Thursday, October 27, 2011


Sometimes we describe people as 'spiritual' - but what does that mean? - here are a few suggestions, things which maybe are characteristic of a spiritual approach to life...

Thousands of years ago, there was a group of men and women who lived away from others, on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Palestine. This was the foundation of the Carmelite Order, which still exists today. It represents a contemplative tradition - living away from distraction, in order to get closer in your mind to what is truly important. Many people seek companionship, activity and stimulation, to avoid the fear of being alone. On the contrary, contemplation involves being ready to suffer alone, in order to come out of that suffering at the other end of the process.

Some people would think of contemplation as 'doing nothing'. But this is not true. When we think, we are doing something. It may not look very active, but in fact, the contemplative person is living more deeply. When we are active, we spread ourselves thinly; when we contemplate, we thicken our understanding.

One thing meditation can bring, is the sense of being part of a stream. When we are being selfish, we see ourselves as the centre of the universe. We see our ego as separate, as something which needs to be defended. In a sense, we don't trust the world, so we spend our time trying to make the world play our game! But if we can let go, and be trusting, then we can experience peace, because we no longer have to fight these battles of the ego. We can relax in the feeling of being part of something much bigger than ourselves.

If we have experienced too many dishonest, uncaring and manipulative people in our past, then we may be suspicious of everything, even good things. When we experience genuine love, we will even be suspicious of that, and think there must be a trick! But think about it. If we are always expecting a trick, how will we notice when we meet someone who genuinely wants to help? Grace can help - to accept grace, is to stop being suspicious. It enables us to receive good things without polluting them with distrust. In a way, grace is very simple. It just involves accepting goodness without destroying it.

When we serve other people, we attend to their needs. Not their wishes, because sometimes their wishes are self-destructive. Serving is not slavery. A slave doesn't really have to think - they just have to obey orders. But a servant is more thoughtful. When we serve our children, for instance, we are always thinking of ways to help them to grow. Sometimes we have to be very clever, and choose courses of action which are helpful, even though others may not see them as helpful!

People betray each other - some in subtle ways, some in dramatically terrible ways. We have all failed to be good sometimes. We need, sometimes, a strong sense of personal failure and inadequacy. How else will we improve? Imagine someone who tricks their friends, hurts and destroys, but has no sense of personal failure. How would they ever make themselves better? Only through a deep sense that they have done bad things, and failed to be kind. Evil is not committed by people who question and doubt themselves. On the contrary, evil is committed by people who do not want to examine themselves, because they are afraid of how uncomfortable it would make them.

We must challenge ourselves. We need to recognize clearly just how ignorant, self-deceiving, blind, stupid, selfish and nasty we can all be. Then, and only then, can we realize just how wonderful it is that we're accepted anyway! And only if we openly recognize our faults, can we start to improve.

Faith is the opposite of fear. When we have faith that all will be OK, then we stop being afraid. When we lose faith, then we become afraid. Faith is most difficult when we feel abandoned and left alone. But if we can learn to be alone sometimes, but not afraid, then we have gone a long way.

In summary, we could list the attributes, and their opposites, and suggest:

1. Need constant stimulation
2. Need to defend ourselves
3. Are suspicious
4. Need to dominate others
5. Never feel guilty or challenge ourselves
6. Fear being alone

1. Contemplate deeply
2. Are peaceful
3. Feel free to accept goodness
4. Serve others thoughtfully
5. Are able to feel guilty and challenge ourselves
6. Have faith that everything will be OK

These are just a few ideas, many of them taken from 'What Return Can I Make?' by M. Scott Peck, which I was reading in the library this morning.

Monday, October 24, 2011


"To do two things at once is to do neither." (Publilius Syrus)

I am going to suggest that the best way to multitask is to SINGLETASK - in other words, to stop trying to do many things at once, and just do one.

When we multitask, we are asking our brain to keep switching between different activities. The problem is this: every activity has a set of 'rules' which our brain activates. If we keep changing tasks, our brain uses up a lot of energy 'reactivating' the rules for each separate task. Imagine, for instance, trying to have two arguments at once, on two separate phones. Every time you re-engage in the opposite ear, you have to spend energy reminding yourself what is going on. Much of this activity goes on in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain which is much more effective when not pressurized by multitasking.

If you want to upset someone, just make them do one thing, and then keep interrupting them with another! Why does this cause upset? Well, we work best when we are working towards a single goal. Our emotions are designed to be peaceful when we are concentrating on a single goal, and then ecstatic when we achieve it! Linked to this, our emotions are also designed to choose anger when our goals are frustrated. So, if you multitask, you are interrupting your own internal single-goal mechanism, and you are almost guaranteed to make yourself angry!

We use perspective to gain clarity in our lives, and help us see situations clearly. And perspective needs stability. If we keep changing our activity, then we are constantly moving our viewpoint, and we will find it hard to think clearly about important issues. Partners of workaholics often complain that their partner doesn't seem to 'see' them, or understand their issues. The workaholic doesn't sit still for long enough to see the person or thing in front of them.

So here is an exercise you can do:

1. Get a piece of paper, and write on it what you are going to do next. Choose an activity that takes about 5 minutes.
2. Only do that thing, until it is finished. Then go back to your piece of paper, and tick the item.
3. Choose another activity, and write it down.
4. Only do that thing, until it is finished… and so on.

In the beginning, you may notice how easily distracted you are. It can be surprisingly difficult to just do one thing at a time. But, with practice, you will find you get better at focusing on a single thing. And you may find it quite pleasurable, because your emotional brain, as discussed above, is designed to focus on something, complete it, and then focus on the next thing. You will find your mind getting more peaceful while doing something, and more joyful when you finish each small task!

Try the exercise on people as well. When someone wants to talk, give them your full attention for the next five minutes, and really concentrate on them. See if it has a positive effect. Try to notice what the benefits are.

