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Cognitive Column - December 2017

It is probably psychologically healthy not to be too worried for too long about things that don't affect us, but it does make the World seem a fickle and uncaring place. Disasters, natural and man-made, come and go, creating ephemeral shock and compassion, but within a brief while all is forgotten. Not by the victims, of course; their struggles can go on for years. Picking up on a theme I raised in the last Column, our seeming indifference is likely to be one of many consequences of the fact that, during our evolution, we lived in relatively small bands. While outsiders were viewed with suspicion and were unlikely to attract much empathy, those of our own tribe were likely to share many of our own genes, so to help one of them was almost as important as helping oneself. From the point of view of genes, altruism is selfish self-preservation and it is a trait that evolved a long time ago. Even Neanderthals are believed to have exhibited caring behaviour, with skeletons showing signs of the owner growing old, while suffering injuries and disablement. To have reached old age others must have been prepared to help and feed them, since they could not do it for themselves. Nevertheless, there is also evidence that prehistoric humans waged war on each other, and it is plausible that our prodigious intelligence developed through a Cognitive arms race; those who could plan and outwit best were the ones who survived to pass on their genes.

I have been thinking about these issues after a trip to Kiev, capital of Ukraine. In 2014 a Malaysian airliner was shot down as it flew over Ukraine, which was (and still is) in conflict with Russian backed rebels. Two years later, investigators concluded that the attack had used a Buk missile, brought in from Russia, but since 2016 the World has largely lost interest in the region, despite continuing explosions and skirmishes, with many casualties and thousands of internally displaced people. Not surprisingly, the country's health services struggle, particularly the mental health services, since there is a high incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other related problems. I was part of a multi-national group from the European Society of Hypnosis, looking to provide guidance, training and support to our Ukrainian colleagues. Hypnosis is a particularly effective tool in the treatment of PTSD.

Genes play their part in PTSD too; not every traumatised person develops the condition, only those with the vulnerable genome. It seems likely that this distressing condition originally evolved long before humans. Simpler, pre-verbal animals needed a mechanism that would make them turn away from repeating life threatening behaviour. A seriously terrifying trauma would cause the brain to lay down vivid visual images of the event. Subsequently, any situation that contained an element similar to the trauma would trigger the memory, which appeared in such detail that it would appear to the animal that it was back in the scene. Of course the terrified animal would run, and hence live to see another day. In humans we refer to these vividly re-experienced memories as flashbacks. As cognitively complex creatures we should be able simply to reason that the experience is merely a reminder, and is not actually happening again, but unfortunately the primitive mechanisms override the evolutionarily recent rational processes and humans too can believe themselves back in the scene.

What has the brain done to make trauma memories so compelling when, in contrast, trying to store memories for exam material, say, is so difficult. The answer is that it changes its chemistry, and it does this by changing genes. We can't really change the genes we have inherited, but we can change whether or not they are "expressed". Not all genes are used all the time. Thus, although every cell in our bodies (except eggs and sperm) contain our full "recipe book", cells in the eye, for example, do not make bone, and those in the skeleton do not make liver cells or muscle. The inappropriate genes are not expressed, and this is achieved by "turning off" all but the necessary parts of the recipe book. The molecules that make a gene can be rendered inaccessible by attaching a methyl group, an obstructing cluster with one carbon and three hydrogen atoms. Reversing this methylation can make the gene visible again, so that it can be used to form whatever it defines - a neurotransmitter perhaps. Severe trauma causes large numbers of methylation changes, the majority occurring in brain-related genes.

There are a good many issues in the news at the moment, touching on the subjects of trauma, boundaries and safeguarding. Some are clear cut and provoke unequivocal condemnation, but many tend to merge into grey areas. Shakespeare, as so often, captures this nicely; he has Hamlet say, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." On this basis, sometimes we should perhaps place less emphasis on behaviour and rather more on our thinking about behaviour. An example of something where no thought is required is sexual assault. It is wrong, full stop, and can often result in the sorts of brain changes I mentioned above. In a very real way, such an attack is causing brain damage, and that's on top of all the other harm that is done; it is a violation in every conceivable sense of the word. However, I have met cases of women who have suffered no violation, but who have had other reasons to seek counselling. They have ended up receiving "therapy" from poorly trained, ill -informed hypnotherapists, who inadvertently plant a false memory of being sexually abused as children. In spite of the fact that there was abundant evidence that what they "remembered" simply could not have happened, these unfortunate souls developed all the symptoms of PTSD. They were traumatised by something that didn't happen; it was thinking that made it so.

