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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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Cognitive Column - May 2015

I’m never sure when people will get to see my musings. The last Column was written shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack, but by the time I received my copy of the Newsletter that event seemed to be something from a distant past. Today all the news is of skulduggery at FIFA. Since corruption appears to be a permanent and widespread feature of that organisation I assume that this time my Column will seem up-to-date whenever you read it.

We do not yet know whether the slippery Sepp Blatter has done anything wrong, although I see little evidence that he has done anything right. Of course, in our brave new tick-box world that doesn’t matter, because there is no metric for ‘honour’; if you can’t measure something it doesn’t count for anything. This man has for years presided over an organisation that has become a by-word for wrong-doing; he has patently failed to get his house in order, and yet sees it as his recurring right to stand for re-election at the end of each term of office. Clearly he lacks any sense of honour, but then there is little enough of that in evidence anywhere else, certainly not where power and money dictate behaviour. The last thoroughgoing political example I recall was back in 1982, when Lord Carrington, the Foreign Secretary, resigned over the invasion of the Falklands. Clearly the invasion wasn’t his personal fault, but he saw himself as the point at which the buck had to stop. Today someone junior would be fired and a minister would keep his office. We saw something of honour when Clegg and Miliband resigned, following their spectacular election defeats, but I don’t know what we saw with the ludicrous Farage – a sick joke perhaps? Curiously, the LibDem and Labour leaders had not mentioned resignation before the election, but nevertheless did the decent thing when the time came. Farage, in contrast, boasted of resigning until the time came. Then, the iron-willed hero who, single handed, defends us against the might of Europe, crumbled ingloriously before the alleged conjurations of his disciples. As a result, Farage the Fearless Phoenix was compelled to rise again miraculously from the fake ashes of his make-believe fire.

The child abuse scandals rumble on; we hear now that the Methodist church has had about as many abusers over the years as other denominations, together with the same eagerness to cover things up. Presumably the revelations might lead to congregations shrinking, but it’s hard to see what other impact could result. This is a far cry from the situation in Eire, where the church used to hold such sway. It is arguably a direct result of the shift in public opinion following the sex scandals in the Irish Republic, that the Catholic Church was unable to prevent the vote for gay marriage in the Republic’s recent referendum.

An unfortunate side effect of the current high profile of childhood sex abuse (CSA) cases is that false claims are more likely to be lodged and believed. Such claims frequently emerge from sessions of suspect psychotherapy. I know of one case where a whole series of young women have attended a so-called healer who endeavours (almost always successfully) to convince each client that she was sexually abused, usually by a parent. If one consults the NSPCC website it is possible to find details of upto-date research, addressing the incidence of CSA. Overall it is distressingly high, with the probability that a woman has been abused being close to 0.2 (20% or one in five). The probability that a parent was the perpetrator is far less. Now, combined probabilities are calculated by multiplying individual scores. For example, if I ask one of my readers to toss a coin the probability of it coming up ‘heads’ is 0.5 (50%). If I ask two of you, the chances of you both getting heads is 0.5 x 0.5 = 0.25 or 25%. Try it with two more, then the chance of four heads gets very small at 0.0625 or six and a quarter percent. The mathematics would be the same if we asked four people picked at random whether they had been abused, except this time we would multiply 0.2 x 0.2 x 0.2 x 0.2. That comes to 0.0016 or less than a one fifth of one percent likelihood that all had suffered in this way. You can see that, although the incidence of abuse is uncomfortably high, it is less than half that of getting ‘heads’, so the probability of a whole group of people all being victims becomes quite small. Of course, if a therapist set herself up to help victims of abuse, then one would expect many of her clients to have suffered it, but the person I have in mind doesn’t advertise and merely picks up friends and friends of friends, allegedly to do something analogous to ‘life-coaching’. Doing calculations of this sort on her results I have concluded that the chances of all her clients being abused in the reported ways are even slimmer than the chances of winning the National Lottery! If I managed to get a group of 24 of you all to come up with ‘heads’ (about the same chance as a lottery win) I imagine you’d say there was something fishy going on. I think there was something just as fishy with the ‘healer’ and her victims. In fact it is worse than fishy; it is downright wicked to lead someone to believe that she has been a victim of CSA.