This is half term week for me, and therefore life is constantly demanding from different directions - children, friends, work, household tasks… I am going to try to remember that, although my environment is trying to make me multitask, it is better to SINGLETASK!


Saturday, October 22, 2011


This week, I was lucky enough to be sent a poem, which is always such an important gift.

It's a common English phrase about gifts: "it's the thought that counts." What better gift, then, than a poem? It may not cost anything in terms of raw materials - just the letters that compose it. But it is a way of giving something of yourself in terms of time, effort, and honesty.

At the local poetry group's open evening last week, a number of people brought in poems to share. They opened a book of notes, or unravelled a piece of paper, with the care and attention some give to treasured possessions. One gentleman had dedicated a book of poems to his wife after her death. Another had a blue notebook which went with him everywhere, to catch his thoughts; and he read to us with a tremble in his voice, as though he was giving part of himself. And another did not read, but placed his poem in the centre of the table like a sacrifice, for others to pick up if they chose. Everyone in the group listened attentively as each person read their poem, and told their story. There were so many different styles: lyrical, sad, comic, reflective, nostalgic, rhyming, unrhyming, long lines, short lines, long poems, quick poems… But the main thing is, each person was bringing in a piece of him or her self.

The week before last, I was lucky enough to be invited to hear some poems by Christina Rossetti, interspersed between music by Haydn, Puccini, Holst and Schubert. The last verse of 'In the Bleak Midwinter' seems to me to illustrate the importance of simple sharing:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

This was written as a poem for a magazine, but in the end was set to music and became a famous Christmas Hymn. You can hear a beautiful version at:
So, however hard it is to give, and however much the world puts in the way of our ability to share, a poem is a very special way of giving.

One more thing about the gift of a poem - it's recyclable and sustainable! It can be read again and again in different surroundings, passed on to others, and can last longer than the writer or the reader.

"If instead of a gem, or even a flower, we should cast the gift of a loving thought into the heart of a friend, that would be giving as the angels give." (George MacDonald)

Monday, October 17, 2011


Psychology has been very influenced by an approach called behaviourism. Behaviourism took the view that there was no point in trying to understand what goes on inside the mind; it focused exclusively on behaviour that can be externally observed. This leaves us with a problem concerning emotion; following behaviourist principles, we can only study emotion in terms of external behaviours. But is this all there is to anger, for instance – a mass of behaviours? Surely it must be useful to try to look inside, and collect information on what it feels like to be angry, for instance. As well as behaviours, therefore, we must examine feelings; methods used include introspection, where people give accounts of their own feelings. A third element is physiology. Different emotions may be related to different bodily responses. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) has, for instance, two complementary subsystems: the sympathetic ANS, which arouses us; and the parasympathetic ANS, which brings us calm. These can be measured by skin conductance (as with lie detectors, for instance), or electromyography (EMG).

Could you make a list of all emotions? We might think we know what emotions are, but how do we know that we have a correct or complete list? What about cultural influences, for instance? One approach to this issue is to try to decide which emotions seem to be experienced and described across the world. Lists vary, but many psychologist s agree on a core list of five basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and happiness (with the possible addition of surprise). Ekman has studied across cultures, and together with Oster has found support for a common base by establishing that children show similar emotions worldwide. In terms of names for emotions, Wallbott and Scherer looked at 37 countries, and found definite words for seven key emotions. But a problem with this ‘basic emotions’ approach is that it omits more complex emotions. It also says little about what triggers these emotions, and what social rules govern emotional behaviours.

An alternative approach is to define emotions in terms of how they affect us. In an ingenious approach, Dawson and others asked people how they rated certain objects and events on two scales: firstly valence (i.e. does it make you feel positive or negative?), and secondly arousal (does it make you feel excited or calm?). This enables us to plot on a two-dimensional graph where many objects and events lie. For instance, enjoyable fast driving might be plotted as high on arousal, and high on positive valence. Boring study might be plotted as low on arousal, and low on positive valence. However, this approach doesn’t deal well with multi-valence experiences – we often feel positive and negative at the same time, and may sometimes even feel calm and excited at the same time (as with pleasant anticipation).

You may have noticed that emotions like anger and fear stop you doing what you are doing, and change your attitude or behaviour. Often this signals that something we are trying to achieve may not be achieved. We could say that emotions have a function of making us aware of when our goals may not be met. Following on from this, the emotion may then arouse us in preparation for action – in fact, some arousal is important for proper use of physical resources, as is well-known by sports psychologists. Then, when acting, we can signal to others our emotional state, so they can be aware – as Darwin, for instance, pointed out back in the 1800s.

And there is a special function of emotion in terms of making decisions. It seems that, whenever we experience an event along with an emotion, we store that for future use. Damasio studied this in a gambling context, using biased packs of cards. He discovered that, if we play a reward-based game repeatedly, we can use our emotional responses to develop cues, or ‘somatic markers’, learning which pack of cards is biased in our favour. Probably we use emotions in the same way when we choose our friend preferences. Perhaps each person is like a different pack of cards. We learn through repetition who brings us positive experience, and who brings us negative experience, and begin to show a preference. Most people prefer to make small gains and avoid large losses. This means that we unconsciously choose friends who do not cause us big pain, but bring us little lifts and gifts! However, there may be differences in style, with some unusual, risk-seeking people preferring to engage with people who sometimes bring them big losses, but bring them excitement. Perhaps these people are the relationship equivalent of heavy gamblers!

So emotion can influence our future actions, by giving a positive/negative ‘gut feeling’ to objects and events. Why do we need to feel emotions subjectively? Wouldn’t it be easier not to have to experience the pain? Well, perhaps we need to experience the pain of fear and disgust, for instance, so that we can inhibit, through conscious awareness, future actions which may not have positive results. In other words, if we consciously anticipate by habit, then if we are to modify that conscious habit, we need to consciously feel the modifying, ‘warning’ emotions as well, even if they bring pain.