Universities are supposed to be the hot-houses of thought and bastions of free speech, but nowadays they seem more like children's nurseries than the horticultural form. There must be no sharp edges where people might hurt themselves, and we all have to avoid saying nasty things in front of the impressionable youngsters. This is where things get grey. When I give a lecture on the epigenetic impact of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) and the adult mental health issues that may ensue, I know that up to twenty percent of my female audience, and rather fewer of the male, may well themselves have been affected by CSA. It doesn't seem appropriate to launch uncaringly into the topic, so I make sure people are aware of what I will be talking about and also I provide contact details, in case issues are raised that some people need to talk over. Note, however, that there is something rather special about this particular subject matter. There is a high risk that several members of an audience will have personal experience of it, and we know that adults abused as children are at significant risk of a variety of mental illnesses; they are vulnerable. At the other extreme, it would seem that some universities exercise regimes where safeguarding is taken to quite ridiculous extremes, where subjects such as theology and English literature have to come with health warnings. Shakespeare (I do like him!) is seriously troubling; he touches on so many scary topics: murder, incest, suicide, war, desertion and rape. I have listed only those topics where I have met people actually involved in some way with that kind of trauma, but there are many more, such as fratricide, regicide and war crimes. Nevertheless, trauma-laden as his works are, I go on peppering my talks with Shakespearian quotes, without giving a trace of a warning! People actually benefit from being exposed to the real, everyday world. One of the key goals of PTSD therapy is to "normalise" the terrifying memories. That is not to justify what happened, or to convince the sufferer that it was a perfectly normal event, but it is to get their brain to accept it as just one more item (it happens to be a nasty one) sitting on the time-line of their biography. The sight of blood and guts is a well known trigger for PTSD, but surgeons, who see lots of that sort of thing, do not normally suffer. The reason is that their exposure is in the context of therapy, not threat; once again, thinking makes it so. The brave women who are currently coming forward to tell their stories of assault are probably doing themselves good, and certainly helping others through normalising the crime. Once again, this is not to diminish the crime, but to remove the taboo; fears and phobias thrive on avoidant behaviour, whereas careful exposure tempers the terrors.

So, universities should be like operating theatres: safe places, where all involved are treated with consideration but nobody shrinks from exposing the guts of the matter. Those who don't feel comfortable in such an atmosphere should not seek to change our venerable seats of learning; they should simply go, taking their stultifying political correctness with them, and leave the stage to those who dare to think - not just their own thoughts but the thoughts of others too.

I do hope studies go well for you. No doubt I shall be in touch again in the New Year.

Best wishes, Peter


Cognitive Column - December 2016

I imagine you will not be reading this (Does anyone?) until the New Year, but I am writing it while 'Tis the season to be jolly; I'll leave you to add the tra-la-la bit. Nevertheless, as I have listened to the news of late there seemed to be scant cause for jollity around the World. In my last Column I referred to the dramatic changes that had taken place, but the tectonic turmoil has continued unabated, and many of the shifting plates of societies around the World feel disastrously displaced from their accustomed sites. It took geologists quite a while to come up with the theory of plate tectonics, and so explain why the continents looked as if they could once have fitted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. I suspect that it will prove a far harder task to explain fully why what seemed a relatively stable World has suddenly become so unpredictable. Experts from more than one discipline will be needed, such as economists, sociologists and historians - and for sure psychologists. Let's try a couple of psychological topics on the issue.

Scientists are currently developing the idea of building relatively simple robots that could work together in large teams, for example in search-and-rescue missions. As is so often the case, Nature was there first and the idea is modelled on the behaviour of social creatures such as bees or ants. The insects are relatively simple animals, with tiny brains and only a small repertoire of behaviours, but put them together in a colony and it is as if a new super-animal emerges with complex behaviours and abilities that seemed absent from the individuals. Unlike ants, humans are enormously complex as individuals; put lots together in a large colony, and perhaps the emergent behaviour becomes so complex as to defy prediction. This notion raises two issues. First, difficulty in making accurate predictions is not limited to societies - weather forecasting is the prime example. However, although meteorologists can't always get the prediction right, they can explain accurately in retrospect. By analogy, with hindsight we should be able to start looking for accurate explanations of human behaviour. There is another angle to this though, and that is to ask whether the unpredictable behaviour we are seeking to explain should have been there in the first place. What I am getting at is that, as a social animal, we have evolved to be able to 'read' each other; we have acquired what is known as Theory of Mind (ToM). This means that we are able to send and receive signals that make us relatively transparent, and as a result can guess what others are thinking, feeling or likely to do. We are not unpredictable. So, where has all this unpredictability come from? Macaque monkeys are social and their brains have been examined, looking at animals living in groups of various sizes. It has been found that regions in the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes have greater volume and more connectivity in animals from larger groups. The equivalent area in the human prefrontal cortex is known to support ToM, and scanning shows that the cortical thickness here correlates with the size of a person's social network. The implication of these findings is that it takes brain power to cope with the intricacies of interacting with lots of others. In humans, as opposed to monkeys, there is a good deal of connectivity between this 'social' region and areas of the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain involved with reward and punishment, and detecting whether outcomes are as expected or are unexpected - it gets seriously active if we are expecting a reward that doesn't come! Scanning this area not only shows activity in line with what happens to ourselves, but also what we see happening to others. Interestingly, the activity for others is not marked in people on the autistic spectrum, who of course find it difficult to read others' minds. Where they do display strength is in expressing sympathy; as long as they know what others are feeling they tend to be very empathic.

