A vision of Oliver Sacks

New York Magazine has a wonderful in-depth profile of Oliver Sacks illustrated with a simple but sublime photo portrait of the gracefully ageing neurologist.

Sacks has become much discussed in recent weeks due to the release of his new book Hallucinations.

There has been much coverage, but perhaps some of the best coverage has been Will Self’s review and an interview on NPR.

However, the profile in New York Magazine stands alone – both for its careful portraiture and brilliant writing. Highly recommended.

Link to Oliver Sacks profile.

Work for free!

South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust are taking the piss. They’re advertising for a full-time, one year assistant psychologist post that is completely unpaid.

These jobs usually pay about £20,000-24,000 in London but despite this offer being completely exploitative they could easily fill the post for free.

The reason is because assistant psychologist jobs are one of the key steps to get on to training as a clinical psychologist which is a massively popular career in the UK.

This is partly because psychology itself became a hot topic and universities realised about 15 years ago that the subject was a money spinner, meaning many undergraduate courses regularly have about 200 students a year on them.

This put additional pressure on clinical psychology training places, which for the last decade have had about 20 applications for each place on the course.

As the competition is intense, assistant psychologist jobs are like gold dust. The NHS Trust I work in regularly takes down adverts for these jobs after about 24 hours, at which point they may have received up to 500 applications.

So finding someone to do a £20,000 assistant psychology job for free should be fairly trivial.

You can also see an additional trend at work: while you need an approved doctorate to now qualify for the profession, many hope an MSc in the same subject area – which doesn’t actually do anything except extend your academic knowledge – will help their chances.

Universities are capitalising on this demand and lots of MSc courses have started popping up all over the country, all with ‘not quite clinical psychology’ names like “foundations of clinical psychology” and “clinical applications of psychology”.

I don’t doubt they’re excellent, but that’ll be another maybe 10 grand on top of your student debt.

The effect of all this is that the not-so-well-off are inadvertently filtered out of the profession and we increasingly lack diversity in an already overly-homogeneous profession.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure this unpaid assistant psychologist job is valuable work. But not exploiting young people should also be a priority.

Link to piss-taking job post (via @bengoldacre)

BBC Future Column: Why is it so hard to give good directions?

My BBC Future column from last week. Original here.

Psychologically speaking it is a tricky task, because our minds find it difficult to appreciate how the world looks to someone who doesn’t know it yet.

We’ve all been there – the directions sounded so clear when we were told them. Every step of the journey seemed obvious, we thought we had understood the directions perfectly. And yet here we are miles from anywhere, after dark, in a field arguing about whether we should have gone left or right at the last turn, whether we’re going to have to sleep here now, and exactly whose fault it is.

The truth is we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Psychologically speaking giving good directions is a particularly difficult task.

The reason we find it hard to give good directions is because of the “curse of knowledge”, a psychological quirk whereby, once we have learnt something, we find it hard to appreciate how the world looks to someone who doesn’t know it yet. We don’t just want people to walk a mile in our shoes, we assume they already know the route. Once we know the way to a place we don’t need directions, and descriptions like “its the left about halfway along” or “the one with the little red door” seem to make full and complete sense.

But if you’ve never been to a place before, you need more than a description of a place; you need an exact definition, or a precise formula for finding it. The curse of knowledge is the reason why, when I had to search for a friend’s tent in a field, their advice of “it’s the blue one” seemed perfectly sensible to them and was completely useless for me, as I stood there staring blankly at hundreds of blue tents.

This same quirk is why teaching is so difficult to do well. Once you are familiar with a topic it is very hard to understand what someone who isn’t familiar with it needs to know. The curse of knowledge isn’t a surprising flaw in our mental machinery – really it is just a side effect of our basic alienation from each other. We all have different thoughts and beliefs, and we have no special access to each other’s minds. A lot of the time we can fake understanding by mentally simulating what we’d want in someone else’s position. We have thoughts along the lines of “I’d like it if there was one bagel left in the morning” and therefore conclude “so I won’t eat all the bagels before my wife gets up in the morning”. This shortcut allows us to appear considerate, without doing any deep thought about what other people really know and want.

