Thursday, 3 March 2016

Swapping Arrows in the Heart of London

The London poverty map, produced by Charles Booth at the end of the nineteenth century, was an influential attempt to study the impact of socio-economic status – and, more generally, people's life conditions – on opportunities and wellbeing.

London Poverty Map, Charles Booth 1889

There are countries and contexts where poverty and war cause grave harm to individuals and communities. Their impact on health and wellbeing is devastating. But the link between the conditions of life and wellbeing is obviously not confined to extreme situations.

Social epidemiologists have provided much evidence for the claim that all the things that matter to us most have an impact on our health. This includes all the circumstances that shape our family lives, our work lives, and our opportunities for meaningful and egalitarian interactions with others, and for active participation in the various communities we belong to.

The social and political arrangements – and the public ethos and cultural contexts – that affect our life circumstances are therefore crucial. It is for this reason that it is possible and important to talk about the sociocultural and political determinants of health.

Anxiety, depression and similar conditions are increasingly common in affluent societies. The diffusion and promotion of competition-focused, hyper-individualistic, and narcissistic conceptions of success seems to be an important factor. The precariatization of the labour market in a labour-obsessed society is another important factor. And so is the erosion of collective forms of protection, which is due to changes in welfare regimes driven by demographic and social changes, but also by misconceptions about how to improve people's lives all over the world.

The world is changing fast, but despite the new technological tools we have at our disposal and their incredible productive power, the lives of many are becoming more insecure. And insecurity and wellbeing are incompatible.

Let me conclude this post with one story. The bushmen of the Kalahari desert swap arrows before they go hunting. Each hunter gives some of the arrows he has made to other hunters, in exchange for their arrows. Then they go hunting, and when the catch some game, the credit for the kill goes not to the person who killed the animal but to the person who made the arrow with which the animal was killed. In this way, because of all the swapping of arrows, sooner or later every hunter gets credit and gets praised for the successful hunt.

A mechanism like this ensures that all hunters feel they are an active part of the collective enterprise. It is also a way of reminding the strongest, most-skilled hunters or lucky hunters that they should not be boastful, or arrogant, or behave like bullies. Their success depends on the unity of the group and on the contribution and cooperation of everyone.

I like this story because it illustrates the importance of egalitarian relationships for individual wellbeing and for successful cooperation. Also, I like the idea of swapping arrows as a metaphor for how a successful research group should work. With this blog, we have started swapping arrows between ourselves and with some of our prospective collaborators. I look forward to swapping arrows with the various audiences we will interact with.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Building a Successful Team

At a roundtable event at the House of Lords earlier this week there was much talk about partnerships and sustainability. The topic was the use of museums to enhance health and wellbeing. An All Party Parliamentary group is currently undertaking an Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry and the event sought to showcase museum projects and to stimulate discussion and debate.

The view from the stairwell
The House of Lords
Most of us would agree that publically-funded institutions ought to be vehicles of social justice, placing public engagement at the heart of their activities. In fact the Museums Association have just signed up to an ethical charter promoting the very same. Yet the reality is that many in our communities feel excluded from toff's palaces, Lord Lupton's term, not mine. In the awe-inspiring surrounds of the Lords, the idea of institutions such as the British Museum, the Royal Academy, the Tates et al, building partnerships with the socially, politically and economically excluded, seemed more than a little surreal. Still, feeling the weight of the establishment supporting the burgeoning field of arts, health and wellbeing felt cause for optimism.

I was inspired as ever by the wonderful Gillian Wolfe who talked eloquently about the importance of relationship-building in achieving sustainable partnerships. She compared this task to constructing successful human relationships; they need time, trust and commitment. She knows of what she speaks. For over 30 years she pioneered innovative programmes for those deemed marginalised and excluded at Dulwich Picture Gallery, advocating public engagement well before the term was common parlance.