Some neat experiments involving rewards and electric shocks have revealed something about our tendency to be empathic and altruistic. People will tolerate shocks if given money and there is a fairly simple relationship between the strength of shock they will accept and the size of payment: the bigger the shock the more money they expect. People are also prepared to give others electric shocks in return for payment but, when the electricity is going to someone else, the majority require more money for a smaller shock. In other words they are reluctant to cause much discomfort to another individual, and this has been termed the altruism effect. There seems to be a region in the left prefrontal cortex which might be called the moral centre; it is this which becomes activated at the idea of hurting others for one's own benefit. These experiments were run anonymously, so that the person getting the shock and the one receiving did not know each other. Also, it was made clear to the 'shocker' that there would be no changing places, so their victim would not be able to get their own back. In spite of all this, people were kinder to others than to themselves. The moral centre is linked to a region called the striatum, which is involved with assessing the value of a reward. The link from the prefrontal cortex is inhibitory, so the effect is that the more a person is aware of another's pain, the less rewarding it feels to be paid to hurt them. Psychopaths are deficient in this mechanism, but are good at ToM, hence they are good at being cruel and manipulative; they lack empathy.

So, where does all this get us? Well, for a start it will perhaps come as no surprise to learn that business leaders tend to score lower on empathy than any other trait that might have relevance to their role. One can imagine this applying to a good many politicians too, but whether or not it does, most seem to spend their time cosying up to big business anyway, and in our globalised world it is the business giants who appear to pull many of the strings. Thus, in significant measure, our destinies are being dictated by people driven to feather their own nests, while at the same time lacking noticeable concern for any negative impact that may have upon the rest of us. Of course, like all good psychopaths, their theory of mind is second to none and they are very plausible. They have beguiling stories to explain why their getting rich is the only way to help others.

The 'others' no longer seem content to accept those stories, and this must in large part be because people feel nothing whatsoever in common with the powers-that-be. Remember that it takes mental effort to interact with a social group; we evolved with the ability to operate in a relatively modest clan, much like the macaques. A rather defenceless creature such as ourselves (relatively small and slow, no big teeth or claws) benefitted enormously by acting in concert with others, but there is a downside. For sure, the bigger the group the more powerful it is, but also, with many mouths to feed, the bigger its demands on environmental resources. There are other factors too, such as the rate of spread of infectious diseases when there is one large congregation of individuals, as opposed to several dispersed smaller groupings. All in all, there is an optimal size range for a band of hunter-gatherers, and our brains evolved in that context. With the advent of farming and transport (and, interestingly, cooking) it became possible to gather in much larger numbers, with many people not actually engaged directly with food production.

Whether the march of civilisation and group enlargement should be seen as a climb or a descent depends upon the viewpoint. That we manage at all is certainly a tribute to the remarkable flexibility of the human brain, but it has been flying in the face of one corner of that organ; strictly, it is all too big for comfort. We get around this by having pseudo-groups. I'm a Man of Kent; I don't live there now, but I still feel a kind of allegiance. Obviously I know only the tiniest fraction of the millions of people who live there, but there's the sense of kindred spirits. I feel sorry for them when the M20 is closed due to the lorries backing up when striking French close their ports; I don't think I'd feel quite so involved if it was the road to Southampton say. However, they are at least British at the other end of the M3 and that's another, even larger group, to whom I expect most of us feel some kind of connection. Nevertheless, when the chips are down our allegiances shrink; first country perhaps (Scots not British for example) then maybe our town, or people working in the same industry, and ultimately those people who made that bit of cortex grow - the friends we actually know. I think it's the chips being down that counts; while things are muddling along tolerably enough, then we cope with large groupings. Problems breed parochialism.

