The Architecture of Happiness

de botton.jpgWe’re probably going to be seeing a lot of Alain de Botton in the coming months, as he’s out and about promoting his new book ‘The Architecture of Happiness’.

I’m a huge fan of de Botton, whose books such as ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ have won widespread critical acclaim for making philosophy accessible and relevant to modern life.

But I felt he went off the boil with his last book Status Anxiety and after reading Jonathan Glancey’s review of his new book in The Guardian, I’m worried he may not have found a return to form.

However, I am going to read the new book (partly because I‚Äôm researching a feature on the role of psychology in Britain‚Äôs current building boom) so if there are any magazine or newspaper editors out there who‚Äôd like me to review it, please do get in touch 😉

Also, while we’re discussing de Botton, I should point you to his Times review of Cordelia Fine’s book ‘A mind of its own’, in which he discusses whether the experimental approach to understanding the human psyche – that is, psychology – really is the right one:

“Expecting to study the mysteries of the mind, [psychology] students soon realise that they have set off down a far less glamorous and unusual path, for their field requires them not so much to explore new insights as to test old and quite simple ones according to a rigorous and patient scientific method. Psychology emerges as, depending on your point of view, either a gloriously or horrifyingly pedantic discipline”.

PS. I virtually bumped into de Botton at Edinburgh airport once, but I’m (a) not that good with faces and (b) shy, so I persuaded my girlfriend to go and ask him if he was who I thought he was. Anyway, apparently he was utterly charming and self-effacing.

UPDATE: Alain de Botton appeared on Monday’s edition of Start the Week on BBC Radio 4. And he’s got his own TV series on Channel 4/ More 4.

Link to Alain de Botton’s website, which includes full details of all his books, plus reviews, audio clips and much more.
Link to Guardian review of his new book.
Link to article on Britain’s building boom.
Link to de Botton’s review of ‘A mind of its own’.

The Happiness Formula

the happiness formula.gif
There’s a new six-part series starting on BBC 2 this week called The Happiness Formula, and the companion website has all sorts of features including on-line video clips, happiness tests, and an article about the science of happiness.

Glancing through, it looks like among the key contributors are well-being psychologist Ed Diener, positive psychologist Martin Seligman, and Emeritus Professor of Economics Lord Layard, who’s been making a lot of noise recently in an effort to get the UK government to provide more therapists. Layard also wrote a book a few years ago called Happiness: Lessons from a new science.

The series comes at a time when there are increasing calls for the population’s happiness, rather than it’s prosperity, to be used as the main measure of the government’s success.

Link to The Happiness Formula Website.
Link to article on the science of happiness.
Link to happiness test.

Phantom paralysis

prospect mag.gifThis month’s brilliant Out of Mind column in Prospect magazine, written by psychiatrist Robert Drummond and Alexanader Linklater, deputy editor of the mag, is about a cambonian woman with phantom paralysis.

The woman’s husband died recently following a massive stroke. They’d been married 42 years. An earlier stroke had left him with a weak arm and leg. Now his widow is complaining of similar symptoms – a completely limp arm, and a weak leg, but crucially, scans have revealed no physical explanation for her paralysis.

“The young psychiatrist asks if Kim Sieng feels depressed. She says she doesn’t. He asks if she wants to talk more about her husband. Again she doesn’t. Suddenly, he is conscious of a poignancy that Kim Sieng does not herself express. He can’t resist the impression that she has somehow embodied her grief, telling him about it with her body”.

The article describes how the psychiatrist was finding himself in the murky world of ‘hysterical paralysis’, part of Charcot’s 19-th century notion of a dynamic neural lesion.

human traces.jpgHere’s how, at a public lecture at the Salpetriere, Charcot describes hysterical paralysis in a male patient, taken from Sebastian Faulks’ outstanding novel Human Traces:

“This is an example of what an English colleague, Mr. Reynolds, referred to as ‘paralysis by idea’ – not imagined paralysis, for this man is as physically afflicted as any of my multiple sclerosis patients – no, paralysis by idea. An experience has been held out of conscious thought in such a way that it has been able to exert its influence directly upon the nervous system and thus upon the muscles of the patient. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the peculiar interest of this condition”.

