A letter to a young scientist


Dear Cxxxx,

You asked about my views on combining a successful career in science with having a family. Of course, you wouldn’t ask this, if you weren’t ambitious and aiming for a place at the top, and if you were not also aware that somewhere down the line you might have your own family. This is a wonderful view on the horizon, and you may sometimes feel impatient about reaching it. But don’t be. I assume that you don’t only have talent, imagination, Continue reading A letter to a young scientist

energy and enthusiasm – because you certainly have these – but also stamina and resilience. Put these ingredients together and you have the typical high-flyer mix. Now at this point if you want to reach the top, you need to start establishing a career. This is the time when you have to develop your nerdy side. This means being obsessive about your ideas and methods, and always going that extra mile. Never mind if others call you workaholic, never mind if not everything goes to plan – your reputation will grow with your achievements and will allow you to shake off everyday trials and tribulations. You need to enjoy growing your reputation, because you can’t really take a rest even if you can be justly proud of your achievements. Instead, it is ever onwards and upwards.

Now let’s assume that your biological clock in strange collusion with social pressure from all sides will make you remember that you wanted to have a life as well as a career – and this usually means babies. Because nature programmed us this way, babies are intrinsically rewarding. It is a cliché, but there is a whole new world with intense joys as well as anxieties about a little person who wasn’t there before, and who will, with any luck, but all too soon, become a big person. Can you take a rest now as you are on maternity leave? No way! Your time is no longer your own. Actually, you need to be watchful because nothing is easier than becoming a slave to the charms of a little child, who is actually a tyrant with a round-the-clock need of your love and attention. This is when you need help to preserve your aims and ideals, your commitment to your work and career.

So here are some tips. Don’t fall under the evil spell of those who say that your main duty is to your children, and that work should take a back seat. If you let this propaganda get to you, then you will feel guilty, whatever you decide to do. My view is that you can have both, a career and a life, if you make compromises, and yes, cheat a little. Actually, it is not cheating, just sensible management of resources. Just as we don’t feel guilty about not making bread from scratch, so we shouldn’t feel guilty about letting someone else do the cleaning and the bulk of child care. Of course it is a question of cost, but hopefully you will earn enough later on when you are a well respected scientist. But perhaps your salary is not sufficient at the time. This is where it is marvellous to have parents who chip in, physically and financially. But lets not beat about the bush about the key factor in all this, your husband. I hope you have chosen him with extreme care so that you know he will share costs and benefits, worries and joys, on a fifty-fifty basis. Don’t settle for less.

With all best wishes for your future,

A Conversation with Essi Viding

Psychopathy is a dark topic and a brave choice for a BBC2 Horizon programme. This was to be a serious and not sensationalist account of this complex personality disorder. It is remarkable how often this topic has been aired and how regularly it appears in the movies. Was another documentary needed? Yes, because there is a great deal of new research. We also need to get rid of the entrenched idea that most violent criminals are psychopaths.

Director-producer Rebecca Harrison wanted to create a ‘noir’ feeling with a somber visual mood. I loved this idea. I also had to feel brave to be the presenter. This is not a field I am an expert in, but I wanted to learn more, and it was highly satisfying to be able to delve underneath the surface with the help of renowned researchers from different fields*. Here I talk to my friend Essi Viding, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at UCL, whose advice I drew on continuously while making the programme.


Uta: We asked ‘What makes a psychopath?’ Were we too ambitious to ask this question? Continue reading A Conversation with Essi Viding

Essi: I don’t think so. There are now widely agreed diagnostic criteria and you discuss them in the documentary. The documentary also touches on development and that is where I came in. What I am most interested in is what makes some children vulnerable to developing psychopathy. We can identify children who have so called ‘callous and unemotional traits’ and who share features with adult psychopaths. We now know more about the genetic and brain basis of these traits. We also know that not all children with these traits grow up to be adult psychopaths, so that is interesting and challenges us to find the right interventions.

Uta: I find it easy to believe that psychopathy is a neuro-developmental disorder just like autism. It took a massive effort to remove the blame from the parents in the case of autism and to get people to understand that these children are different from the start. I feel the same might need to be done for psychopathy.

Essi: Psychopathy is indeed a neuro-developmental disorder. Still, these children often grow up with many adverse social factors and this is why people are often keen to draw links with parenting – but it is not that simple. A problematic child can evoke problematic reactions. We need to keep in mind that the majority of the children from adverse social circumstances do not have a callous-unemotional traits, while a few children with loving parents and ample resources do.

Uta: Here is what I remember most from my involvement with the film: how different analysing the mind of the psychopath feels from analysing the mind of the person with autism. And yet there is the presumption that both conditions involve a profound failure of emotional development.

Essi: There is a glaring difference. Psychopaths excel in something that is lacking in autistic individuals. They have normal or even superior mentalising skills (the ability to track the invisible mental states of others – their desires, intentions, beliefs). It is clear that psychopaths use mentalising to manipulate, deceive and torment others.

But there is another social mechanism that seems to have failed in psychopaths – the normally strong desire for affiliation, that is, the wish to belong and to be part of a group.

Uta: Interesting! But this desire for affiliation has also been supposed to be missing in autism!

Essi: I think we both agree that this is absolutely not true for most individuals on the autism spectrum. There are too many observations that testify to empathy and a desire for inclusion. Also there is evidence from empirical studies documenting the ability to resonate with other people’s emotions in autism.

Uta: So, simply put, mentalising failure captures autism, and failure to affiliate emotionally captures psychopathy?

But what is affiliation – and what cognitive mechanism would support it? Does it have to do with our liability to be infected by the behaviour of others?

Essi: We can think of it as a primitive capacity to resonate with others. Presumably it has its origin way back in our evolutionary history and is probably found in all group living animals. Affiliation gives us positive feelings of belonging to a tribe or a fan club. It imparts the meaning we find in identity and in loyalty.

Uta: I take we agree that the mechanisms that underlie ancient components of our social nature must have a basis in the brain. So it is conceivable that abnormal brain development might interrupt affiliation?

Essi: There is a lot of excellent work from multiple research groups that has shown difficulty in resonating with other people’s distress in psychopathy. There is less work looking at positive affiliation, but it is something that my group and others are really interested to look at more closely. We want to know if cues that are known to support social cohesion and belonging, such as genuine laughter, are processed in a different way in children at risk of developing psychopathy. Laughter is one of the most contagious emotions. We join in when we hear genuine laughter and laughter is thought to promote bonding between individuals. There is reason to believe that processing of laughter is compromised in children at risk of developing psychopathy – you have to watch this space, as the study will only be out later this autumn.

Uta: We tend to hold on to other people when we feel fearful, and this seems to lessen our fear. Do you think that psychopaths in similar circumstances would not experience such benefits of affiliation?

Essi: That is an interesting suggestion. We would need to test it out. Some data suggest that individuals with psychopathy experience less fear themselves. If this is the case, they may need less support from others and that might reduce the motivational drive to affiliate.

Uta: I remember asking you before whether psychopaths can be found among gang leaders and mafia bosses, whether they can be particularly brave soldiers. You had some interesting arguments against this idea.

