Opinion: No laughing matter

Mike Page, who is not a cognitive neuroscientist, does his bit for the planet in his own inimitable style

In retrospect, as with many of the best parties over the years, it appears that I arrived in Cognitive Psychology just as most everybody else was leaving. Even as I was unpacking my computational modeller’s box of tricks, many of my colleagues were busy packing their more commodious bags and heading for the sunnier uplands of the Neurozone (single currency, the Neuro, etc.). As if to echo the fall from modishness of what we once optimistically called ‘strong artificial intelligence’, in my seven short years there, Cambridge went from Silicon Fen to Neuro Fen. Which was ironic, because it gave me a headache.

That isn’t to say that it wasn’t fun. There were fierce rguments to be had: Parallel distributed processing had taken the cognitive psychology world by storm. As a natural contrarian, I had aligned myself with a resistance movement, the localists, and even wrote (without irony!) a paper with the word ‘manifesto’ in the title (see tinyurl.com/a5vrltx). The debate addressed in that paper is less fashionable than it once was. The term backprop is more likely to be taken, these days, to refer to an unusually versatile rugby player, and although hope briefly resurfaced at news of the Coalition Government’s recent ‘Localism’ Bill – you take support from whatever quarter you can – I was disappointed to find that it rather sidestepped what we had all taken to be the main issues.  

And so it went with other Swiftian disputes: Was forgetting more like an acid bath or a line of telegraph poles? Were there phonemes, features, both, or neither? Could consolidation prevent catastrophic interference? All debates that were guaranteed to provoke passionate advocacy and, it cannot be denied, some measure of tetchiness in their participants. The irritation provoked by my own contributions to these, perhaps abstruse, theoretical debates appeared proportionate to the academic seniority of the parties to whom they were addressed. Unlike Newton, with his altogether loftier perspective, when I left Cambridge, if I had seen any distance it was by standing on the toes, rather than the shoulders, of giants. Some of these disputes rumble on, over a decade later, but with undeniably less vim. Essentially, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people to argue with.

The trouble is that at some point in the last decade, many of my colleagues had somewhat disarmed theoretical challenge by stopping referring to themselves as psychologists at all. They’d become neuroscientists. (What real neuroscientists thought of this is not recorded, here at least.) Of course, the N-word was, and is, sometimes softened by the qualifier ‘cognitive’, presumably in an attempt, not notably successful, to reassure those of us who had stuck doggedly with the ?-word. I cannot deny that the handle ‘cognitive neuroscientist’ sounded to me rather like ‘quantum geographer’, a category error waiting to happen. And happen it did. Undeniable too, though, is that my identifying this as a new thing to argue about, has singularly failed to stop ‘cognitive neuroscience’ in its tracks. Far from it.

Perhaps its popularity has something to do with the fact that this soi-disant neuroscience is so very media-friendly? I attribute this to its having adopted the modus operandi of the Hollywood blockbuster, eschewing plot and concentrating instead on the CGI. As with mainstream films, I cannot be alone in having attended many a cognitive neuroscience presentation over the years, only to leave perplexed: a surfeit of technicolour brain images (the PowerPoint equivalent of car chases and exploding Death Stars), but no discernible narrative thread. How dispiriting, then, to get home and find the whole thing bigged-up on the BBC website, with Andrew Marr chatting approvingly about it on Start the Week. (When it comes to Marrs, I’m with Johnny and, as should be obvious by now, David.)

Now I’m not naive. Media attention is bound to be an object of desire among scientists. When one works for years on a paper that will be read by 20 people, 18 of whom will disagree with its premise (the other two being two of the three co-authors – trust me, I speak from experience here), the journalist inevitably acquires something of an allure. In the case of the journalist, this is, of course, a symbiotic relationship. The journalist is accustomed to being as unwelcome as a wasp with a specialism in picnics. The only time when the phrase ‘there’s a journalist at the door’ is likely to be treated with enthusiasm is when the door in question is that of a laboratory. To the scientist, the journalist represents the possibility of acknowledgement by a wider, and ultimately (it is assumed) grateful, public. To the journalist, in return, the scientist represents a pitch at gravitas. Throw pictures of brains (Pictures! Of Brains!) into this heady romance, and one can hardly be surprised by the results.

