Using insights from neuroscience in education: using the body to improve thinking skills

October 15, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

This guest blog is from Dr Elizabeth McClelland, who became a Fellow in January 2014.  Elizabeth has been working with RSA Education on plans to expand her programme Move4Words to many more schools in England. You can contact her at where you also find out more about the research evidence.

I was a research scientist in a former life – Royal Society Research fellow for 10 years at Department of Earth Sciences, Oxford University, then University Lecturer and Director of the Palaeomagnetism research laboratory at Oxford between 1997 and 2003. In 1998, I suddenly became very ill with an unknown virus which temporarily robbed me of the ability to speak coherently, to understand speech or written language or to control my muscles properly. All my facilties came back over the following couple of months, except my ability to read fluently. I could read single words, but couldn’t make sense of a paragraph. I was still lecturing at Oxford, I could do my numerical research, gave talks at conferences and even touch-typed a couple of papers (although was unable to proof-read them). It was incredibly frustrating. Eventually, I found a private physio who used a physical activity programme to help children with dyslexia, and she showed me that I’d lost the ability to control my eye movements, and had lost some cross-body muscular control. She showed me some simple physical and visual exercises, which I practised several times a day, and, remarkably, my reading started to improve after a couple of weeks, and within 2 months it was back to my original rapid reading. It was so dramatic, I vowed to find out more and to do what I could to help others in the same way.

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Can behavioural insights help to close the attainment gap?

June 19, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

I recently had the pleasure on taking part in a focus group with teachers in Berlin. The context for this was a new and exciting cross-national collaboration of the RSA Social Brain Centre with the Vodafone Foundation Germany, a think tank focusing on education, integration and social mobility. The project centers on how behavioural insights might be used to help close the attainment gap; a full report will be published later this year.

At the focus group we spent the half-day learning about and discussing practical examples of perception biases, cognitive quirks, and what role the self-perception of students and teachers, as well as mutual perceptions, play. The group was highly curious, and the quality of debate remained high until the very end.

While I do not want to give away too much, here are three takeaways from the day:

  • Thinking into action

Teachers agreed that the discussed concepts certainly were of importance, and some said they had learned about biases and other behavioural concepts at university. However, interestingly, many hadn’t been applying them directly to their own classroom teaching.

  • Intuition versus evidence

Evidence-based, yet counter-intuitive mechanisms like loss aversion were controversial. By and large, related ideas for behavioural applications were accepted intellectually, but rejected intuitively – and practically. This poses an interesting dilemma in the context of best-practise and evidence-led approaches to teaching.

  • Collaboration

Teachers perceived themselves as individual fighters; at the same time they longed for more collaboration, but felt they do not get enough support from the system. This highlights that the challenge of more collaboration within, but also across schools transcends national borders. The RSA Education team has recently published an excellent report on this topic, ‘No school an island’, and with its RSA Family of Academies has already gained some important insights how to make it work.

To learn more about the project, please keep an eye on future posts on the Social Brain or Education Matters blogs, or contact my colleague Nathalie Spencer at the RSA Social Brain Centre.

Josef Lentsch is Director of RSA International – follow him on Twitter: @joseflentsch

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear protective goggles: five thoughts on vocational education

June 10, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 


goggles picture


I spoke this morning at the annual IBO conference for those schools who are piloting the career-related International Baccalaureate – the IBCC. We’re proud that our RSA Academy in Tipton is at the forefront of this exciting development. Nothing I have seen, in England at any rate, has come closer to breaking the academic-vocational divide. It demonstrates the power of schools and organisations bypassing policy fluctuations to take their own rigorous approaches to assessment. In a recent speech to Teaching Schools, Michael Gove signaled his enthusiasm for teacher-made GCSEs and other assessments. Today’s launch of the Progressive Awards Alliance is another intriguing example, although perhaps not what Mr Gove had in mind.

I was asked to talk about the future of 16-19 vocational education. Partly to avoid the morass of acronym-heavy policy reports, many of which aren’t relevant to the IBCC schools outside the UK, but mainly to cover up for my lack of detailed knowledge (if in doubt, broaden it out), I framed my presentation through a different question:

What would it take for the future of 16-19 vocational education to be bright?

Then, borrowing heavily from the OECD skills strategy, the Centre for Real World Learning’s report on vocational pedagogy, and a number of summaries of  research on adolescence, I offered five possible responses.