Essi: I think there probably are some who have high levels of psychopathic traits. These might be the ones who are highly narcissistic and shamelessly use others, without ever returning loyalty in any way. Psychopaths can happily dispense of other people the minute they cease to be useful. They don’t have regret. The suffering of others means very little to them.

But I am not sure whether such individuals would make the most successful gang leaders, mafia bosses or soldiers. They are not team players. One of the hallmarks of psychopathy is that they tend to act in line with purely selfish urges. This is often not compatible with the best interests of the team.

Uta: I am still hoping to find the ‘good’ psychopath, untrammelled by emotions and with strictly utilitarian morality, but law abiding. Could it be that in times of extreme conflict and crisis it is the psychopath who can save the group? By carrying out the unspeakable deeds that nobody else would be prepared to perform?

Essi: I wonder why would they bother? I think doing a heroic deed would still require buying into ideology, putting yourself into danger or discomfort for others. These people do not typically do this.

Uta: For me, the bleak insight from making the programme is that we don’t know how to change psychopaths. Will they ever be able to feel genuine remorse, empathy and belonging?

Essi: Changing ingrained emotional traits is very difficult. There is an example of a study of individuals with anxiety. In contrast to psychopaths they feel and worry a lot. There are interventions that help individuals with anxiety, but they will never become the most chilled out people on the planet. And these are individuals who feel so rotten that they have a huge motivation to change how they feel! Psychopaths don’t feel bad themselves, so it will be harder to achieve motivation to change for them and the extent to which they can ever feel for and with others is going to be limited. On the other hand, I am confident that we can change their behaviour!

As shown in the documentary, there are some promising treatment approaches with young people. One important insight is that psychopaths do not learn well from punishment, but they can learn from rewards. In other words, we can capitalise on their desire to look after number one. That can be used to promote prosocial behaviour. It is something I would like to work on in the future. I hope that we might eventually be able to put the moral development and social behaviour on the right track from an early age. This is worth striving for on behalf of children at risk of developing psychopathy and their families.


Kent Kiehl, Jeremy Coid, Gregory van Rybroek, Molly CrockettScott Lilienfeld. I was fortunate also to draw on advice from James Blair and Estelle Moore.

If you want to read one book, Kent Kiehl’s The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of those without Conscience is fascinating. There is also an excellent short BBC iwonder guide by Claudia Hammond on the topic.





We need to know more about how groups make decisions

Uta: As chair of the Royal Society’s Diversity Committee I have struggled with communicating the biases that enter into decisions made by selection committees. There is a strong commitment to increase diversity at the Royal Society at all levels, but nothing convinces scientists more than evidence. So it seemed a good idea to collect evidence on how group decisions are made. Not being a specialist in this area myself, I pleaded with Dan Bang and Chris Frith to write a review, and here I am asking them about what they found.


The review has taken over a year and refers to 203 publications. It just appeared in the Royal Society journal Open Science.

Dan, was this the first ever comprehensive review of the literature on decision-making in groups?

There are other excellent reviews which we refer to in our paper, but I think ours is the first to draw on computational modelling of decision-making, and to bring together findings from economics, psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

 Our article is not a review in the classic sense, we do not calculate the effect size of different group interventions or treatments. Instead, we use a general model of decision-making as our starting point, and then ask how individuals and groups solve each of the relevant computations. Continue reading We need to know more about how groups make decisions

Uta: For some reason the question of how we make decisions has always been of great interest to experimental psychologists. Why?

For experimental psychologists decision-making is a very useful framework for studying all kinds of cognitive processes, particularly those we are not aware of. For example, my perception of the letter A is a decision because I choose this interpretation of what I see instead of any other, such as the number 4. So, decision-making is something we do all the time but are usually unaware of.

 Uta: Why has there been a recent upsurge in studies on decision-making?

I think this is due to developments in computational modelling. Computational models allow us to break decision-making down into its component processes, generate predictions for what happens if we tweak one of the processes, and for understanding exactly where decision-making goes wrong or right. I like to think that experimental psychologists have gotten over their fear of maths and have begun to realise what computational approaches can offer.

Your favoured model is Bayesian Decision Theory (BDT). Can you explain what this is, briefly?

BDT describes how to make optimal decisions in an uncertain world. A key aspect is the integration of past experience (prior beliefs) and new evidence (likelihood). It turns out that many decisions, whether made by individuals or in groups, go wrong because of excessive reliance either on past experience or on new evidence.

 Is there a mathematical formula telling you how to make a good decision?

BDT provides the formulas for finding the best action. But the calculations required are often intractable, or too complex and time consuming, to be useful in practice. We can think of the task of finding the best action as one of finding the highest peak in a hilly landscape. BDT requires that you know the contours of the entire landscape. An alternative ‘quick and dirty’ strategy is to visit just a few different points in the landscape; this is often sufficient to get a good idea of where the peak might be. This strategy is called sampling. We can sample from our memories of past actions; we can sample from the internet; we can read about the goodness of some of the most obvious actions; we can ask our friends for advice.

 When is the right time to make a decision?

Somehow you have to recognise whether you have enough knowledge to make a good decision. Do I have taken enough samples or should I take more? If I stop sampling, I may miss a higher peak. If I go on sampling too long, my decision may come too late.

Uta: In the figure, we see a schematic landscape with different peaks and we see people who are ‘explorers’ or ‘exploiters’. I believe this distinction comes from the study of foraging behaviour in animals. If I know where apples are to be found, I exploit this knowledge by going to that tree. But eventually all the apples will have been eaten, and I need to explore to find a new tree. How does this play out in group decision-making?

Explorers and exploiters point us towards the advantages of group decision-making over individual decision-making. In many animals, such as honeybees, there are individual differences in the drive to explore or to exploit. Most bees in the hive are exploiters who go where they know that nectar bas been found. But about 4% are explorers (scouts) who look for new sources of nectar. The scouts can guide others to new sources of food. Among humans, it is perhaps the risk takers and sensation seekers who are the equivalent of these scouts.

Chris, since this is our ” socialminds” blog, can you explain in what way group decision-making is part of the social mind? Are there processes that you identified that are specifically social, rather than general cognitive processes?

The special social feature of group decision-making is that members of the group interact with one another. For example, we are typically unaware of our own biases, but very sensitive to those of others. By interacting with others we can discover our biases and try to overcome them. We prefer to justify our own immediate solution to a problem rather than considering other options. When we interact with others we may be forced to consider these other options.

 Is there a downside to group discussions?

One example is that the biases of one individual might spread through the whole group. Another problem can occur with perceived confidence. When people make decision together, they will often discuss how confident they are in their choice. In many cases, better decisions will be made when the solution of the more confident person is chosen. This is because confidence correlates with competence. But there are exceptions. Group decisions might be dominated by a vociferous and confident individual who is also incompetent.

 Some examples immediately spring to mind…

Dan, what do we know now from the research that you reviewed that we didn’t know before? Was there a finding that surprised you? Is it all common sense, really?

