Clever people understanding the idiotic

Ella Rhodes reports from a Royal Institution event.

The Royal Institution was the venue for a hilarious and lively discussion, ‘A neuroscientist explains what your head is really up to’. Dean Burnett, author of The Idiot Brain, played host to a panel of academics discussing why our brains are often pretty dumb.

Burnett, after proclaiming his disbelief at speaking at the Royal Institution, explained that females are often interrupted during panel discussions, so he gave an audience member a horn to blow in case this happened to either of the female speakers. He was joined onstage by presenter of award-winning podcast Say Why to Drugs, Dr Suzi Gage, also a postdoctoral researcher (University of Bristol); Dr Pete Etchells, a lecturer in biological psychology (Bath Spa University) who also researches vision and motion perception; Chris Chambers, a professor of cognitive neuroscience (Cardiff University); and Thalia Gjersoe, a developmental psychologist (University of Bath) who is interested in magical beliefs. All speakers regularly write for The Guardian on current and classic psychology experiments.

Burnett asked the panel which area of the brain they thought to be the most idiotic. Chambers said his answer came to him while thinking about current world affairs, choosing the frontal lobe – the area associated with decisions, working memory and executive functions. He said this area was the part of the brain which makes us most human, which in turn means it makes us most idiotic. Etchells admitted he had been terrified about the event all week and chose the amygdala – an area he said drives anxiety as well as beliefs in the supernatural.

Gage, though not a neuroscientist, looks into the links between recreational drug use and the brain, and chose a neurotransmitter, dopamine, as the most idiotic thing in the brain. She explained that while dopamine is blamed on many things, it seems to be involved in new or novel stimuli and in recreational drug use, linking them with feelings of enjoyment – which is less than smart.

As Burnett pointed out there may not be a single section of the brain which can be idiotic, but rather structures and connections which lead to idiocy. Also, he added, it’s very important to remember that each brain in each human varies wildly. Gage added that even the ways we metabolise drugs could be, in part, dependent on our genes as well as our environment – she pointed to studies which show we can drink more alcohol at home and feel fewer effects when compared to being out of the home. This effect can even be seen in heroin use, she added, with people more likely to overdose outside of the home environment in a novel place.

Another idiotic thing our brain does, Chambers said, is to give us a feeling that we’re fully aware of the world around us as well as what’s going on inside our own heads – while the reality is quite the opposite. We don’t have free will much of the time, he added. Often the brain has made decisions before we’re even consciously aware of them. But, Chambers said, it’s important people think they have free will: some have suggested if this illusion was shattered the world would fall apart.

In an excellent Q&A, with questions posed by some of the youngest members of the audience, the panel were asked which one facet of human behaviour they would change if they could. Chambers said eating behaviours were top of his list, with 52 per cent of Europeans now obese, and the number ever-increasing. He said at a social level a sensible thing to change is the constant temptation people are surrounded by – the many cues that exist tempting us to eat more and more.

Etchells said critical thinking was key and should be taught to people, while, similarly Gjersoe said more people should be aware of their own internal biases which links into critical thinking. Gage added that her podcast, Say Why to Drugs, was an attempt to give people pure facts and information on drugs, without all the hype and scare stories which surround them, to give people the ability to make their own choices.

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