As she stated on being awarded an honorary doctorate at Canterbury Christ Church University in 2014: 

"I've been very lucky to have had the freedom to create innovative routes to engage non-traditional audiences such as disaffected youth, those with mental and physical disability, the elderly and notably those suffering early stage dementia and their carers. They are all embraced in enhancing cultural experiences every day of the year. The reward is always seeing the delight and joy it brings."

In a similar way, building a successful interdisciplinary team has been challenging yet rewarding. The freedom to think big without the usual restraints and frameworks of academic life, e.g. the Research Excellence Framework (REF), student satisfaction surveys, etc. has been liberating and has facilitated innovative and ambitious plans. Yet it is a challenge to bring a group together, and to embrace the differences in disciplines, training, and life experiences.

Some of the key elements that have helped build the team are:

  • spending time together in different contexts - this has enabled us to bond, shape ourselves into a distinctive group, and has given us space, generating the energy needed to be creative
  • listening to, and learning from each other - this has led to many fascinating conversations taking place, generating new ideas and approaches
  • good leadership - this has involved attending to task and social elements - to keep the team on track, and to engender a sense of belonging
  • sharing ups and downs - as with any relationship, things don't always have an upward trajectory, and here humour and acceptance has been valuable, to sustain team spirit and to and to generate trust. 

This blog is one way that we have developed ideas, initiated conversations amongst core team members, collaborators and the wider community, and is a record of a successful team building.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Is Mental Illness All in the Brain?

In an open letter to Stephen Fry, who in a recent BBC programme argued that bipolar disorder is a brain condition to which some people are vulnerable because of genetic predisposition, Richard Bentall argues that mental illness is not all in the brain. He talks about some "unhappy experiences" he had in a public school for boys, the same Stephen Fry went to, and speculates that their interest in mental health may be an effect of those experiences.

MRI of the brain overlaid with "pain".

Here is an extract of the letter:
[R]ecent epidemiological studies have pointed to a wide range of social and environmental factors that increase the risk of mental ill health [...]. These include poverty in childhood and early exposure to urban environments; migration and belonging to an ethnic minority (probably not problems encountered by most public school boys in the early 1970s) but also early separation from parents; childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse; and bullying in schools. In each of these cases, the evidence of link with future psychiatric disorder is very strong indeed – at least as strong as the genetic evidence. Moreover, there is now good evidence that these kinds of experiences can affect brain structure, explaining the abnormal neuroimaging findings that have been reported for psychiatric patients, and that they lead to stress sensitivity and extreme mood fluctuations in adulthood.
In this excellent letter, one of the themes of our research group is illustrated very clearly: almost everything that happens in our lives has an impact on our health, and traumatic events early in life affect our brains. So, when we say that instances of mental distress are caused by brain disorders, we are not telling the whole story.

The view Richard Bentall defends in the letter, and in his research, is also discussed in a recent podcast, episode 5 of The Philosofa, where Richard and I are asked: Is there a clear line between madness and sanity?

Friday, 19 February 2016

Individuals, Society and Success: How does national mood infiltrate personal mood?

Our collaborator, performance poet Luke Wright, writes:
Performance poet, writer and broadcaster
Luke Wright
"I used to knock around with a bunch of poets and creatives in Liverpool. This was over ten years ago, just after Liverpool won its bid to become the European Capital of Culture. Suddenly there was a lot of money floating around and my pals were as keen as anyone to get a little bit of it to help them run their poetry events. 

Over the next few years they got increasingly exasperated as the powers that be spent the cash on projects that didn’t feel very cultural at all. “Future generations will marvel at the great paved spaces we have created!” the poet Nathan Jones drawled sarcastically.

We’re frequently told that public money sunk into big urban projects will not only generate billions of pounds but be good for public morale. But just how true is that? Can we ever really quantify public morale? Are these “great paved spaces” there for the happiness of the people that pass through them everyday or the glory of the leaders who put them there?

