A- A A+

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,



Cognitive Column - June 2014

Our self perceptions, sense of self-worth and so on are very much defined by our memories. They are the sort of thing that make us reluctant to act out of character – “That’s not the kind of person I am.” One theory of posttraumatic stress disorder (that disturbing condition that can follow a severe trauma, leading to repeated ‘flashbacks’ of the event) is that the memory cannot be fitted neatly among the rest of our autobiographical memories; it simply does not map onto anything we’ve ever experienced before. In contrast, recalling happy memories increases our sense of wellbeing. A very long time ago the American psychologist Danny Kahneman carried out an experiment on university students. He asked them two questions – “How happy do you feel right now,” and “How many dates have you been on in the last week?” (Do people actually use the term ‘date’ any more?) Kahneman found that the happiness rating was higher if the date question was asked first, presumably because it got people remembering a nice occasion before being asked to consider how happy they felt.

In response to a request from the Orange telephone company, I once did something of the Kahneman sort. At that time mobile phones had started to have cameras, but they didn’t have a great deal of storage capacity, so couldn’t hold too many pictures. Long before the ‘Cloud’ idea, Orange decided to let their customers upload photos to a personal space, from which they could view them at any time. The company wanted to be able to claim that this would make people happier. To test the idea we asked a lot of people from an office block to bring personal photos to work. At the end of the afternoon, just after work, they were divided into three groups; one set sat and drank a glass or two of wine, another ate chocolates and members of the third were asked to spend a little while looking at their pictures. After about ten minutes all the people were asked to complete a wellbeing questionnaire and, better even than wine or chocolate, it was looking at pictures of their friends, family and holidays that made them feel really good. As social animals, I think it is memory of pleasant interaction with our fellows that makes us feel especially content; it confers a sense of belonging. In our early evolution it would have been valuable if a sense of wellbeing was engendered by being safe within the group and, correspondingly, if unease was experienced by an individual who became separated and alone.

Many organisations foster a feeling of belonging, the military being an obvious example; a strong sense of camaraderie helps to weld a powerful fighting force. Even when the organisation is as large and amorphous as a nation, the ‘belonging’ feeling is important, at least for many people. This must be a large factor in the UKIP phenomenon. Because it is politically correct to do so, they dress up their message as a case of protecting British jobs and services (and for some people this may genuinely be all that matters) but for many there will be a fear of outsiders joining our group – xenophobia. It seems to me that this must almost certainly be a natural response, to which we are genetically predisposed. Of course, this is no excuse for displaying such prejudices. For anyone who considers themselves educated and civilised, racism must be on the list of instincts that, although ‘natural’, will not be countenanced.

So, back to happy memories. The OU has been a source of good ones for so many students, and has certainly given a sense of community to its alumni. Within that throng there is a very special place for those who have been involved with OUPS; this edition of the Newsletter bears witness to the wealth of happy memories the organisation has given us in its forty years. For distance learners, so many memories will be of slogging away alone, but OUPS has been the vehicle for that so-important element of human interaction. In a small way I tried to foster that when I first started writing this Column. It occurred to me that, unlike students in a conventional university, our budding psychologists had no idea of what went on in their Psychology Department; I set about telling them. As longer-term readers (who display remarkable resilience) will know, I soon ran out of anything fresh to say, so began to cast my net rather more widely. The rest, as they say, is history, but I had better say a few things about my own OU/OUPS history, just to stick with the theme of the Newsletter.

Sadly, I can’t claim to have been there at the inception of OUPS – I came on the scene just a few years later. I was in Oxford, researching for my doctorate, when I first got to know both the OU and its Psychology Society. A friend had alerted me to the possibility of being a Summer School tutor, so I applied and was accepted. My very first week was teaching on the introductory level Psychology course (DS261 in those days) at Warwick. My Course Director was a Portuguese lady, Manuela D’Oliveira, who, together with her husband, had fled to England to escape the totalitarian regime at home. (The Psychology Department lost an excellent member of staff when, following the ‘Carnation Revolution’ of the Seventies, it was safe for the couple to return to Portugal.) At about the same time as I was starting my very long association with residential schools, I was contacted by the OUPS President, the redoubtable Lilli. She wanted me to come and speak at a conference in London and, if I remember correctly, it was at that first occasion that Donald Broadbent (theories of attention) was also speaking; he was at Oxford too, so we travelled down together.

