Sunday, 13 November 2011


© National Portrait Gallery, London

This is a portrait which doesn't keep still. The viewer sees a constantly changing picture made up of 169 drawings, some on paper and some on computer screens, spliced with short sections of video. It seems exactly the right medium for a neuroscientist who is Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at the University of Oxford. You could say it's a metaphor of the brain itself with its myriad of fluctuating messages. And a reminder that art itself is always changing, evolving, experimenting.

Baroness Greenfield was the first woman to be appointed Director of the Royal Institution, an independent charity dedicated to connecting the general public with the world of science through events examining the latest research, breakthroughs and set backs. The most famous of their public service events are the Christmas Lectures, which were started by Michael Faraday in 1825. This year they'll be delivered by experimental psychologist Professor Bruce Hood on BBC Four.

One of Baroness Greenfield's  special interests is the way that the time we spend on line and in the digital world may be changing our brains - and not for the better. The trouble is that our understanding of technological influences on the brain is in its infancy. She  is anxious that we take the prospect of harm seriously, maintaining that we do not have time to wait a couple of decades to see what happens as our children grow up. Witness, for example, how long it took to persuade the world of the evil effects of tobacco...

Those who disagree ask for hard evidence and are sceptical of her observations. They do not hesitate to say so. Baroness Greenfield is not afraid of conflict and was removed from the Directorship amid controversy about a number of matters.
Tom Phillips is a distinguished artist, who has been astonishingly innovative throughout his career. He is also an author and musician.   In 1966 he set himself a task: to find a second-hand book for threepence and alter every page by painting, collage and cut-up techniques, thereby creating an entirely new version. He called his altered book A Humument i.e.A Hum(an Doc)ument. The first version of all 367 treated pages was published in 1973. The most recent development is The Humument App, which combines the most recent 367 full-colour pages with a novel interactive feature.

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