Emotion affects what we remember. We remember things better if the content and style match our current mood (Bower, 1981). More than this, we recall things better if we are in the same mood as when we put them into memory (Matt et al., 1992). Think about what this means: it means that if we are feeling anxious, we will tend to remember things that we experienced when we were anxious. Teasdale and other psychologists have explored the vicious circle of anxiety/anxious memory/more anxiety that this can cause. Some mindfulness therapy is intended to break this cycle by encouraging us to take control of our awareness/attentional bias.

MacLeod researched attention in an emotional context, and found that we respond faster to neutral areas than threat-related areas of a display. However, anxious patients showed the opposite tendency. Mathews and others have suggested that anxiety makes us too quick to respond to possible threats in our environment, making us hyper-vigilant. And when Eysenck and others presented people with the sound of words with two meanings, high-trait anxious people were biased towards the anxious meaning. So perhaps if we are anxious by nature, we are more likely to reinforce this state with our interpretation of what we see and hear.

Although we don’t agree entirely on a good list of emotions, we have an idea that key emotions are anger, fear, disgust, sadness and happiness. Emotions are useful because they interrupt us when our goals are frustrated; they get us ready for action; they signal our state to others; and they help us make preferential decisions. There is a danger that some negative emotions may reinforce themselves by making us remember, and attend to, events that reflect the same state. We can get ‘locked in’ to anger, fear or anxiety. The best cure for this might be meditation, or mindfulness, to bring our awareness to nicer things.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


A tiny thought. I was in the garden, trimming the grass, when I had a bit of a revelation. Now, you may say that it's a bit late in life to have relevations, but hey, you live and learn! When I was thinking through some big arguments, I realized, more than I had done before, that an important part of making peace is to understand the truth according to others, whether you agree with it or not. I feel a bit silly for not realizing this better before. It's always good to be true and open, but in addition I guess it also helps to to try harder to appreciate what others worry about, what they believe, and what they care about. Then, even if we are still confident of what we know to be true, we can at least understand better. I am going to try to modify my behaviour and take more interest in others' perspectives. As I say, you live and learn!

Perspective-taking is an important tool in learning cultures too:

Saturday, October 15, 2011


I was playing rugby with my son on a hill over Guildford as the sun went down, and the wide view took my mind to other wide views, and then to the sea.

Why is it the sea feels so healthy for us? I remember a couple of years ago, walking across the noisy stones of a harbour, taking photos across the coast, with nothing but contentment in my mind. It was as though the sea and the wind and the wide air took any troubles, and made them seem small by comparison with the space and the movement. There is something exhilarating about the way the air buffets your cheek, and something soothing about the constant flow of people across the wide view. And I remember being in South Africa on the very edge of that continent, looking down on crashing waves towards the wide sea, and feeling connected across the thousands of miles back to England.

The sea reminds us that wherever we are, we're part of something bigger than ourselves, and that everything, and everyone, are connected.

Come walk with me
Along the sea
Where dusk sits on the land
And search with me
For shells are free,
And treasures hide in sand.

Friday, October 14, 2011


What a wonderful effect the blue sky has on our moods! Even towards the end of the year, when summer's heat has drifted to cooler air, the light cheers the mind and can make us want to sing. After a wonderful musical concert this week, the air was still warm and easy, and the riverside walk so tranquil. It's been a nice indian summer, and it's comforting to lie in bed and still feel a pleasant glow in the muscles while lying in peace.

The birds still seem to be out to play, and even the trees don't seem to know it's autumn. At times like this, it's nice to walk in the open air, and reflect on all that's good in the world. People smile more, and walk with an easy pace. There's so much to be thankful for, and there's always a reason to be cheerful, something good around the corner, someone to help, someone to chat with. In all our busy-ness, there is so much to support us, if we can relax and be mindful. Here's to the blue sky :-)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Our memories of events are a kind of 'database of the self'. This store of recollections plays a key part in our identity, and is termed 'autobiographical memory'.

Some psychologists (e.g. Conway and Pleydell-Pearce) believe that we tend to remember events from our lives better if they have a good fit with our goals and objectives. For instance, we may have a good recollection of receiving news of passing an important exam, or of any event which we see as helping us to achieve key objectives.

In later life we tend to forget most, if not all, events up to five years old - known as 'childhood amnesia'. Nobody knows exactly why - it is surprising, because most under-fives do have good capacity to have the memories in the first place. Conway and Pleydell-Pearce believe that we forget all this as adults because our adult goals are not the same as when we memorized the original events. As an alternative, a Freudian view might suggest that, as adults, we 'filter out' childhood memories as too uncontrolled and powerful.

In contrast, we do seem to have a preference for remembering events from our late adolescence and into our early twenties. This is called the 'reminiscence bump' (RB). Memories from this period are unusually accurate. Our preference for these memories is not because they are more vivid or pleasant, nor because the memories are first-time memories. It seems to be because our life stabilizes at that time, and because it is a self-defining period.

We have a slight preference for recalling recent events, probably for the obvious reason that they haven't drifted far enough into the past to slip too much from our minds!

Conway and Pleydell-Pearce have modelled how all this might work.

1. First of all, we have 'sensory-perceptual memories' - memories for particular events which have not been 'filed' away in our minds very efficiently. A bit like a photograph sitting on the table, but without any label on it for future reference.
2. Then, over time, these snapshots get labelled as 'general events' with more abstract labels - for instance, we may label them in our brains according to our emotional state at the time, or how well the event helped us achieve our objectives.
3. Finally,we may abstract even further into 'lifetime periods', which may relate to overall life goals. These 'lifetime periods' can form part of a 'life story' - an account of ourselves which link everything together to form a theme or themes.

We can filter from 3 to 2 to 1 above. When we remember events, we may start with a lifetime period, narrow things down to a subset of general events, and then focus in on a sensory-perceptual memory. Psychologists Haque and Conway have found that this is indeed how we tend to retrieve past memories - narrowing down our search from a wide initial base.