1. Escape from the tyranny of the enlightenment.

2. Apply new findings about the teenage brain and behaviour.

3. Create a culture of evidence-informed and evidence-building pedagogy.

4. Turn vocational learning into an entitlement for 7-16 year olds.

5. Be clearer about the role of vocational education for the most disengaged learners.

To keep this blog short, I won’t expand on any of these, although if people ask me to via comments, I’ll be flattered enough to reveal more.


words sparks picture


The photos above came from an RSA Area Based Curriculum blacksmith Project at Ark SCE School in Germany. They were taken by Windsor School SCE student Jack Turner to support his Arts Award Gold, with the support of photographer David Crausby.

Joe Hallgarten       Director of Education       @joehallg

The Divided Brain: Can we agree about where we differ?

February 26, 2013 by · 28 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I am bored by reading people who are allies, people of roughly the same views.  What is interesting is to read the enemy; because the enemy penetrates the defences. – Isaiah Berlin

While seeking advice on whom to invite to a workshop examining the potential practical relevance of the ideas in Iain McGilchrist’s critically acclaimed book, The Master and his Emissary, Matthew Taylor recommended writer, lecturer and broadcaster, Kenan Malik. In addition to significant media profile as a broadcaster and award winning writer, Kenan has informed opinions on a wide range of social and cultural issues, and a relevant background in Neurobiology, and in the History and Philosophy of Science. 

(Image via

So it’s a pity he couldn’t make it! But thankfully Kenan expressed an interest in receiving our recently released report Divided Brain, Divided World and over the last few days he has generously given his time and web platform to discuss some of the questions arising from it. I am very grateful for this contribution, and read Kenan’s initial posting in the spirit in which I think it was intended, namely critical inquiry; being interested in the substance of the work, but sceptical about the conclusions reached. 

Iain McGilchrist swiftly responded with an extended comment(4000+ words, plus a reference to another 4000+ word piece – the final feedback piece from John Wakefield, on pages 71-76 of our report) that he asked Kenan to promote to a full posting. Kenan kindly did so, and added his response to Iain’s comment in a fresh post Split Brains, Split Views: Debating Iain McGilchrist which led to a further comment from Iain and a further response from Kenan….which all sounds good.

the issue is not just about appraising Iain’s book, but trying to develop a relatively mature discussion on the relevance of neuroscience to social, cultural and political questions.

However, as somebody who gets on well with Iain and broadly believes in both the soundness and importance of his ideas, I was surprised by the combative tone he took in his responses to Kenan’s points, which felt much too strong, and which Kenan nonetheless generously accommodated and responded to in detail.



In Iain’s defence, Kenan’s first post could be viewed as provocative, not so much for the substance, but for the sources he chose to quote in support of his position. It makes sense that he drew upon the thoughts of Neuro-Nemesis Ray Tallis, whom I was very glad to include in the RSA workshop and report, and who wrote an extended critique of Iain’s work for our report (pages 51-53) but I suspect what Iain reacted to most vehemently was quoting (with tacit approval) Owen Flanagan’s review for the New Scientist magazine which I think Iain rightly refers to as ‘shameful’ (in this first reply to Kenan). This review featured a very strong negative judgement about a significant work of scholarship in a high profile magazine, and yet it appears to have been written very casually, without any significant attempt to engage with the book’s content. However, attacking Kenan for drawing upon that source does feel a bit like shooting the messenger.

Iain’s response might look odd to those not familiar with the ideas, so it’s worth remembering what is at stake is the coherence and relevance of a grand theory that might (or might not!) help to inform how we understand and tackle some of the major issues of our time. In our report we focus mostly on climate change, mental health and education, but from the 14 response pieces we published, you can see it also has potential relevance to, inter-alia, Behavioural Economics, Art, The Patent System and NGO campaigning.

I trust the minor contretemps will be swiftly forgotten, and I am glad the ideas generated by it have been useful. 

Four Questions to help people agree on where they differ:

On substance, I imagine there is limited appetite for further qualifications on the thousands of words already written about the matter in Iain’s book, in our report, and now on Kenan’s site. However, as I say in the introduction to the report, the issue is not just about appraising Iain’s book, but trying to develop a relatively mature discussion on the relevance of neuroscience to social, cultural and political questions. In this respect, I see four useful questions emerging from the discussions on Kenan’s site. These are all relatively philosophical in nature, but feel to me like the key sources of disagreement. 

1) Can you believe the brain is fundamental without being a reductionist?