Link to this month’s Out of Mind column (which unfortunately isn’t free this time).
Link to last month’s column (free access) on different perspectives of alcoholism.
Link to earlier Mind Hacks post on A Beautiful Madness, highlighting an earlier Prospect article by Drummond and Linklater.

Mind and brain on Research TV

research tv.gif

I’ve just discovered ‘Research TV’ which features loads of free videos, or ‘vodcasts’, including several on psychology and neuroscience:

Link to Scanning brainwaves to read the mind, about combining MEG and fMRI brain imaging techniques.
Link to Hemianopia: looking into the dark.
Link to A happy marriage helps beat flu.
Link to Fit to fight depression.
Link to Brain Scans show ADHD differences.
Link to Not exactly brain surgery, about a virtual reality simulator for surgeons.
Link to Older and Wiser?: Tackling problems of the ageing brain.
Link to Magnetic milestones in children’s brain tumour treatment.
Link to Job satisfaction depends on happiness.

There are probably others that I’ve missed too. I just watched the first one on ‘Scanning brainwaves’ and it includes some excellent shots of what a MEG scanner looks like with somebody in it (I’ve seen a fMRI scanner loads of times but not a MEG one), and in another clip you can also hear just how noisy an fMRI scanner is.

Warwick University are apparently behind Research TV, with Birmingham uni, Nottingham uni, King’s College and Durham University as partners.

Link 1 and link 2 for previous Mind Hacks posts about online neurosci videos.

Little girl lost

Insight into self-harming from Lovisa Pahlson-Moller, a 22-year-old who said she first self-harmed when she was just six years old. She hasn’t cut herself for two years thanks partly to the relief that’s come from writing a book about her feelings. Interview and book extract.

Also there’s an extended interview here with Chris Holley, the nurse behind a controversial project at St George’s Hospital, Stafford that allows patients to continue harming themselves under supervised conditions. BBC News coverage here.

A Sense of Scale

a sense of scale.jpg

Psychiatric nurse and mixed media artist Ben Guiver’s experimental radio broadcast is available to download today.

The show – a kind of remix of texts by Francois Roustang, Will Self, Hakim Bey, Adam Phillips and Jean Baudrillard – complements his exhibition of photographs and paintings at London’s Foundry called “A sense of Scale”, and will also be broadcast on Resonance FM at 7pm (BST).

Guiver, who runs an art group for people with mental health problems, told The Guardian: “The texts I’ve selected for my radio show deal with different types of social matrixes. It is about the privatisation of culture in the west and the cycle of intimidation”.

Link to A Sense of Scale exhibition info and radio downloads.

The freakonomic take on bird flu

Freakonomics.jpgSteven Levitt, the economist, and Stephen Dubner, the journalist – authors of Freakonomics – appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme yesterday.

The pair are (in)famous for their alternative explanations of historical phenomena, based on their application of economic tools of analysis to social patterns. For example, they’ve argued that the 50 per cent fall in crime in the USA in the last 15 years was caused by the legalisation of abortion in the 1970’s. Unwanted children are known to be at increased risk of becoming criminals, and so the reduction in the number of unwanted kids has meant less crime (so the logic goes).

In this interview they suggest that, so long as it doesn’t spread to humans, the threat of bird flu here in the UK may paradoxically lead to health benefits as a result of millions of anxious people washing their hands more often.

Cosmic ordering

Setting yourself achievable goals is a sensible step on the way to getting what you want in life.

So why, in the twenty-first century, do people have to dress up such a simple idea with kookie language and daft explanations?

