09 May 2019
Neuroscience and us.
By Lynda Goetz
I have just ordered a new book on the strength of an article in the Features section of The Telegraph, ‘Is our fate decided the moment we’re born? The broadcaster Chris Evans, who notoriously once claimed he had only ever read one book (Black Beauty) but who has since become not only a convert but a missionary for the power of books and reading, says ‘It is one of the most fascinating books you will ever read… seriously’. I think I succumbed to the impulse to buy this book, which came out only at the beginning of the month, for a number of reasons.
The first was a simple connection with another feature article which The Telegraph had run only the previous day, ‘One by one, my family fell into the cult trap’. It was an article which made me pause and ponder. Ewan Morrison described how, in researching cults for his new novel, he had come to the realisation that, in different ways, three generations of his own family had succumbed to the spell of ideologies and belief systems headed up by charismatic leaders and their demands for commitment to the cause. For his grandmother, brought up by a father who was a missionary for the United Free Church of Scotland (an Evangelical Calvinist faction that preached salvation for the chosen few after an apocalypse – so then four generations?), that came in the form of commitment to the Scottish Spiritualists. His father, seemingly turning away, denounced religion, ran a folk festival in the wilds of Scotland and eventually gave himself up to the cause of Scottish Independence and joined the Scottish National Liberation Army – a religious cult replaced by a political one. The writer himself went down the same route, and after joining various cult-like political groups ended up ‘sitting in a hand-holding circle of New Agers, weeping from the desire to belong’. It was Morrison’s conclusion to this story which, for me, did not ring true. “Three decades of research by survivors now shows that ‘there is no single demographic or psychological profile of those likely to be indoctrinated’. It could literally happen to anyone” (my italics).
Could it really happen to anyone, or is that desperate need to be included, to be part of something which provides answers, itself an almost pre-determined trait? Coming, as I do, from a family which has very mixed feelings about conformity, generally ignores peer group pressure and on the whole shies away from ‘herd’ (but not team) activities, and which, almost without exceptions, tends to be composed of individuals who belong to a number of separate friendship groups (or links with individual friends) rather than being at the centre of any one circle in particular, I was left wondering if that wasn’t very much part of our family ‘programming’: according to Dr Hannah Critchlow that may be precisely the case.
Hannah Critchlow is a Cambridge neuroscientist and also one of the top UK scientific communicators. She is both a broadcaster (Tomorrow’s World being amongst her credits) and a writer, and attracts large audiences at the Hay Festival. Her latest book is ‘The Science of Fate’, and it was the reason for that interview in The Telegraph. It suggests that much of our life unfolds outside our conscious control. This goes against the grain of much contemporary thinking which tends to the view that ‘you can be whatever you want to be’. Whilst not denying the role of environment or nurture, Dr Critchlow’s research has led her to the conclusion that our DNA determines how our unique neural circuitry is laid down in the womb. This basically means that because we see the world in our own individual way, the decisions we make throughout our lives are also informed by those trillions of pre-programmed pathways. This can affect everything from the sort of food we choose to eat, to our choice of partner and how we vote. This does seem a little scary at first. It might also suggest that we have less responsibility than we thought in how our lives turn out.
Another book which has been recommended to me this week is Educated, the book by Tara Westover which came out last year. As some may already know, this is a memoir by a young woman who, in spite of her parents’ isolated Mormon survivalist lifestyle and her lack of formal early education, managed to end up with a PhD from Cambridge University. In spite of her early disadvantages, she nevertheless credits her parents with teaching her how to think and learn. Could this be correct or, if Dr Critchlow’s theories are closer to the truth, does it mean that her brain was already wired for learning against all the odds?
These are fascinating questions, particularly as we enter an age where AI is increasingly intruding into our lives. Dr Critchlow’s first appearance at the Hay Festival in 2015 caused something of a stir when she claimed that if computer engineers were able to create a circuit board as complex as the human mind it could be possible for humans to download their brains onto a computer and live forever inside a machine. (The 2014 American sci-fi film Transcendence starring Johnny Depp had in fact used this idea). Apart from the escalating likelihood of a completely cyborg world, how do we as (so-far) autonomous humans deal with the return into our lives of Fate, albeit in a new form? Hannah Critchlow’s answer in her interview appears to be that ‘learning how little mastery we have over our own minds doesn’t detract from the way that we’re special as humans… and it makes me accept other people a little bit more’.
If the return of Fate means accepting other people a little bit more, that surely can only be a good thing in an age where the cult of the individual and the self has been carried to the extreme. I am looking forward to reading the book and learning more, but in the meantime I have definitely taken on board the idea of accepting all those other pre-programmed people a little bit more. My faults are not all my fault, but then neither are theirs.