Iain must be tired of saying he is not a reductionist. As I mention in the report, the value of his approach for those working on social innovation is that the link between brains and behaviour is not direct, reductive and causal, but rather mediated by phenomenology and values. Viewing the hemispheres of the brain as if it they had the qualities of experienced personhood, in which they pay particular kinds of attention gives you a very different reference point to the more conventional model, in which we view the brain as a kind of biological machine with rules governing inputs and outputs.

However, if you place the brain centre stage in any explanatory theory (as I think even Iain would have to concede he does!) people are going to assume it serves as a kind of touchstone. So the question is valid: If you are not reducing your explanation to the brain, in what way is what you are saying about the brain important?

Iain might say you need to understand how the functional and structural asymmetries in the hemispheres constrain attention, that our patterns of attention circumscribe what and how we value, which predisposes (rather than determines) us to act in certain ways. But such an explanation is likely to disappoint the questioner who is looking for the brain to build them some explanatory foundations!

Iain’s work relies on a sophisticated non-reductionist theory, but one that is nonetheless successfully surfing on a relatively reductionist Zeitgeist.

The charge against Iain is therefore that his argument relies for its rhetorical force on the epistemic esteem of neuroscience, but that esteem is grounded in a reductionism that he strongly repudiates. That curious equation is hardly Iain’s fault, but it does create some explanatory discomfort! Iain’s work relies on a sophisticated non-reductionist theory, but one that is nonetheless successfully surfing on a relatively reductionist Zeitgeist. 

2) Is the equivocation over brains ‘causing’ social phenomena resolvable?

Similarly, Iain appears to most to be a bit equivocal about whether the brain is driving social and political changes. He would probably say he has shown the optimal amount of equivocation! Consider part of his answer to Kenan:

“There is a constant dialogue between brain and environment, which is traceable, if one wishes to do so, at the level of the synapse, but is also traceable at the phenomenological level. Each helps to mould the other. And so the answer to the left hemisphere question ‘which causes which?’ is – right hemisphere fashion, ‘both and neither’. But out of that relationship everything that we know, or can know, ultimately comes.”

Still sounds pretty equivocal, right? But it also sounds about right to me. So is there a better way to express the relationship between our hemispheric division, in particular the growing the left hemispheric ‘dominance’ in a way that makes it socially and culturally relevant but not strictly causal?

Before taking that plunge, compare the question: Does climate change cause irregular weather patterns? The answer, of course, depends on what you mean by ’cause’…and good luck with that.

3) Is it appropriate to sharply differentiate the science from the metaphor?

It is widely accepted that it is almost impossible to speak about scientific ideas without resorting to metaphors and the role of metaphors in science is therefore somewhat unclear. For some, developing a good metaphor reflects a depth of understanding of what something is like, and how it works, that cannot be attained in any other way. It is not merely a superficial analogy, and yet it’s not the ‘thing in itself’ either.

Iain seems to want to pitch his argument somewhere between literal and metaphorical truth, but many want to force a binary between science and metaphor, which feels like an uncomfortable choice in this context. The answer to the question: Is your thesis science or metaphor? Appears to be ‘both’. Is that a satisfying answer?

4) How much does the ambiguity over agency matter? 

Given a certain definition of ‘persons’ (again, good luck with that) are the hemipheres like persons or is it truer to say they are persons? The latter option feels absurd, but we need further clarity on what kind of agency a whole person has that a single hemisphere doesn’t. In other words, is there an emergent property of additional agency that arises from the cooperation/conflict between the hemispheres in ordinary consciousness? Is is 1+1=2(working as one) or is it more like X+Y=Z?

These questions arose from the following query by Kenan:

“What I am suggesting is that part of the conceptual problem in your argument is the constant elision between brain (or hemisphere) and person, an elision that allows you to attribute agency to a hemisphere while denying that you are doing so.  If what you mean (…) is that ‘the person embodying the left hemisphere is not aware of that hemisphere’s limitations’ in the sense that he or she is unaware of the limitations of ‘left hemisphere kind of thinking’, then I would agree with you, but it would seem to be a truism. But if what you mean is that the left hemisphere ‘is unaware of its own limitations’ as an agent in its own right, independently of the person embodying it, then it becomes far more than a truism. But it also becomes a highly implausible account of agency, consciousness and personhood. Your thesis, it seems to me, rests to a large degree upon this ambiguity in the understanding of agency.”

I think Kenan is right to raise this question but it is not yet clear to me how much hangs on it. Any thoughts? 