Well, common sense is always easier to spot in hindsight! What we have tried to do is to provide an evidence base for common sense.

 I think the most surprising challenge for decision-makers is living with and accepting uncertainty. We hate uncertainty. So, even if you make the optimal decision, you still may not get a good result. Then, it’s easy to say: oh, I shouldn’t have taken this particular action, but the other action. But this is hindsight bias! Actually, given what you knew at the time, you did take the best action.

 On the other hand, you might sometimes be lucky: you made a poor choice, but through random luck, there was a good outcome. In this case, you might fool yourself into thinking that you actually took the best action and receive praise from your colleagues.

 So it was a new insight that choice and outcome have to be kept separate? Are there any practical implications?

 Indeed – I think that innovation and exploration is often discouraged because people focus too much on outcomes. Especially in groups, people are too afraid to get it wrong. This is because they know they’ll be evaluated on outcome, and not on a careful consideration of the grounds for their choice. This is one important reason why groups tend to stick with business as usual. We feel much more regret after making an unusual choice that turns out to be wrong. When doing business as usual, others can’t point the finger at us.

 Chris, what ideas are ripe for exploring further? What is the next question that the review urges to be studied?

We need to learn more about the role of group leaders. We can think of a group of people with different areas of expertise as a super-brain. The group members are like populations of neurons which perform different functions, but whose output is brought together to make sense of the world. The brain has solved the problem of competition for influence and relies on a central executive system to coordinate information processing. Group leaders need to emulate such an executive system to overcome some of the dangers associated with group decision-making. Here are some practical examples: applying the rule that each member can only speak for a fixed amount of time. Another is pointing out bias where it occurs.

Uta: Here is a puzzle for me. Equality bias is one of the causes you identified as potentially leading to poor decision-making in groups. Do we really assume that all members of our committee are equally good at decision-making? If we have such a bias, how does this square with our irrational tendency to feel that we are better drivers/teachers/parents than other people. Why has it not helped us towards more diversity?

 Equality bias means that equal weight is given to all opinions. It is part of the more general belief that others are more similar to us than they really are. Since not all group members are of equal competence, the bias results in too much weight being given to the opinions of less competent members of the group. If anything, this bias should work in favour of diversity. The difficulty for achieving diversity arises because we feel much more comfortable with people who are really like ourselves. Our shared expectations make them easier to communicate with. But this does not necessarily lead us to make better decisions than we would have made by ourselves.

Uta: I am just speculating, but this equality bias makes me think that if we believe, rather egocentrically, that others are more similar to us than they really are, then we get an unpleasant jolt when we notice the discrepancy between assumed and actual similarities. However, the discomfort is worth it when it leads to better decision-making by pooling diverse opinions.

Dan, are you convinced by your review that groups really make better decisions than individuals?

Yes, absolutely. We discuss many benefits in the paper: more accurate knowledge from pooling of knowledge, better inferences from pooling cognitive resources, better coverage of hypothesis space from mix of exploiters and explorers. But checks and balances must be in place for groups to work.

Uta: What are the hottest recommendations for this committee’s work?

One new idea that is gaining strength is the use of lotteries in decision-making. When choosing which projects to support it is usually easy to pick out the good ones and the bad ones. But there will always be a middle range of equally good projects, only some of which can be supported. Selection at this stage could be done by a lottery. This would eliminate the effects of unconscious biases and would eliminate a lot of fruitless discussion.

Uta: The whole point of the review was to give evidence-based recommendations so that selection committees and panels can make better decisions. Therefore, I’m listing some of them here.

                                   ——————-7 RECOMMENDATIONS——————–

  • Strive for diversity among group members, both in terms of expertise and background. This will allow you to explore the full hypothesis space and avoid narrowing of ideas.
  • Don’t be afraid to weight opinions. Give more weight to the opinion that is based on better knowledge.
  • Be sensitive to differences in expressed confidence. Talking time rarely correlates with expertise. Consider allocating a fixed speaking time to each member and enforcing a no-interruption rule, the latter benefitting people who have minority views, or who are in a minority.
  • Ensure independence of opinions. For example, do not express a preference for candidates before everyone has discussed them. Opinions are subject to contagion effects.
  • Avoid shared information bias. Do not focus discussion on information that everybody is familiar with, such as track record. Sometimes only one member has pertinent information. They may not reveal it as they assume others know too.
  • Balance exploration and exploitation. Business as usual is not always the best decision. Changes can be beneficial even though there is risk attached.
  • Appoint a meta-champion who keeps a check on process, is aware of the pitfalls and can point out common biases. Promoting independence among opinions is probably the most helpful service that the champion can provide.



Fighting bias with quota and lottery

Before you cry out “quota? – no way!” imagine you have the power to decide which of the wonderful girls in the Genius school can enter the charmed circle. Your first impulse might be to select students who are most like the existing members of the circle, the prototypical candidate. On second thoughts, you might wonder which talents and skills the circle is currently missing out on. It is obvious that a diversity of skills would be most advantageous for its future projects and adventures. Selection is a stressful task, because, if you selected the wrong student, the circle will weaken. At the same time your reputation as a shrewd selector would suffer.


Diversity is a necessity, given the changing demographics in our societies, but it also brings benefits. There is a business case, and there is evidence that science thrives in diverse teams. Both the number of hypotheses and the number of solutions are increased if groups working on a problem have different perspectives and contribute different points of view. A diversity of viewpoints helps us to avoid being stuck in a rut. Clearly, charmed circles, such as academy members, grant holders and award winners, need to be diverse if we have any hope of solving the pressing problems of our times. Continue reading Fighting bias with quota and lottery

Increasing diversity is not easy and the previous post mentions some of the hidden biases that make it an uphill struggle. But we should not feel defensive about this. Remember, our social brain is processing vast amounts of information in split seconds and therefore has short cuts and preference settings. These lead us straight back into the same old choices. If we want greater diversity, we need to interrupt this processing flow. There would never be any change if we didn’t. To become aware of hidden biases is one way to achieve this, but setting quota could be a better way.

Lets talk about Quota

With the charmed circle at Genius school it would make sense to have a quota for missing skills. You could also insist on a quota for boys, in case the school decides to become co-ed in the future. With modern selection panels the same applies. Under-represented minorities have special skills and preferences that go to waste because they are not in the circle. What’s sad is that the existing members may not even realise that this is their loss.

Quota, in theory, can easily be applied, as long as there is a pool of excellent candidates. But there is a snag. In selection for excellence, who would like to think that the reason they were selected was because of quota? This is not exactly bolstering their self-esteem! It is also a reason for feeling denigrated if you are not selected. Some will feel that they should have been selected by rights, but did not have the required minority status. Everyone will feel demeaned.

The situation changes when we take into account the size of the charmed circle. If there is only one winner, quota setting will probably not work. But it can work well, when more candidates have to be attracted. For instance, setting a quota for boys when the school becomes co-ed. New people with different ideas and different skills can be selected as soon as a quota is adopted. Quota here is strictly for the purpose of building capacity. It says ‘we are open for you – even though we weren’t open to you before – please apply’.