How far does national mood infiltrate personal mood? I remember walking through Chelsea after England beat Argentina in the 2002 World Cup. It would be fair to say the result was unexpected and strangers were high-fiving and beeping their horns at one another. The mood of the whole day lifted but across the city bills laid unpaid, friends fell ill, relationships ended. When it comes to personal success is there such a thing as society? 

I don’t have the answers to all these questions, probably nobody does. But I’m looking forward to working with some people whose answers will be a lot better informed than mine. I want to take these ideas and use them to inform the story of three teenagers living in East London when the Olympics were ‘won’ by Britain. How did Britain’s success in its bid to win the Olympics and then our athletes success in the games themselves affect their own successes and failures in life?"

Luke is currently on tour with his most recent solo show 'What I Learned From Johnny Bevan', which won the Fringe First award for new writing at Edinburgh last year:

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Why Rugby Players Turn to Aristotle

For the past two years, Ive been running a philosophy group at Saracens rugby club, the current champions of the rugby Premiership. Once a month, I go to Saracens training ground in St Albans and give a brief talk about an idea from ancient philosophy that can be applied to our lives today. Then the group usually around 10 players and staff use that as a starting point to discuss how to live well.

Weve covered everything from accepting adversity to what makes a good friend, and have explored ideas from many wisdom traditions Epicurus, the Stoics, Taoism, Buddhism as well as looking at how these have been revived in modern psychotherapy.

It all came from a project Im working on at Queen Mary, University of London, to see if philosophy can be useful beyond academia. I have run philosophy clubs in a mental health charity and a Glasgow prison, as well as the current one at Saracens.

I went in to the rugby club with zero expectations, and still find it strange to sit in a circle with Jim Hamilton, Owen Farrell and others, discussing Aristotles idea of the Golden Mean. But its been good fun for all of us. It was the most popular thing we did last season, says defence coach Paul Gustard, who is now defence coach for England.

Why do rugby players need to sit around talking about wisdom when they could be doing star jumps? Arent they living the dream already? Yes and no. A career in professional sport comes with some incredible highs. Winning a big game is an ecstatic experience, one player said in the philosophy club this week. I dont think people outside sport ever feel like that. But there are some real lows too.

We might think of athletes as supermen, but it turns out that a lot of their lives are beyond their control. Are they fit? Does the coach pick them? How do the media treat them? How does the rest of the team play? When those external factors are in their favour, theyre gods. When fortune shifts, suddenly theyre a nobody. The transition to life after sport is particularly hard. How will you get that high again?

What has surprised me, talking to various coaches over the past year, is how little attention most clubs pay to the mental and emotional well-being of players. Considering how big a factor the mind is in sport, youd expect top teams to invest as much in mental wellbeing as they do in physical fitness. In fact, its more or less ignored.

This reflects the attitudes of wider society. If you get cancer, you can expect all the care and sympathy in the world. If you get mental illness, no one wants to talk about it. Thats particularly true of male culture. Men are not good at taking care of themselves or each other, and numb their pain with booze. As a result, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50.

The values of professional sports teams can also be quite toxic. Its a fear-driven industry, focused on short-term success, says Neil Burns, a mentor whos worked with top cricketers. Athletes often get used up and tossed aside. Values and wellbeing dont usually get a look in.

Saracens are trying to do things differently. When new management arrived, in 2009, they insisted that the character, values and wellbeing of the players were the top priority, and results would follow from that. They launched something called the Personal Development Programme, to support all the players in their lives and their careers after sport. They duly invited various people in to talk to the players, including mindfulness experts, a yoga teacher, even a philosopher (me).

The Saracens revolution has created a unique culture. Alex Goode, the 26-year-old Saracens and England fullback, says: The old Saracens was not a particularly friendly place. Thered be quite brutal banter. Now, theres much more of a feeling of togetherness.