The very expression 'powers-that-be' sounds remote. Such people are not easily perceived as being in our group. The faceless bureaucrats of Brussels don't stand a chance! Come to that, it's not much better for the incumbent political class nearer to home - and that's wherever home is, whether UK, France, Italy, USA or many more. It's not just that the politicians are not in our group - we are not in theirs. Their group (in the UK) is commonly referred to as the Westminster Village. That's where their buddies are to be found, the people who think like them and share their values. True, down the years there have been a few who were great philanthropists, cognisant of the conditions of the masses, but to the great majority of MPs the British public is merely an indecipherable, amorphous mass, to be placated with half-truths and lies. It's another case of 'when the chips are down', and for our politicians they are down every five years. When that happens their only interest in the population is that as many as possible vote for them. Unfortunately for our mendacious masters, recent years have presented problems aplenty, and that is when humans shrink alliances and appear to be unpredictable to those left outside. People external to the smaller circle are automatically distrusted, and that applies whether they are foreigners (who are generally teetering near the perimeter anyway) or leaders. From an evolutionary perspective we would do better with local decision making but, given that we have to have remote leaders, we go for candidates who are as different as possible from the current crew, ideally espousing ideas that chime with our own - that way we can almost kid ourselves that they are in our group. These kinds of principles have resulted in the rise of people such as Farage, Trump and Corbyn. We might well ask where will it all end. That's where I play the weather forecaster card - I'm not as good at predictions as explanations - and even those might be a bit flaky!

Well, we can't leave the Festive Season's Column on such a doom-laden note. I received a nice Christmas card. It showed Santa lying on a psychiatrist's couch (I'm sure that's a stereotype that can't apply any more). The therapist (who sounds a good deal more empathic than a Freudian analyst, so clearly isn't a business leader) is saying, "The important thing is that you believe in yourself!" I do hope you had a good Christmas and that 2017 holds all that you could reasonably hope for, especially on the academic front.


A couple of (abbreviated) references that touch on the themes I raised:

Crockett et al. (2014). Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making. PNAS 111, 17320-17325.

Holt & Marques (2012). Empathy in leadership: appropriate or misplaced? Business Ethics 105, 95-105.


Cognitive Column - August 2016

Do you know, this is the first Summer in more years than I can remember that I have not spent time at an OU Residential School?  It seems a strange decision, to remove one of the few remaining aspects of OU life that distinguishes us from other distance learning institutions.  I'll have more to say about strange decision making a little later.  Two of the many things I liked about Summer School were the chance to meet lots of you, and also the opportunity to gather volunteers to be participants in any research that I was doing.

It feels as if the World is a completely different place from the one in which I was last writing; there have been so many changes.  We have home-grown political upheavals, a Turkish coup, Russians banned from the Olympics, horrendous Jihadi-inspired violence, a will-they-won't-they nuclear power station . . . the list of bombshells just goes on, and it's hard to know where to begin.  I ended my last Column by commenting on the In-Out Referendum, so I'd better continue where I left off.

It appears that the Brexit vote was yet another bombshell for the pundits; certainly it was for David Cameron and his cronies.  That, of course, is just one more piece of evidence that our leaders are out of touch with what Jo and Joe Public actually think.  I'm pretty sure the Europeans weren't expecting this either, or they would have tried to give Cameron something of substance when he made his wasted pre-vote tour of the other states.  Foreign governments can be excused for not knowing too well how our people will vote, but one wonders what has happened to the diplomats and analysts.  Time was when a significant role of an ambassador and his staff was to analyse the local political climate and feed back thoughts and predictions to the home country.  I have commented before on how grossly inaccurate the expectations of Russian behaviour have been; Putin seems to have outwitted the West at every move, yet as far as I could see his actions appeared to be reasonably predictable.  Our leaders seem to operate from within some kind of self-generated fog, clouding both vision and judgment.

If Baroness Warsi gives us a representative insight into politicians' capacity for rational decision making, then I suppose the shortcomings I have just mentioned are to be expected.  I have commented upon this woman's flaky reasoning before, but her switch from Leave to Remain in the referendum was without precedent on the bizarreness scale!  There is nothing wrong, of course, with a person changing her mind; it is the reason given that has to be judged.  One would have liked to think that a responsible woman, presenting herself as one of the leaders in a campaign of enormous, enduring consequence, would have weighed the pros, the cons and the relevant information with utmost care, before finally reaching a well-judged conclusion.  To have changed that conclusion mid-stream must surely have been prompted by the arrival of some major new piece of information relevant to our relationship with Europe?  Not so; she changed, she told us, because some of her fellow Brexiteers were displaying too much hate and xenophobia!  What on earth had that got to do with anything?  Dissociate herself from them of course, but did she think that remaining in Europe would miraculously convert xenophobes into xenophiles?

