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Cognitive Column - December 2013

Well, here we are again; I hope you survived the Autumn storm unscathed (assuming you live in the Southern half of Britain and experienced it). I was without power for about twenty four hours, but overall I thought it seemed less ferocious than the infamous ’87 event.

One of the themes I find myself returning to in the Column (sorry – hope it’s not too boring) is the notion of freewill. I was thinking of it again just recently, when someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia stabbed a stranger to death. Patients such as these are not convicted and sent to prison in the normal way for murderers; rather they are sent to secure psychiatric units. This difference comes about because their dreadful behaviour is attributed to their malfunctioning brain state; their brain made them do it. This immediately invites the question as to what makes other ‘healthy’ people commit murder - not their brains? When I wield a knife to prepare apples, as I am doing rather a lot at the moment, transforming windfalls into cider, it is clearly the possession of a functioning (well reasonably!) brain that makes all this possible. I fear it would be very much the same if I were sticking the knife into a person rather than an apple. I once tutored a murderer who, like a good number of prisoners, had become an OU student. He was a pleasant chap, who gathered camomile flowers from around the prison grounds and made me a cup of tea with them. His crime had been to kill someone who showed a more than reasonable amount of interest in his wife. Whether true or not, he explained that he had thought the other man would kill him if he didn’t get in first. He went on to say that the judge asked him whether he had meant to kill the rival; because he had thought it was kill-or-bekilled, he replied that he had meant to. As a consequence, the judge said there was no alternative but to give him a life sentence. The implication here is that, if the murder had been committed almost without thought, in a wild frenzy of anger (what the French call a crime passionnel) then there would be less sense of blame.

There are a number of reasons why that line of reasoning is unhelpful to the issue of crime and freewill. For one thing, one of the schizophrenic patients recently in the news had actually warned that he feared he might carry out some terrible act of that sort. In other words it was not something that happened before he knew what he was doing; it was not an unpremeditated act, committed in the heat of the moment. I believe that underlying all these issues is an implicit (but erroneous) assumption of dualism: there is ‘me’, then there is my brain. If my brain tries to do naughty things, then 18 News & Views December 2013 I (that is, the separate ‘me’) am to blame if I let it get away with it. However, if the brain acts too quickly for ‘me’ to have awareness of what it’s up to, and to intervene, then I am exonerated. Also, if I am known to be deranged then, even when I have reason to suspect that my brain might carry out a heinous act, I cannot be blamed when my fears become reality. These ideas are temptingly ‘reasonable’, but the fact is I and my brain are one; what I experience, think and do are all determined by the way those neurons fire. Interestingly, even if one clung to the discredited dualist notion, there may still be no logical reason to blame anyone, however calm their mental state. The dualist concept has been described as a ‘Cartesian Theatre’ (‘Cartesian’ after René Descartes, a noted 17th Century French dualist philosopher). The brain, it is supposed, forms a representation of what is going on in the world, and plays it out on a kind of inner stage, where ‘me’ can watch. Well, this to me sounds very much like children watching a pantomime; they know what’s happening, but they can’t change the script. Even when, in their excitement, they call out, “He’s behind you!” they cannot change the actor’s behaviour.

One theory of why we developed consciousness is based on the fact that we have long been a social animal, having lots of encounters with members of our group. We need only watch other social primates to recognise that encounters between members of a complex society can be difficult to handle, and may go unpleasantly wrong for one or both of the individuals involved. Consciousness, it is proposed, enabled our ancestors to ‘replay’ their encounters many times, and contemplate alternative scenarios. In that way their behaviour could become modified more quickly than if it relied solely upon the rewards and punishments of the less frequent actual events. Modern humans still do this sort of thing, and many people spend time wondering whether they said the right thing, what someone must have thought of them, and so on. Whether or not this theory is correct, it reminds us of the social element, and the fact that, if they are to remain stable, societies cannot tolerate certain behaviours in their members. It doesn’t matter whether the offender is snarled at, cuffed or bitten, or locked up in prison, these all serve the same purpose. What is more, the notion of freewill and responsibility beyond the brain is not only misguided, it is irrelevant. Whether we are considering a band of chimps or a nation of humans, the majority cannot tolerate certain forms of deviant behaviour from an individual member. We should accept that and act accordingly, and not pretend that we are locking someone up because they stubbornly refused to exert free will upon their wayward brain.