The esprit de corps has made the team stronger and better. Saracens won the Premiership in 2011, and broke the record in the 2014 season for most tries scored and most league points won, reaching the European cup final and Premiership play-off final, both of which they sadly lost. Last season, they had their most successful season ever, winning the Premiership and the AV Cup. Theyre currently top of the league, and many of their young players are playing for England in the Six Nations.

Other teams are following their lead. The head of the Personal Development Programme, David Priestley, moved to Arsenal last season to develop a programme there, and Ive done a couple of philosophy sessions with the players. In cricket, after some high-profile burnouts, the ECB is beginning to recognise that inner fitness is the foundation for long-term success, as former England coach Andy Flower puts it. In the United States, the enlightened coach Phil Zen Master Jackson is putting values and wisdom at the centre of his basketball team culture. In American football, the New England Patriots, winners of the 2014 Superbowl, have also been incorporating ancient Stoic philosophy into their team ethic, via a book by Ryan Holiday called The Obstacle Is the Way.

Its interesting to consider whether this focus on wellbeing could be transferred to other industries. Poor mental health costs the UK economy roughly £23billion a year through absenteeism and low morale, according to the Centre for Mental Health. Yet, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), only a third of British companies offer any stress management or resilience training, which usually means one half-day session a year.

Thats not enough. What impresses me at Saracens is that its not a once-a-year workshop. Its a values-driven culture, sustained every day in every interaction (or not). Just as importantly, its a pluralist approach, exploring various ways to live well rather than forcing employees down one path. There is space for players to discuss ideas and share their own experience. This helps create a culture of peer support, which is more powerful than a one-off workshop.

There is not one philosophical or scientific answer to the question of how to live well. But some philosophies have survived for two millennia because there is wisdom in them. The challenge for organisations is to offer useful ideas and techniques, while enabling employees to find what works for them. And if that sounds soft and fluffy to you, go and watch Saracens this season.

This post is by our collaborator Jules Evans, a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow and Policy Director at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Agential Success and False Beliefs

On 4th and 5th February the project I current lead, PERFECT, hosted a two-day workshop in central London, called "False but Useful Beliefs". The idea was to discuss the costs and benefits of those beliefs that do not correspond to reality or that are not constrained by evidence, but that in one way or another benefit agents. They might increase self-esteem, help support motivation, enhance wellbeing, be biologically adaptive, and so on.

Several talks addressed the relationship of success with rationality and truth. It is not always the case that true and rational beliefs are conducive to agential success, whereas false and irrational beliefs are conducive to agential failure.

For instance, Lubomira Radoilska (University of Kent), in her talk "Could False Beliefs Be Non-Accidentally Conducive to Agential Success?", argued that some false beliefs are useful, not because of their falsity, but because they lead people to act and increase their chances to fulfil their goals in the future. It is their practical dimension that makes such beliefs useful.

Jesse Summers (Duke University), in his talk "Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: Some Benefits of Rationalisation", was concerned with false explanations or justifications for actions and choices. Although such explanations and justification do not help agents understand why they acted and chose as they did, they still have benefits, as they allow agents to see themselves as providing coherent reasons.

In my talk, on "The Epistemic Innocence of Self-enhancing Beliefs", I related some of the themes from the previous two talks to the phenomenon of positive illusions, when people adopt excessively optimistic beliefs about their own worth and their own capacity to control external events, and make excessively optimistic predictions about their own future. Although such beliefs and predictions are not well supported by evidence, they help people form a sense of themselves as coherent and competent agents, and they support socialisation. The absence of a coherent and competent sense of oneself as an agent and social isolation or withdrawal are symptoms of mental distress and cause the person to lose the motivation to act, making it harder for her to achieve her goals.

Monday, 8 February 2016

The Power of Personal Narratives: the Successful Potato Farmer
It is a classic triumph over adversity tale. A humble potato farmer from Herefordshire, dismayed that supermarkets rejected potatoes that were not 'cosmetically perfect', finds a lucrative niche in the market for posh crisps and high-end gin. The serial entrepreneur is now a multi-millionaire but it wasn't always so.