Decision making is a major research topic within Cognitive Psychology, so in principle it could have something to say about all this.  You will probably not be too surprised to learn that humans are not especially good at reasoning and decision making.  To research these abilities in the laboratory it has often been the case that rather artificial scenarios have been devised, simply because they can be set up to have right and wrong answers; so many of life's real issues do not have simple rights and wrongs, making it impossible for a researcher to judge whether a participant has performed well.  To some extent it is doubtless the artificiality of the experimental scenarios that leads people to perform rather poorly; after all, we have evolved very successfully, so we must have been getting it right quite a lot of the time.  Nevertheless, we are not very effective at being coolly logical, in fact we hear people saying things like, "It feels good to me," or alternatively, "I'm not happy about this one."  Those are more than just turns of phrase, because it turns out that people become especially bad at reaching decisions if they suffer damage to a region of the brain called the insula.  What does the insula do?  Well, it's a key part of the emotion processing system; in theory that would seem irrelevant to weighing up the factual pros and cons of a decision, but clearly the balance is often judged more by feeling than pure logic.  So, we may surmise that Sayeeda Warsi changed her decision, not because any relevant facts had changed, but because her feelings about the issue had changed.  Very human no doubt, but not the modus operandi one would have hoped for in a woman trained as a lawyer.

An interesting confirmation of the above, plus a little twist, concerns the impact of irrelevant facts.  Research has investigated binary decisions of the sort, "Should I choose A or B?" and established which way people tend to go.  A third option C is then introduced.  C is given characteristics that mean it can have no logical impact on the preference between A and B, but nevertheless its presence as an alternative can switch people's A-B selection.  However, it has been shown recently that people on the autistic spectrum are not influenced by the irrelevant information.

A major problem for the general public during the referendum campaigning was lack of believable information.  That, perhaps more than anything else that has gone before, damns the politicians.  Expenses scandals, cash for questions, all the things we have come to expect of our venal so-called representatives, while entirely execrable are at least fairly localised in their impact.  In contrast, the In-Out vote was likely to affect our whole population significantly and for many years to come.  So what did we get to help us in our deliberations?  The choice between being overrun by terrible Turks, or sliding inexorably into a third world war!

When we try to be rational our brains operate in serial mode, that is, they tend to process one piece of information at a time.  This is fine when there is a limited number of clear cut details, but in a complex situation there are too many variables for us to build into the picture we attempt to develop.  What is really needed in that sort of situation is parallel processing, where lots of material can be handled simultaneously.  As it happens, much of our brain does operate as a set of parallel processes; it is only the final tip of the iceberg leading to consciousness that has to be serial.  This distinction between serial conscious and parallel unconscious processing gives rise to some intriguing results.  Researchers have given participants complex situations to consider, with large amounts of difficult-to-juggle information.  Half the participants are then left for a few minutes to ponder their response, while the others are prevented from conscious thought about the problem, by giving them lots of anagrams to solve.  When the time is up, both groups make their responses.  It turns out that the 'thinkers' are at chance level with their responses: they might as well have stuck in a pin.  In contrast, those who worked on anagrams and then had to respond, not by reasoning but by snap decision,  performed significantly better!  I will leave you to decide whether the referendum outcome was indicative of an attempt at reasoning or a gut response.

Recently I was at a joint meeting between the Experimental Psychology Society and its Spanish equivalent, SEPEX (Sociedad Española de Psicología Experimental).  I met a PhD student who is researching time perception, something in which I have had an interest over the years.  We were discussing the notion of time slowing when we are frightened.  For example, during the unfolding of a car accident the on-coming car may seem to be moving in slow motion.  One explanation for this is to assume that we have a ticking 'clock' that not only gives us the ability to judge time intervals, but also determines the rate at which we grab samples of information about our environment.  With heightened arousal the clock would speed up, causing us to capture samples at a greater rate.  As a consequence, the change in position of an advancing car, between one sample and the next, would be smaller than we are accustomed to, so we would interpret the approach as being slower than usual.  As far as the student and I were both aware, there has never been an attempt to test this notion, so I have suggested to her that she might try some time perception tests on people riding a theme-park roller-coaster.  I hope her supervisor lets her; if he does she has promised to tell me the results.  Of course I'll pass them on!