Both OUPS invitations and Summer Schools continued, and both convinced me that the OU was an excellent organisation, with ideals that chimed with my own. Members of the Psychology Department soon became friends and eventually I began to write materials for the courses, build apparatus for Summer School and so on. I’d often ask whether they had any posts going, but they never did, or at least they didn’t at times when I would have been in a position to apply. Eventually, at a stage when I was feeling particularly disenchanted with my then job, the OU advertised for a Psychologist. This was another rest-is-history turning point and at long last I became a ‘real’ OU person. As an insider I was especially useful to OUPS when putting together a teaching team for the Revision Weekend, so that became as regular a feature of my year as going to Summer School. Both provided me with something very special – the chance to interact with students. It’s all too easy for Milton Keynes-based staff to forget quite what students are like, what they need, what sorts of course material work for them, and so on. Perhaps it is in recognition of my enthusiasm for student contact that, even though I am now retired, the OU continues to recruit me for Summer School and OUPS still asks me to Revision Weekends. I am grateful to both.

I must conclude by returning to the idea of social grouping. I don’t think our ancestors came together merely because there was safety in numbers; it also permitted diversity among the group members. As long as the group could be kept safe through some of its members having physically strong, aggressive characteristics, it would be possible – indeed advantageous – for others to have had different strengths. Diversity is just as important in our own group. There are, of course, the leaders and organisers, planners and decision makers – the people without whom this enterprise could never have lasted forty years. These good people, past and present, have put in enormous amounts of time and energy, to keep the Society going. When they ask you, as they often do, to consider volunteering in some way, then you really should give it serious thought. Nevertheless, groups not only make diversity possible – they make it essential. Chiefs need Indians as much as Indians need Chiefs. So, if playing a more high profile role in OUPS isn’t really the kind of person you are, then don’t feel guilty. You are none the less essential, and you are the kind of person I love to meet, who for many decades has been contributing to my portfolio of happy, happy OUPS memories.

The very best Fortieth wishes to you all, and many, many happy returns!



Cognitive Column - May 2014

One of the benefits of being retired is that it is fairly easy to fit in a little holiday just when it suits. I’m currently enjoying a week in Andalucía, that fascinating part of Southern Spain that was once under Moorish rule. One of the downsides associated with being of retirement age is that hearing tends not to be quite what it was. Now, I find the Spanish (at least in that Southern area that I know best) to be very noisy. I doubt that it’s the result of some strange genetics, bequeathed by their Arabic ancestors; far more likely that it’s because they spend so much time outside. In their benign climate it’s still warm late into the evening, so people eat outside, and many gather around the town square, children playing and adults chatting. I use the word “chatting”, but it is conducted at a higher volume than our use of the word implies. I remember once being very amused by two elderly Spanish ladies (inevitably dressed in black) standing in conversation in the doorway of a house (inevitably painted white). Eventually, one left to walk up the street, but the conversation continued until she was out of sight around the next corner. The fascinating thing is that they did not have to raise their voices to maintain this long-range communication; it had been loud enough from the start! In the open air this is mildly disconcerting, but what about indoors?

The bars and cafés of Southern Spain lack nice warm carpets and curtains; they don’t need “nice warm”, they want “nice cool”. They also want an easy-toclean surface because in the long, hot, dry Summers everything gets very dusty and requires frequent washing down. So, bare tiles and marble surfaces are the order of the day. Whereas soft furnishings absorb sounds, hard ones reflect them, producing multiple echoes. Put into this acoustically challenging environment a barman engaged in jolly banter with a customer in the furthermost reaches of his bar, then between the two arrange a couple of dozen “chatting” Spaniards, and you have a recipe for cacophony! If you tried to make a recording of the noise, say on an iPhone, you would find that the result was in large part simply indecipherable. The problem is that the recorder uses only one microphone; humans do better because we have two ears. Depending on the direction of its source, a sound generally gets to one ear slightly ahead of the other, and also tends to produce slightly different levels of intensity at the two ears. The brain is able to use these differences, to work out the direction a sound is coming from, and in so doing makes it easier for us to focus on one conversation, while ignoring those going on in other parts of the room. So far so good, but what about all those echoes? They come from every direction, confusing the location system and blurring the ‘parent’ sound to which they belong. Well, our clever auditory system can deal with that too. It detects exactly the same sound coming from another direction and a moment later it suppresses the second sound, so cutting out the echo. It requires two, very wellfunctioning ears to perform this trick, and there is no doubt about it: as one gets older the trick is not performed so well. If your ears are young and fully functional you can still get a feel for this. Go somewhere with plenty of reflective surfaces and few covered ones (bathrooms often fit the description) and get some sound going – play a radio for example. Now put a finger in one ear. You should immediately be aware of an increased “boomyness”, because your brain is no longer able to suppress the echoes. What to do if your auditory system is a little more mature and functions like mine? Well, just order another drink and try to ignore the hubbub!