It follows that my personal view on quota is twofold: At this point I would probably not endorse quota when the selection is about giving rare awards. In contrast, I would endorse quota when the selection is about capacity building. The most likely scenario here is that there are many candidates and the number of awardees is somewhat flexible. This is different from the typical scenario of rare awards. When there are many excellent candidates, but, for whatever reason their names did not come to mind and they were not put forward, then a strong case for quota can be made. One practical move adopted by some learned societies is to add placeholders for individuals from a desired group (e.g. underrepresented minorities) without touching the historical annual quota for new members. This is capacity building because it means that additional members can be elected as long as they are from an underrepresented group. Clever. Nobody loses, and the institution wins praise for its willingness to change.

Even if there are no set quota, beware that as a selector, you will get eggs thrown at you if you systematically exclude minority members. There has been a “softly, softly” approach that avoids setting quota but strives for gender balance, and this has been quite successful in many areas, where charmed circles have been broken into. Speaker lists at conferences that do not have a reasonable proportion of women are rightly condemned. Academies whose membership remains stubbornly ‘senior white male’ have come in for criticism and even derision. Reputation is tied in with the willingness to modernise, not with continuing old traditions. Fortunately, the desire for a good reputation is such a strong motivation that changes in selection practice follow of their own accord even without the formal need to set quota.

Lets talk about using a lottery element

Instead of making impossibly difficult decisions, why not choose by lottery? This can make sense when the candidates are of equal merit, and in this case, a lottery is the one tool we have to definitely rule out any hidden bias. Juries in civil and criminal courts are selected randomly as a first step in the process. City states and universities have employed lottery procedures (also known as sortition) with the effect of minimising corruption and avoiding conflict. Famous examples include Athens, Venice and Basel. In these historical cases governing elites opened up to individual newcomers, but avoided being taken over chaotically. In addition, if an individual was rejected by lottery their honour was protected.

As a candidate, how would you feel? If you are selected you will feel lucky, but you should not feel big-headed; if your are not selected, you will feel unlucky, but should not feel disparaged. As a selector you would probably feel confused! Your job after all is to discriminate between candidates – the very opposite of leaving selection to chance. UsIng chance seems like abandoning reasoned argument. But sometimes comparisons between candidates are impossibly difficult. Here, bias is likely to gain the upper hand. The trigger-happy unconscious mind will always nudge the dithering conscious mind. Post-hoc justification of intuitive choices is not a triumph of reason.

Here again there is a practical move, already adopted experimentally by some funders of grant applications: a lottery element is used as part of the usual procedure of discussion among panel members. Panels often agree on their top candidates who clearly stand out from the rest. They also usually agree on candidates who are not competitive. This leaves a middle field where there is less certainty. Through discussion consensus can sometimes be reached which allows separating the stronger from the weaker cases in this middle field. But there is often not enough funding for all the strong candidates, and those just below the top tier will be the subject of much discussion which leaves selectors often uneasy about their final choices. This is where a lottery could be the tool we have been waiting for. It is the one tool we have to avoid bias and guarantee fairness.



The trouble with unconscious bias

Fine-tuned balancing scales are a beautiful thing. We can find out with great accuracy which of two objects is heavier. We’d like our mind to have just such a device when we have to evaluate the merit of different individuals. Then we could make fair decisions about which grant proposals should be funded, and where prizes should be awarded. But, alas, we have no objective scales to measure differences in merit. Instead we have clunky subjective scales that operate with distinct biases.


I have written about unconscious bias before, e.g. here linked to a short animation, and here.  In a more lighthearted vein I also developed a cartoon dialogue with the BBC 100Women programme. I still stand behind what I said in 2015, but I also feel that reminders and refreshers are important. Gender bias is still grimly hanging on. I have been trying to keep track of the continuing empirical work on bias and I am convinced that there is more work to be done. Hence the present post, which is paired with another post on my current ideas on quota and the possibility of using a lottery element to achieve truly unbiased selection.  Continue reading The trouble with unconscious bias

Are we really unable to select for excellence on meritocratic grounds – pure achievement, as opposed to wealth or position? We like to believe we can, and we have set up thousands of selection panels and prize juries on the basis of this belief. But doubts are creeping in. There seems to be a way for race and gender prejudice to tip the scales behind our backs. Prejudice seems ubiquitous and it seems to start very early in childhood. We like to think this could be an unwanted effect of our environment, something that can be reversed by training. In fact, it is something located deep down in our mind/brain and not easily erased.

Why are our mental scales so prone to bias? Perhaps as far as our ancient social brain is concerned, accuracy isn’t everything. When we interact with other people there are more pressing concerns than discriminating subtle differences in achievement. No one knows how many bits of information have to be sifted to make quick decisions about other people, whether they belong to our group and whether they will cooperate or compete. All we know is that there are shortcuts that make it possible to constantly align with other social agents, if only to be able to fly in the flock.

Getting along with other people is vitally important to us. We automatically assess them with brute self-interest, mostly hidden from our conscious Self. This is why the mental scales are biased and why they let down selection panels. This makes us uneasy because our considered assessment of individuals is often completely at odds with our crude automatic assessment. The unconscious part of our social brain is trigger happy in recognising in-groups and out-groups. Yet our feelings of belonging are fluid and we can belong to many different in-groups. It makes no sense to avoid strangers because their appearance evokes a threat response in our ancient amygdala, when in fact they might become useful allies. We have learned that we benefit more from cooperation than from conflict, and that oddballs can make outstanding discoveries. We have learned that men can be nurturing and that women can be competitive.

All this learning does not erase the ancient short-cuts that the social brain has acquired over eons of evolution. However, we can agree that work of selection panels improves if we process information about candidates in a slow and deliberate fashion, using the conscious part of our brain. When we need to make accurate judgements about the merits of different individuals when we allocate grants or awards, and this means we need to becalm our highly inflammable social brain.

Here I want to mention just three shortcuts that guide information processing in the unconscious social mind/brain. First, the so-called ‘availability heuristic’. This results in a preference for the familiar, for example for a candidate who is similar to previous successful candidates. Second, there is a desire for affiliation, which means we implicitly favour those who are like us and/or those who belong to a more socially dominant group. Third, we all believe that we are less biased than other people and have better arguments. We also believe that we are less subject to conflict of interest than others. For example, 61% of doctors thought pharmaceutical industry promotions did not affect their prescribing; only 16% believed this to be true for other doctors.

Knowing about biases does not neutralise them. They operate below consciousness and it is very unlikely that we can delete our unconscious short cuts. It might even be dangerous to do so, with unwanted side effects. But there is one way to make to ‘put them in their place’, in a manner of speaking. We can monitor and challenge each other because we see bias more easily in others than in ourselves. This is a bit uncomfortable – because we cannot see the beam in our own eye while we can see ‘the mote in our brother’s eye’. Of course we should not blame each other. It’s human to have unconscious biases.