I mentioned societies and groups in a previous Column this year, when I discussed the reasons for nurses treating patients cruelly. I suggested that it was probably via a process of viewing the patients as belonging to a different group. This is particularly easy to do if the patient is elderly, because they are unlikely to look or behave like members of the group in which a nurse interacts, and in fact many elderly characteristics are quite undesirable: we don’t want to grow old. From this it may be expected that many people would have quite a negative view of the elderly, although we would hope that didn’t apply to nurses, especially those on a geriatric ward. Reading a recent paper I discovered that, if tested by questionnaire, nurses showed quite a positive attitude towards the elderly. However, as well as consciously held views we have inner responses to issues, sometimes unknown even to ourselves. These can be detected by reaction time measures to carefully prepared stimuli, designed to reveal hidden prejudices. Using these techniques it was shown that nurses’ attitudes towards the elderly were just as negative as they are in the rest of us. As the paper pointed out, the fact that the negativity is not normally revealed in outward behaviour is a tribute to the professionalism of nurses.

You may wonder why I was reading a paper about nurses’ attitudes – not the normal fodder of a cognitive psychologist. I was looking through a wide range of publications and other materials, coming from a university (not the OU). All universities are about to undergo yet another assessment, and by way of preparation they ask outsiders to try to give an unbiased view of how good their case is looking. This assessment is important, as future funding will depend upon it, so all the universities are working very hard towards it. It’s called the REF: the Research Excellence Framework. The presence of these things tends to force people into ‘safe’ research; in fact best of all (and I kid you not) is to do the research first and make sure it produces the hoped-for data, then apply for funding to do the research! What people are far less likely to do is embark on really interesting, speculative pathways, the kind that can sometimes lead to really important advances and discoveries. Basically the whole REF is about having too little money, so it’s looking for allegedly rigorous ways of deciding how the small cake is to be divided up. Things don’t look good.

The unfortunate thing about the way cuts are imposed is that we are never told that is what they are – cuts. We are sold the line that ‘improvements’ are being implemented. That is what’s going on in the NHS at the moment; the costs are outstripping the available funds, so the NHS is to be improved. I went to a public meeting concerning our local health service, with a significant focus on the local hospital. Apparently it scores very highly on all sorts of relevant metrics, so not crying out to be improved you might think. You’d think wrongly! All sorts of so-called improvements are to be imposed, and the spokespeople were honest enough to admit that they could not put hands on hearts and promise that things would be even better as a result. Both the hospital chief executive and the local MP told us that in the future we were going to have to take care of our own health far more. It brings a whole new meaning to care in the community doesn’t it? At least we were being told the truth for once.

I should draw this sorry saga to a close, but I wonder whether you have noticed that our old friends G4S have been in the news again? I don’t know why I say ‘friends’; it’s hard to imagine that they have any. This (or its predecessor) is the security firm that seems to lose prisoners, lost the workers who were supposed to be handling security at the Olympics and once lost a whole ship they were allegedly guarding. Now they are accused of exercising a brutal regime in a prison they run in South Africa, also of charging the government here for countless ‘taggings’ (putting electronic tags on offenders) which never happened, and when tagging has taken place it is claimed that the equipment is faulty, sometimes making it look as if the wearer has tampered with it. Who knows how many of these allegations will prove true, but all this, on top of the previous lamentable record, makes one wonder why on earth the government is giving tax payers’ money to this firm. Perhaps the government is being unusually honest, and recognises that, for all their faults, G4S is actually marginally more efficient than this shambolic coalition.

I must just tell you a supposedly true story. An Englishman was in France for his daughter’s wedding, and not long after the celebrations he was stopped in his car by a gendarme. The officer enquired whether he had been drinking, to which the father replied that he had, since he had been ‘giving his daughter away’. He went on to detail a prodigious quantity of alcohol that he had ingested over the last twelve hours. As the list of beverages went on the gendarme interrupted to ask whether the man understood that he was an officer of the law, liable to arrest him for drunken driving. The Englishman replied that he understood this very well, and in turn wondered whether the officer realised that he was an Englishman, in an English car, and that his wife was sitting in the other seat at the steering wheel. What a lovely example of how the brain reveals what it expects to see, while ignoring what doesn’t fit.

Some of you will have recently sat an exam; I do hope it went well. The results will probably be emerging some time near to Christmas, so I hope your celebrations will be enhanced by the news. It seems a bit early, but you probably won’t hear from me again before the New Year, so I’ll take this opportunity to wish you, exams or not, a really good Christmas!

All the very best,



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