A remembered episode is a kind of 'recollection' - some psychologists think this recollective kind of memory is different from general knowledge, which is known more as 'semantic' menory, and consists more of detached facts rather than events. Psychologist Conway suggests that most sensory-perceptual memories (i.e. particular events) are lost to memory, unless they are linked strongly to some kind of general event or personal goal at the time of memorizing. When we later recall incidents, we tend to recreate the emotional state we were in at the time.

There is strong evidence for goal-bias in memory. For example, cognitive psychologist McLelland split people into intimacy and power types, and found that their personal memories tended to have a flavour of either power or intimacy, depending on preference. Another researcher, Woike, split people into independent and nurturing, and found similar biases. This is not surprising, when you think that your nature will define your preferences, and your identity define your goals - in other words, if you are a power-crazy loner, then a nurturing family gathering last year may not feature in your memories as much as winning a million pounds for yourself! Personal goals can compensate for childhood disappointments - for example, someone who did not get intimacy in childhood, may, when they are grown up, look for relationships where extreme intimacy occurs.

Stressful events can trigger a special type of memory, which returns even if we do not want it. Memories are disruptive and intrusive, and tend to recreate feelings of intense threat, fear, horror or hopelessness. We may get sensory-perceptual 'flashbacks' - glimpses of elements of the original experience, such as a colour, or a smell, or a voice. They can be very direct and uncontrolled, partly because our 'goal-oriented self' has not been able to file the event properly in any particular filing cabinet, so it just flies back into our consciousness without warning, and without a sense of control.

In summary, we tend to remember events relevant to our goals, objectives and priorities, and organize our memories on this basis. So if you want to create a memorable experience for someone, find out what their priorities and values are in life, and create an experience which helps them to achieve or push forward these goals. Then they will remember you fondly by the fireside, when they are old!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


In 1854, Boole described a set of laws governing human reasoning, as though we all, at our best, think completely logically. And Piaget, a key developmental psychologist, considered the ability to reason logically one of the pinnacles of human development. We do seem to make logical inferences all the time - combining known information to deduce an unknown. However, do we really think like this consistently? Some argue that it would be a waste of brain resource to think absolutely EVERYTHING through logically. Some of our thinking habits may be short cuts - for instance, we might make a calculated guess as to another person's intentions. This makes sense in evolutionary terms. Faced with an attacking lion, I am not going to ask it to stop while I think through my options with perfect depth and logicality. I will simply make a best guess as to a suitable action!

Basic logic goes like this: it starts with a first statement (an antecedent), and then suggests that if this is true, then something else (a consequent) inevitably follows. For example, the following is an if…then statement typical of the foundations of logical thinking:

Imagine that the following is true:

(A) If the bag is heavier than 20 kg, then (B) Andrew will drop it

There are two logical assumptions based on this - and each one has a Latin name:

MP (modus ponens): If A then B - i.e. If the bag is heavier than 20 kg, then Andrew will drop it
(This is logical because it simply states the inevitable consequence. 97% of people think like this.)

MT (modus tollens): If 'not B', then 'not A' - i.e. If Andrew does not drop the bag, then it is not heavier than 20 kg
(This is logical because if the inevitable consequence hasn't happened, then the cause can't have happened. Only 72% of people think like this.)

Also, there are two illogical assumptions:

AC (affirming the consequent): If B then A - i.e. If Andrew drops the bag, then it is heavier than 20 kg
(This is illogical because Andrew dropping the bag does not CAUSE it to be heavy - it's the wrong way round! But 63% of people think like this!)

DA (denying the antecedent): If not A then not B - i.e. If the bag is not heavier than 20 kg, Andrew will not drop it
(This is illogical because the bag being light does not CAUSE Andrew to hold on to it. But 55% of people think like this!)

Some psychologists believe that people should be expected to follow these rules. Their approach is called a 'mental logic' approach. They judge humans by the very abstract and complicated rules above, and where people are illogical, they assume it is because people have failed to appreciate the logic above. One problem with this approach, is that it expects a lot from human beings. If you got a headache when you read the bit above, it is a clue that we don't naturally think like that! So a mental logic approach may be unrealistically strict.

Some psychologists believe that people aren't born knowing all this, but they try to work it out in their heads. And because our working memories are limited (we can't think of everything at once!), we tend to have a preferred mental model including some bits of the logic above, but not all of it - that would just be too complicated.

Some psychologists say 'Forget all this business about logic, people just work out which outcome is most probable!' In the above example, a probabilistic approach would suggest people think about Andrew and the bag, and guess probabilities from known factors instead of working it all out strictly and logically.

Experiments have found that, when we're given extra information, it influences us in our logical thinking, even when it's not strictly relevant. So it seems that we adapt our assumptions, not just based on logical working out, but on the amount of information we have at our disposal. This makes sense in practical tasks - we have a big memory of past events, so why not use all that information to help us to guess what will happen next?

In particular, people find it very difficult to work through any logic involving 'not', i.e. negatives, as in 'modus tollens' above. For example, if I asked you to list things in your garden that could NOT be burned easily in a fire, it would take you a while to think about it. But if I asked you to list things that WILL burn easily, that's much easier.

An evolutionary psychologist called Cosmides suggests that all the logic stuff above is a bit unnecessary. He suggests that we think in terms of practical benefits, not in terms of abstract logic. He has worked through experimental examples that seem to show that, where the chain of benefits is clear, people find it easier to think in a logical way. This makes sense: as animals, we are quite goal-orientated, and therefore, if given a clear goal, we will find it easier to work out how the constraints of a situation affect us.

It seems that mental logic is unrealistic for most people, and that most of the time we don't even create our own logical mental models. I would suggest that the balance of research favours the idea that humans find it easier to think in terms of, not reason, but probabilities in the context of a goal or objective. A few people may be good at logical abstract reasoning, but it does not come naturally.

