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Cognitive Column - August 2014

These Newsletters seem to be coming thick and fast! I feel as if I’ve written three Cog-Columns back to back, but it’s no doubt increasing age making the weeks slip by ever faster. I have spent the last three weeks Course Directing (or Module Directing as it is now called) the DD303 Residential School at Sussex University. It’s a surprisingly demanding role, but very rewarding and enjoyable. The students were delightful, as were the tutors in my team, and also the weather. The latter gave me the chance, on our Tuesday afternoons off, for some lovely walks on the Downs, and some of the more energetic students and tutors bravely kept me company – it was a fifteen mile route.

Summer Schools offer a good opportunity for the occasional intellectual debate. The tutors and I got onto the subject of freewill which, if you’ve read many of my Columns, you will know is a topic that fascinates me. In some circles the issue is quite contentious, but I was interested to find that almost every tutor took it as read that there could be no such thing as freewill, and that our sensations of deciding and choosing are illusory. I suppose people with a background in Cognitive Psychology are likely to find this a natural position to adopt. There were, however, a couple of tutors who kept quiet in the discussion, then admitted to doubts later. They were able to go so far as accepting that our brains control our behaviour, but they were unable to abandon the feeling that there was freedom of choice in selecting that behaviour. The problem with that line is that the choosing process is also conducted by the brain; “My brain made me do it,” became a frequent excuse for the remainder of the Summer School!

I think it follows from the above line of reasoning that, unless a person has significant brain dysfunction, whatever they do or feel must be a natural process of the brain. If we are surprised by people’s behaviour it shows only that we are ignorant of the factors operating in their brain; it doesn’t mean that something odd is going on inside their heads. I find that residential schools are not merely places where I can assist people with their work; there are also those who come to seek help for personal issues that are troubling them. They often use phrases such as “I sometimes think I’m going mad,” or “I know this sounds weird.” I always reassure them that they are not going mad and do not sound weird; their brain is merely doing what any brain would do in those circumstances. Of course, the ‘circumstances’ include all the things that have happened to them up to the present. Although people such as my ‘freewill tutors’ are ill at ease with the concept that we are slaves to that remarkable organ between our ears, an acknowledgment of that fact can make it far easier to be accepting of others and also of ourselves. A particularly encouraging factor is that brains are very malleable, so, if a person’s brain has a processing style that leads to unhappiness, there is no reason to suppose that the situation must always remain the same. That’s what therapy is all about: changing brains.

Residential schools form little microcosms, very insulated from the outside world; at the end one returns to reality, and is amazed to discover everything that has been going on. Notwithstanding this, over the last few weeks the enormity of what was happening in the World could not fail to penetrate the Summer School screen; wherever one looks there are people behaving ‘weirdly’ in the worst possible ways imaginable. It’s hard to understand how people can behead others, for the unforgivable crime of being members of a different sect of the same religion as the executioners. Similarly, it is incredible that, day after day, a superior military force can rain death upon innocent women and children. Nevertheless, I do not imagine that the brains of the perpetrators are fundamentally very different from my own; their behaviour is ‘natural’. I mentioned a Column or two ago that part of what is achieved by civilisation and education appears to be the overruling of natural instincts; I gave xenophobia as an example. The problem with this is that the processes of civilisation have an arbitrary quality. Evolution is not arbitrary, it inexorably moves toward characteristics that maximise the chances of genes being passed on; the fact that modern Western societies condemn sectarian violence is an arbitrary development, although I have to say (as a biased insider) it does seem like a good development. To some Arabic groups it doesn’t.

How should the rest of the ‘civilised’ world respond to all these troubles? Certainly not by beating one side or another into submission. Violence de-civilises, breaking down the thin veil that keeps the natural instincts in check, while they themselves become more vigorously expressed. Moreover, not forgetting that the brain’s current response is coloured by all its experiences to date, we should note that the violence wreaks immeasurable damage upon the minds of a generation of children, with who knows what consequences for the future. The West went into Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are both a mess. They stayed out of Syria, and it’s a mess. Neither of those strategies works and nor do the collective admonitions of the Pope, the Secretary General of the United Nations and the so-called leader of the free World (a concept as unbelievable as free will). Of course their voices carry no weight - their offices have been proven impotent or worse too many times in the past. We must hope that things are becoming so dreadful, and on such a large scale, that people with intellectual and moral rigour will come in humility to seek solutions, rather than having the usual suspects riding in on their arrogance to impose them. At the same time, I fear that while the World can appoint the likes of Tony Blair as a peace envoy there is little hope that anything very much will change.

Returning to more parochial matters, for many of you the next OU landmark will be the exams. I do hope the revision and the exams themselves go well. How much to revise? I was marking an exam once and came across an answer with a delightful misquotation: The whole is greater than some of its parts. Presumably then some parts are actually greater than the whole. If that’s true of the course text, some chapters will tell you more than the whole book – those are the ones to concentrate on! Perhaps I will see some of you before the exam, at the OUPS Revision Weekend. I shall look forward to a nice chat and I promise to keep off politics – unless that’s what you want to talk about!

Very best wishes,

Peter

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