What can we do to counteract bias? Not through intensive training programmes (see Footnote). However, it is useful to be aware of unconscious biases and selection panels need to be reminded of them as they make their difficult decisions. Slowing down the decision making process allows the conscious part of our brain to reflect and to query the reasons for our rash intuitive judgements. This is best done in groups when we can discuss different reasons. We can never ever be unbiased because this is how the brain works, where strong prior beliefs are affecting our perception and experience. Once we admit that subjective factors play into our judgement we can be more sceptical of our feelings. We can’t help it that our feelings are subtly biased against minority candidates. It’s precisely because there are so few of them. It means they fall outside the norm, always an awkward place to be.

Diversity helps us make better decisions (more on this in the next post). We now know that a diversity of viewpoints helps us to avoid being stuck in a rut. By listening to others’ point of view we can counteract the fact that we tend to be more critical of others’ theories, and uncritical or our own.

Footnote Unintended consequences of conscious efforts to counteract bias.  Brown et al. 2011 argued that people feel licensed to act on bad motives if they feel they have the moral high ground. Affirming one’s egalitarian or pro-social values and virtues subsequently facilitates prejudiced or self-serving behaviour, an effect referred to as “moral credentialing.” In a study people who had ‘credentialed themselves’ were more likely to cheat in a maths test, especially if they could easily rationalise this behaviour. In another study Monin & Miller, 2001 showed that people are more willing to express prejudice when their past behaviour has established their credentials as morally superior non-prejudiced individuals. Here, people were first given the opportunity to disagree with a blatantly sexist statement. Later they were more willing to favour a man over a woman for a stereotypically male job. Other studies confirmed this rebound effect.


Cognition and Consciousness in Peter Pan

A Conversation with Rosalind Ridley

My friend and colleague, Rosalind Ridley, who has had a distinguished career with the MRC studying brain and behaviour, has just published an intriguing book about J M Barrie and Peter Pan. It turns out that Peter Pan is not just a childish story about pirates and children who can fly. Barrie was very aware of the scientific developments of his day and the original Peter Pan stories are infused with ideas about man’s place in the natural world and the mental lives of children and animals. In many places Barrie seems to have anticipated ideas in cognitive psychology that only emerged after his death.

CDF: I wonder why a respected neuroscientist came to write a book about Peter Pan?

ppkgcoverRMR: I came across an early edition of Barrie’s first Peter Pan book ‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’, written in 1906. In the text I found descriptions of many aspects of cognitive psychology that have only been studied scientifically since the middle of the twentieth century. The more I read, the more I found. I was hooked.

CDF: Most people are unaware that Barrie wrote two novels about Peter Pan in addition to the pantomime. Do these give us a different view of the nature of Peter Pan and the intentions of Barrie?

Continue reading Cognition and Consciousness in Peter Pan

RMR: In ‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’, Peter is about a week old while in ‘Peter and Wendy’ (1911), which is based on the pantomime, he is about six or seven years old (although he supposedly ‘still had all his baby teeth’ which indicates his immaturity). Although Peter is ‘the boy who wouldn’t grow up’ he undergoes several changes of age, out of synchrony with other people in the stories. One explanation for this is that Peter is Barrie’s memories of himself as a child, achieved through ‘mental time travel’, and that Barrie is both exploring the nature of childhood and re-living his own childhood.

CDF: What was Barrie like?

RMR: Barrie was a lonely man who had had a difficult childhood and a childless marriage that ended in divorce. He found adults difficult and sought refuge in a fantasy world outside the normal stream of consciousness of our mundane existence.

CDF: And yet, he was also one of the most successful authors of his time and knew everyone from Thomas Hardy to A. A. Milne. But he certainly had problems. I believe that Barrie suffered from insomnia, as did Lewis Carrol,  but that Barrie attempted to control this by taking heroin. He must often have experienced the strange states of consciousness that can occur at the borders of sleeping and waking. Did these experiences inspire some aspects of the Pater Pan story?

RMR: Yes, Barrie complained of terrible sleep and gave accurate descriptions of almost all the clinical parasomnias in his stories. It is more than likely that he experienced these sleep disturbances and that this taught him that what he experienced and what was happening ‘out there’ are not the same thing. When Barrie was six years old his older brother drowned. Their mother became very depressed and Barrie felt that his dead brother was more real in his mother’s mind than he was. This may have encouraged Barrie to think in terms of internal mental states rather than the outside world.

CDF: Barrie seems to have been seeking a special state of heightened consciousness, which he believed people experienced in some historical or childish Golden Age.

You call this state ‘sublime consciousness’. What is this?

RMR: Although he didn’t use these terms, Barrie clearly understood the modern distinction between primary mental representation (mainly perception) and secondary representation (mainly episodic memory, anticipation of the future, and the imagination of alternatives). His stories were based on the notion that these were different, mutually exclusive, types of consciousness and that only adult humans had what we would now call ‘secondary representation’. He longed for a pure type of primary consciousness (which is what I called sublime consciousness) which he believed was available to animals, children and only occasionally to adults. Barrie argued that animals and very young children were not burdened with the ‘sense of time’ or ‘sense of agency’ that comes with the development of secondary representation and so were free to enjoy a heightened experience of the present.

CDF: This reminds me of work showing that, if you think about being happy, you will feel less happy.

But isn’t there one animal in the stories who does have secondary representation?

2-solomons-sockRMR: Yes, Solomon the crow. In the picture by Arthur Rackham we see him with the sock he is using to save for his pension. Crows have always had a reputation for being clever and Nicky Clayton has published work suggesting that they can plan for the future.

CDF: And, crows’ brains contain more neurons than the brains of some monkeys of comparable size.

I remember the rather sentimental episode in the pantomime where children are told that every time they say, ‘I don’t believe in fairies’, then a fairy will die. But, in your book, you suggest that Barrie is making a comparison between the type of thing that fairies are and the type of thing that money is.

RMR: Well, yes, Barrie liked to play tricks with words and ideas. He made ethereal objects behave like solid objects; a shadow, for example, is folded up and put in a drawer. Like Lewis Carroll, Barrie saw that words and the objects they represented were separable but, whereas Carroll adopted a semantic view that ‘a word… means just what I choose it to mean’. Barrie took a more pragmatic approach in making Wendy describe a ‘kiss’ as a ‘thimble’ when she could see that Peter was using the two words the wrong way round. Barrie then goes on to distinguish between solid objects and socially constructed objects. In a rather complex scene, Peter has forgotten how to fly and is marooned on the island in the Long Water in Kensington Gardens. A boat made out of a five pound note washes up on the island, but, rather than using the boat to make his escape, Peter cuts the bank note up into smaller pieces and uses these to pay the thrushes (who have been told that these ‘coins’ are valuable) to build him a bird’s nest boat. Here Barrie recognised that money is not only a piece of paper, but is also a socially constructed object that only exists as currency so long as everyone believes in it. Similarly, fairies are socially constructed objects, who only exist if you and your friends believe in them.

CDF: We once did an imaging study where people watched bank notes being torn up. The higher the value, the more brain activity we saw.

You suggest that a major theme of the Peter Pan stories concerns the cognitive differences between animals, children and adults. After Darwin published his theory of evolution, people had to reconsider these differences, since he had shown that we are all animals.

