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Baroness Susan Greenfield


Empathy: a neuroscientific perspective

Dr. Susan Greenfield is a research neuro scientist, and author based in Oxford. She has held research fellowships in the Department of Physiology Oxford, the Collège de France Paris, and NYU Medical Center New York. She has since been awarded 32 Honorary Degrees from British and foreign universities. In 2000 she was elected to an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians. Further international recognition of her work has included the ‘Golden Plate Award’ (2003) from the Academy of Achievement, Washington, the L’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (2003), from the French Government, and the 2010 Australian Medical Research Society Medal. She has held a Visiting Professorship at the Medical School, University of Melbourne, Australia and is currently CEO of a biotech company that she founded in 2013.


“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy,” Meryl Streep has said. But what makes human brains so special? Humans occupy more ecological niches than any other species on the planet because of the superlative ability of our brains, compared with those of any other animal, to adapt to the environment. Our brains become highly personalized post-natally by the development of unique configurations of connections between the brain cells that characterize the growth of the human brain after birth, personalizing it into a ‘mind’ that is in constant dialogue with the environment. Neuroscience can give valuable insights by offering a perspective at the level of the physical brain of how we might feel and think in unprecedented ways. We live in a world of concern for a global social networking profile, a world of instant views and thoughts read out in a virtual stream of consciousness. It’s a two-dimensional world of only sight and sound yet offering instant information, connected identity, diminished privacy and here-and-now experiences so vivid they out-compete the real world of three dimensions and five senses. This new culture and way of life is unprecedented and as such, is inevitably having an unprecedented effect on each individual human brain. The digital world could be transforming the way we see our own identity and relations with others, so that the profile of the 21st-Century mind might be one of:

  • Short attention span
  • Sensation at premium
  • Addictive
  • Reckless
  • Low empathy
  • Poor interpersonal skills
  • Weak sense of identity
  • Efficient information processing
  • Icons not ideas
  • Poor critical thought

We need to be able to devise an environment and educational strategies whereby original thought, individual insight and above all empathy, may be able to emerge and flourish.