“OK, now what?”

This will only get you so far. Some occasions call for a proper understanding of other people’s feelings and beliefs. Giving directions is one, but so is understanding myriad aspects of everyday conversation which involve feelings, jokes or suggestions. For illustration, consider the joke that some research has suggested may be the world’s funniest (although what exactly that means is another story):


Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”


The joke is funny because you can appreciate that the hunter had two possible interpretations of the operator’s instructions, and chose the wrong one. To appreciate the interpretations you need to have a feel for what the operator and the hunter know and desire (and to be surprised when the hunter’s desire to do anything to help isn’t over-ruled by a desire keep his friend alive).

To do this mental simulation you recruit what psychologists call your “Theory of Mind”, the ability think about others’ beliefs and desires. Our skill at Theory of Mind is one of the things that distinguish humans from all other species – only chimpanzees seem to have anything approaching a true understanding that others’ might believe different things from themselves. Us humans, on the other hand, seem primed from early infancy to practice thinking about how other humans view the world.

The fact that the curse of knowledge exists tells us how hard a problem it is to think about other people’s minds. Like many hard cognitive problems – such as seeing, for example – the human brain has evolved specialist mechanisms which are dedicate to solving it for us, so that we don’t normally have to expend conscious effort. Most of the time we get the joke, just as most of the time we simply open our eyes and see the world.

The good news is that your Theory of Mind isn’t completely automatic – you can use deliberate strategies to help you think about what other people know. A good one when writing is simply to force yourself to check every term to see if it is jargon – something you’ve learnt the meaning of but not all your readers will know. Another strategy is to tell people what they can ignore, as well as what they need to know. This works well with directions (and results in instructions like “keep going until you see the red door. There’s a pink door, but that’s not it”)

With a few tricks like this, and perhaps some general practice, we can turn the concept of reading other people’s minds – what some psychologists call “mind mindfulness” – into a habit, and so improve our Theory of Mind abilities. (Something that most of us remember struggling hard to do in adolescence.) Which is a good thing, since good theory of mind is what makes a considerate partner, friend or co-worker – and a good giver of directions.

Technophobia: a talk at the Royal Institution

I’m going to be talking about technophobia, media panics and how technology really affects the mind and brain, next Tuesday at the Royal Institution in London.

The talk will be a trip through the history of technology scares – from Ancient Greece to Facebook, a look at how the modern media deals with concerns about new communications tools, and a round-up of what we actually know about the impact of technology on ourselves.

The evening will be MC’ed by Dallas Campbell and I am told there will be musical accompaniment.

Relax, I won’t be singing. No technology on earth can withstand my terrible voice.

Link to more information and tickets.

Brain’s nothingness centre found

Collectively Unconscious has a satirical post entitled “Brain region found that does absolutely nothing”.

Neuroscientists at the University of Ingberg have found a brain region that does absolutely nothing. Their research, presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting, showed that a small region of the cortex located near the posterior section of the cingulate gyrus responded to ‘not one of our 46 experimental manipulations’…

“Over the months that followed we tried everything we knew, with over 20 different participants. IQ tests, memory tasks, flashing lights, talking, listening, imagining juggling, but there was no response. Nothing. We got more desperate, so we tried pictures of faces, TMS, pictures of cats, pictures of sex, pictures of violence and even sexy violence, but nothing happened! Not even a decrease. No connectivity to anywhere else, not even a voodoo correlation. 46 voxels of wasted space. I know dead salmons that are more responsive.”

Clearly the problem here is a lack of imagination.

A recent (genuine) study simply ran the same experimental data from an fMRI scanning session through 6,912 different possible ways of conducting the analysis.

Suddenly, activity popped up all over the brain.

As Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge, because even though science strives to be an objective body of knowledge driven by a systematised method for accurately discovering causal relationships, in reality, it’s a bun fight”.

Pretty sure that was Einstein. Hang on, I’ll just check my stats. Yep, yes it was.

Link to satirical post on Collectively Unconscious.