The email edition of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest has reached the milestone of its 150th issue. That’s over 900 quality, peer-reviewed psychology journal articles digested since 2003. To mark the occasion, the Digest editor has invited some of the world’s leading psychologists to look inwards and share, in 150 words, one nagging thing they still don’t understand about themselves. Their responses are by turns candid, witty and thought-provoking. Here’s what they had to say:
I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to the contributors for baring their psyches and sacrificing their time. Thanks also to The Independent for helping spread the word. Here’s to the next 150 issues of the Research Digest!
This special Research Digest feature was brought to you by the the British Psychological Society, the representative body for psychology and psychologists since 1901.
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I believe (although I’ve never seen it for myself) that inside my skull is a brain containing billions of neurons connected to each other in trillions of ways, with signals zooming about, setting off other signals, and generally creating massively complicated loops, coalitions, sustained patterns, and multiple parallel organised streams of information that combined together control the behaviour of this – my body. And that’s it. So how come I feel as though there is a conscious “me” as well? The oh-so-tempting idea that I am something else – a soul, a spirit, a mystical entity – is rubbish, although I once believed in it. This question nags at me so much that I have devoted most of my life to it – through research, writing, and thirty years of daily meditation. But I still don’t understand. And the more I look, the less substantial my own self seems to be. What is consciousness? And who is conscious? I really don’t know.
Dr Sue Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. Her latest book is Ten Zen Questions.
There’s plenty I don’t understand about myself, but nothing nags. Paradoxically, the deeper I got into neuropsychology the less interested I became in the details of my own inner workings. I’m not sure why. It certainly is not because I arrived at any great insight or understanding. I still experience the almost visceral sense of puzzlement over matters of brain, mind and selfhood that first drew me to the field. What happened, I think, was a shift – let’s imagine a neural switch somewhere in the frontolimbic circuitry – from one preoccupying question, What am I? to another, What should I do? It left me less inclined to bother about self-understanding than to consider the value of things, moral and aesthetic. How best to live? But here’s a nagging thought: might those two preoccupying questions turn out to be one and the same, like the evening star and the morning star?
Dr Paul Broks is a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Plymouth and a popular science writer. “On Emotion”, the first of a planned trilogy of plays by Broks and Mick Gordon, about emotion and magical thinking, was shown in the West End last December.
Over the stretch of my professional years, I’d say my most nagging error has involved an inability to gauge correctly the point at which the next possible undertaking – or even golden opportunity – should be firmly rejected. Whenever I’ve allowed one-too-many responsibilities onto my plate, everything – including the new item – has suffered from the overcrowding. With that threshold crossed, I’ve no longer had the time or patience to plan, think, or toil hard enough to be proud of the resultant work. If I had a single piece of advice for young researchers, it would be to create and follow a rule for avoiding this state of affairs. The rule could involve something objective (e.g., never exceeding a specific quota of research involvements) or subjective (e.g., avoiding the feeling of rushing to, from, and through all of one’s commitments). The key is to apply the rule ruthlessly. Anything less would be another form of error.
One nagging thing that I still don’t understand about myself is why I often succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware of these biases. One example is my failure at affective forecasting, such as believing that I will be happy for a long time after some accomplishment (e.g. publishing a new book), when in fact the happiness dissipates more quickly than anticipated. Another is succumbing to the male sexual overperception bias, misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest. A third is undue optimism about how quickly I can complete work projects, despite many years of experience in underestimating the time actually required. One would think that explicit knowledge of these well-documented psychological biases and years of experience with them would allow a person to cognitively override the biases. But they don’t.
David Buss is Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas where he heads the Individual Differences and Evolutionary Psychology Area. Among the world’s most highly cited evolutionary psychologists, his latest book is Why Women Have Sex.
One nagging thing I still don’t understand about myself is why I didn’t ask my grandparents before they died, more about their childhoods?
“Grandpa (R), you’re 100 now but what was it like being born in 1900 into a world where man couldn’t fly and an abacus was the closest thing to a computer?”