The person I am describing above appears to have used hypnosis-like procedures to reinforce her malign message. This is not unusual, and I have met several such cases, where so-called hypnotherapy has led to people believing (erroneously) that they had been abused. Just recently I met a woman who had followed that unfortunate sequence, culminating in therapy-induced misbelief, and following that she was diagnosed by the orthodox medical profession as having schizophrenia. Some of you will remember from previous Columns that I have a little piece of apparatus that compares processing speeds in the two hemispheres of the brain. As I expected from this unfortunate person’s diagnosis, she showed a markedly asymmetric pair of speeds. One theory that attempts to explain the unreal experiences of schizophrenia (and fits the observed asymmetry) is that a ‘wayward’ right hemisphere is inadequately balanced and controlled by the left. More recently still I was asked to see a man who had been led to believe, via hypnosis, that he had been physically and mentally abused as a child. He found these beliefs very disturbing, in part because they didn’t seem to correspond with his ordinary memory; his thought processes ended up in a turmoil. He too showed the strong asymmetry I described above; moreover, he had been prescribed an antipsychotic drug and he scored very high on a ‘Schizotypy’ questionnaire. These check to see how many schizophrenia-like experiences a person has, such as hearing voices. Lastly, a year or so ago I tested another male patient who was trying to get a complaint recognised against a hypnotherapist. Unfortunately, the damage, if indeed any was done, all occurred long ago and the therapist was long dead. Nevertheless, the poor patient was left with a never ending obsession about his case, and several of the many specialists who had seen him over the years suggested schizophrenia as a possible diagnosis. As you have perhaps guessed, he too was asymmetric in his hemispheric processing speeds.

We seem to have a potential correlation or two here, between the hypnosis, the hemispheric imbalance and schizophrenic tendencies. The right hemisphere effect in schizophrenia has been detected by others, using different methods from my own, so that is doubtless real. Moreover, I have shown that similar asymmetry occurs in hypnosis. Finally, it has been established that people who are very responsive to hypnosis are likely to score higher on schizotypy scales. The connections seem clear, but what is not known is the direction of causality; possibly there is some as yet unidentified factor which brings about all the observed effects. Some years ago a case was taken against Paul McKenna, by a man who attended one of that stage hypnotist’s shows. In the show the victim was made to believe (and feel) that he had sat in an electric chair and that a powerful shock had gone through his body. After the event he developed symptoms of schizophrenia, so he was looking for damages. At that time, expert opinion was of the view that hypnosis could not actually cause schizophrenia; the poor man was simply an accident waiting to happen and if it hadn’t been then it would not have been long after. As a result, Paul McKenna ‘got away with it’, but I am beginning to wonder whether his role in the onset of psychosis was greater than was supposed at the time. To explain, let me first draw your attention to some more connections.

People who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also have an imbalance towards the right hemisphere and they are more than averagely susceptible to hypnosis. Not everyone who suffers trauma goes on to develop PTSD, and it is beginning to look as if the unfortunate ones are genetically predisposed to this vulnerability; one might say that they are accidents waiting to happen. However, there must be millions of us with that genetic make-up who have simply been fortunate enough to have avoided extreme trauma. Suppose one is attending a stage show when the building collapses on the audience. Our victim is pulled half dead from the rubble and goes on to develop PTSD. Can the theatre owners deny responsibility on the grounds that this person was an accident waiting to happen? A final connection: PTSD is quite closely allied to the psychoses (and schizophrenia is one). You will see by now, I expect, where all this is leading; it seems to me that a seriously distressing experience in hypnosis may very well bring about the onset of schizophrenia. If I am right, these are not ‘accidents waiting to happen’; they are injuries caused by the hypnotist.

Let’s end on a lighter note. Regular readers will know that I am for ever spotting (and enjoying) signs, notices and labels that clearly don’t mean what the words actually say. Sometimes, of course, misinterpretation is done deliberately for humour, and I saw it recently on one of those cards where incongruous speech bubbles are attached to people in an old drawing or photograph. This one was a line drawing of a couple who looked as if they’d come from a Hardy story. She (Bathsheba?) was sitting demurely with a rug over her knees, while he (Gabriel?) sat farmer-like opposite, wearing gaiters and chewing a straw. Bathsheba is saying, “Whenever Henry’s wife goes out he gives her a kiss. Why don’t you do that?” Gabriel replies, “Well, I hardly know the woman!”