Well, it's back to decision making again: do I draw this to a close and go in for a drink, or do I ramble on for a few more paragraphs?  ("God," I hear you say, "I hope he goes with plan A!")  I'm sitting in the garden to type, but after a lovely day the evening is growing cool.  My honey bees have ceased to fly and only a few bumble bees are still about; their larger bodies let them operate in lower temperatures.  Yes, I'm sure it's time to pour something nice!  I saw one of those jokey birthday cards recently; it carried a warning.  "Remember, too much alcohol is bad for the memory."  Unfortunately that's true and, as if to confirm it, further down the card was written, "And another thing, too much alcohol is bad for the memory!"

So there we are.  If I can remember I will write again in the Autumn.  In the mean time, have a lovely Summer and the very best of luck with any studies you have on-going.



Cognitive Column - April 2016

I must of course begin with mention of Lilli, the redoubtable woman who, in a country and language that were not her own, was able to steer the fledgling OUPS into the astonishingly successful Society it is today. No mean feat! Sadly I never got to know her well, merely having occasional meetings at OUPS events. In the 40th Anniversary edition of News & Views, back in 2014, I mentioned attending one such assembly in London. The meeting seems long ago now; I was doing my doctorate in Oxford and travelled to London together with Donald Broadbent, in his car. I believe he had been invited to speak, and had suggested me as an additional speaker. I met Lilli for the first time on that trip, and was immediately aware of her Danish accent of course. However, strikingly she showed none of the hesitancy or diffidence that one often sees in someone operating in a tongue and culture not her own; in all my encounters she seemed unshakably assured. Lilli wrote to me from time to time, inviting me to speak at meetings; there was no email in those days, so it was a real paper letter. As I recall, these were always hand written, and began Dear Peter Naish. Since we called each other by our first names when we met, I often wondered why the letters required the surname too. I dare say it was intended to convey an appropriate formality to a document requesting a diary commitment. One sensed that Lilli came from an era and background where protocol was always to be observed; it was said that she had moved in very high circles in Denmark. Her bearing did have a certain unmistakable aristocratic touch, and those letters were always supported by a great flourish of a signature, stretching unflinchingly across the page. (It was a long name!) That, I believe, was very much how Lilli spanned her many years; without fear or favour, but in unending support of what she held dear. We have good reason to be grateful that she devoted so many of those years to our service.

When I relate events of long ago I experience a nagging mistrust of my memory. I feel compelled to pepper the account with caveats: 'I believe' or 'as I recall'. There are probably several reasons for this, not least that I have a terrible memory, but I am sure that a significant element is the fact that the problem of erroneous memories has a very high profile for me. Let me remind you that memories are stored in the synapses. As activity ripples through our brains, spreading from neuron to neuron across the tiny synaptic clefts, it modifies the ease with which future activity will manage to jump those little gaps. The activity is caused by stimuli, such as reading this page, and as analysis takes place, enabling you to understand my words, the information crosses countless synapses, leaving behind a trace of its passage, like footprints in the sand. I fear that, after reading this, your brain will be very slightly altered and you will never be quite the same again! The pattern of activity depends on the stimulus that started it all; listening to music, for example, would be very different from reading an article. Brain scanning, although unable to show what a person is thinking, can certainly distinguish the patterns from different kinds of stimulus. Crucially, those patterns are quite closely replicated if someone tries to imagine the relevant stimulus: much the same networks become activated. If they are activated, the synapses get modified just as they would have been for a real stimulus, because a neuron does not know what activated it. Herein lies a potential problem, because the results of vivid imagining can sometimes be treated as if memories for real events: i.e. false memories are created. We all have some, and for all I know something of what I wrote in the first paragraph may be one.

I have an interest in false memory because from time to time I am asked to be an expert witness in court cases where false memory is suspected. This is particularly the case when hypnosis has been used. Scanning shows that the high degree of realism experienced when imagining in hypnosis is reflected in activity patterns pretty much indistinguishable from the real thing. Not surprisingly, this greatly increases the risk that a false memory will be formed. This scenario is sometimes enacted when a hypnotherapist, believing that a client was once sexually abused, is determined to unearth the memory of it. Instead they create a 'memory' of it. I have met victims of abuse, and also some who have acquired a pseudo-memory for dreadful events that never happened. I've been involved with several cases of late, and it has been impressed upon me just how much these 'false rememberers' suffer. The acquisition of the false memories is almost as damaging as real abuse, and many of these unfortunate victims of memory are in a terrible state, showing the same kinds of symptoms as true victims of abuse. You will be thinking, perhaps, that they might truly have been abused. I will expand in a future Column, but for now please be assured that some have most certainly not been.