How can this understanding help us?

Well, what it means is, don't expect your friends always to appreciate the logic of what you are saying, even if it makes sense to you! Don't expect people to be fair, abstract and neutral, even if you are. Most people are not naturally built to have such understanding. It is much better, instead, to appeal to their natural goal-seeking ability. Ask them to imagine your situation, and imagine what THEY would do in your position, if they wanted to maximise benefit. THEN, and only then, may they see your point of view.

Those teaching children may wish to apply this in, for instance, science classes. To encourage them to think things through, it may be better for a science teacher to give children a project based on rewards. They will then be driven to improve their thinking in order to overcome the situation's constraints and seek the reward!


Inside our minds, believe psychologists, there are things called concepts. They are the internal representation of our external behaviour towards objects. This external behaviour is often described as categorization - categorization being they way we behave differently towards different things. For example, if I see my mother, I will behave differently towards her than if I saw a stranger. My different behaviour shows that I have categorized her differently to a stranger; therefore, the argument goes, I must have a special concept of my mother that is different from a stranger.

Since the time of Aristotle, and probably before, man has been aware of definitions. A definition is a way of describing a concept, which can be used to decide which objects belong to its related category, and which do not. For example, I could create a 'necessary and sufficient' definition of a mother as 'a female relative one generation above me, of whom I am a direct descendant'. This excludes friends, aunts and grandmothers, and goes a long way to creating a boundaried concept we can all agree on.

However, is this how concepts really work - do we always create 'in or out' definitions? Not really. A psychologist called Rosch found that categorization is often a matter of degree, not absolute certainty. He used the term 'typicality' to describe this. Never mind definitions, he said, we seem to rate some dogs as 'very doggy', and some as 'not very doggy' - meaning that categories may be a matter of evaluating how typical of a concept something is. This is especialy evident at the boundaries. If you saw a fruit which was half way between an apple and a pear, you would look for features typical of either apples or pears - perhaps shape, or taste - and try to make a categorization judgement based on these different aspects. A psychologist called Smith (1998) suggested that we have in our minds a kind of 'prototype' of each concept, a cluster of features which we think typical - and these features may have different weightings depending on how important they are to the concept.

Returning to the 'mother' idea, a person may be heard to say, to someone who fits the above definition of a mother, 'you are not my mother!' What they may be saying, is: 'You are not typical of what I expect a mother to be, therefore I exclude you from the category'. Perhaps the mother has failed to show unconditional love, which the person considers a heavily-weighted characteristic of a typical mother, and has therefore failed to be rated sufficiently 'typical' of the prototype. They fit the classical definition, but this is not how the person is thinking.

However, do people even think prototypically? One big problem is context - whether I include an object in a particular category will depend on the circumstances. The person above, who denies their biological parent is their mother for nurturing purposes, may accept them as their mother for administrative purposes - for instance, when filling in a form. Even if we use prototypes to judge category inclusion, these sets of features seem to be constantly changing and context-dependent. In an excellent experiment, Rips (1984) asked people to categorize 5-inch objects as coins or pizzas. He deliberately chose a size which was between that of a coin and that of a pizza. He found people's evaluations were quite inconsistent: for instance, they might say the item was more similar to a coin, but more likely to be a pizza. This shows that people don't, for instance, only use similarity-to-prototype to evaluate category inclusion. They may be inventing special rules. Even prototypes, we could even argue, need underlying rules to decide which features are more important.

So, an alternative idea is that we don't use classical definitions, and we don't use prototypes. Perhaps, say 'theory' theorists, we have our own special theories about things, and use these pet theories to decide what categories things belong to. Certainly, as suggested by Kiel (1989), children, as they grow to adults, evaluate less and less by superficial characteristics, and more and more by using their own theories. Perhaps we all, then, have internal concepts based on our own internal theories.

Again, in the 'mother' example above, this developmental idea makes sense. We may, when young, think of a 'mother' as being something quite stereotypical, a sort of combination of our own mother, and easy stereotypes from films and books. In later life, we may develop our own deeper concepts of what a mother may be, and evaluate the category 'mother' according to much more complex criteria.

However, some psychologists believe that we don't really think this hard about things. 'Essentialists' believe that, even before we have thought about things in depth, we naturally have 'beliefs' in our minds about what things are. They assert that we believe a mother is a mother simply because she contains an essence called 'mother-ness'. In a sense, this is true - if you believe that a person is your mother, then even if you find out this is genetically untrue, or that she has not behaved as a typical mother, you might still describe her as your mother. Perhaps her 'mother-ness' is not dependent on attributes, but on a basic 'essence'.

Essentialism is difficult to justify logically, but ths is exactly the point. If someone believes in a concept, then who are we to disagree? In this sense, essentialism respects a fundamental subjectivity in thought, however illogical that thought might be.

We seem to have at least four ways to think about things. Perhaps each way of thinking has its place:

1. We can use classical definitions where we need to be clear about category inclusion (e.g. you can only call someone a thief if they have stolen something!)
2. We can use prototypes where we need to make approximate practical judgements (e.g. you can guess someone may be a potential thief if their characteristics and behaviour fit a stereotype)
3. We can use our own theories to develop our mature ideas about what a thief might be, and in what context it would be right to call them a thief
4. We can believe, without evidence, that someone is essentially a thief, based on our subjective view

Our mind, then, thinks in flexible ways, and concepts are handled differently at different times. Given this, it is not surprising that people disagree so often. They are often using different methods of thinking. A final example: let us imagine we are deciding whether someone is a 'top model'….

1. Classical definition: are they registered with a top modelling agency? Yes or no?
2. Prototype: are they pretty? do they work as a model? do they behave like a model?
3. Theory: I have decided someone is a top model these days if they work as a model internationally and earn more than £100,000 a year
4. Essentialism: they just ARE a top model - it's in their bones, through and through!