Good luck with all the work. If you are doing DD303 I might get to see you at Residential School; I’m doing the last two weeks of July, one week in Nottingham then one at Warwick.

Very best wishes,

Peter

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Cognitive Column - March 2015

Not quite sure when you’ll get to read this, but hopefully soon enough that it is still appropriate to wish you a Happy New Year. I sincerely hope that for most, if not all of you, your personal sphere has generally been a happy one; that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case on the World stage. At the local level it is likely that we are surrounded by reasonably like-minded individuals; it is when local begins to expand towards general that incompatibilities start to create difficulties. It is sometimes argued that around seven is the ideal group size, which it may well be for decision making, but groups clearly need to increase if large-scale projects are to be realised. The Egyptians were, of course, only able to build pyramids because they had sufficient builders, but they also needed a large enough body of farmers to grow food both for themselves and for the builders (not to mention the priests and so on). Unfortunately, as soon as there is a division of labour there is the likelihood of forming sub-groups (e.g. workers and bosses) and between these there is a good chance of friction developing. Nevertheless, an overarching group identity can often keep things running reasonably smoothly, and that is what nations generally seem to have achieved.

Today the World has become so small that nations are overlapping and interfering to an unprecedented degree, and with disastrous results. In times past an intrepid Englishman could explore foreign parts, safe in the knowledge that he was from a superior race. He (naturally it was a man, being that little bit more superior than an Englishwoman) didn’t much mind what the natives got up to; he merely observed, then returned home to describe the quaint customs and have a general reinforcing of the maxim “British and Best”. Nowadays, quaint customs can leak across borders and travel on planes, and they no longer look so quaint. Unfortunately, Britain and indeed much of the Western World still thinks that Western ways are best, rather than seeing them as just one possible set of ways that happen to hold our society together, while other configurations and customs are likely to be equally stable.

“Ah, but . . . ,” some might argue. Western values uphold human rights: freedom, right to life and so on. These, it would be claimed, are absolute values that trump any local customs. There are all sorts of arguments against that position, but let’s just ask why, if the sanctity of life is paramount, our governments send troops to kill people abroad. That’s certainly not the Christian way. Of course some religious leaders have attempted to argue the case for a just war, but the Christian message is clear: turn the other cheek. Does that sound familiar? Yes, Islam is apparently a peaceful religion too. What people do and what they preach in their religions are entirely disconnected, so religion has no useful place in these considerations. Instead we can look at the notion of “The Greater Good”: that by killing a few people we are saving many – especially us! So, girding up our loins with truth and putting on the breastplate of righteousness (I kid you not, it’s in the Bible) we go and kill or provide weapons for others to kill the wicked. We save Afghanistan and Iraq (for the third time now) help Libya become a decent democracy like us, and have a stir for salvation in Syria. If these were fireworks and we’d read the label we would light the blue touch paper and retire immediately, but we don’t. Having lit it we hang around for a bit to make sure the conflagration is sufficiently spectacular. Of course a lot of our troops die, but it’s for the greater good; they are saving many more. Finally we leave, with our leaders explaining what a wonderfully worthwhile thing has been achieved. From the vantage point of the moral high ground we then get a great view of all these inferior foreigners in strange garb killing each other. What else would we have expected after destroying their version of stability? Countless thousands have died or been banished to a miserable existence as refugees. There is no version of the greater good argument that can put that balance sheet in the black, not even because it keeps us safer; that is the last and largest lie. If Blair had not taken us into Iraq, and if we had avoided subsequent conflicts, it is highly likely that Britain would have been spared most of the terrorist threats we have suffered.

As a result of the actions of Western Governments we have people with very different customs on our streets, people for whom life has a very different value. If psychology teaches us anything it is that our reality is an interpretation and a construct, built upon a selective awareness of our surroundings. Such a process is strongly influenced by culture. Like many of my generation, I was brought up as a church-goer, so had some sort of Christian belief system. Back in those days I remember hearing a “Jesus joke” which seemed rather shocking. Today I have no faith and can see no rational basis for a belief in God (or Allah). Nevertheless, I would still feel a certain awkwardness in repeating the joke; cultural values are very powerful and enduring. Had the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists been aware of this simple truth they might still be alive today. If we believe we have a right to impose our values on the citizens of other countries, it is unsurprising that some of their people feel they have a right to visit Paris and impose theirs.