Very often speech can still be understood in noisy surroundings, as a result of the context. While a single word may be hard to decipher, if it is made part of a sentence it immediately becomes clear because the surrounding words will tend to point to what it must have been. This should help the hard-of-hearing but not necessarily, it would seem, if their hearing loss is age-related. It has often been observed that older people find it hard to follow speech when there is a lot of background noise, and the difficulty was assumed to be entirely due to hearing impairment. However, in a recent paper [Janse & Jesse, 2014, Quarterly J. Experimental Psychology] it is reported that a declining working memory in the elderly makes it difficult for them to quickly develop and update a semantic representation of an unfolding sentence. Not only will this make them slower to grasp what is being said, but also, if it is being said against background noise, they will not be able to use the context to make up for poor hearing.

I have heard it claimed that the CIA employed psychologists, so that they could develop profiles of foreign leaders, making it easier to predict how they would behave in a given set of circumstances. One could imagine that most world powers would attempt some such procedure, but if they do, the West seems to have been getting it very wrong, while Russia has been spot on. Perhaps the latter have retained good observational techniques from Pavlov, while some areas of psychology in the West seem to have been losing all touch with science. The West applauded the uprisings in Syria, yet did little tangible to support them. The days of President Bashar al-Assad, they said, were numbered, and he couldn’t possibly last much longer. Well, there he still is, presiding over genocide and general mayhem, and brazenly standing for reelection. All of this has happened with nothing more terrifying than a severely wagged finger from the West – oh, and lots of fine words of course. Russia, on the other hand, appears accurately to have predicted the course of events, and carefully positioned itself accordingly. Some might claim that Russia helped to make the events go this way, but that’s as maybe; the important thing is that they knew the West had no stomach to do anything else. While the West was still deploring the absence of democratic rule in Syria, they made clear their delight with the overthrow of an elected president in Ukraine. Why shouldn’t the Crimea subsequently have its own uprising? Once again, Russia has judged things perfectly, with the entirely predictable outcome now unfolding before the startled gaze of the impotent West. In their own countries, Western leaders may still find that lies, soundbytes and spurious statistics can pass for intelligent resolve and informed action, but on the World stage they are utterly out of their depth.

Well, that’s all thoroughly depressing – I think I need another drink. One of the nice things about the Spanish way of doing things is that you don’t pay each time you order drinks; you simply settle the bill at the end, much as we do in a restaurant. Well, I can’t leave yet, because I won’t be able to hear what the barman says when I ask how much I owe. I shall just have to stay drinking until enough people have gone home that I can hear myself think. The Spanish keep awfully late hours; I could be here some time!

There’s an anniversary edition of the Newsletter coming out soon, so I will “see” you there.

Very best wishes,



Cognitive Column - March 2014

As I write this the sun is shining and I can see many of my bees drinking water from the bird bath. They collect water for the hive; for one thing, they can evaporate it to lower the temperature if it starts to get too hot. It was not so long ago that they were anything but too hot, and if they needed water they had only to venture just outside where it was permanently raining. Perhaps at last things are looking up, not that I have a right to complain, as I live on high ground and for me the floods were little more than an impressive spectacle. I hope none of you suffered in the deluge.

Shakespeare has Mark Antony tell his “Friends, Romans and Countrymen” that he has come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. We have witnessed two deaths recently where praising came to the fore; those of Bob Crow and Tony Benn. Both were very left-wing, and thorns in the sides of the Establishment, yet at their death people (including the right-wing press) were falling over themselves to say what good citizens they had been. I don’t think this had anything to do with a reluctance to speak ill of the dead; politicians and newspaper hacks seldom show any reluctance to rubbish their fellows – dead or alive. I think the characteristic that captured the public’s imagination was integrity; everyone knew the goals and beliefs of these two men, and they stuck to them, honestly and unwaveringly. This is so refreshing in a world of nest-feathering politicians, the people who seem to have developed the art of multi-tasking to such heights that they can say one thing while meaning another and doing a third. What an unedifying spectacle they made during those floods, as bucks were passed and political points scored.

