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.