I regret to report that in the world of short-term memory for serial order (one I have inhabited for a while now), the media opportunities are fewer and further between. The internet has, at least, brought the benefits of rapid communication. When, in a move that would have had the Reverend Spooner throwing himself from the walls of New College, James Naughtie inadvertently referred to Jeremy Hunt Culture Secretary using an epithet that many in the Anglo-Saxon world had been using for years to refer to senior politicians (though not, it has to be said, live on the Today programme), I was ready with a consoling e-mail. To appoint Mr Hunt to a government position with that particular consonant(-vowel) onset was, I wrote, a reckless temptation of Providence; like making John Gummer Business Secretary, Douglas Hurd Tory Chairman, or encouraging Steven Berkoff into journalism. Mr Naughtie could take comfort, I continued, in the observation that a modern view of such speech errors was less Freudian than he might have feared.

Within 30 minutes, the e-mail was being read live on air, as Evan Davis sought to spare Mr Naughtie’s blushes.  The whole thing can be heard on YouTube (http://bit.ly/UBRmS9): Fame at last! The psychology of serial order firmly established on the country’s news agenda and featured on the world’s most popular website to boot! But you know the way these things go. The Today programme moved on, Mr Hunt moved to Health (for which I can think of no better reason than that this was, Spoonerism-wise, as safe as could be) and YouTube’s oxygen of publicity was cruelly cut short by the firmly held pillow that is that medium’s ‘comments’ section. One particular commentator on the YouTube clip was properly acerbic: ‘trust some smart arse to send in an e-mail, bet he was sitting all smug with a bowl of fucking Weetabix and a copy of the Independent feeling so proud of himself’. Hurtful and, I’m bound to say, untrue. It was, in fact, a bowl of fucking Alpen.

So how then to make one’s research relevant to the world at large? How, in short, to have the dreaded ‘impact’? It was clear that short-term memory for serial order would have to be supplemented by something more, erm, sexy. I briefly considered the endlessly media-friendly Psychology of Magic, but that particularly niche had been occupied very effectively by one of my colleagues. Besides, I felt unsuited to the world of the magician, having had some friends as a child.

So I settled on the Environment, with a capital E. One could not turn on the TV or open a newspaper without being assailed by warnings of the environmental apocalypse to come. Global warming. Climate chaos. Avant la déluge. Surely here was a subject in which psychologists could usefully get involved. Cynical opportunism, you might think, but actually no more than acknowledging two things: first, that the environmental problem is a real and serious one; and, second, that its mitigation is as much, and maybe more, a psychological issue as it is a technological one. You, of course, may demur on both counts. As regards the first, you may be someone who thinks that we have no reason to be concerned about man-made climate change. If so, you doubtless think yourself something of an independent thinker, a bit counter-cultural, left-field even. By contrast,  I would reckon that you are, to use a somewhat technical psychological term, a bit thick. You might, alternatively, be someone who agrees that we have real reason to be concerned but, as yet, has done nothing about it. In which case, you can relax. You are not thick. You are, however, a bit selfish and irresponsible.

Having read quite a lot about psychological approaches to pro-environmental behaviour change (which mostly comprised reading about things that didn’t really work), I settled on what I called the HOT topics: Habits, Opportunities and Thoughts. Actually, it’s easier to discuss these, as here, in the order Opportunities, Thoughts and Habits, but you don’t spend 20 years working on serial recall without realising that OTH Topics is a poor acronym.

The O for Opportunities was intended to capture the idea that people were very unlikely to make any pro-environmental change to their behaviour unless they were made aware of the opportunities available for them to do so. (If this seems obvious and a truism, I take that as a compliment, truisms having, at the very least, the advantage of being true.) Very often, when visiting businesses or talking to friends, I found smart folk who nevertheless had no idea that by, say, changing their lighting, they could make substantial savings in their energy use and, hence, their costs. People were ostensibly willing to change their behaviour, if only they knew what best to do. On the grounds, therefore, that it seemed better to show people what they might do (rather than just talk about it), we decided, somewhat eccentrically, to build a demonstration home. A little diddy one.