All of these questions were explored in our report, but they have all been given fresh impetus from the discussion with Kenan Malik and those who commented on the blogs, to whom I am grateful. And finally, I just saw that Iain posted an apology for overreacting to Kenan’s comments, so this important discussion is back on track in both substance and style…



The Big Idea: Rick Hall FRSA is lighting sparks all over the shop!

February 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

The Big Ideato develop creative free spaces for young people to be inspired and educated by science, technology, engineering and maths.  

3-2-1-Ignition* is a new type of shop.  Not one where you go to buy things from but one that you go to acquire knowledge, inspiration and enjoyment. Led by Rick Hall FRSA and Ignite!  a science pop up shop was created to enhance curiosity amongst the people of Nottingham.  Although Nottingham has been designated a ‘Science City’, research showed Rick that young people and their parents did not see science, technology, engineering and maths as careers paths for the future. (STEM for short; just like the RSA it’s a bit of a mouthful). 

I first met Rick Hall briefly at the East Midlands Annual Conference before I was an RSA staff member, talk about keen!  We did not meet again until I popped into the shop prior to its grand opening.  Rick was conducting an evaluation with the design and build volunteers.  He was full of energy and enthusiasm and could not wait to open the shop.  It wasn’t long before I was helping try to solve the mystery of the multiple light switches.  Rick is a writer and consultant in the arts, education, creativity and youth sectors.  He has a passion for developing partnerships that promote creativity and learning for young people.  Through Rick’s hard work at Ignite! 25 organisations gave their support to 3-2-1-Ignition* Rick also persuaded a panel of Fellows that 3-2-1-Ignition* was also worth support from the Catalyst scheme which helped to make the project a reality.  Critical to its success was the work of a wide range of volunteers.  Students from Nottingham Trent University helped design and curate the shop in just 8 days turning it from an empty shell into a wonderful den of curiosity.  You can watch the transformation of the shop via a selection of videos by Hasmita Chavada.  Volunteers also spent time on the streets of Nottingham doing stints of science busking where they played drying racks and made marmite turn white!  Young people who run Lab_13’s in their schools also came to use the space and inspire others.  By partnering with Nottingham Hackspace the shop attracted 250 young people who soldered, drilled, made and even got to play Pong powered by a bicycle.  There were also opportunities to connect to the British Geological Survey and the Royal Society of Chemistry – the list goes on.

Over 3300 people visited the 3-2-1-Ignition* and didn’t pay a penny to do so.  100% of young people surveyed asked for the shop to remain open longer.  Not willing to disappoint the public they listened to their audience and stayed open for a further 2 weeks meaning the shop was open for 27 days.  Its aim was to inspire, teach and entertain people from all walks of life about STEM and to show young people that you can go into STEM careers and be creative.

Next Steps

Following from 3-2-1-Ignition* in the Broadmarsh shopping centre in Nottingham the team had to decide what to do next.  They have produced an evaluation of the project that will tell you all about the activities, projects and partners but more importantly they are moving ahead spurred on by comments from participants who said ‘It’s the funnest place on earth’ ‘I was enthused and enthralled to see how much my grandchildren, boys aged 8 + 11, responded to interactive displays, They loved it all.’  They will be taking the concept south of the Watford Gap to the Barbican’s Festival of Neurosciences Weekender and the Wonders Street Fair on the 2 – 3 March & 7 – 9 April.  Go take a look and ‘tempt your curiosity and your mind to do some making. There’ll be jars to peer at and sniff, thoughts to create and space to ask the brain-related questions you’ve always wanted to know’.  It’s all about doing, touching and getting involved.

How Can You Help?

Rick and Ignite! have also been busy exploring how Ignite! can develop the 3-2-1-Ignition* model further.  As Rick says they have a ‘proof of concept for programmes like Lab_13 and the 3-2-1-Ignition* pop up shop, but lack the resources and know how to convert these successes to wider adoption.’  Is this something you can help with?  The one-off travelling sparks of 3-2-1-Ignition* will be tested at the Barbican events but they won’t be able to attract such an audience and will not reach as wide a demographic as they did in the Broadmarsh.  They are considering setting up a 3-2-1-Ignition* Hub in Nottingham and could use  similar  models used by Pirate Supply Store of 826 Valencia a US creative writing project and Hoxton Street Monster Supplies that supports the Ministry of Stories. One of Rick’s grand plans is to support Leeds to be free of NEET (Not in education, employment or training) young people by 2020, an idea that can only be done in collaboration.

