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Brexit, project fear, brains, racism inequality and the other

Many of us are shocked to the core by the referendum result, and even more so by the campaign and the way it was conducted, especially its racist undertones. In many ways this was a protest vote, and whatever his weaknesses Corbyn has understood that inequality, uncertainty and the increasing power of smaller elites has impacted powerfully. What the left seem not to have learnt from its history lessons is how at times of serious crisis people become inward and conservative and indeed, often xenophobic and distrustful of the other. This makes more sense when we understand just what fear, anxiety and anger does to the brain.

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Neuromythmakers or neuro-deniers? A response to Zoe Williams (with Sue Gerhardt)

This article is a response to Zoe Williams’ piece in the guardian which can be accessed here.  This piece, which critiqued the use of neuroscience in child protection policy,  has generated considerable controversy. Many letters were published about it, many  upset and surprised that she took this line. Letters can be accessed here

 

Zoe Williams, a journalist whose politics we have generally agreed with,  lines up witnesses for the prosecution against what she sees as inappropriate use of brain science in social policy. She scores some direct hits. Yes, there have been clumsy attempts to grab attention with extreme images of severely neglected shrivelled brains. Yes, some attempts to explain the neuroscience have been crude. But a few examples of bad practice do not invalidate an entire body of rigorous science.

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Are electronic media leading to jumpy brains?

This week two good friends and an academic colleague, all of whose intellectual prowess I admire, all admitted to me with varying degrees of shamefacedness that they are reading less, they just cannot read long books, they are more easily distracted and struggle to concentrate. They and others hint at being more jumpy and restless generally, with lower boredom thresholds and not able to assiduously follow through on either tasks or trains of thought as they once could. I too find it increasingly hard to get through the books that I have been continuing to purchase at previous levels. Two though that I have read in recent weeks have confirmed much of what I and other people have been thinking about the impact of the internet and electronic media on our lives, and indeed on our very brains. These books are The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr [1] and the equally aptly named Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other by Sherry Turkle [2].

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Psychopaths, brains, childhoods and society

This Sunday’s observer had 4 pages devoted to the research and thinking of Adrian Raine, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the foremost researchers on the brain and psychopaths. The article asks many important questions about what gives rise to psychopaths, and is critical of the idea that nurture (such as childhood trauma or poverty) causes this. His new book, the Anatomy of Violence [1], also has in its title, the Biological Roots of Crime, and the guardian article was titled 'How to spot a murderers' brain (click for article) . It is the implications of this that worry me.

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A relationship between political allegiance and how our brains work

With the American election looming, yet another study has come out which is making links between the states of mind of voters and their political views [1]. Researchers looked at children at age one and then followed them up 17 years later. A key predictor of whether these 1 year olds turned out to be Republican voters when they grew up was whether or not their parents had authoritarian parenting attitudes. Authoritarian attitudes are characterised by being very disciplinarian and often harsh, as opposed to authoritative parents who can assert authority fairly but who have a more democratic approach. Children with authoritarian parents were more likely to have conservative attitudes at age 18, even after accounting for their gender, ethnic background, cognitive functioning, and socioeconomic status. Children who had parents with egalitarian parenting attitudes, on the other hand, were more likely to hold liberal attitudes as young adults. Another factor which predicted more conservative attitudes was being more fearful at ages 4 or 5.

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Our group brains

In this week of festivities, pageants and patriotism on the one hand, and protests, Uncut street parties and stark republican sentiments on the other, it is impossible not to be strikingly reminded how powerful  our sense of allegiance is to groups, belief systems and ideologies, and how central passions and emotions are in such processes, with reason often having very little part to play. An interesting Finnish study has just been published [1] which demonstrates in a dramatic way what we have known already from other sources. We are a group species and emotions are central to this groupishness.. This study looked at the brains of people who viewed similar emotional events, such as in a movie.  They found that feeling similar things can literally lead to the synchronisation of brain regions in groups of people. They derived what are called multisubject voxelwise similarity measures. intersubject correlations (ISCs)] of functional MRI data, which showed that strong, unpleasant emotions in particular synchronized the frontal and midline regions of the brain's emotion processing network, whilst highly stimulating events synchronized activity in those networks in the brain that were involved in attention, vision and sense of touch. It was found that observers who share other's emotional states become a part of a somatosensory and neural framework. This enables them to understand other people's intentions and actions, allowing them to 'tune in' or 'synchronize' with each other. A key researcher in this study,  Professor Lauri Nemmenmaa from Aalto University, argues that  this ability to automatically tune in enables social interaction and group processes.

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