As you can see, there is always scope for disagreement. But at least we can develop an understanding of WHY we disagree about concepts! Enjoy your thinking!.......

Monday, October 10, 2011


Today I received several little gifts. I received a lovely box of chocolate bites from my friend. I received a hug from my son. I received a helpful chat in which I learned so much. Everything added to my happiness.

All of these gifts were from people who, at one time or another, I have fought and struggled with, and I was so grateful.

People will always think of reasons to harm. But whenever we give or receive something good, we are taking the opportunity to escape the past, drop the heavy bag of reaction, and act freely. Good things happen when we become unconditional.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Whatever they grow up to be, they are still our children, and the one most important of all the things we can give to them is unconditional love. Not a love that depends on anything at all except that they are our children.” Rosaleen Dickson

“Give love and unconditional acceptance to those you encounter, and notice what happens.” Wayne Dyer


Many psychologists believe intelligent people have two main abilities: they can adapt to their environment; and they can learn from their experience. How on earth so we measure such abilities? Most tests are indirect - that is, they don't measure intelligence as we measure something like height: it isn't that kind of thing. Instead, tests measure mastery of the kind of problems which demonstrate adaptability, and the ability to learn quickly.

You may have noticed that intelligent people seem to be able to pay attention intensely to problems. Many experts now believe that intelligence and attention are very closely linked. If someone is unable to pay attention in a focused way, they are unlikely to be able to solve problems and learn. Also, 'working memory' (the bit of our short term memory which handles temporary information and manages attention) seems closely linked to intelligence.

While some people think of intelligence as a single ability, others model it as a large number of different skills which all come together to make a person more adaptable. One very comprehensive theory is called the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory - involving over 70 different abilities, all of which in some way aid performance in mental tasks. People who perform well in CHC-related tests also seem to be good at reading and maths, for instance.

Some psychologists feel that traditional views of intelligence are too narrowly focused on academic skills, and that there should be more focus on creativity and practical skills. For example, Sternberg's 'triarchic theory' splits our world of intelligence into three -

1. Our internal world (do we have good, stable mental processes?)
2. Our experience (does the way we experience life make good use of our our mental processes?)
3. Our external world (do we work well with our culture and society to make the best of ourselves?)

Sternberg believes that no person exists in isolation, and that, as we exist on all three levels - individual, experiential and cultural - then it is better to evaluate our intelligence on all three levels. He believes, too, that we should learn on all three levels, and that schools should pay attention to giving us positive experiences and cultural integration, as well as just individual skills.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is personal, unlike general intelligence (see above), which is more abstract. EI concerns emotions, family and relationships, and how we manage them. Like general intelligence, it involves the ability to adapt to and learn from experience. But the experience concerned is less to do with abstract concepts, and more to do with social understanding and behaviour.

Salovey and Mayer first identified EI as a construct, and noticed that there is a hierarchy of levels. At a lower level, there is the ability to perceive the emotional realities of a situation - for instance, understanding other people's intentions, feelings and inner thoughts. But perception is not enough. Two people may see a situation accurately, but only one may know how to influence the situation to improve matters. At a higher level, then, beyond mere perception, there is emotional management - in other words, actually knowing what to do to manage social situations for the best.

There is a problem with tests for EI (for instance, the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT). The problem is that they are based on self-report. Is an individual really the best person to evaluate themselves? Possibly not! - but such tests do seem to have predictive value in terms of stress levels, leadership skills, and even the quality of romantic relationships (Brackett et al., 2005). Such tests, though, could be criticised for excluding the complexities of social interaction, where quantitative assessment is notoriously difficult.

There is another problem with EI - no one agrees on a definition! Is it personality traits? Ability to perceive emotional information? These are different things - you can be emotionally perceptive, but at the same time have a borderline personality! Equally, you can have a great personality, but have no emotional perception… However, this is not a new problem - it is an issue that also applies to general intelligence, where psychologists have argued for 100 years about definitions, and even about whether intelligence really exists as a definable concept.

Some models of EI take a mixed approach - they think of emotional intelligence as a mixture of communication skills, and personality. However, they all give slightly different priorities to different qualities. For example, how important is it to be assertive? The problem is, as soon as you start scoring people on behaviour, you are making assumptions about which behaviours are functional, and which are not. The whole thing starts getting very close to an 'emotional health' assessment, and, in general, there is still quite a confused relationship between emotional wellbeing, personality, and emotional intelligence.

Some have found that, despite these definitional problems, EI tests predict success better than general intelligence tests. But, again, who are we to decide what 'success' is? We are back to subjective, normative judgements! Was Jesus successful? It depends how you evaluate a 'career'! With such a dependence on cultural and normative values, it might be better to admit that EI tests involve a big value-judgement, rather than an assessment of some kind of objective processing ability. When someone gets a high mark for EI, perhaps we should just say that they appear to be the kind of person society values as socially functional and useful. Such judgements arguably tell us more about our society's values than an individual's performance; until we can be more scientifically robust, it would go too far to suggest that EI tells us much about individual differences.

Some interesting links re intelligence:

For more about Sternberg's views on general intelligence (and love!):

For discussion of emotional intelligence issues in general:


Using my bicycle to get everywhere, as I did on Friday, reminds me of childhood. Feeling the rush of wind on the way to the train station, and the pull on my muscles as I ride along the riverbank. And then wrestling with the padlock to fix the bike to a rack… not paying for parking makes me smile :-)

On the South Bank in London, by the Hayward Gallery, they had made nightlights out of knickers! They were hung on wires, and floated above the walkway like chinese lanterns. The moroccan food at the market is beautiful, and the bridges and arches and steps by Waterloo so welcoming.

