Accents of the Mind (Despatch #5)

May 13th, 20128:34 pm @


In another piece from our book of reflections on the events of 2011, Despatches from the Invisible Revolution, Pat Kane reflects on the political uses of neuroscience, not least in the electoral triumph of the Scottish National Party – as well as the contrasting atmospheres of his two home cities, Glasgow and London.


So much mind science rolling up to my feet. Ita��s been around for me since the early 00s, when I started studying the various natural and social sciences of play in depth. I pulled together little fragments in 2004a��s The Play Ethic – neurologists reporting how play a�?lights up every area of the braina�� in a CAT scan, a�?like a Christmas treea��, some kind of evidence of its link to general cognitive health and vitality. Or Brian Sutton-Smitha��s marvellously suggestive notion (in The Ambiguity of Play buy provera uk. ) of a�?adaptive potentiationa�� – the very teeming variety and heterodoxy of play forms explained by its role in enhancing the survivability and flourishing of complex social animals.

So I found myself walking into the muffled snowstorm of a�?social animala�� and a�?nudgea�� thinking in 2011, in the first full year of a Coalition government at Westminster. From play studies, I carried in my head a rather more labile and fluid conception of human nature than one which claimed (as the Nudge authors Thaler and Sunstein did) that Homer Simpson was our behavioural default: short-termist, fearing loss more than desiring gain, unable to think clearly because of savannah-era tendencies. In terms of the cross-party paternalism and know-better-ism that marked New Labour and the New Tory/Coalition regimes of the last 14 years, this seemed like far too expedient and convenient a set of psycho-social truths.

So, much of my mental life in 2011 was spent getting to know this enemy of autonomy: reading David Brooksa�� impressively facile The Social Animal, listening to LSE podcasts from government-appointed academics who were building up the statistical confidence to make divorce tougher (and thereby increase ‘happiness’), prising open the playful moments in think-tank papers otherwise entranced by a presumptively normative account of human behaviour. I found a wonderful paper by my old lit-theory guru Catherine Belsey which accused nudge-thinking of having an a�?irredeemably suburbana�� vision of human nature (a�?Biology and Imagination: the role of culturea�� in Human nature: fact and fiction, 2006). That helped.

What was truly fascinating was the way that social-animal scientism was seized upon by the good guys too. The RSAa��s Social Brain project has entertained many of its epigones over 2011. Yet thankfully, at the end of the year, a paper called Transforming Behaviour Change by its head, Jonathan Rowson, acknowledged the need to emphasise the meta-level nature of human consciousness, what they called a�?neurological reflexivitya��. I remember Steven Pinker at the end of cialis tanio. The Blank Slate saying that a�?ultimately, I can tell my genes to go take a jump in the lakea��.

What is so frustrating about the nudgers is that all those extemporisations of humanity that we exult in – arts of all kinds, technological and scientific innovations – hardly figure in their drearily bureaucratic vision of humanity. As the book Ia��ve been toiling over for 2011 (and looks like most of 2012 too) says, arena��t we a�?radical animalsa�� as well as a�?social animalsa��?

The gaming of a�?cognitive biasa�� comes from all angles. Greens like the New Economics Foundation, Marek Kohn and Tim Jackson believe that a�?good public policya�� (and by implication, mandarinate and non-nudge-able policy makers) can leverage our petty instincts for social comparison and herd-behaviour into sustainable lifestyles, given the right cues and a�?choice architecturea��. I understand the frustrations of Greens: after many fruitless years trying to use statistics and science to scare over-consuming Northerners/Westerners, theya��re now searching around for a�?irrationala�� levers for behaviour change, in recognition that the a�?rationala�� case seems difficult to make count.

Yet I think this is a mistake. I dona��t believe the human thirst for novelty and innovation can be so easily taken down a notch or two by enlightened system-steerers and cultural-shapers. I think it has to be redirected from being gratified by status and gadget consumption, towards the pleasures of craft, making and what the Greeks called poiesis (which Ia��d like to recover from the general autopoiesis of a�?being a good and dutiful consumera��). This can be as digital as it is material, as interested in spectacle and sensuality as it is in efficient and graspable process.