One thing is for sure Rick will be busy making plans and talking to people so if you are interested in this agenda and think you could help please be in touch.  You can contact Rick at: or follow him on twitter where he is @Rick_Hall

Aren’t you being a little, y’know, Dystopian?

January 3, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

The Argentinian genius, Jorge Luis Borges once described Utopia as “a Greek word meaning ‘there is no such place’”

Could the same thing be said for Dystopia?

There have been plenty of dystopic visions of the future, most famously Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley’s vision of happiness pills and pervasive virtuality now feels closer to the truth than the ‘Big Brother’ of Orwell’s oppressive State, but I might feel differently if I lived in Russia or China.

More recently, towards the end of his epic book, The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist presents a non-fiction account of a world he believes we are, unwittingly stumbling towards. Later this month The Social Brain Centre will be publishing a critical examination of this work as a whole, featuring a dialogue with the author and reflections from various thinkers on the strength and significance of the ideas.

The central claim is that our phenomenal experience is gradually colonised through the left hemisphere’s preference for, broadly, familiar, non-living and measurable things that can be used for instrumental purposes. On this account we are gradually losing touch with what Iain calls ‘sources of intuitive life’, as our societies become a virtual ‘hall of mirrors’ in which that which is re-presented is ubiquitous, and that which is genuinely unique has less air to breathe. If you are not familiar with these ideas, you can enjoy a very pleasant introduction by watching the RSAnimate which now has over a million viewers, and please watch this space for our report later this month.

So is the world slowly becoming more dystopic? On the one hand, people like Hans Rosling, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley help to guard us against reflex pessimism, reminding us that we have never been healthier, wealthier, less violent and more innovative respectively. On the other hand you have fears of “the destructive power of a warming planet” (Obama) in Climate Change, fears for food and water security, the ever-present threat of terrorism, terrifying public health scenarios in which we all catch a deadly and hyper-contagious bug, and, relatively benignly, the sense that worldwide financial collapse is only ever a few bad decisions away.

However, such legitimate fears are not really what is meant by dystopia, which usually involves a vision of a world that is over-organised, and too sure of itself to realise that it has gone horribly wrong, and that it may have lost something of enormous value.

Indeed, chillingly, McGilchrist suggests that in so far as the world is becoming more dystopic, many of us are likely to remain oblivious:

“If I am right, that the story of the Western world is one of increasing left hemisphere
domination, we would not expect insight to be the key note. Instead, we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss.”

These thoughts of dystopia were prompted by watching the astoundingly brilliant satirical series, Black Mirror for the first time, just last night, over a year after most people were raving about it. I was particularly affected by the second episode, 15 Million Merits which can still be viewed on Four on Demand.

Painting such pictures of the future should induce constructive thought and action rather than despair. Gramsci famously said we need to have pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, while in our forthcoming report McGilchrist calls himself a hopeful pessimist.

I felt this dystopia was a particularly good illustration of McGilchrist’s view of what a world dominated by the left-hemisphere might look like. The picture is of a world almost completely dominated by screens, scores, adverts, and devoid of almost anything  natural or meaningful, in which everybody knows what they are supposed to be doing, but nobody really seems to know what is going on.

Painting such pictures of the future should induce constructive thought and action rather than despair. Gramsci famously said we need to have pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, while in our forthcoming report McGilchrist calls himself a hopeful pessimist.

Just as we accuse people for being ‘utopian’ when they are being naively optimistic about how things could be, so we should call people ‘dystopian’ when any of these visions of dystopia are taken too literally as predictions. The point of thinking dystopically is rather to shed light on our lives as they are currently lived, and the direction we are taking, or more to the point, the direction on which we are being taken.

Changing our minds about changing the brain.

June 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

When I first learned of ‘neuroplasticity’ I was very excited by the idea that we might be able to understand the brain well enough to change it in precise and purposeful ways.

That was about ten years ago (In 2002-3 I completed a masters degree in Mind, Brain and Education at Harvard University) when I felt that the key to solving the world’s problems was to know the brain better, which would (‘somehow’) lead to incisive educational methods, integrated humans and happy, functional societies.

It was ‘a false dawn’. I gradually realised that we didn’t know enough about the brain, nor enough about the myriad of complex connections between brains and minds and learning and society. Moreover, at some point it struck me forcibly that even if we knew everything there was to know in this respect, there would always be a huge value judgement involved in making sense of the implications. (A recent report I wrote for the RSA makes this case in detail).