It was good to see that Bill Roache was found not guilty of sexual offences, alleged to have been committed many years before. Of late it has appeared that the courts were being given a strong steer to accept, with little question, the accounts of people who claimed to have suffered rapes and assaults in the distant past. Fortunately, it seems that courts are still able to return not-guilty verdicts; not, of course, that one wishes guilty people to go unpunished. It seems clear that, in years gone by, there was a culture that tended to turn a blind eye to “inappropriate” behaviour, imagining that “it couldn’t do any harm really.” Fortunately the climate changed, but recently so too has our understanding, and we now know that a great deal of real harm can be done by childhood abuse. It appears to be down to epigenetics.

We are all reasonably familiar with the ideas of genetics, that we inherit pairs of genes from our parents, and that they control things such as eye colour or height. Brain structure and function is also determined by genes, so for example there is one which (as with eye colour) comes in two forms. If both members of your pair are of one form you will be vulnerable to depression, whereas if they are both of the other kind you will be more resilient to stresses. One of each gene type and you fall somewhere between the extremes. These particular genes are involved in the control of serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters associated with a sense of wellbeing. Although I have drawn a parallel with eye colour, you may have noticed a distinct difference. Your genes give you brown or blue eyes, but that’s that – no question about how they turn out in the end. In contrast, the other genes don’t determine absolutely whether or not you will be depressed, only the likelihood. To understand this we need to remember that all our cells contain complete genetic recipes for the whole of our bodies – how to make bones, muscles, corneas, everything. In spite of this universality of the “recipe book” only the right things get made in the right places, because genes are activated or not, depending upon their environment. They are said to be switched on or switched off, and the “off button” consists of a chemical block that gets in the way of the gene being used. For those of you into organic chemistry, the block is a methyl group, and it is now possible to look at the methylation of a person’s genes and determine whether they are on or off. This field of study, examining the impact of outside influences upon our genetic code, is called epigenetics.

It has recently been found that adults who were abused as children can exhibit large numbers of methylation changes, the vast majority of them being in brainrelated genes. I don’t think our current level of understanding is sufficient that we can test someone claiming to be an abuse victim, and use the on/off state of their genes to see if they are telling the truth. Even if we could do this, it would probably not tell us the exact nature of the childhood suffering, and nor, of course, could it say who was the perpetrator. What we do know is that the changes appear to bring an increased risk of the person developing psychotic symptoms, such as are found in schizophrenia. As you would expect, brains can develop faults and strengths for a number of reasons, so it would be quite wrong to assume that anyone suffering from schizophrenia must have been abused, or that someone without psychosis must necessarily never have been abused. The level of complexity of our brains is such that they can modify themselves, and this is the essence of cognitive therapy. The influence of cognition is powerfully revealed in the case of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is a distressing condition brought about by exposure to extreme situations, such as being involved in a major traffic accident, witnessing horrific injuries and death. It has been pointed out that surgeons see more than their fair share of blood, guts and death, but don’t seem to get PTSD. This is all down to cognitions; the PTSD victims are terrified, feeling out of control and often expecting to die themselves. The surgeons, in contrast, feel entirely in control and not at all terrified; that important difference in cognitions protects them from the unpleasant sights they must sometimes see. Interestingly, there are parallels between PTSD and psychoses, and in some ways childhood abuse victims can have the characteristics of a PTSD sufferer. Among the many things we don’t know in the exciting new field of epigenetics is whether therapy for abuse reverses the genetic changes, or merely helps the victim to live with them.

Let’s end on a less sombre note! I’ve often referred in these pages to that iniquitous firm G4S. You may remember that they were supposed to be looking after the tagging of offenders, but were caught seeking payment for tagging that had never happened, including claims for tagging people who turned out to be dead! In Eastern Europe, where people believed in the “un-dead” (as in the Dracula story) it was not uncommon to weight corpses down with rocks, or pin them to the ground with a stake, so that they could not walk. I suppose this was a bit mean on the poor creatures; with tagging you could at least keep an eye on their whereabouts and make sure they were back in their coffins by daybreak! Anyway, the good news is that G4S are having to repay over £100,000,000. It’s nice to see justice prevail.

Well, that’s enough from me until next time, so good luck with the studies and, if it continues that way, enjoy a lovely Spring.

Best wishes,



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,



Search OUPS