But we have to be more bold and capacious in our understanding of human nature, and think of the kinds of collective support we need for an intrinsically satisfying makerism. Which means arguing for policy (like social wages, shorter working weeks, new public housing and participation-oriented urban regulation) that supports the unfolding of our autonomy among ourselves in free space and time, rather than policy as the management of our poor forked a�?savannaha�� selves by a psychologically-reifying government (or Green movement).


My life is equally split between London and Glasgow, with beloved family and creative colleagues in both cities. This has given me a stereoscopic viewpoint on political change, and more specifically the motivations and instruments for that change.

The May 2011 General Elections to the Scottish Parliament didna��t just produce an outright victory for a social-democratic party (the SNP) which wants to establish an independent Scottish state, and which has now set a date for a referendum on that possibility. These elections were also a victory for a kind of cybernetics-meets-positive-psychology form of political campaigning in the network age.

As a Habermasian a�?constitutional patriota��, essentially happy with the idea of democracies being shaped by rational debate in the public sphere, I should expect to be pleased that a vigorous contest of ideas in a national election came out with my desired result. But while the campaign continued, I kept turning to Manuel Castellsa�� recent masterwork Communication Power. And I realised (with a little digging and inside knowledge) that the SNP had deployed – at least via its marketing advice – the same kinds of a�?cognitive biasa�� methods Ia��d been deploring in my struggles with the New Toryism.

Much of it comes from US studies into how emotion (values and habits) is essentially at the seat of votersa�� political decisions, rather than just rational calculation of self-interest. This is the lesson that the Republican Party learned over many years, using the best psychological expertise of Madison Avenue to select images and phrases that triggered primary emotions. And ita��s a lesson that (excepting Clinton and Obama) the Democrats generally forget, preferring to aim detailed and statistical policies at the rational minds of voters.

The basic psychologicala��neurological mechanisms that underpin what Castells calls a�?emotional politicsa�� almost instantly begin to shed light on the SNPa��s transformative victory. To begin with, ita��s all about the mirror-neurons: the fact that when we see an action performed in the world, the same part of our brain fires up as if we were performing that action ourselves. As George Lakoff says, the use of the same neural structure for experience, and representation of experience, has a�?enormous political consequences.a��

Parties or politicians should now be aware that everything they do and say, and the forms in which they do so, is shaping voters in much deeper ways than they had previously thought.

Crucially, the brain builds frames a�� made from culture and language, but resulting in new, physical patterns of neurons a�� to make use of these primary responses to others. The prize for creating the most compelling emotional frame is huge, whether youa��re making TV shows, advertising or a political campaign. Castellsa�� research suggests that it is this emotionally-rooted frame which actually shapes which facts and information you find relevant in any argument. Establish your frame in peoplea��s minds, and theya��ll literally see reality a�� including the details and priorities of policy a�� your way.

Clearly this is what the SNPa��s campaign a�� reportedly begun in August 2010 a�� fully achieved. But how, exactly? Castells identifies two deep emotional responses that are particularly relevant to politics: enthusiasm and fear. Fear triggers anxiety, uncertainty and an increase in political calculation in the voter, who widens her search for more information about the other parties, carefully evaluating options. But if you can incite enthusiasm, the voter narrows down his search for other options, and exhibits a�?goal seeking behavioura�� towards those enthusiastic parties and politicians. Political enthusiasm a�?creates positive emotions by directing an individual towards experiences and situations that produce pleasure and reward.a��

All parties in this election bombarded the voters with anxiety-generating statistics and policy options, aimed at the a�?rationally calculatinga�� citizen. But the SNP almost certainly had the campaign with the most enthusiastic, culturally uplifting overtones. There were bright, collective slogans: a�?Be Part of Bettera��, a�?Leta��s Work Togethera�� (tied to an evocative rock song) and a�?Together We Can Make Scotland Bettera��. There were Hollywood-style campaign launches, and steady streams of substantial celebrity and leading-figure endorsements.