In a narrative that storytellers would salivate over, the engaging elements of local hero William Chase's tale include: a versatile vegetable, a messy divorce, bankruptcy, running far far away to exotic lands (well Australia), and a triumphant return.

The underdog then risked all in the form of a substantial bank loan, took on an evil giant (aka Tesco), and won- a la David and Goliath, and now his gin and crisp businesses reach towards the stratosphere.

Such stories can have a powerful motivating impact on others. Referred to as recovery narratives in mental health care, personal stories convey hope by demonstrating how individuals can move from trauma and despair towards their goals.

One of our goals is to assemble a multi-dimensional, multi-media repository of 'success' narratives that will illuminate the concept, explore what works for whom, and involve the public in telling their own stories. 

As Mr Chase says 'People love stories, the real stories behind things'.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Success and Mental Health: Too much pressure?

This interesting article in the New York Times attempts to put the suicide of Chef Benoit Violier into context by highlighting that this is not an isolated episode: many highly successful chefs have recently ended their lives. Violier was most certainly a high achiever: his restaurant, Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville, had been awarded three Michelin stars and in December was judged the No. 1 in La Liste, France’s ranking of 1,000 restaurants in 48 countries.
“It can’t keep happening; it just can’t,” the food writer Kat Kinsman said on Monday. In January she started Chefs With Issues, a project aimed at illuminating the job-related stresses and mental illnesses afflicting many people in the food industry. Depression, anxiety, addiction and eating disorders are common.

Is this a pattern in the world of high cuisine only or is it a widespread phenomenon among high achievers in different fields? It is surely something that needs to be explored as part of the "dark side of success".

Thinking like the Traceur

This post is by Hannah Gravestock, scenographer and sportswoman.
Founder and managing director of Parkour Generations, co-creator of the A.D.A.P.T™ courses, coach and author, Dan Edwardes writes of success:

Why is being strong better than being weak?  Is it at all?
Or is the process of becoming strong just a vehicle, a path for us to focus our own understanding of ourselves, our world, our lives, and our place in the order of things?’

For the Parkour participant, also known as Traceur, an on-going commitment to self awareness is certainly part of the route to success. Only when a Traceur understands how and why they move can they find the flow of movement required to move in and around obstacles in their path. Whilst Parkour requires a skill set specific to the discipline it also offers a valuable insight into what can be achieved when focus is given to knowledge and understanding embodied by each individual participant.

In contrast, figure skating, like many other sporting activities measures success through a more externally visible and universally accepted approach. An international marking system turns success into a mathematical calculation and makes the identification of a successful skating performance easy. But does it really? The answer is both yes and no. Whilst computer systems enable judges to assess technical performance it is less clear how to judge a skater’s interpretation and artistic expression of a piece of music. Whilst it’s a common belief that the art of skating has been lost to the technical development of the sport, it is more likely that it’s become harder to understand, and therefore judge, how to synthesise new technical skills with advanced artistic ones.

For a synchronised skating team these problems are multiplied since success is located through many interlocking performances. Improving the success of a team therefore requires an understanding of how to assess and effectively combine the technical and artistic skills of each individual. To understand how this can be achieved it’s worth considering the Traceur’s attitude towards failure as well as individual success. Whilst Parkour training generally centres on personal goals and experiences, the focus on mental strength is relevant and applicable to a team. For example, for the Traceur failure to move smoothly from one object to another is not a negative outcome, but an inevitable part of a journey that leads to self awareness. To fail is to locate a weakness, better understand why it exists and make appropriate changes to a performance so that it doesn’t happen again. From this perspective the synchronised skater might do well to consider how and why they move, how well these perceptions relate to interpretations made by a third party and what new pathways can be taken to develop a performance as a result of this understanding.