TV presenter Noel Edmunds said his successful return to primetime TV was thanks to ‘cosmic ordering’. He apparently wrote on a piece of paper what he wanted, before putting it under his pillow. He thinks he told the cosmos what he wanted and the cosmos duly granted it. There’s even a book on it at the top of the Amazon best-seller list.

Thankfully, on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, psychologist Prof. Richard Wiseman debunked the idea that the cosmos really does listen out for everyone’s private requests before granting them. It has far more to do with the fact that ‘lucky’ people “know what they want in life and recognise opportunities when they come along”.

Unfortunately, the editors of the programme gave equal weight to the opinions of astrologer Jonathan Cainer – “you decide what you want…you announce to the universe that it’s your intention to get it…and it works, without a shadow of a doubt it works…And in my column I tell you when the best time is to put your order in”, he said. Later he added “you can wish for harm to others and there’s a strong chance it will happen”. None of which was challenged by the interviewer.

OK, I’ll have a go: “Dear Cosmos, please shut down the BBC Today programme for broadcasting absolute piffle”.

Link to audio of the interview with Wiseman and Cainer.

Observation balloons, mental break down, and female hysteria


“As soon as he started work at the hospital he became…fascinated by the differences in severity of break down between the different branches of the RFC. Pilots, though they did indeed break down, did so less frequently and usually less severely than the men who manned observation balloons. They, floating helplessly above the battlefields, unable to either avoid attack or to defend themselves effectively against it, showed the highest incidence of breakdown of any service. Even including infantry officers. This reinforced Rivers’s view that it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to as the explanation for their condition. That would help to account for the greater prevalence of anxiety neuroses and hysterical disorders in women in peacetime, since their relatively more confined lives gave them fewer opportunities of reacting to stress in active and constructive ways. Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace”.

The thoughts of army psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers from the novel Regeneration by Pat Barker. In Regeneration, the first of a trilogy, Barker blends fact with fiction in her depiction of the relationship between Rivers and the celebrated poet Siegfried Sassoon, at Craiglockhart during the First World War.

How World War I brought out men’s maternal side


“One of the paradoxes of the war – one of the many – was that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was…domestic. Caring. As Layard [a traumatised soldier Rivers hadn’t been able to help] would undoubtedly have said, maternal. And that wasn’t the only trick the war had played. Mobilization. The Great Adventure. They’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure – the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they’d devoured as boys – consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed. The war that promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down”.

The thoughts of army psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers from the novel Regeneration by Pat Barker. In Regeneration, the first of a trilogy, Barker blends fact with fiction in her depiction of the relationship between Rivers and the celebrated poet Siegfried Sassoon, at Craiglockhart during the First World War. One more excerpt to follow.

Treating shell-shock during World War 1


“In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of tenderness for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself up against the whole tenor of their upbringing. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men. And yet he himself was a product of the same system‚ĶCertainly the rigorous repression of emotion and desire had been the constant theme of his adult life. In advising his young patients to abandon the attempt at repression and to let themselves feel the pity and terror their war experience inevitably evoked, he was excavating the ground he stood on”.

The thoughts of army psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers from the novel Regeneration by Pat Barker. In Regeneration, the first of a trilogy, Barker blends fact with fiction in her depiction of the relationship between Rivers and the celebrated poet Siegfried Sassoon, at Craiglockhart during the First World War. More excerpts to follow next week.

A neuroscientist’s grief

billy's halo.jpgNeuroscientist Ruth McKernan was a guest on Radio 4’s midweek this morning, talking about her father’s death from a mystery illness, and how her scientific background shaped her coping and grief, an experience she has described in her book Billy’s Halo. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s synopsis:

Now, she tells the story of her father’s last year as a collection of cutting-edge scientific themes – memory, consciousness, microbes, stem cells – like pearls strung together on the thread of her father’s life. The result is an inspired blending of personal emotion, love and grief, with a crystal-clear scientific explanation of the way our brains and bodies work in sickness and in health.