RMR: Peter Pan is described as a ‘betwixt-and-between’,
part child, part bird (he can fly) and part instinctive, slightly dangerous creature, like the god Pan. This allowed Barrie to compare the mental world of adults, children and animals and to consider the extent to which human behaviour is instinctive rather than rational and enculturated. These are very post-Darwinian themes and Barrie clearly believed that children start life with animal instincts and develop additional, specifically human cognitive skills as they mature. This reflects the view put forward by the nineteenth century embryologist, Ernst Haeckel, that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It would not have occurred to anyone before Darwin to compare the behaviour, especially the moral behaviour, of humans and animals because humans were made in the image of God and animals were just dumb beasts. Barrie also refers to paths in Kensington Gardens that have been made by men and adjacent ‘vagrant paths that have made themselves’ suggesting that he understood that evolution could apply to anything that was based on bottom-up processes, not just plants and animals.

CDF: One of the more exciting research programmes to emerge toward the end of the 20th century was about theory of mind or mentalising. This is the ability that enables us to realise that other people may have different beliefs from us and that it is those beliefs, rather than reality, that will determine their behaviour. Children don’t seem to acquire a full version of this ability until they are about 6 or 7 years old.

RMR: Although Barrie does not specifically name the nature of Peter’s cognitive limitations, his various descriptions of Peter’s behaviour certainly indicate failures of mentalising. Peter cannot remember events of the past and cannot understand what ‘afraid’ means because it is about the future. Peter also appears not to have a fully developed theory of mind and the social cognition that develops from it. He has great difficulty dealing with the beliefs and desires of others.

“What are your exact feelings for me?”
“Those of a devoted son, Wendy.”
“I thought so,” She said, and went and sat by herself at the extreme end of the room.
“You are so queer,” he said, frankly puzzled, “and Tiger Lily is just the same. There is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother.”
“No, indeed it is not,” Wendy replied with frightful emphasis.

Here Peter is clearly described as not knowing what it is that Tiger Lily wants to be to him, rather than not knowing how he should respond to her amorous advances. Later Peter gives a puzzled, nervous laugh and skips off merrily when he thinks that Wendy has been shot dead.

CDF: Well, it’s certainly amazing that Barrie was so much ahead of his time in presenting these various ideas, which we associate with contemporary cognitive psychology, but is this enough? What does your foray into the humanities contribute to contemporary neuropsychology?

RMR: Barrie was a close observer of human and animal behaviour as well as being extremely well read. I suspect that many of his astute observations were entirely his own but the implications of scientific discovery was a very pressing issue amongst the intelligentsia of the time and Barrie knew a great deal about science. For example, his story of the fairy duke who does not know that he is in love charmingly demonstrates the James/Lange theory of emotion, which was proposed at the end of the nineteenth century. At first I was surprised by the cognitive approach he adopted but I now realise that much early psychology, especially that proposed by William James (whom Barrie had met), was very cognitive in approach. But it was then overshadowed by the subsequent schools of Psychoanalysis and Behaviourism. We should pay much more attention to the psychological insights of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.


Barrie’s literature makes science accessible, but Barrie also argued that a good grounding in science and the scientific approach could contribute to literature when he said ‘science is the surest means of teaching you how to know what you mean’.

Photograph of the paths in Kensington Gardens courtesy of Harry Baker
A version of this conversation previously appeared in The Psychologist, January 2017

Identifying cognitive phenotypes for the reading deficits in dyslexia

This post has been contributed by Max Coltheart

I am not starting at the behavioural level to define the reading deficits in dyslexia. I would get lost in a maze where cause and effect can hardly be distinguished.

Behaviour is determined by so many factors that a glitch in just one of these factors is incredibly hard to discover. It’s like being in the midst of climate change and generally rising temperatures, while being confounded by a cool summer. Like the observed cool temperatures, observed behaviour is potentially misleading if we want to learn something about what causes the behaviour.

Therefore I am starting at the cognitive level. I will only later go to the behavioural level when I know what signs to look out for. At the cognitive level I can let my thoughts range freely around the imagined mental machinery. I would like to poke into different bits and take them apart. I would like to see what would happen if a particular piece were missing or not working properly. Would the projected outcome resemble the real reading problems that are experienced by dyslexic people? Continue reading Identifying cognitive phenotypes for the reading deficits in dyslexia

What parts? What mental machinery? Well, it is just a metaphor, and it may be better to talk of apps, perhaps. But here are some ideas. I believe learning to read involves acquiring a number of gadgets and these enable us to become the skilled readers that many adults are. When any of them goes wrong, reading deficits should result (acquired dyslexia). When any of them are never acquired properly, reading deficits should also result (developmental dyslexia).

If we can find clues to the gadgets and what can go wrong, we are on the way to understanding what the gadgets that make up the reading system are. Progress! But how many are there? Can they each go wrong, separately or together? Here I am speculating and limit myself to 7 hypothetical mechanisms.F1.large (1)

Perhaps any of the 7 mechanisms can be broken in dyslexia. This leads to different forms of dyslexias and hence different cognitive phenotypes and explains the heterogeneity of the dyslexia condition. It can also explain different degrees of severity – the more the worse, obviously. Testing different mechanisms separately has led us to form subtypes of the dyslexia condition.

How then do you identify cognitive phenotypes?  You need to devise behavioural tests to capture the hypothesised cognitive deficit. We have tests for identifying how well each of the seven components in the Figure are working.

It has been beautiful to discover reading specific architecture, a whole city of familiar, yet different, patterns of impairments and preservations of the components of this architecture.

Time we identified cognitive phenotypes for the social deficits in autism

Social deficits? Their not the same as everyday difficulties in social situations. We all have experienced such difficulties, because the social world has as much potential for suffering as for happiness. But when we talk of social deficits in autism it’s about not being quite part of the social world. Yet, it’s not about deliberately withdrawing from this world and not about being antisocial.

I am not starting at the behavioural level to define the social deficits in autism. I would get lost in a maze where cause and effect can hardly be distinguished. For instance, there are people who often feel rejected, while others find them unbearably aggressive. Which comes first, the rejection or the aggression?


Continue reading Time we identified cognitive phenotypes for the social deficits in autism

Behaviour is determined by so many factors that a glitch in just one of these factors is incredibly hard to discover. It’s like being in the midst of climate change and generally rising temperatures, while being confounded by a cool summer. Like the observed cool temperatures, observed behaviour is potentially misleading if we want to learn something about what causes the behaviour.

Therefore I am starting at the cognitive level. I will only later go to the behavioural level when I know what signs to look out for. At the cognitive level I can let my thoughts range freely around the imagined mental machinery. I would like to poke into different bits and take them apart. I would like to see what would happen if a particular piece were missing or not working properly. Would the projected outcome resemble the real social problems that are experienced by autistic people?

What parts? What mental machinery? Well, its just a metaphor, and it may be better to talk of apps, perhaps. But here are some ideas. I believe evolution has endowed us from birth with a number of gadgets and these enable us to become the social creatures that we are. When any of them goes wrong, social deficits should result, – not to be confused with everyday social difficulties.