On a lighter note, after my last Column, in which I wrote about parapsychology, a reader contacted me with an intriguing story of seeing someone who wasn't there, or at least, they were there one moment and gone the next, with no obvious hiding place for disappearing. This was much like my friend's story of the 'haunted' phone box, except that he found a rational explanation. Most of us enjoy these spooky tales, so if any of you with stories to tell would like to email them to me (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) then I will relay a selection to everyone in a future edition. If you are sending a story you had better tell me whether or not you want names or places mentioned.

You will probably know that from time to time I share with you my whimsical thoughts on language. I know I've ranted about 'like' before, pointing out its overuse (and arguably misuse). 'Literally' seems to be going the same way. On a recent trip to a police station to see people involved in a hypnosis case, a nice person met me at the front desk and showed me to the room where I would conduct my interviews. "You are literally in here," she said. As she left to get me a coffee I found myself wondering how it would be if I wasn't literally there. Did most people helping the police with their enquiries have a virtual presence? It's a matter that will probably become important in future trials. No longer will it be sufficient to show that the accused was at the scene of the crime; he will have to have been there literally. I suppose the main thing is not to end up literally in prison.

I can't let the In-Out Referendum pass without mention. I don't think this is the place to urge support one way or the other, but I will comment on the Labour and Tory leaders. Jeremy Corbyn has given what is generally acknowledged to be lukewarm support to the In campaign, and this is taken to reflect his long-term euro-sceptic views. If this is true, then gone is the man of integrity I discussed in the last column; he's a politician like the rest of them, bending his principles to suit the political needs of the moment. I'm not sure whether that's a relief or not, but it does make it easier to tar them all with the same brush, and you can't beat a good stereotype can you? "What," I hear you cry, "Including that nice Mr Cameron?" Actually I probably don't hear any such thing, and for good reason. Prior to his little flit round Europe, to gain essential concessions, he announced that he was quite prepared to recommend an Out vote if his demands were not met. What he returned with did seem quite paltry, but had he wished he could have argued that these modest changes were exactly what he had been hoping for. However, that's not what he argued. Instead he began to insist that the reason we should vote Yes was because of a whole host of matters that were never addressed during his grand tour. In other words, he is arguing that we should remain in Europe for reasons that were already in place when he claimed that he was prepared to recommend leaving. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Europe trip was a charade and that we have been dealt with dishonestly.

Well, that's enough from me. Good luck with the studies, and I shall be back again with the next edition of News & Views - literally!



Cognitive Column - January 2016

A very happy and successful New Year to you all; I hope you had a pleasant festive season - quite a while ago now. I wonder if you got to see or hear any good ghost stories over the Christmas period? The BBC put a few on; it seems to be traditional for the time of year. Presumably from ancient times imaginations ran wild when the nights were at their longest. Shadows would seem filled with the things people feared most, and terrifying tales of the supernatural would be retold around the flickering flames of the fire. Arguably, it was the Victorians who perfected the ghost story for the English speaking world, with the splendid M.R. James generating numerous examples of the genre. He was fond of reading his own stories to audiences on Christmas Eve. Our enjoyment of that frisson of fear is supposed to be akin to the thrill of a theme-park ride; in both cases we generate just enough anxiety to release some exciting adrenaline, but at the same time know ourselves to be safe, so the fear does not get out of hand.

To be frightened and not frightened at the same time is a curious state of affairs. One would have thought that a situation would be analysed for danger, and then an appropriate emotional response would occur. How can we entertain two opposing feelings simultaneously? Perhaps this is an example of 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' processes meeting headon. There is a debate in cognitive circles, concerning the sequence in which emotions and cognitions occur. It could be that early processing of what we see or hear causes a fear response to ensue, racing heart etc.; this would be a bottomup process, driven automatically by the stimuli and without need of conscious analysis. Having acquired this state we would become aware of it, and our cognitive processes would evaluate the situation, leading to us deciding that we were frightened. The alternative account suggests that the cognitions come first. We assess the situation at a conscious level then, if we decide that it is dangerous, top-down processes cause the emotion of fear to be released. These two versions need not be mutually exclusive alternatives; the sequence might depend upon circumstances. With scary rides, perhaps the top-down cognitions generate an "It's safe" message, while simultaneously the primitive (in evolutionary terms) bottomup mechanisms detect the height and speed, and scream, "Danger!" In many respects this is the situation for a phobia sufferer; they know at a rational level that a situation is safe, but they are unable to turn off the fear.