Midweek’s host Libby Purves commented that it was clear from McKernan’s book that as she wrote about the emotional turmoil of her father’s passing, she struggled not to take a scientific perspective. On the contrary, McKernan said she wanted to write an objective, factual account of what happened, but couldn’t help her emotions from spilling over into her words.

Link to replay of Midweek on Radio 4 (McKernan was the second guest).
Link to Billy’s Halo on Amazon.

Can science explain religion?

religion debate.JPG Daniel Dennett’s been at it again, this time in a juicy online Prospect debate with Richard Swinburne (pictured right), Emeritus Nolloth professor of the Philosophy of the Christian religion at the University of Oxford. In the debate Swinburne suggests science can’t begin to study religion without first acknowledging that God exists. Dennett argues that religions might well be a nice way of explaining what’s happened so far, but they’re not useful for furthering our understanding of the natural world because they don’t make any meaningful, testable predictions. But according to Swinburne that’s not what science is all about. Hmm…

A few excerpts:

Swinburne: ‚ÄúSo why are the most general laws of the multiverse as they are? Why do all particles behave in exactly the same way as each other, so as together ultimately to produce human life? This enormous coincidence in particle behaviour requires explaining. I’ve got a good theory which explains it [God]; you haven’t‚Äù.

Dennett: ‚ÄúFrom my perspective, your imaginative attempt at an inference to the best explanation is telling for the one thing it lacks: a single striking prediction. That’s why it can’t be taken seriously as a contender against a purely secular and materialist theory of cosmic and biological and cultural evolution‚Äù.

Swinburne: ‚ÄúI don’t think that it is in any way important that science should make predictions‚Äù.

Link to earlier post about science explaining religion.
Link to earlier post about Prospect debate on whether science can explain mental illness.
Link to event at At-Bristol Imax next Weds, where Dennett, Swinburne and others will be debating science and religion.
Make a real day of it and check out their Your Amazing Brain exhibition while you’re there.

A Darwinian tiff

This had me in stitches. Apparently Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett (who’s out and about promoting his new book) has fallen out with fellow Darwinian, British-Born philosopher Michael Ruse. Ruse warns against taking evolutionary theory too far, so that it becomes an argument for atheism. Anyway, during the tiff (see here for detail) Dennett emailed Ruse suggesting he was being enlisted by the dark side. So Ruse replied:

“I am a full professor with tenure at a university known chiefly for its prowess on the football field, living out my retirement years in the sunshine ‚Äì I have no reputation to preserve, and frankly can say and do whatever the fuck I want to without sinking further‚Äù.

‚ÄúI am a hardline Darwinian and always have been very publicly‚Ķ in fact I am more hardline than you are, because I don‚Äôt buy into this meme bullshit but put everything‚Ķin the language of genes”.

Reflecting on the fall out, Ruse apparently had this to say:

“I think he [Dan Dennett] finds it very difficult when people don’t say to him ‘you were fantastic. Can I warm the bog seat for you before you take a crap?’”.

Link to Guardian article where I read about this.
Link to William Dembski’s blog – he’s an Intelligent Design Creationist who first made the saga public.

Dancing, religion and sex

Link to what you get when you mix a choreographer, six cognitive scientists, ten dancers and an anthropologist. Via The Quarter, where art, science and politics meet.

Philosopher and neo-Darwinian Daniel Dennett has a new book out that attempts to explain the human penchant for religiosity in terms of memes. Guardian review here.

Quick on the heels of research showing how sex the old-fashioned way (but not other forms of sexual gratification) can protect against upcoming stressful events, a new study in the same journal shows sex with a partner is 400 per cent more satisfying than a self-loving session, as measured by levels of prolactin – a hormone associated with satiety. Both studies by Stuart Brody.

Update: Daniel Dennett will be in conversation with psychologist Dr. Susan Blackmore, philosopher and theologian Richard Swinborne and sociologist Tariq Modood at the Imax theatre in Bristol, March 15. Click here and scroll down.