Drifting up Charing Cross Road into Soho, the streets were full of pubs overspilling and audiences inning and outing… and in the warm of a theatre, the comedy was immediate and friendly. To hear an old friend sing to an audience - a friend I hadn't seen for 33 years - was special. Nothing had changed in the time in between, except the years had drawn a few wise lines across our faces. We remembered old times for a while, and planned to meet again.

Coming home, after such a busy week, seemed a little lonely. But loneliness is not such a bad thing, if you can tolerate it. It reminds you what you feel like, and makes you welcome others with a bigger smile when you see them again. A little bike ride from the station, and then home, where the light on the phone signalled missed calls, and I sent love in my mind to each caller as I collapsed into bed, with October London drifting across my closing eyes and into my dreams.


Understanding language is a funny thing. We start listening before we have even heard anything, with a preset expectation depending on our surroundings; then we hear a stream of sounds which we immediately connect with a set of words in our heads. We know they are significant, especially if they are uttered in the cadences of our own language, or a familiar one. How does that happen? And reading is equally strange – how do we make sense of so many peculiar signs?

Psychologists think that listening to speech is a much older use of language than reading words; evolutionary psychologists suggest that man was making complex noises well before he invented written language, with the corresponding necessity to read.

How do we divide up what we hear into the right words? If you have ever learned another language, you will know that a difficult task for the novice is to learn to tell when one word ends and another begins. It seems to be a constant stream when spoken quickly, without breaks which could give clues as to the word boundaries. Some cues, such as rhythm, are ‘pre-lexical’, meaning that they don’t depend on vocabulary knowledge and recognition. In English, for instance, we often stress the first syllable of each important word, giving the listener a strong clue that a new word has started. Different languages have different rhythmic habits, which give different clues as to word boundaries. Even babies have the ability to pick up patterns in their own native language.

Where syllable stress doesn’t work, however, we may have to rely on ‘lexical knowledge’ – a kind of dictionary in our heads which picks up parts of words and tried to make them into complete ones. Some models of language comprehension suggest that when we hear a part-word, we ‘activate’ in our brains a whole set of words which might fit – for instance, when we hear ‘wh-’, we may instantly trigger ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’, and other possible words in our heads. Then, when we hear more of the word, we may get to a point when there is only one possible interpretation. The important thing in these models, is that we are constantly coming up with theories and possibilities, all the way until the point where a word is certain. Some psychologists have come up with computer models to simulate how we activate some words, and inhibit others, in an interactive way (e.g. the TRACE model of McLelland and Elman, 1986).

Reading is different. With reading, we can already see where the words start and end, because there are spaces. The clues we have available include the shapes of letters and groups of letters – so we can build up, ‘bottom-up’, an idea of words from featural cues. However, we are also constantly making assumptions, ‘top-down’, about what words might be. Have you ever seen a road sign and interpreted it, only to discover later that you were wrong about the words? That is your ‘top-down’ assumptions jumping to a conclusion without listening enough to your ‘bottom-up’ perception!

When we read, it seems that we focus on the early part of a sequence – we often fixate at a point around 4 letters into our usual 18-letter reading span. Our vision is only detailed in the middle of our sight (the ‘fovea’), so we prioritize, and choose the earlier information, as it is likely to be more important.

When we read words, we can do it in two ways: all-at-once, or by dividing them up into sections. For example, some children learn to read in whole-word chunks, just by familiarity; and some children learn in word-sections, by trying to build up a rule-based understanding of words. Both ways are equally valid. Coltheart and others incorporated both routes in their ‘dual route’ theory of how we read. It explains why some words are very slow to process – irregular words, for instance, have no rules to hang on to; if, furthermore, a word is rare as well as irregular, then there will be no quick way of either recognizing it or working it out, and we will be slow to respond. Other factors affect how quickly we can respond to words – for instance, we respond faster to words which have a lot of similarly-rhyming words in the same language!

You will notice that words split up into recognizable bits, called ‘morphemes’. These are the basic sounds of a language. Theories vary as to whether we just recognize whole words, or decompose what we see. In 1958, Berko found that children were quite good at adding bits to new words (e.g. ‘s’ for plural), as if they understand rules and can apply them to ‘bits’ of words – this suggests that we all use some ‘decompositional’ functions, not just recognition.

But, in addition to recognition and rules, also influential is whether we expect a particular meaning. There is evidence that we can be ‘prepared’ to interpret words in particular ways, and do not just read with an open mind. Underlying conceptual thinking seems to be always influencing how we interpret what we read. Even so, in the early stages of seeing a word, it may be that ALL possible meanings get triggered initially (autonomous processing). Although there is evidence for this, some psychologists have also found evidence that the context of a sentence, and any dominant meaning, can influence very early word perception.

Finally, we read words in sentences, which are amazingly creative things, full of variety. Here we cannot use recognition all the time, because most sentences are unique. We must use our deeper brain to construct meanings and interpretations. A sentence begins as an unknown, until we begin to be able to assign words to particular roles (i.e. syntax). Some psychologists have assumed that we do this in a carefully sequential way, putting a sentence together in a single ‘best fit so far’ interpretation. But some (e.g. MacDonald et al., 1994) take a different view, and feel that we constantly play with many different possible meanings, treating a sentence a bit like a jigsaw.

What seems clear in all cases, is that, even where there are established rules and understandings, extra clues such as rhythm, pitch and timing make a difference. A word’s frequency of use in a particular context makes a difference. And even the non-verbal environment – the contextual setting outside the words – has been shown to have an effect.

So next time you speak or listen, read or write – just remember how much processing is going into the interpretation of what you produce. With all that energetic computation and theorizing going on, it’s a truly wonderful thing that we understand anyone’s thoughts at all!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


The more I think about it, the more I think that we have missed something in cognitive psychology. We have been obsessed with information processing, as though all information were somehow the same, and as though presentation didn't matter. True, most experimental approaches, and theories, now allow for a degree of influence from format - i.e. we know that HOW something is presented makes a difference to HOW MUCH is retained. But our understanding of memory, particularly long term memory, seems to be inhibited by an inability to move beyond a basic concept of 'information processing'.