Psychology, like any other science, has become involved with war, both in the destruction of others and in the putting together again of the mentally wounded. Today it has been announced that the British Army will be setting up a whole brigade devoted to Psyops – psychological operations. There’s nothing new in this, except perhaps the large numbers who will now be employed in these activities. They will be involved in winning the hearts and minds of people who see things rather differently from us, of sowing seeds of doubt, planting misinformation and undermining the morale of those who are actively against us. The Americans are very much into the idea, and one source in the US explains that the objective is to facilitate “the dissemination of truthful information to foreign audiences in support of U.S. policy and national objectives.” Truthful information? Hmmm! Of course I’m cynical, who wouldn’t be, but at least this is better than killing the opposition and creating more problems than are solved.

Well, what a bleak offering for the start of the New Year! There is, of course, so much that is good too, and I must choose a more cheerful topic for next time. Just to be going on with, let’s remember those brave people of many nations, who have crossed borders and tried gently to change customs, in order to halt the dreadful advance of Ebola. Yes, there is a self-interest, as we don’t want it to spread here, but that became the driver as soon as governments were involved, sending money and troops. Before that it was good people, driven by the finest motives, and no doubt aware that it is always better to work with, or for; seldom to work against.

As I said earlier, it is easier to find likeminded people at the local level, and this reminds me, I must finish this and get to my local. They’ve asked me to do a pub quiz and I’m dreading that either everyone will get all the answers or no one will get any of them! I’ll leave plenty of time for drinking between rounds – that should sort out the mental processes of any who are too clever, and make the rest not mind that they have no points. Anyway, it’s playing the game that counts isn’t it, not winning – that’s the British and Best way!

Very best wishes,

Peter

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Cognitive Column - January 2015

Although I’m writing this before Christmas, I expect you will receive it in the New Year. So, Happy New Year! I hope Christmas went well for you, and also that any of you who had exams in the Autumn were happy with the results.

On the topic of exams, I had messages from a number of DD303 students to say that the exam went well for them and they did better than usual. This they were attributing to hypnosis, because I’d used that to help them with exam nerves. Many of you will know that I have an interest in hypnosis, because I have written about it several times before. I hope you will forgive me if I write a bit more about this fascinating topic. Exactly how hypnosis achieves its effects remains something of a mystery, and we seem to be left with unsatisfactory explanations along the lines, “The brain does what it needs to do to make the suggestion happen.” A good example is the removal of the Stroop effect. You will all know about that effect; the fact that, when we are quickly naming the colours of ink used to print words, we get significantly slower if the words themselves are conflicting colour names (e.g. using green ink to write RED). Less well known, there is also a small speeding-up effect when colour and word are congruent (red ink for RED). If people are told in hypnosis that they will just see some meaningless squiggles, like foreign writing, then the Stroop effect goes away, just as they expect it to do. One would assume from this that they really were unable to read the words. However, it turns out that the speedingup effect with congruent stimuli remains, and you can’t be speeded by a word you can’t read! As I said, the brain is obviously doing something to produce the effect, but it isn’t literally what it was instructed to do.

I have recently been using hypnosis with an unfortunate young woman who experienced horrific burns in a fire. Not surprisingly, she was diagnosed as having posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was sent for CBT. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is very much “The Thing” at the moment; it is evidenced based (i.e. it works and there are data to prove it) and there are firm theoretical underpinnings. However, its application tends to be formulaic – almost like therapy by numbers. This is handy for an over-stretched NHS, because people can easily be trained to deliver the procedures and the Government can tick the box that says they are dealing with more mental health problems. There is even a move towards providing on-line, semi-automated treatments, so that patients can interact with their computer at home and the NHS doesn’t have to recruit so many people. Unfortunately there’s a “however”. The rather mechanical CBT approach is not right for everyone, and it doesn’t seem to have a “human” element that enables it to be tuned to suit the particular needs of the patient. It certainly didn’t meet the needs of the burns victim; in fact she said that it was making her worse. In contrast, she speaks highly of hypnosis, and is making great progress. This is rather odd, since many of the incorporated techniques are similar to those of CBT.