None of us would want a ride to be genuinely dangerous, and we are shocked on the rare occasions that an accident occurs. In contrast, many of us would like ghosts to be real, which is odd, given that if they existed we would presumably be a good deal more spooked than just having that pleasant little shiver at a spooky story. Doubtless some of you reading this will be thinking, "But how does he know they don't exist?" Quite so, but ghosts don't lend themselves to testing in a laboratory. This raises the whole issue of scepticism and how scientists should position themselves with respect to seemingly dubious results or irrational explanations. We possibly can't explore ghosts further, for the reason I just gave, but other apparently supernatural phenomena can be tested. There have been many experiments looking to see whether people can communicate telepathically, or whether precognition (seeing into the future) is possible. Some data do seem to lean slightly towards the conclusion that precognition is possible and, intriguingly, these positive results appear to be more likely to occur if those involved are favourably disposed towards such phenomena. In other words, if you are a hardened sceptic your experiment will probably show no sign of psychic activity, but if you have a positive or at least open mind, then results tend to turn out more promising. That sounds exciting doesn't it, so the results should be published. Well, there's the problem. Etzel Cardeña is a respected researcher in the field of hypnosis, which is how I know him. He is also interested in parapsychology. However, while he has no difficulty in publishing his hypnosis research, he does struggle to find an outlet for findings relating to precognition and the like. He has recently published a heart-felt account of his frustrations and this can be found at https:// www.academia.edu/19814867/ . I have a deal of sympathy for Etzel (a Mexican name) but I do too for the editors who are reluctant to publish material of that sort. In many fields of science it is possible to find cases where a researcher obtains results that seem to run counter to what another appeared to have established; in effect it becomes a one-against-one argument between laboratories and the outside world looks on with interest. In contrast, findings of a parapsychological nature seem to run counter to the whole of our current understanding of the way the world works, including the notions of causality and the one-way 'arrow of time'. It is as if a single claim for precognition is set against an outside world full of contrary findings. In this context it is a brave editor who publishes results that "simply can't be right."

Let me digress for a moment, to underline the contrast between fact and opinion. People who have not been exposed to subjects such as science, law or philosophy sometimes fail to distinguish between fact and opinion. Thus, in debating global warming with a sceptic, one might point out that the marked rise in global temperatures began with the industrial revolution and has increased in line with industrialisation. The response is often something like, "Well that's your opinion; I don't agree with that. In my opinion . . ." The person fails to recognise that they have been presented with a fact, and that's something that has nothing to do with agreeing or disagreeing. What we make of that fact (e.g. it's just coincidence) is a matter of opinion, so disagreement is in order. Returning to the scientific approach to parapsychology, the science community must guard against making the complementary error to that often committed by non-scientists. While the public may, as I said, treat a fact as if it were mere opinion, so sceptical scientists may sometimes revere their long-held opinions (i.e. theories) as if they were facts. A new fact which simply doesn't fit the existing body of opinion (which is based on many facts) certainly does deserve sceptical scrutiny, because it is probably wrong, but just sometimes it is the key to a great leap forward in our knowledge and understanding. With that in mind, we must guard against the bias of censorship, while all the time of course maintaining scientific standards - not always an easy balance to strike. Anyway, if you are into parapsychological research (and I know many of you are fascinated by it) the paper I cite above has several references. The paper itself, I have to say, is a bit heavy going. Sorry Etzel!

Before I close I had better fit in some politics - after all, why should the 2016 Columns be any different from all the others? I've been thinking about the word 'integrity', a word perhaps seldom associated with politics. Nevertheless, it is a word that has been bandied about of late, seemingly always relating to Jeremy Corbyn. Now, if you tend to place politicians on a ladder several rungs below estate agents and used car salesmen, you might either be revelling in the news, or alternatively wrestling with the logic here. It depends on how one interprets the phrase 'man of integrity' as applied to the Labour leader. If taken at face value we might be jumping up and down with excitement, because here at last is a politician we can trust! However, we have to ask why Corbyn has acquired this label. He certainly has a strong body of supporters in the population at large, but to those 'in the know' Corbyn's actions have appeared bizarre. On this basis people seem to have reasoned that no one in his right mind would have done these things, so it must be that he is simply sticking to strongly held principles: he has integrity. There are two possibilities here, and neither gives cause for optimism. One interpretation is that those principles are so far out on a limb that, strongly held or not, they are probably wrong and certainly won't attract enough votes to win an election. The alternative is to forget the integrity bit; it's just a case of no one in their right mind would follow the Corbyn path. Would we want a leader who is not in his right mind? Perhaps I should devote a future Cognitive Column to 'The Corbyn Cognitions'. On second thoughts no, I think I'll spare you that!

So, have a great 2016, good luck with the studies and I'll bore you again in a few months time.



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