The problem has partly, in my view, been caused by the linguistic convention, in psychology, of calling memorizing 'encoding'. This gives us a picture in our minds of a mind soaking up line after line of computer code, as though everything were reducible to some kind of binary, sequential 'code' which is passed into and through our mind like machine code through a computer. However, if we really 'encoded' all incoming signals in this way, then we would find facial recognition an astonishingly difficult task, whereas in fact facial recognition is something we are quite good at from early childhood. There must be something else going on - some other way of processing incoming signals which has little to do with sequential processing, and a lot to do with 'all-at-once' processing.

I believe that the best name for this second type of input is 'conformation'. The idea was inspired several months ago by a visit to a design exhibition (see an earlier blog). A group of designers had considered using the shapes of map routes between locations, as the basis for jewellery. They thought they might then print out the routes in solid material, using a 3D printer, and see what the results looked like. When I heard this idea, I felt that, probably, each route would produce a uniquely recognizable piece of jewellery, with its own character. Somehow, the mind would absorb the 'conformation', without necessarily having to do any sequential coding. In fact, I thought that this type of recognition was so different from traditionally described 'information processing' that the underlying abstract format deserved a different name.

In fact, we can see the basis for these two types of format in traditional models of working memory. Conventional models of how we think still suggest that we use two main slave devices: an articulatory loop, and a visuo-spatial sketchpad. The articulatory loop is what helps us to manage heard speech - it is regarded as largely sequential in nature. This approximates to a main use of the word 'information'. The second slave device, the visuo-spatial sketchpad, is what helps us, for instance, to remember patterns. A good example of these two slave devices in action, is when we input a pin code for a credit card. The articulatory loop can recite the number; the visuo-spatial sketchpad knows the pattern on the keyboard. One manages the information, the other the conformation. Sometimes we can even input our pin number without reciting it to ourselves - merely the sight of the keypad is enough for us, in a flash, to know what we are doing.

Conformational thinking, then, can be incredibly fast, and approximates, in a way, to intuition. It is so fast that it does not rely on conscious, laborious processing, but can spot a 'conformation', a recognizable arrangement of objects or events, at a glance, and identify and react accordingly. In future blogs, I'll probably come back to this, but suffice it to say, for the moment, that this 'rapid recognition device' is, in part, emotionally-driven - we get a 'feeling' that we recognize something. This is important, because, although conformational thinking is very effective in helping us find a way through our surroundings, it can act against us at certain times. If we are emotionally driven, through past traumas, to interpret scenes very quickly in emotionally-enhanced ways, then we can find ourselves 'out of control' in our immediate reactions to events. We see a pattern, and we immediately recognize and react. This type of behaviour is seen in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a useful warning system from our earlier evolution - but we need to return, at these times, to the concept of 'information' to balance ourselves. Cognitive Behavioural Therapists, then, will try to remind traumatised patients of the 'informational' truths of a situation. In this way, clients who are reacting emotionally to 'conformations', causing their minds to run wild with assumptions, can gain better control over their behaviour, by slowing themselves down, and returning to more laborious, serial, 'informational' processing. This is why talking can be good - it uses our articulatory loop (see above), and returns us to a shared, social way of thinking which avoids us 'jumping to conclusions', and 'grounds' us in a more healthy relationship with others.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Have you ever tried to meditate or be peaceful, and wondered why your mind won't stay still and think of one thing? It insists on wandering around on its own path, and then gets stuck in some problem or other, endlessly running round in circles, either trying to find a solution, or replaying scenes and conversations, real or imagined. It tends to focus on the 'problem of the moment', whatever that might be. We would love to settle into calm, but it is often hard to keep the mind in check.

Imagine that your mind is a forest. Like a forest, the mind grows brambles everywhere initially. That is why, if you haven't done any 'forest maintenance' for a while, you get your legs tangled when you go for a walk through your mind. Do you remember, when you were younger, trying to get through difficult bits of forest? The undergrowth was so strong, that your legs got cut and dirty from all the effort, and sometimes you got stuck in a particular place, without a hope of extracting yourself easily!

Now imagine that you can make paths for yourself to walk on, with enough width for comfort, and enough light for pleasure and safety. How can we create such paths in the mind? Meditators know that much of this is a question of habit. You will notice, in forests and even jungles, that animals cut paths with sheer force of habit, along their favourite routes. The mind works in the same way, expecially your long term memory. Where you walk the most, you will wear a path. So be careful! If you are always wearing a path to your worries, and to difficulties, then guess what? That's where your thoughts will go when you release them - down the path of least resistance! If you want your mind, your very own forest, to have pleasant paths full of happiness, then you had better start the long job of creating habits and routines which help your long term memory to establish healthy paths.

Some things are not a question of habit, and we need more than this to make a good forest. Sometimes, a good forest manager will realise that something new needs to happen, a little landscaping, or a new path. At such times, special effort is made to clear the way and shape the future, so that everything flows well. It's the same with your mind: you are the manager, and you must decide where the new big paths must go. But here's a design tip: try to make life easy for yourself! Decide where the best landscapes are, the cleanest streams, the loveliest views - and build your path to them. You can even make a map of your own mind in case you forget where your best paths are. A quick way is to go onto the internet, and choose 10 pictures which inspire you for some reason - you don't have to know why… probably, they represent favourite thoughts. Then, print them out (no larger than 6 or 7 cm wide) and arrange them on the floor in a collage that seems to work for you. It's not a perfect method, but it will get you working with your mind to make some inspiring 'mental maps' or 'mental paths'. You will find your other thoughts will gather around them, like flowers around a flower bed, following your design.

I hope some of this helps with some ideas as to how to get some control over your thoughts. All the best meditators work on this day and night, but everyone can surely do a little work in their forest, and make some nice walks! It just takes a little time, dedication and discipline.