Yes, at the heart of this was a defensible policy record and a credible policy manifesto, weapons available to use at the traditional rationalist hustings moment if necessary. But the SNPa��s overall cloud of positivity managed to cast every other party in the role of complainers and carpers on the sidelines. Castells quotes research on ads in American political campaigns which says that if you engage voters with an enthusiastic appeal, their prior political choices firm up: that is, the symbolic a�?framea�� of the campaign reinforces the neural a�?framea�� (or predisposition) in the citizena��s mind.

As the SNP was already the incumbent party, with a clear electoral base surrounded by floating voters, the positive campaign probably encouraged half-hearted SNP supporters to vote full-heartedly. And it possibly encouraged full-hearted ones to respond to the a�?both votes SNPa�� appeal of the final week, thus breaking the anti-majority structural bias of the Holyrood parliament.

Scottish Labour ran a campaign almost entirely aimed at the a�?feara�� frame of the emotional citizen. According to Castellsa�� studies of American politics, it was almost textbook Republican stuff. One of the most powerful and deep emotional triggers (or a�?somatic markersa��) that politicians can reach for is fear of death. Communication Power shows how Republicans successfully used the a�?existential threat to the nationa�� after 9/11 to build public support for military actions, the factual justification for which was either ill-founded or fallacious. In the grip of a successful a�?death-feara�� framing, rational or empirical counter-argument mattered little to American opinion.

The interesting subtlety that Castells notices is between anxiety and anger. A fear-based rhetoric that clearly identifies a wrong-doer, and rouses anger against them – Bin Laden or Saddam – has the same cognitive effect as an enthusiastic appeal: it focuses rather than diffuses citizensa�� minds, leading to a�?an imprudent processing of eventsa��, a desire for justice that narrows down the search for other options. Anxiety, on the other hand, has the contrary effect.

What was Scottish Laboura��s knife-crime policy, other than a direct (and tawdry) appeal to a�?fear of deatha��? Now, according to the cognitive science, what fear and anxiety does is to impel voters to begin to seek out more information and to a�?carefully evaluatea�� other options. Yet this also tends to diffuse voting intention, rather than firm it up a�� and in any case, the SNP were ready with a a�?positivea�� response of a�?1,000 more police on the beata��.

Rather scarily, what we should be thankful for is that the Labour Party didn’t identify a folk-devil to turn general anxiety about knife-crime into focussed anger: imagine party-political broadcasts of marauding neds across bucolic housing schemes. (One of their ex-advisors, John McTernan, wanted even worse, linking SNP policies to old people dying in their homes, and social breakdown.)

The second fear strategy deployed by Labour in the last week was a�?fear of deprivationa��: the consequence of an SNP vote leading to independence, and all the societal a�?chaosa�� that implied. But again, the SNP could use its incumbency to remind voters of the continuity and stability of the previous four years of Scottish government.

Castells often talks about the natural and instinctive politician being able to resonate emotionally, using cultural metaphors and symbols, with his or her constituency. Salmonda��s summation of the popular judgement on the SNPa��s first term in government a�� a�?Aye, theya��ve done noa�� bad, they deserve another kick oa�� the balla�� a�� is an effortless example.

Castells also talks about hope as a powerful emotional underpinning of politics. a�?Hope is a fundamental ingredient in activating brain maps that motivate political behaviour oriented towards achieving wellbeing in the future, as a consequence of action in the present,a�� he writes. a�?Hope is a key component of political mobilisation… Fear is essential for self-preservation. But hope is essential for survival because it allows individuals to plan the outcome of their decisions, and it motivates them to move toward a course of action from which they expect to benefit.a��

Of course, a�?hopea�� (not to mention a�?Change You Can Believe Ina��) was the great slogan of the Obama campaign in 2008. (Castells provides a magisterial analysis of that in Communication Power.) But a�?Change You Can Believe Ina�� was almost the invisible subtitle running under every part of the SNPa��s campaign. If hope is a�?essential because it allows individuals to plan the outcome of their decisionsa�� and a�?motivates them to move towards a course of action from which they expect to benefita��, then the SNPa��s a�?Scottish Hopea�� tied those practical aspirations to the functioning of a Scottish parliament.

