Cognitive Column - August 2015

I have just returned from what I assume was my very last week of Summer School. On DD303 alone I will have done about 25 weeks, and all together I must have spent more than a year of my life at Residential School. Why did I keep going back for more? Quite simply because tutoring and course directing at Summer Schools has provided me with one of the most rewarding aspects of academic life. The impact upon students who attend these weeks, crammed as they are with research and collaboration, lectures, learning and friendship formation, is sometimes quite profound. For virtually all it is an extremely positive experience, and several will describe it as life changing. To witness this enrichment, and to know that I have played a part in it, is naturally deeply satisfying. If I gain so much from Summer Schools why am I stopping now? Well, as I imagine many of you know, DD303 has come to the end of its life, and with it the embedded Residential School. If my involvement had not been terminated by this it would have been brought to an end soon anyway, because my years are fast advancing. Although it is an end of a long and happy era, I am content to see my participation cease. What I am far more concerned about is the fact that there will be no more Summer Schools ever; the future seems destined to have only Alternative Learning Experiences or the like. Those students who have done both tell me that there is no comparison. I have never heard a student describe the ALE as life changing but I have heard many unflattering descriptions. On-line pseudo-equivalents to Summer School are a pale shadow of the genuine face-toface article. They may somehow manage to tick the bare minimum of the British Psychological Society’s boxes, but they omit so much of the less tangible, but no less important richness in the educational experience. With this passing there is lost in addition one of the few remaining aspects of the OU that marks it out as different. When our University was launched it was unique; now it is surrounded by competing distance learning organisations, and at this rate there will soon be little to distinguish one from another.

I generally manage to do a little data gathering while I am at Summer School. This year I collected more evidence relating to the theme I discussed in the previous Column, where I described hemispheric effects, trauma and abuse. With a simple piece of apparatus I am able to assess the relative processing speeds of the two hemispheres of a person’s brain. There is a great deal of variability between people, but one pattern, which is relatively uncommon among the public at large, is far more common in people who report PTSD or abuse. While it would be possible to argue that a particular style of brain functioning might make people vulnerable to PTSD, it could not reasonably be claimed that the processing style somehow brought about abuse. The direction of causality must be the other way: abuse changes brain functioning (at least in some people). One potential result of the changes is that the traumatised adult tends to “self medicate”, by turning to alcohol and/or drugs. Fortunately, this is not a route followed by all victims but, when it is, related antisocial activities can often follow, such as stealing to support a drug dependency. Suddenly, this has become a very topical issue, because the BBC has discovered that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) is reducing payments to abuse victims who have committed crimes. This is perceived as grossly unfair, since those crimes are a direct consequence of the far greater crimes perpetrated upon these unfortunate victims. If the Government refuses to address this issue (as seems at the moment to be the case) then we shall have to conclude that we are seeing the true colours of a right wing party, unrestrained by the moderating influence of coalition.

There is one way for the Tories to escape criticism, and this concerns another of my recurring themes in the Cognitive Column. Suppose we agree that victims need help rather than punishment for their behaviour, since it is caused by their changed brains. This is simply to say that brains cause behaviour, and brains in some conditions cause undesirable behaviour. Importantly, the brain is all that causes behaviour, nothing else. From this preamble it follows that all of us behave as we do because of the brains we have. That includes people who start to take drugs and progress to theft, irrespective of whether they were abused. The only difference between the two populations is that some were born with a particular brain state, whereas others acquired it as a result of ill treatment. As I have pointed out before, this argument can be applied to any kind of wrong-doing; people’s actions are a direct consequence of the kinds of brains they have, so to treat them as if they could have behaved otherwise is dishonest. Nevertheless, taken to its logical conclusion my argument would play havoc with the justice system; the pragmatic way is to pretend that we all have free-will and hence are blameworthy when we misbehave. The harshness of the CICA can be interpreted as an example of this pragmatism in practice; it is pretending that people need not be as they are, so must pay the penalty for their failure to be different.

Personally I would favour leniency for people with such troubled pasts, and indeed have argued for just that when serving as an expert witness. However, there really needs to be a wider debate concerning the treatment of those who do not so readily evoke our sympathy, because double standards are hard to justify. Consider a physical analogue of the mental situation. As a country we are rightly doing more and more to support the disabled. Some poor souls have their disabilities from birth while others acquire them, perhaps as a result of a road traffic accident, but we do what we can to make life easier for them all. Suppose we changed this policy. Only those whose disability was brought about by others are to be supported; people unfortunate enough to be born that way will just have to put up with it. I’m sure you will agree that the suggestion is quite disturbing. It should be no less so when the problems are brain-based.

I must bring this to an end, because I am already past the Editor’s deadline; she has kindly given me dispensation to be a few days late. I will just close with a final Summer School reference. I have written a lot about the students, because they are the purpose of the enterprise, but the Tutors are an essential element. Many have become good friends and I have looked forward to seeing them again each year. There is something about the Residential School situation that provokes fun and silliness, and tutors are expert at being silly! I had a nice example this year. They have to complete a questionnaire, to give feedback on their experience, what worked, what didn’t and so on. I can give you a flavour of how one of these was completed by reference to the Academic Assistants (who are another essential part of the events). How did you find the Academic Assistants? They had their own room and I just went there. Any other comments about the AAs? They were both women and one was taller than the other. Honestly, with tutors like that perhaps they had to bring Summer Schools to a close!

Very best wishes to you all. I expect I shall be writing again before Christmas.

Peter

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