I know that a nation doesn’t experience trauma in the same way as a person, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the Leave campaign’s latching onto the phrase ‘take back control’ hadn’t been not only about appealing to what Dominic Cummings called a desire for ‘loss aversion’, but had also touched on something deeper, darker, more self-destructive.
Jerry Fodor, who died yesterday, wrote thirty pieces for the LRB. The first was on Colin McGinn's Problem of Consciousness in 1991, the last on Hilary Putnam's Philosophy in an Age of Science in 2013. Many of them were on philosophy of mind (and, more often than not, lucidly explaining how the books under review had got it all wrong), though he also wrote on Wagner, Puccini, and Elton John and Tim Rice's reworking of Aida: 'I haven’t been to a musical play in maybe forty years. I know nonetheless (a priori, as philosophers say) that I do not like them.'
As I was preparing to speak at Seymour Papert’s memorial last month, I turned to my 1980 copy of Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. The hardback first edition. The one with the orange cover that had the photo insert of a young girl commanding a floor Turtle. She had programmed a computer in Logo to instruct the Turtle to sketch out a bear, and she looks happy as she surveys the results of her work. Next to her is a young boy. He is laughing, joyful. His body cradles the Turtle, his hand lovingly grazes its back. The girl is Miriam Lawler, the daughter of the psychologist Bob Lawler who was one of Seymour’s students and collaborators. The boy is the nephew of John Berlow, Seymour’s editor. These children grew up with Logo. The joy in the photo is part of their everyday experience of living in the Logo culture. It illustrates many of Seymour’s most powerful ideas about objects and learning.
If you remember the BBC's Tomorrow's World, you'll feel a moment of nostalgia at reading about this exciting scientific breakthrough. The tomorrow of Tomorrow's World, like all tomorrows, never came. The marvellous invention or brand new piece of research that was going to change our lives for ever (tomorrow, obviously) never quite got to the point where it arrived in your kitchen or at a hospital near you. The marvellous machine today is the fMRI scanner. Today's promise for tomorrow's fMRI magic is that we can, finally, know what is going on in people's minds. Other people's minds. This is the great mystery and annoyance we all have to put up with, though if it ever comes to pass, I would be most eager to borrow it and find out what's going on in my own mind first.
I'm not sure if I've got my miserablist head round this exactly, but it seems that not only do pessimists generally have a much more realistic view of the world than optimists, but optimists maintain their unrealistic position by ignoring bad news. Tell someone that the 40 per cent chance they thought they had of getting cancer is actually 30 per cent and they'll revise their estimate to a realistic 31 per cent. Those who believed that their chances were just 10 per cent 'only marginally' increased their odds of getting the disease. MRI scans showed that the frontal lobes of the happy-go-lucky 80 per cent of the population just weren't letting any mopey facts change their upbeat, can-do, won't-die minds.
The Social Animal by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist and right-wing talking head, combines fictional narrative, studies-have-shown pop psychology and conservative social satire in unusual ways. Thomas Nagel calls it 'a moral and social tract... hung on the life stories of two imaginary people, Harold and Erica'. Here are ten of its weirdest sentences:
Big news from the Institute of Mental Health and the West London Mental Health Trust suggesting not only that grandmas don't know how to suck eggs but that there’s much less of it – mental health – around than we imagined. Perhaps imagined isn’t the right word. One thing people with Personality Disorder don’t have is delusion. It’s practically the sole defining characteristic – at least the only symptom not mentioned. At least 4 per cent, or possibly 13 per cent of us suffer from it. In fact, the definition is so broad that it may be we all suffer from it, all of us who don’t actually see things that aren’t there when we’re awake and not drunk or drugged.
They've done a new version of a 1960s Stanford experiment. Sit a small child in a room with a marshmallow on a plate, and tell them that if they stay sitting in front of it and don't eat it, they will get a second marshmallow when the experimenter comes back. Then leave the room and make sure a camera is trained on the kids.
It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that rats gamble, since everything that lives and moves gambles. Getting out of bed in the morning is a gamble that the day and life won't end when a hammer that has slipped out of the hand of a roofer two doors down from the newsagent where you get your paper every morning doesn't land on your cranium as you pass. You bet it won't happen, or you stay in bed and sod the crossword. Foxes gamble when they rummage through your rubbish bin that the local hunt isn't about to come round the corner and tear them to pieces (no one having told them about the recent legislation). The pigeon in my garden gambles that the cat won't sneak up behind it as it hoovers up the spilt seeds under the bird feeder. It knows the cat's around, knows the food's around. Doesn't want to die, wants to eat. Takes a risk, on whatever basis pigeons work these things out. Living things gamble or they stay absolutely still and die of starvation.