If we can find clues to the gadgets and what can go wrong, we are on the way to discover their neural basis and eventually their genetic origin. Progress! But how many are there? Can they each go wrong, separately or together? Here I am speculating and limit myself to 7 hypothetical mechanisms. Lets call them start-up kits, since they are subject to learning and development.


Start-up kits for a thoroughly social human being

  • Agency recognition (prey, predator, mate, friend, enemy
  • Affiliation (recognising kin, bonding, attachment)
  • Alignment (mimicry, resonance, contagion)
  • Belonging (identity, trust, loyalty, ingroup/outgroup distinction)
  • Hierarchy (knowing one’s place, dominance/submission, alliances)
  • Mentalising (mental state tracking, persuasion, deception, reputation)
  • Morality (fairness, equity, altruism, punishment)

I imagine these start-up kits run on the fuel of social emotions to regulate social behaviour (think guilt, shame, jealousy, pride, contempt). They depend on other social signals too, as displayed in eye gaze, voice and body language. For my money, its the last two, mentalising and morality, that have some claim for being uniquely human and being shaped by cultural learning. They also have some claim  for being broken in autism.

Perhaps any of the 7 mechanisms can be broken in autism. Perhaps this leads to different forms of social deficits and hence different cognitive phenotypes. This would go some way to explain the heterogeneity of the autism spectrum. It might also explain different degrees of severity – the more the worse, obviously. Perhaps testing different mechanisms separately would lead us to form subgroups in the autism spectrum. As far as I know this has not been done in any systematic way.

If they’re not broken, these hypothetical mechanisms work spontaneously and effortlessly, and are active throughout an individual’s life. This is reminiscent of instincts. They respond to a certain set of stimuli with a certain set of flexible responses. However, the responses can be suppressed or modified via conscious control.

To what extent these mechanisms are independent , or interacting with each other, is a matter for debate. If they were separate then, when one of them wasn’t working, a ‘hole’ in the mental architecture would appear, but the rest might function well. Do holes matter? It depends. Compensatory learning is a wonderful thing. If it works then the hole can be covered up to make it almost invisible in behaviour.

How then do you identify cognitive phenotypes?  You need to devise behavioural tests to capture the hypothesised cognitive deficit. Sadly, we don’t have the tests. This is not because they are impossible to design, but because nobody has made the necessary major effort to devise a systematic battery of tests that are reliable and sensitive.

Most of the tests we have so far give you a score that estimates a level of performance, but they don’t tell how that score was achieved. We need tests that can do precisely that. Moreover, we need to be able to detect how a score was achieved. It could be low, because of fatigue. It could be high, because of compensatory training. So, constructing valid and reliable tests is not a trivial task, they need a lot of man power and, of course, funding.  I expect this is why we haven’t got them yet..

All the experimental tests we have at present are precarious. This is why I am not impressed when somebody tells me that, on tests in the lab, their autistic child is no different from any typically developing child, and hence there is no difference in underlying mental architecture. I think it would be beautiful to discover autism specific architecture, a whole city of familiar, yet different, structures.Urville18


Image credits:

Tup Wanders Flickr creative commons http://bit.ly/25k4odQ                                                          Chris Frith                                                                                                                                                            Gilles Trehin, Urville http://bit.ly/1XzJu84



This cognitive thing

Five years ago I wrote an opinion piece for the SPECTRUM (then SFARI) Autism website. I doubt that the message I wanted to get across  – did.

So I am trying again.Framework5With this simple framework I think we can declutter our thoughts about autism.

Continue reading This cognitive thing

What’s the problem with our current thinking about autism? If you have a Post-it note handy, we can start by drawing some lines to create spaces for what we already know and what we don’t. Framework1

We’ll reserve the top space for facts about the remote biological causes of autism. You could list an impressive number of risk factors here, such as susceptibility genes, and differences at the cellular level and differences in the size, activation and connectivity of brain structures, for example.Framework2

The space at the bottom is for all the behavioural observations,and performance on neuropsychological or psychometric tests. Behaviours reported by parents, behaviour assessed by questionnaires or interviews would be listed here as well. There is a huge amount of data: for recognition of faces alone, there are hundreds of papers.Framework3

The middle space between the two lines is the interesting one. It’s the ‘cognitive thing’.  This is for ideas about what is different about the mind of someone with autism — and the core of my obsession. Framework4

Here’s a hard question: How does an individual find meaning in the world and act on the world? Answer: Through cognitive mechanisms that allow the individual to learn and to adapt in its environment. These mechanisms have a basis in the brain and have been honed by evolution over millions of years. For the individual they come for free as  as start-up kits and they are active right from birth.

By the way, in this framework the term ‘cognitive’ describes everything that the mind does, consciously and unconsciously. It does not just refer to perception, attention, memory, reasoning. It refers to all aspects of mental life.  And this certainly includes emotion, motivation, reward learning.

The cognitive level is also the space for imagination and controversy. Here we can’t observe and measure facts; we can only propose hypotheses. Of course they have to be amenable to being tested both on the biological and the behavioural level. It seems to me that in our state of ignorance, we might as well be bold. I have already inserted two of my favourite hypotheses to explain what is different about the autistic mind, mentalising and detail focus.  I hope you will put forward your own hypotheses.

The  mentalising hypothesis is very bold. It proposes that  we are all born with a social GPS. The GPS tracks what others think and feel from moment to moment. This allows us to orient ourselves in social space without having to consciously think about it. Autism means not having this GPS, but instead having to rely on a map. This works, but is slower and more effortful. There are many tell-tale signs in behaviour and in the brain that seem to support this hypothesis.

Autism isn’t just about social communication. It is also about having a way of thinking, which can be described as ‘detail focussed’. The idea is that autism involves sticky attention to small parts at the expense of attention to the bigger picture. Thus local sensations can become overwhelming. This can be rephrased as giving less weight to prior expectations that prepare you to perceive a particular thing, and instead giving more weight to incoming information, both signal and noise. 

We need such bold hypotheses. Here’s why: Behavioural and biological data only become meaningful if they can be explained in terms of what the mind does. Understanding that a child lacks a social GPS is far more helpful to a teacher than knowing that he or she has a particular genetic abnormality (biological); or tends not to look at eyes (behavioural). Likewise a teacher can understand that a child who is overwhelmed by bitty information may be terrified by the smallest changes in his or her environment. 

We now have a structure that we can use to lay out what we have already learned about autism. I have drawn lines on Post-it notes, but if you want to insert all the facts that are already known, you will need a very large sheet of paper!

We can also use this simple layout to imagine how our knowledge might expand in the future. I have written about this with John Morton in 1995, and most recently in 2012.

The holy grail of autism research is to identify the commonalities of the autism spectrum. These commonalities should lead to defining cognitive phenotypes. Then it will be possible to trace causes of autism from genes to behaviour.

We know a lot already, but how can we pull the existing findings together? We need to find a common pathway — the critical part in the system that is always affected, no matter which of the numerous genetic and environmental risk factors have placed an individual  on the autistic spectrum.