Why does hypnosis seem to add a little something extra in so many different therapeutic situations? There is growing evidence that it may have something to do with that especially human quality which CBT tends to lack. Effective hypnosis both fosters and demands a sense of closeness and trust between patient and practitioner. Those sensations are associated with the release of the hormone oxytocin; it is sometimes called the bonding hormone. It modifies brain behaviour via receptor sites which are defined by the oxytocin receptor gene. This gene, like the one for eye colour, comes in two forms, and the presence of one of these versions rather than the other seems to make people more susceptible to hypnosis. Moreover, giving people a little dose of oxytocin before starting hypnosis allows them to be more responsive (Bryant et al. in Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2012). Not only is this theoretically interesting in the context of hypnosis; it also serves as a warning to those who would automate the NHS. If a good warm feeling of closeness is important to recovery (which is no more than we would expect for social animals such as ourselves) then how are we to treat ourselves by logging in to a website? I really don’t see the Bill Gates Windows system getting a patient’s oxytocin flowing! Now, my trusty Mac . . . well, that’s a different matter!

Pets are good for oxytocin; there are schemes in some areas where they are taken to hospitals and care homes, for patients to hold and stroke. Apparently it does them (the patients) the world of good. Dogs have evolved to enjoy human company, so it probably does them good too, since as fellow mammals they also secrete oxytocin. I am looking forward to the time when I am not too busy to own a dog, because truth be told, even the Mac doesn’t produce all that much oxytocin. This reminds me of a story I recently heard, perhaps slightly non-PC, but I hope you enjoy it anyway. It does have an educational element, because it very nicely illustrates that correlation need not mean causality. Someone in my position tells his friend that he’s at long last planning on getting a dog. “Ah, that’s nice. What breed are you thinking of having?” The chap replies that he’s always liked Labradors – they seem intelligent and good natured. “Well, that’s as may be, but I’d never risk one of those!” The would-be dog owner is surprised by the response and asks what’s wrong with Labradors. “Goodness! Haven’t you noticed the number of Labrador owners who’ve gone blind?”

All the very best with your studies in the New Year. No doubt I shall be interrupting them again with more nonsense before 2015 is too far advanced.

Peter

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Cognitive Column - November 2014

So, we are still a United Kingdom. We humans are a social animal, but I imagine the evolutionary pressures that made us acquire a liking for groups have produced a process that favours an upper limit to the group size. There has to be a cement of common interests, common goals and shared understanding; as a group gets bigger those are increasingly diluted. I have suggested in previous Columns that civilisation has included a process of overriding natural responses, such as dislike of ‘outsiders’; we have an intellectual recognition of the inappropriateness of prejudice. Presumably ruling by the head rather than the heart has played a part in the assembly of vast nations too, overcoming the natural tendency to feel that relatively small is more beautiful. Nevertheless, such cerebral cement is of finite strength, and when two groups are as different as the Scots and the English it is very natural that the smaller would like to pull away. Fortunately (from my perspective) the logical reasons for staying together prevailed, but the scenes of bitter disappointment among the ‘Yes’ supporters are a reminder of how strong the gut feelings can be.

Of course there are also considerable differences within the English community; we shall have to wait and see how those are to be addressed by the politicians. As the pundits are now pointing out, Government will have an uphill struggle to find a viable formula within the time frame that Cameron has so foolishly set. However, that will not be their greatest difficulty. Their real problem will be to get the public to engage, to come out in their thousands like the Scots, and to produce an 85% turn-out for any voting that follows. For as long as the English public believes that it won’t make any difference who gets in, and that they’re all liars anyway, then we will continue as we are. Laws may be changed, the unwritten constitution ‘re-unwritten’, but for as long as there is disengagement there will be dissent and disillusion too.

