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The Psychology of Climate Change with Baroness Susan Greenfield

I enjoyed an interesting exchange last week with Baroness Greenfield after her lecture on the psychology of climate change at Eco-Build.

Greenfield began her lecture by explaining that the human brain is changing. “The human mind is very sensitive to the environment and as our environment is changing, the human mind will change as well.”

She further explained that just as “climate change” is an umbrella term, a collective noun representing a cluster of issues, we encounter a similar phenomenon when we examine the changing conditions of the human mind – and which Greenfield has labelled “mind-change”.

“We learn better than any other species on the planet. Therefore our environmental influences are stronger relative to our genetic influences.” Among all species, our brain is unique, driven by the biological way in which our brains grow. “Every single moment we live leaves its mark on the connections in our brain”. Brain growth is driven by neural connections which are in turn driven by our own unique experiences.

Interestingly, this pattern of growth is similar in imagined experience to in real experience. For example, connections made in the brain of someone imagining playing the piano can be similar to those of someone who is actually playing the piano. “Thought is movement that takes place inside the brain”.

Brain cells grow branches as a result of mental experience rather like muscles grow with exercise. This increases the surface area of the connecting branches which in turn makes it easier to make further connections which are literally presented with a larger target.

These connections are unique to us, as our brains are so sensitive to the unique characteristics of our environment. Early child development sees a progression away from sensory experience to cognitive experience through pattern recognition, such as the shape of the mother’s face. The more the child sees things in context the more it understands them. Senility is in fact the progressive loss of these connections which causes a return to mental infancy.

These biological characteristics of the brain not only make us unique, but also highly vulnerable to change, as we are so heavily influenced by it.

Between a child’s 10th and 11th birthday, they spend on average 900 hours in class, but around 2000 hours in front of a TV or computer screen. The effect of this “screen culture” and strongly sensory environment is to shorten the attention span, to favour processing content rather than true meaning, and to lacking the ability to handle metaphor and abstract concepts. “In a sense you are turning yourself into a computer.”

It is not all bad. There is evidence that digital culture is increasing IQ and improving short term memory. But it is causing problems of loss of empathy and inability to evaluate risk.

Greenfield argues that this phenomenon of “mind change” is as unprecedented as climate change. Nothing stands for anything. We are moving from a culture of metaphor to a culture of experience, of literal sensory experiences – a “what you see is what you get” world similar in some ways to that of the sufferer of autism. And Greenfield backs up her claims with reference to the changing world of advertising and PR which is moving from metaphor to literal communication.

In my professional work I have often worked through this transition with clients from metaphor-based brands (Ferrero Rocher makes you an aristocrat) to metonymical brands that are much less about abstract aspiration and much more about what you can actually use them for (Google, eBay).

I agree with Greenfield that “screen culture” may be adversely affecting our development, particularly if it excludes contact with nature, and especially at a very early age.

And I agree that the rapid pace of change is likely to have unpredictable consequences on our brain development and the health of our minds.

But it is important to see both sides of the debate. I believe there is a greater distinction to be drawn than Greenfield had time to do in her lecture between passive “screen time” and the rich peer to peer interactions that are made possible via the internet and digital communications. And sometimes knowing the facts about a product, not to mention the details of its social and environmental footprint, can be a step up from the misleading facades that can sometimes be put on monolithic corporate brands.

And when it comes to climate change, I am an advocate of the position that the capacity of the internet to connect us and to bring us together is actually one of the best chances we have at addressing this shared challenge through collaborative action.

But the question that perhaps most needs to be addressed on the psychology of climate change is how we can support our natural adaptation to the threat of a phenomenon that takes place largely outside of our direct experience – something that seems to happen to other people, in other places, over a vague period of time. Touch a flame and you recoil at the danger. How do we instil such good biological defence mechanisms against the far greater threat that our emissions are causing?

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