My belief in the promise of neuroscience, as is the case for many I think, was grounded in a kind of ontological insecurity – the felt sense of lack, a need for firm foundations to make sense of who and what we are and, consequently, how we should live our lives. Alas, while Neuroscience may, in time, give a clearer sense of bio-chemical foundations, that will not, in turn, give us foundations for difficult social and ethical decisions that rely on judgements of value.

Alas, while Neuroscience may, in time, give a clearer sense of bio-chemical foundations, that will not, in turn, give us foundations for difficult social and ethical decisions that rely on judgements of value.

However, while it is important to keep such qualifications in mind, and not to get too carried away with the latest brain-related findings, I also think it is a huge mistake to think that neuroscience has nothing to offer in practice. For instance, I came across a very powerful example in the Guardian that made me think again about the importance of neuroplasticity.

Barbara Arrowsmith Young was a very bright child but with very distinct cognitive limitations. She struggled to make sense of the meaning of things like analogue clock times, even though she could, for instance, recite a recent news broadcast verbatim. By taking an active interest in exactly what she could and couldn’t do, she developed a sophisticated set of cognitive exercises to gradually develop parts of her brain that were not previously functioning the way they should.

In the Guardian article her training is described as follows:

“So she started devising brain stimulation exercises for herself that would work the parts of her brain that weren’t functioning. She drew 100 two-handed clockfaces on cards, each one telling a different time, and wrote the time each told on the back of the card. Then she started trying to tell the time from each, checking on the back each time to see if she was right. She did this eight to 10 hours a day. Gradually, she got faster and more accurate. Then she added a third hand, to make the task more difficult. Then a fourth, for tenths of a second, and a fifth, for days of the week.”

Barbara herself describes her breakthrough as follows:

As Arrowsmith Young herself puts it: “It’s because they’re not actually any of those things,” she says. “They don’t really have ADHD or dyslexia. They just have a couple of cognitive pieces that aren’t functioning as they should. It’s about going beneath the label.”

“I was experiencing a mental exhaustion like I had never known,” she says, “so I figured something was happening. And by the time I’d done that for three or four months, it really felt like something had shifted, something had fundamentally changed in my brain, allowing me to process and understand information. I watched an edition of 60 Minutes, with a friend, and I got it. I read a page of Kierkegaard – because philosophy is obviously very conceptual, so had been impossible for me – and I understood it. I read pages from 10 books, and every single one I understood. I was like, hallelujah! It was like stepping from darkness into light.”

I would encourage readers to look at her example and the teaching methods that fell out of it in more detail. I haven’t looked closely at the evidence base, and it is worth asking how much of this is about the brain, and how much of it is about cognition(and how much does that question matter?!). Still, the narrative power of her example certainly made me think again about neuroplasticity. I had always felt people got a bit too excited about it (I mean of course we can change our brains- they change all the time!..) but the idea that specific cognitive interventions can made lasting neural impact on areas that require it, which in turn improves one’s quality of life is worth pondering.

According to the Guardian article, thousands of children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, dyslexia or dysgraphia, dismissed as impossible to teach, have attended Arrowsmith schools for three or four years, returned to a mainstream school, and gone on academic and professional success.

As Arrowsmith Young herself puts it: “It’s because they’re not actually any of those things,” she says. “They don’t really have ADHD or dyslexia. They just have a couple of cognitive pieces that aren’t functioning as they should. It’s about going beneath the label.”

One question that follows is what ‘going beneath the label’ means in practice. Does it mean brain scans, or just cognitive testing, or both? Is this really a case where it is the neuroanatomy and neurochemistry of the brain as such that matters, or is it another example where we use brain-based language, particularly ‘neuroplasticity’ (which sounds rather like a desirable toy) to glamorise a case that does not rely on a deeper understanding of the brain at all.

On the other hand, if this glamorising is necessary to get the attention and funds needed to improve people’s lives, perhaps we should actively encourage it?


Wasting Time

April 26, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society 

I write this with a nice glass of Pinot Noir next to me in hopes this will aid the creation of moments of insights, as suggested by Jonah Lehrer in his RSA talk on creativity  last night. Indeed he speaks of the increase of alpha waves that lead to those ‘aha’ moments being induced by putting your mind at ease – hence the wine. Do I regard my glass of wine as leading to a wasting of time? Certainly hope so, but Lehrer spoke of how we have too narrow a view of what productive time looks like, critiquing our obsession with efficiency and lists. He quoted Einstein with ” Creativity is the residue of wasted time ” in making his point about wasted time leading to new discoveries.

