in two minds about the divided brain

November 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

When I was a psychology student we learned all about the lateralization of brain function. For example, reasoning appears to be dominated by the left brain, while the right brain dominates in matters artistic. Some advances in understanding lateralization has been made due to observations by neurologists and others of functional deficiencies of people with damage to regions their brains. Oliver Sacks details some interesting cases in his book ‘the man who mistook his wife for a hat‘.

However, the view of the brain as a collection of highly specialised components, is too simplistic. Such a view fails to explain the phenomenon of neuroplasticity. Indeed, substantial damage to one hemisphere does not necessarily mean that the sufferer will lose all artistic skill or all language skill (dependent on which hemisphere is damaged) as the surviving hemisphere often takes over the functions believed to be normally governed by the damaged hemisphere.

The debate on lateralization of the brain has been given a shot in the arm by Iain McGilchrist who considers that the significance of the two hemispheres “… was that the difference lay not in what they do, but how they do it”. For example,

“… the right hemisphere was capable of appreciating ambiguity, the implicit and the metaphorical, where the left hemisphere tended to require certainty, the explicit and the literal; the right hemisphere saw the broad context and the world as a seamless whole, interconnected within itself…”

Iain's book "The Master and his Emissary"The Master and his Emissary

If you want to know more about Iain’s theory a good place to start would be hisinterview with frontier psychiatrist. The introduction to his book The Master and his Emissary is available for download from his website

Iain also explains his theory on a podcast of Andrew Marr’s Start the Weekprogramme for Radio 4, Mon, 15 Nov 10 (N.B. the programme is 42 minutes and Iain’s main contribution comes towards the end).


the rise of the unsupported assertion

November 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

As I turned on the TV the American interviewee was being asked about waterboarding saving lives in London. It was a question prompted by George Bush’s defence, the same week, of the practice of waterboarding suspected terrorists; he claimed that waterboarding saved British lives.

“Anyone who says that waterboarding didn’t save lives isn’t telling the truth” came the reply.  … and that was it. I expected him to expand on this claim, to provide some reasoning that might persuade the viewer that waterboarding has worked. But my wait for him to support his assertion was in vein. It’s not that I expected incontrovertible  proof, I just though that if you make an assertion it is usual to offer some support for it. Especially on such a controversial issue.

Bush himself was on the receiving end of an unsupported claim five years ago following the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Rapper Kanye West said that Bush “doesn’t care about black people”. Bush’s tardy response to the disaster may have been neglectful, it may have been a dereliction of his presidential duties, it may have been deeply suspicious, but it was not in itself proof of racism.

Bush’s response last week was to say “I resent it, it’s not true.” Now, I would usually say that it is up to the accuser to make a case that warrants a defence – which Kayne West clearly failed to do. However, given that Kayne West voiced what many others were saying, and that Bush himself was the one to resurrect the issue after all this time, it is disappointing that Bush didn’t offer a stronger reply given that he’s had five years to prepare one. If Bush could point to government programmes to support equality, or statistical measures to show that the well-being of black people had improved, or he appointed several black people to positions of influence then his claim that West’s assertion was “not true” would been easier to accept.

One thing that surprised me about the interviewer who asked the waterboarding question referred to in the opening paragraph is that he didn’t press the interviewee for justification of his claim. It seems that the rise of the unsupported assertion has reached a level that it is simply accepted.

Fortunately,living  in the information age, we don’t have to simply accept it and can look for proof – or disproof – of these assertions. Those taking the opposing view include Kim Howells the former chair of the Commons intelligence and security committee and David Davies  the former shadow secretary¹ former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald of River Glaven and Prime minister David Cameron². Perhaps most convincing is U.S. Army interrogator Eric Maddox’s explanation of why waterboarding does not work:

“Why would I do something to an individual where first of all they think they are going to die and second you don’t follow through on the threat. I mean once you pull them up they are not dead, everything the interrogator does is a farce from then on….I am not trying to make the guy like me…But he has to believe me.”

The strength of Maddox’s words come not from his authority as the man who spearheaded the hunt for Saddam Hussein but that his an assertion supported by clear reasoning drawing on first hand experience.

pavlov’s sports media

November 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

When Sunday’s draw for the 2nd round of the FA Cup was made the draw which potentially pitted AFC Wimbledon against Milton Keynes Dons (Franchise FC) was variously described by large sections of the media in terms of the game that had Wimbledon fans “salivating”.

The only problem with this line of reporting was that it wasn’t true. Most Wimbledon fans would say that it’s a game they would rather avoid.

In 2002 when the football authorities, in violation of their own ruleses, allowed the owners of Wimbledon FC to relocate their property 70 miles north to Buckinghamshire, against the wish of the fans of the South London club feelings of betrayal and of loss far exceeding those normally experienced were suffered.

Blogs written by real fans were quick to understand and empathise. The likes of 200 percent and Two Footed Tackle provided thoughtful articles that hit the nail on the head.

By contrast it seems that traditional media see a situation where two groups of fans are in conflict and, like a dog conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, automatically bills the fixture as a “grudge match”.

Grudge matches provide the chance to get one over an old rival, or to settle a grievance arising from incidences such as cheating or an ill-tempered match. Such matches are keenly anticipated; they add spice to the football season.

“Grudge” doesn’t begin to describe how Wimbledon fans feel towards the franchise (and the football authorities that allowed it all to happen). If a normal grudge match can be likened to a bout of fisticuffs under the Queensbury rules then meeting with Franchise FC is akin to the victims of a war crime anticipating meeting the perpetrators of the atrocity.

If there is a silver lining to the prospect of the Cup-tie from hell it is that maybe the traditional media might understand a little better what drives football fans and what really matters to them. Then perhaps the media will write carefully considered articles rather than the knee-jerk reaction pieces that are less likely to have football fans salivating than frothing at the mouth.

more effective giving

November 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

The public are very generous when responding to emergencies. One way that British taxpayers can make the most of their charitable donations is to take advantage of Gift Aid where possible.

When disaster strikes many aid agencies will encourage you to give. One very effective and simpe way of doing to is to give via the DEC website. The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) is an umbrella organisation for 13 humanitarian aid agencies. You have the option to make your donation gift aid enabled, allowing DEC can claim back income or capital gains tax that you have paid which currently stands at 28p in the pound.

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