Scottish Laboura��s other peddled scare a�� a�?fear of Tory Westminstera�� (chimed by all the other non-Tory Unionist parties) a�� might have had the desired effect of getting undecided voters to seek information about those generating the fear. Castells says that anxiety also weakens the general intention to even participate in a voting process. Yet those who did eventually turn to examine the SNP as the a�?scarya�� party would have found a a�?hopefula�� narrative and framing about their life in Scotland: a narrative that had at least the possibility of answering their citizena��s desires to take more control of, and get more benefit from, their lives.

Again, Scottish Labour didna��t manage to transform anxiety about independence, or rule from Tory Westminster, into anger. It would seem that over a decade of a Scottish Parliament has gradually answered the desires of Scottish citizens for more power in their own lives: desires thwarted, and therefore transformable into much angry protest, in my heyday political era of the 80s and 90s.

Might this analysis also account for the failure of the Greens (which I regretted a�� I was looking forward to a much stronger voice for sustainability in the parliament)? They sallied forth on their own a�?fear-orienteda�� politics: the keynote being a�?wea��ll raise taxes to defend you against Tory-imposed cutsa��, within a general horizon of looming environmental collapse. Greens have a joyful, convivial, optimistic political message buried away in their thinking and practice, but in the face of the SNPa��s Juggernaut of Joy, none of the attractive aspects of sustainable lifestyle change could remotely come through. a�?Change You Couldna��t Believe Ina��, one might say.

Castellsa�� summary of information-age politics is worth chewing over: a�?Creating new content and new forms, in the networks that connect minds and their communicative environment, is tantamount to rewiring our minds.a��

So I found myself at the end of 2011 in a state of some ambivalence. An anti-nuclear (power and weapons), non-militarist, pro-social-democratic, sustainability-friendly sovereign Scotland has been a dream of mine for twenty-odd years: a stunning election victory brings it thrillingly closer, via another act of impeccably orderly, non-violent democracy (the Independence Referendum).

Yet I cana��t deny that it was brought about, at least partly, by some a�?political braina�� insights about cognitive frailty and a�?predictable irrationalitya�� that I deplore in other contexts, such as the New Tories using our a�?herda��-natures to justify slashing state budgets on public services, expecting the slack to be picked up by the a�?little platoonsa�� of the Big Society. Is this simply the deep rationale for all party-political machines at the moment, no matter their ideological stripe: assemblages of data, activists, memes, psychological strategy, above-and-below-line media campaigns, the propaganda usage of interactive networks…?

I find my London life – or at least the peers and locales that I move through in that life – to be considerably more experimental and tentative in thinking about human nature, collective action, and the communicational tools of change. I introduced my own new addition to the political-theory lexicon, the Constitute (a noun not a verb), at Hub Westminster.

This is a relatively open, raggedy space for social enterprise at the heart of Westminster, which can contain both anarcho-catastrophists like Vinay Gupta, and (at the beginning of 2012) David Cameron launching a campaign for more cooperative enterprises. I also remember speaking at a student protest Really Free School in Bloomsbury in 2011, followed by BBC Newsnighta��s Paul Mason lecturing on the Paris Commune.

For me, this proximity of representatives of the British State to the most extreme kinds of free radicals bespeaks the overall unravelling of politics-as-usual from a Westminster perspective. Wea��re in a moment with resonances of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, where elites and margins intermingle, and all manner of alarming alliances and platforms might be forged.

Therea��s no surprise, as the resplendent capital of an canadian pharmacy 100mg viagra ancien regime, that London – never mind the consumer riots and Occupy St Pauls – felt closer to the spirit of networked uprising in Tunisia and Egypt than Scotland did. But at the beginning of 2012, I am uncomfortably strung between the pleasure I take in the interstitial activists of London, and my joy in the mid-20th century national liberation narrative of Scottish sovereignty. And all round, on all sides, the hawkers of hot buttons to press into the soft spots of human nature mill and shill. Bliss it is in this very dawn to be complexified.


Taken from DESPATCHES FROM THE INVISIBLE REVOLUTION – available now from PediaPress.