Joe Hallgarten’s recent blog  speaks of the value of cross disciplinary reflection and it is the potential for new insights unlocked through imaginative interplay between incongruous influences that drives a project we are doing with Kings College.  In the Artist as Citizen and Cultural Intermediary , we are looking at the conditions that enable partnerships between artists and academics from very diverse areas of practice but also at what practical benefits might be realised from these differences.

The project was also inspired by Richard Sennet’s recent book Together which explores how we are losing the ‘cooperation skills needed to make a complex society work’ and of course these skills  exercised through working with people who think and practice differently to ourselves. But I wanted this project to go further and consciously create an environment where curiosity about the ‘other’ and accessing new lenses to re-see one’s work was the driving force with a valuing of difference as the underpinning principle. The invitation for difference worked – the project attracted interest from across the College, mostly from science and medicine and we have attracted artists and small arts organisations, who for the most part, have no history of working with academics. The ‘with’ word is critical. We tend to settle in transactional partnerships,that can suffer from being utilitarian and miss the possibilities generated from real exchange. There can be a failure to grasp what the ‘other’ has to offer.

I’ve long been a believer in epiphanies being more likely in such places as the shower where, as Lehrer suggests, one has the space from incessant external voices such as mobile phones. Putting your mind at ease releases our alpha waves  which in turn offers a chance for the inner quiet voice and those discoveries which can come out of the blue. As an actor, I always learned my lines while walking – the combination of activity, mild distraction of the senses and the rhythm of my steps worked for the most demanding of speeches. But how can you bring a metaphorical shower to a meeting of strangers that will lead to the formation of partnerships?   Interestingly I found many of Lehrer’s prompts for the generation of creativity worked for us in practice this last Tuesday.

We began our first day together with metaphor, each of us sharing an object that would illustrate what excited us most about our work, in the hopes that this would create connections between us. Of course, this also required all our participants to be willing to take a risk, enter a world quite  unfamiliar to their normal working lives and give time for partnerships characterised by difference. Dare I say it, the additional willingness to experiment was a crucial criteria and I think this involves an awareness of the wasting time principle that Lehrer speaks of – getting away from the focused rational and linear approach to problem solving and trying perhaps surprising and counter-intuitive approaches. Lehrer speaks of the brain being particularly good at metaphors helping us to bind things together. This technique of working through metaphor to describe what we are curious about can develop a collaborative  language that helps to transcend the challenges of the differences in our working languages and our usual referential shortcuts. If we agree that we need a different kind of conversation to generate transformation, then a language rooted in metaphor is a good beginning.

Another challenge for this first meeting was how to get beyond politeness and the inevitable desire to please,   natural to a meeting of strangers and move to a dynamic of critical friendship where each partner could assess the relevance of these particular strangers’ approaches  to their own working practices. And this is where we applied the ‘shower  principle’ with enforced moments of observation, reflection and prioritisation. Like many in the arts, I use a technique called the ‘silent gallery’ where participants can observe each others’ ideas in silence in order to conceive critical responses. Dissent and refinement of ideas is encouraged, but importantly within an environment of trust where each voice has an equal status,  silence can have a distinct role in exchange.

Lehrer was very critical of the use of brainstorming techniques and quite right too in the regard that used unwisely, this provides fresh but superficial and ill expressed ideas without critique. However, as a technique to get everyone’s voice heard and to loosen rigid thinking, they can be helpful if used in conjunction with refining and critiquing the ideas expressed.

But for all this commitment to new ways of working, new perspectives and trying experimental approaches, it does also get down to the people themselves and the relationships formed. That’s another thing Lehrer spoke about - that it is still important to be there ‘in the flesh’ so to speak. The extraordinary value of just showing up. He spoke of a very revealing statistic; that in spite of the huge increase in skype as a remote communication tool, attendance at conferences has doubled.  In spite of increasing demands on our time, people value being together. I’ll continue to blog about the development of this project and hope that some of our partners will be doing so as well, but for all of us it will be curiosity that sustains the exchange. And of course, a commitment to wasting time…







Networked facts are the new black

January 4, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Facts are so last century. In the Internet-dominated world, networked facts have pretty much taken over. The old-fashioned view of the fact is that it is an irreducible atom of knowledge. The way information is organised on the Web means that everything is connected and it is only as a result of the links between elements of information that facts come into being.