“Grandpa (E), did it hurt when grandma burnt the leaches off your back on your return from the war trenches, as you sat in the tin bath in front of the fire?”
“Nana (R), did you enjoy being one of the first families in Sunderland to own an ‘automobile’ and having to eat ‘below stairs’ with the cooks and the scullery maids?”
“Nana (E), how did you cope as the youngest of twelve in a poor, Derbyshire, farming family , gaining a scholarship to grammar school, but being forced to go away into service at thirteen to become a scullery maid?”
After struggling mightily, and not particularly successfully, to have a thought about this, I broached a Friday after-work happy hour group and asked them what they would say about themselves. To a person, each looked uncomfortable with the mere question. They asked me whether I had anything in mind. Well maybe one thing: I don’t understand why I have nightmares almost every night. Nightmares of frustration. Obstacles in my way that keep me from catching an airplane trip on time. Obstacles that keep me from getting where I’m supposed to be. I wake up almost every morning with a sense of relief – “Thank goodness it was just a dream.” None of my colleagues seemed to spend their nights this way. What possible reason is there for this mental behaviour, night after night, that is clearly so uncomfortable? One happy hour colleague, a developmental psychologist, said: “that’s it – the happy relief you feel at the end. There’s your reinforcement.“ And thus she took away my one idea, by explaining it. It is now one nagging thing that I only partly understand. Or do I?
In my recent conversations with the Dalai Lama (which eventuated into a book – Emotional Awareness) we disagreed about two matters. One was fear of death, which I claim not to feel and he claims everyone has. The evidence is in his favor since all religions promise life of some kind after death, and they would not do so if people didn’t need it. I fear a painful death, but not death itself. Can’t comprehend why people do; which doesn’t mean I don’t wish to continue living, but as time progresses and body parts and the mind wears out I expect death will be welcome. Our other disagreement was about forgiveness. I believe there are unforgivable actions – child abuse, rape, holocausts, torture are examples. The Dalai Lama says he forgives but does not forget. In my view, since he believes such people will be reincarnated in an undesirable form, he doesn’t need to forgive them.
Dr Paul Ekman is Manager of the Paul Ekman Group, LLC (PEG), a small company that produces training devices relevant to emotional skills, and is initiating new research relevant to national security and law enforcement. He was listed as one of the 100 most influential psychologists of the twentieth century by the Review of General Psychology in 2002, and was among Time magazine’s most influential people of 2009.
I’ve had three of my own children and spent my professional life thinking about children. And yet I still find my relation to my children deeply puzzling. Our love for children is so unlike any other human emotion. I fell in love with my babies so quickly and profoundly, almost completely independently of their particular qualities. And yet 20 years later I was (more or less) happy to see them go – I had to be happy to see them go. We are totally devoted to them when they are little and yet the most we can expect in return when they grow up is that they regard us with bemused and tolerant affection. We are ambitious for them, we want them to thrive so badly. And yet we know that we have to grant them the autonomy to make their own mistakes. In no other human relation do we work so hard to accomplish such an ill-defined goal, which is precisely to create a being who will have goals that are not like ours.
Alison Gopnik is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has published over 100 articles on children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. Her latest book is The Philosophical Baby.
I can’t believe I accepted this assignment. Surely any admission undermines my credibility as a psychologist? Or does failure to reveal something denote arrogance, lack of insight or self consciousness with the same implications for reputation and self esteem?
I’m cautious about excessive introspection without some trusted person to offer perspective and balance. I have a dark place inside which at various stages of my life has been occupied by ghosts, daleks and negative emotions. Somehow I need this place though, to connect me to others especially those who want support with change and containment. In working with people who have mental health needs and substance misuse I use their desire to escape their own dark place to form a connection which, together with the research evidence, best practice guidelines and clinical tools, can accelerate their journey to recovery. Perhaps if I understood myself fully my own journey would be over.
Sue Gardner is a Chartered clinical psychologist and President of the British Psychological Society.