If you’re interested, have a look at cubeproject.org.uk and tinyurl.com/cubeproj for a ‘Big Picture’ from this publication. Suffice to say that we constructed and exhibited this compact, carbon-neutral microhome with some success at the Edinburgh Science Festival. I say ‘we’. That we got it built on time at all, is really attributable to a couple of brilliant Slovakian carpenters called Matej and Robert, in whose debt I shall forever dwell  It’s no exaggeration to say that the last time anyone found even one carpenter this good, Pontius Pilate had him crucified. (I mean no offence by this. I’m really just implying, surely uncontroversially, that Jesus would have been an excellent carpenter. In our part  of North West London, the only bigger compliment one might pay would be to describe someone as a modestly reliable plumber.) But I digress…

What about Thoughts? It is a common assumption in certain therapeutic approaches that negative and ‘automatic’ thoughts can, if unchallenged, prevent effective behaviour change. Could the same be true in relation to the environment? And if so, could taking a different perspective on these thoughts be an effective (if necessarily partial) remedy? If truth be told, I don’t know. I reckon it’s worth a moment’s thought, though.

Let’s take lighting as an example. ‘I’m not buying those light bulbs. They take too long to warm up.’ The complaint is familiar enough, beloved of middle-aged men with specific reference to trips to the loo in, let us say, the wee small hours. It certainly sounds like the sort of negative thought that might forestall pro-environmental action. So let’s try to see things from a different perspective. To whit, for hundreds of thousands of years, the Sun was humankind’s principal source of light. Every dawn it took (and, indeed, takes) about an hour to get its act together. Did people complain? Not a bit of it. Some romantic souls even wrote poems in praise of the whole performance. When Wordsworth wrote, of 1789, ‘Bliss was it in that Dawn to be alive…’, he did not qualify the sentiment with ‘…but it did take rather a long time to get light and, in the meantime, I’d pissed all over my slippers’ (although, as a metaphor for the French Revolution this would, ironically, have been rather prescient). Looked at thus, 30 seconds is surely not too long to wait for enlightenment. And besides, you could always sit down. ‘But surely those low-energy bulbs contain mercury’ comes the retort, often through gritted teeth laced with amalgam fillings. To which I respond, (1) dispose of your new bulb properly and it won’t be a problem, and (2) that much more mercury gets into the environment from burning coal to satisfy your thirsty old bulbs. Indeed, it is a little known scientific fact that humans have ingested so much mercury by this route alone that, as the world warms, we will all get just a little bit taller. If you were truly worried about instant light and zero-mercury I’d encourage you to buy LED bulbs. ‘£20 for the equivalent of a 100W bulb! Too expensive!’, you’d growl. And yet, even if your incandescent bulbs were brought round to your house for free, the LED would redeem its purchase price in around 2000 hours of use and will last another 30,000 hours beyond. Not expensive. Bloody cheap! So what are you waiting for?

As with lighting, so it goes with other low-carbon technologies. There’s any number of negative thoughts that one might have, any one of which (even if flatly mistaken) might prove sufficient to stop one from doing anything helpful. ‘Wind farms? I drove past one once and the turbines weren’t even moving!’ is not an argument, at least not one for the numerate. Being against wind turbines because the wind sometimes doesn’t blow is rather like being against windows because sometimes it’s dark. This is just one of many such cases in which the numbers really do matter. You think you’re doing your bit by religiously unplugging your unused phone charger, yet still taking spending, say, 10 hours in an aeroplane every year? Well, I suggest you do the maths. It’s the carbon-cutting equivalent of going on a diet by forgoing one sugar in your tea, then using the same tea to wash down a couple of dozen Mars bars.

Which brings us to H. You don’t need to be Sister Wendy to attest to the constraining effects of habits. If we’re honest and, indeed, if our fellow psychologists are to be believed, the prime factor determining what we do today is what we did yesterday, or maybe what we did the same time last week. Habits constrain us, because they short-circuit our reasoned and well-considered goals (even assuming that they are, by now, reasoned and well-considered). We might take a tentative step in this or that direction but, like a marble rolling around a bath, we find ourselves drawn back to a familiar stasis. For this reason, my colleagues assert that habits cannot be broken tentatively, one at a time; nor is it enough to think about doing things differently, rather you must actually do different things. You know what? I think they may be right.

If we are interested in getting a grip on our environmental problems (You’re not? Then shame on you!), we must think differently and act differently. If that sounds too much, then leave out the thinking bit and just act differently anyway. In this regard, I’d like to think that psychologists have as important a role to play as the engineers, the technologists, the politicians, the ethicists. And what of the cognitive neuroscientists? Hmmm. Let me get back to you on that.

Mike Page is a Reader in Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire [email protected]

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