The way information is organised on the Web means that everything is connected and it is only as a result of the links between elements of information that facts come into being.  

This is one of the points that David Weinberger puts across in his new book, Too Big to Know, launched yesterday in the US (not out in the UK til 19th January). Weinberger calls these configurations of linked data, in which two ideas are connected by a relationship, ‘triples’. In an interview given to Thomas Rogers for Salon, Weinberger elaborates:

OK, so, if the triple is “Edmonton is in Canada,” ideally each of those should link to some other spot on the Web that explains exactly which Edmonton, because there’s probably more than one, along with which Canada (though there’s probably only one). And “is in” is a very ambiguous statement, so you would point to some vocabulary that defines it for geography. Each of these little facts is designed not only to be linked up by computers, but in itself consists of links. It’s a very different idea than that facts are bricks that lay a firm foundation. The old metaphor for knowledge was architectural and archaeological: foundations, bricks. Now we have clouds.

Now, I think I get this, and when we think about the ubiquity of the hyperlink, it’s pretty clear that Weinberger is absolutely right. But, even before the Internet, information was still linked, and it was still necessary to reference one idea in order to construct a basis for another. Aristotle, Darwin and Newton all did it. It was just a slower process. You had to have located and read the relevant source, be it a book, paper or article and access to these things was far more restricted than it is now. But, the basic principle was the same. I think it’s reasonable to say that Weinberger’s point about metaphors rings true not because of a fundamental shift in what facts are, but rather that the Internet age has speeded everything up and made access to data (almost) universally accessible.

Of course, I may be missing the point, particularly given that I’ve not read Weinberger’s book, but am instead responding to some bits and pieces I’ve read about it online.

Our burgeoning taste for punchy, sound-bitten data is obvious – if you can’t express an important idea in 140 characters, you’ll struggle to be listened to in some circles.

The title of the book, Too Big To Know, implies that the volume of information we now have access to could be leading to a kind of overload, and there is a genuinely important (and unanswered) question about the impact of this on our brains. Are we getting cleverer or stupider as a result? Our burgeoning taste for punchy, sound-bitten data is obvious – if you can’t express an important idea in 140 characters, you’ll struggle to be listened to in some circles. Indeed, this review of Weinberger’s book on is designed to give you the top line messages in about the time it takes to write a tweet. And, this very blog post indicates that I’m clearly as much as sucker for this as anyone.

Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that Weinberger expresses some important ideas, not least that it isn’t individual cleverness that really matters, but the collective cleverness of the networks in which we operate. In his interview for Salon he says:

With the new medium of knowledge — the Internet — knowledge not only takes on properties of that medium but also lives at the level of the network. So rather than simply trying to cultivate smart people, we also need to be looking above the level of the individual to the network in which he or she is embedded to see where knowledge lives.









Thinking, fast and slow

November 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

This evening, a lucky audience will have the privilege of listening to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in conversation with Richard Layard at an event hosted by LSE. They will be discussing Kahneman’s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which distils the author’s lifetime of work on the triumphs and pitfalls of conscious and unconscious thinking.

Kahneman is widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential psychologists, and his ideas have shaped the work of many other important thinkers, including experimental psychologist Steven Pinker and behavioural economist Dan Ariely.  In his new book, Kahneman explains the two systems that drive the way we think and make decisions – on the one hand what he calls System One, the fast, intuitive and emotional system, and on the other System Two, a slower, more deliberative and logical system. I’m looking forward to reading it, but until I have, I can’t offer my own appraisal.

There’s been a flurry of recent reviews, all of which suggest that I’m in for a treat. William Easterly’s review in the Financial Times pronounces the book a masterpiece. Easterly is ebullient about Kahneman’s choice to be upfront about the fact that ‘experts’ are as prone to making mistakes as anyone else, including him. Knowing that we are irrational in our decision making doesn’t in itself free us from falling into the same traps as everyone else. Easterly describes having to fight off the preying hands of friends and family members in order to get the book read, and says that it is ‘compulsively readable’.

Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian, is also clearly impressed. In his interview with Burkeman, Kahneman is keen to make clear that this is not a self-help book; reading it will not change the way you think. However, having a deeper awareness of how our minds work can only be a good thing, and with attention, it seems we may be able to learn when to trust our intuition and how to harness the benefits of slow thinking.

So, which system of thinking will drive my decision as to whether to buy it now, or wait for the paperback?

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