I made my annual trip to the British Science Festival in September. In between giving my own talks I try to get to others’ presentations; the range covered is remarkable, and sometimes the content is a stimulus to further ideas and discussion. One well-attended talk (chiefly by people, like myself, of a certain age!) was on ageing. With our population continuing to increase its average age, a better understanding of how to preserve faculties is essential. One snippet I gleaned is that, among the various frequency bands of the brain’s electrical activity, the gamma band becomes weaker with age. This range of frequencies is quite high – around 40 - 60 firings per second – and is associated with linking the various aspects of a stimulus into a coherent whole. For example, the colour of a bird, its shape, its location in a tree and the song it is producing are all analysed in different areas of the brain. Nevertheless, we solve the problem of knowing which bits of brain activity ‘go together’, and have a unified experience of a singing bird. Using electroencephalography to examine the brain waves would show that the gamma band oscillations of all those different brain regions had become locked in step. This phase-locking, as it is called, appears to be the mechanism underlying the unification process. If that process weakens with age, then some predictions follow, so I did a literature search when I returned home, to see if the predictions were correct. Incidentally, I hope you are aware of the wonderful resource in the OU library, that permits searching through vast numbers of journals in a few seconds. If you’ve not tried it yet, put this address in your web browser: http://www.open.ac.uk/library/libraryresources/selected-resources-for-yourstudy?id=635&filter=database After that, click on Database (there will be a number in brackets after it). Next, you click on a letter of the alphabet; choose ‘P’. This is P for psychology and the like. Scroll down until you find a database called PsycINFO. Click on that and away you go! Pop in a search item or two. For instance, in the first box type ‘gamma band’ and in the next put ‘schizophrenia’, then click search. You’ll get dozens of articles that link those two topics.

In a round about way that brings me to the rest of my aging story, because gamma band phase locking is weak in patients with schizophrenia, and has been cited as an explanation for their hallucinations. Could anything similar occur in aging? The answer, it turns out, is yes; with increasing age there is a growing chance of experiencing hallucinations. Fortunately things don’t have to be anything like so dramatic, but all the same, if the process that links stimulus attributes starts to grow weak, then the linking might suffer. Sure enough, I found a piece of research that says there is a higher rate of illusory conjunctions in the elderly. The conjunctions referred to are the putting together of stimulus characteristics – the identity and the colour of a letter for example. Suppose a couple of letters are flashed up briefly, a red A and a blue B. Because the brain has little time to sort out what goes with what there are sometimes errors, so that a person reporting what they had seen could get the colours switched. That is more likely to occur apparently if you are getting on a bit. Well, if that’s the worst that happens as my years lengthen, I reckon I can live with it – what’s a wrong letter colour between friends!

I must end with another Science Festival story; I think there is more Social than Cognitive Psychology in it. There’s a place just South of Hadrian’s Wall called Vindolanda. It was a Roman barracks; the soldiers were guarding the border because, even before Alex Salmond came along, the people to the North were being ‘independent minded’ shall we say! During the excavation of this important archaeological site hundreds of shoes have been uncovered. It seems that a great deal can be deduced from a shoe, including the gender of the owner. At Vindolanda there are a great many women’s shoes, and this came as a considerable surprise, because archaeologists had always assumed that Roman barracks were basically men-only, and any associated women would live in the adjacent town or village. Another thing that can be deduced about the wearer is his or her height; it correlates with the foot size. It turns out that the women were surprisingly tall. We discussed this, because there had to be a better reason for the height than the notion that your average centurion really went for tall girls. It is known that there was a minimum height for a man to be recruited as a soldier, so naturally enough the men too were of above average height. Could this be relevant to the women? Well, there were children’s shoes too, so it looked as if whole military families were living on the site. With a tall father (and perhaps mother too) the children would tend to become tall adults, who eventually married. Which girls would an unmarried centurion most likely meet? Obviously one of the daughters of his fellow fighting men, and she was likely to be tall. Not only is the puzzle solved, but it suggests that there were probably military families, in which generation after generation went into or married into the army. What is more, the barracks were rather more family friendly than had been assumed, and certainly more than is the norm today. All that deduced from some pairs of shoes – and you thought Psychology was all speculation!

I guess by the time you read this it will be well into October, and some of you will have just completed an exam. I hope it went well for you; for all the rest I hope the study is going smoothly.

Until the next Column, very best wishes,

Peter

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