If we were to find a common pathway, this would define a distinctive property of the brain that is critically different in autism. The common pathway forms a node in a network of possible mappings: It pulls together all the strings from the data that are already available and from the data that are not yet available, but can be predicted.

If we can find a node at the cognitive level, animal models become more informative, for example. This is because one can look beyond behaviour, which is obviously very different in mouse and man.

To me there is something very appealing about pulling together the strings in a common pathway. No wonder I’m obsessed with this cognitive thing.

There is a thorny point here: The node would pinpoint both normal and abnormal function. But isn’t this too black and white? Isn’t everyone ‘a bit autistic?’

I happily agree with this at the behavioural level, where one thing always shades into another. A measure of amount of eye contact, for example, will vary continuously across different individuals — we can only make an artificial cut-off point to define what is ‘abnormal.’ The same goes for the biological level: If you assess neuro-chemical levels, you will get a continuous distribution, with clinical groups tending to lie at one extreme.

At the cognitive level, however, it is admissible to use categorical distinctions. We are free to theorise that there are functions that the typically developing mind automatically performs, which the mind of a person with autism performs in a qualitatively different way, or not at all — and vice versa.

So here’s my message: We shouldn’t despair of ever finding clarity in the ever more complex world of possible biological causes and dimensionally varying behaviours. If we focus on the mind, we can make sense of the enormous complexity by testing daring hypotheses that can pull the strings together.

The Encounter

Over the last couple of years, Uta & I have been meeting with Simon McBurney, director of Complicite as he prepared for his one-man show, The Encounter. Simon hoped that we might be able to tell him what neuroscience can reveal about the nature of consciousness.

The Encounter dramatizes the experiences of Loren McIntyre, as described in Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu. When Simon told us about this book it was long out of print, but we managed to find a second hand copy. As a result of Simon’s work it was republished in 2015.

Loren McIntyre was a National Geographic photographer, and this is the story about his experiences when he was lost in the remote Amazon rain forest. His survival depends on the leader of a small group of Mayoruna people who he has followed into the jungle and then become hopelessly lost. But there is no common language through which they can communicate. He feels utterly isolated with ‘a psychological distance of 20,000 years’ between him and the people who are his only hope finding a way back. Eventually he starts to experience ‘communication’ from the leader of the group when he sits near him. He begins to understand some puzzling behaviour, for example, why the group keep destroying their villages and moving on. Remarkably, this communication doesn’t depend on language.

McBurneyIn The Encounter everyone in the audience wears earphones, which helps Simon to recreate and share all the strangeness and terror of McIntyre’s experiences through the wonder of acoustic technology.

When we first talked to Simon about the work he was developing around Amazon Beaming, he asked us whether we thought it was possible for two people to communicate without words. We said, absolutely.

And here is why.

Continue reading The Encounter

Communication is not simply about the transfer of information. You can do that with a cash machine. When we communicate we know that we are communicating, and we know that our partner knows that she is communicating. We have a subjective, conscious experience of communicating. This experience, we hypothesise, predates language.

This is what I would have said in a discussion planned after a performance of The Encounter at the Barbican. Unfortunately I couldn’t be there because I had to have an operation for a detached retina.

What is conscious experience?

When I look out into the audience, I am aware of innumerable faces. I have the subjective experience of seeing many faces. But this is an illusion. I don’t mean that you are all figments of my imagination. I am confident you are all out there, but, even so, some of you at least are figments of my imagination.

The problem is that my contact with you all seems so direct, when it is really very slight. The only clues I have about you come from the sparse signals that my eyes and ears are sending to my brain. From these crude signals, and from years of experience, my brain can make quite a good model of what’s out there.

elephantYou will remember the story of the blind men who come across an elephant. One feels its trunk and thinks it is a snake, another feels its leg and thinks it is a tree.

A single sighted man who comes across an elephant is doing the same thing. The elephant is too big to see with a single fixation of the eye. We have to look all over it. If our eye lands on the trunk, then it’s a good bet that it’s a snake. But, then, as the eye moves along it a head or a tail should appear. When this doesn’t happen, then the model has to be changed. It isn’t a snake. Perhaps it’s an elephant. The more evidence our eyes take in the more plausible it becomes that the thing is an elephant. Our eyes move very fast (4 to 8 fixations per second). Within a few 100 msecs we see the elephant. We are entirely unaware of all the work our brain has done and, of course, what we are seeing is not the elephant, but the model that our brain has constructed. This model is often incomplete with several missing bits that are filled in with guesses. This is why some of you are figments of my imagination. There is a well known youtube video, showing that a gorilla can walk by some basketball players without being noticed, if you are too busy counting the basketball passes.

But what is the point of all this vivid subjective experience?

HuxleyCapTH Huxley believed that our conscious experience has no function: ’Consciousness [is]completely without any power of modifying the working [of the body] as the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery.’ I believe that Huxley was wrong and we can see this from the metaphor he chose. This is because the steam-whistle does influence the behaviour of other engines.

Our conscious experience is very vivid, but also very private. There is no way I can have your experiences. It even is possible that the colour experience that I call red is actually the one you would call green if you were to experience it. How could we ever know? But there is a paradox here. Our conscious experience may be private, but it is also the only aspect of our mental life that we can share with others. I can’t tell you anything about what my brain is doing. And I certainly can’t tell you about all those mental processes that never reach my consciousness.



What I can tell you about is my model of the world. And, at the same time, you can be telling me about your model of the world. So if we are like steam locomotives, we are certainly hearing each other’s whistles.




Conscious experience is for interacting

And, because we are sharing the same world and because we also have very similar brains, our models are also likely to be very similar. But they will not be entirely similar. Our models will also depend on all our past experiences including our interactions with others. Our models of the world will be strongly influenced by our cultural background.

But what happens when two people interact? Interacting with another person is different from interacting with a rock. Unlike a rock, the person I am interacting with is creating a model of me at the same time as I am making a model of her. The model I create of you helps me to predict what you are going to do, which also helps me to communicate with you. My model of you will have many different aspects. I will try to discover what sort of person you are. But in my view the most important aspect of you that I am trying to model, is your model of the world. That is the model of the world we are currently sharing.

brainsBecause we are sharing the same world, any differences in our models will reflect our different experiences and cultural backgrounds. So, when I know something about your model, I know something about you. But, if I need to communicate with you, then I should try to make my model similar to yours. And, at the same time, you will be trying to make your model similar to mine. Some believe that, if two devices interact while making inferences about each other, then they will eventually converge on the same model.

Language is extremely useful for discovering something about other peoples’ models of the world, but it is not the only way. Simply by watching how someone moves you can learn about how they see and understand the world about them. The more you spend time with someone else, the better you will get at predicting how they are going to move. You won’t know how you do it. It just happens.

To make this prediction you have learned about their model of the world and, inevitably, this has changed your own model. At some point the two models will be in almost perfect synchrony. At this point you will have the conscious experience of what seems like, and, indeed is, wordless communication.