to reflect conclusively on consciousness is like the old picture of Baron Munchausen trying to pull himself out of a swamp by his own pigtail. Despite the usual carpings in the commentary whenever any serious thinking is done online (gosh, if only the author had consulted with me first . . .) an article in Aeon Magazine by cognitive robotics professor Murray Shanahan of London’s Imperial College makes some important distinctions between human consciousness and what he terms “conscious exotica”. The key question he poses is summed up in the sub-headline: “From algorithms to aliens, could humans ever understand minds that are radically unlike our own?”

It’s a great question, even without wondering how much more difficult such an understanding must be when it eludes most of us even in understanding minds very much like our own. Shanahan sets out from a premising definition of intelligence as what it is that “measures an agent’s general ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments”, from which we can infer a definition of consciousness as what it is when the measuring agent is the agent herself.

From there, Shanahan works up a spectrum of consciousness ranging from awareness through self-awareness, to empathy for other people and on to integrated cognition, wondering along the way if the displayed symptoms of consciousness might disguise distinctions in the internal experience of consciousness between biological and non-biological beings. The jury will remain out on the latter until Super AI is upon us, but reflections on the evolution of biological consciousness prompt another thought on the process of evolution itself.

There is nothing absolute about human consciousness. We are where we are now: our ancient ancestors might have gawped uncomprehendingly at the messages in White Rabbits, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and the rest of them, but the doors that were opened by the 60s counterculture were less about means than about ends. Enhanced consciousness was shown to be possible if not downright mind-blowing. We in our time can only gawp in wondrous anticipation of what future consciousness may tell us about all manner of things, including even and possibly especially dances about architecture.

“Teach me half the gladness that thy brain must know, Such harmonious madness From my lips would flow The world should listen then, as I am listening now.” — Shelley”s To a Skylark

Bailey on Books: What is actually going on inside?


Many of us were introduced to neuroscience in 1997 by The Human Brain, A Guided Tour, Susan Greenfield’s ground-breaking second publication about the brain. Few of us will be surprised to learn that despite the controversy some of her prognostications have aroused, she continues to provide valuable insights into what has now become a stand-alone science. And her latest treatise provides more of the same.

I am referring to A Day in the Life of the Brain, The Neuroscience of Consciousness from Dawn to Dusk, Susan’s latest attempt to make us more familiar with how our brains work in most circumstances during an average day and night.

Following more than two decades of unremitting exploration of the workings of the brain, Susan is excellently placed to offer some highly plausible thoughts about consciousness. The Private Life of The Brain was a prequel to her latest attempt to help define consciousness and now she has added measurably to our understanding of one of neuroscience’s greatest challenges. And defining the ultimate in this regard is something she continues to investigate with her colleagues in her laboratory at Oxford.

Following the form of her earlier books, she divides A Day in the Life into clearly defined chapters that represent specific daily activities, thoughts and problems. But before that, and on the very first page of her preface, she recalls disavowing her science studies, instead choosing Latin, Greek, ancient history and maths. She writes: “. . . the essence of one’s own individuality seemed to be so much better met by history and literature”.

As with so much in this book, that’s a thought worth pondering. However, via psychology and physiology she moved back to science and eventually to her natural home of neuroscience and the study of neurodegenerative disorders.

All this shows that she is no ordinary neuroscientist, a fact underlined in A Day in the Life as she forensically examines and largely refutes most of the present notions of consciousness in an entertaining style that will engage both novices and those who live permanently in her rarified world. Outlining the complexities we face during an average day and how our brains both initiate and cope with our actions, Susan explores what we know of how we think and provides a comprehensive guide to our further understanding of consciousness.


Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE is a Senior Research Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford University. A Day in the Life of the Brain, The Neuroscience of Consciousness from Dawn to Dusk is published by Allen Lane.

Susan Greenfield will be speaking at the London School of Economics on Thursday, 3rd November 2016, 6:30pm-8:00pm. For details of this free event go to:


Books editor John Bailey was for many years one of London’s best known journalists and spent most of his career in what was Fleet Street. He is an avid bibliophile and record collector, champion advocate for press freedom, and a student of history whose guided tours of London are known to and fondly recalled by exhausted walkers on all five continents.

Bailey on Books: An intriguing study of brains in balance


At a time when neuroscience is making huge advances in the understanding of consciousness and regular updates on the physical workings of our brains are proliferating (see Susan Greenfield’s latest thinking on A Day in the Life of the Brain in our next review), it is timely to look at a landmark publishing event in neuroscience advancement.

The Master and his Emissary, first published by Yale University Press in 2010, provides a perfect introduction to brain functionality with a remarkable prescience about developments in neuroscience since its publication.

Author Iain McGilchrist’s comprehensive review of brain power and how the left and right hemispheres work singularly and together to best effect, has been an extremely reliable guide to current thinking and has no doubt fuelled many further advances.

His belief “that many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable; but they stand in opposition to each other and so need to be kept apart – hence the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain” has the simplicity and elegant writing style that is a virtue throughout this book of revelations. Added to this there is a constant philosophical element that supports the author’s thoughts, ideas and explanations.

First reading can give an impression of denseness but this is a reflection of the depth of analysis and the novel intricacies of brain function first encountered. The idea that each hemisphere has fundamentally different sets of values and priorities so that at some stage they are likely to come into conflict is not a concept easily accepted. However, McGilchrist’s exhaustive research and his engaging rationale make it an undeniable matter of fact.

Apart from why the structure of the brain is so relevant to how we experience the world, perhaps most important is the increasing and concerning dominance of the left hemisphere. This and its worrying consequences for our increasingly mechanistic view of the world, is addressed in straightforward terms but with the full authority of an expert in his field.

For a clear understanding of the structure of the brain and its functionality, this publication must rank as the set text. It also scores highly as a source of entertainment as well as being a rich source of the experimental research that it has no doubt promoted.


Iain McGilchrist author of The Master and his Emissary, The Divided Brain and Making of the Modern World, is a former Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical director at the Bethlem Royal & Maudsley Hospital. Readers looking for more about, and from him can go to his website, which includes an animated lecture which is also available on the TEDTalks website.


Books editor John Bailey was for many years one of London’s best known journalists and spent most of his career in what was Fleet Street. He is an avid bibliophile and record collector, champion advocate for press freedom, and a student of history whose guided tours of London are known to and fondly recalled by exhausted walkers on all five continents.