This leads me to the area I hope to investigate as part of my proposed collaboration with the Hub Residency Team and the development of my investigations into training and performance practices. In this project drawing is used as a research method to access and explore embodied experiences of a UK synchronised skating team as they develop their performance. I have already conducted some initial drawing work with the team, but hope to continue the drawing and movement workshops through a competitive season to examine and challenge how skaters perceive success both individually and as a team.

drawing from synchronised skating workshop 

For more about Hannah see 

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Ode to the Monument of Failure

One of our collaborators, the author and journalist Oliver Burkeman, explores the counter-intuitive notion of a negative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty. The following is an excerpt from his 2013 book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.

"In an unremarkable business park outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, stands a poignant memorial to humanity's shattered dreams. It doesn't look like that from the outside, though. Even when you get inside – which members of the public rarely do – it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to what you're seeing. It appears to be a vast and haphazardly organised supermarket; along every aisle, grey metal shelves are crammed with thousands of packages of food and household products. There is something unusually cacophonous about the displays, and soon enough you work out the reason: unlike in a real supermarket, there is only one of each item. And you won't find many of them in a real supermarket anyway: they are failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted to buy them. In the product-design business, the storehouse – operated by a company called GfK Custom Research North America – has acquired a nickname: the Museum of Failed Products.
This is consumer capitalism's graveyard – the shadow side to the relentlessly upbeat, success-focused culture of modern marketing. Or to put it less grandly: it's almost certainly the only place on the planet where you'll find Clairol's A Touch of Yogurt shampoo alongside Gillette's equally unpopular For Oily Hair Only, a few feet from a now-empty bottle of Pepsi AM Breakfast Cola (born 1989; died 1990). The museum is home to discontinued brands of caffeinated beer; to TV dinners branded with the logo of the toothpaste manufacturer Colgate; to self-heating soup cans that had a regrettable tendency to explode in customers' faces; and to packets of breath mints that had to be withdrawn from sale because they looked like the tiny packages of crack cocaine dispensed by America's street drug dealers. It is where microwaveable scrambled eggs – pre-scrambled and sold in a cardboard tube with a pop-
up mechanism for easier consumption in the car – go to die.

The Museum of Failed Products was itself a kind of accident, albeit a happier one. Its creator, a now-retired marketing man named Robert McMath, merely intended to accumulate a "reference library" of consumer products, not failures per se. And so, starting in the 1960s, he began purchasing and preserving a sample of every new item he could find. Soon, the collection outgrew his office in upstate New York and he was forced to move into a converted granary to accommodate it; later, GfK bought him out, moving the whole lot to Michigan. What McMath hadn't taken into account was the three-word truth that was to prove the making of his career: "Most products fail." According to some estimates, the failure rate is as high as 90%. Simply by collecting new products indiscriminately, McMath had ensured that his hoard would come to consist overwhelmingly of unsuccessful ones.
By far the most striking thing about the museum, though, is that it should exist as a viable, profit-making business in the first place. You might have assumed that any consumer product manufacturer worthy of the name would have its own such collection – a carefully stewarded resource to help it avoid making errors its rivals had already made. Yet the executives who arrive every week at Sherry's door are evidence of how rarely this happens. Product developers are so focused on their next hoped-for success – so unwilling to invest time or energy thinking about their industry's past failures – that they only belatedly realise how much they need to access GfK's collection. Most surprising of all is that many of the designers who have found their way to the museum have come there to examine – or been surprised to discover – products that their own companies had created, then abandoned. They were apparently so averse to dwelling on the unpleasant business of failure that they had neglected even to keep samples of their own disasters."

This piece raises issues that we plan to explore in the Hub. A failure may seem just that until you reframe and repackage it, in this case by making a collection of consumer flops, resulting in a novel, useful and successful project - the Museum of Failed Products.

Human failures of mind, body and circumstance, such as mental health problems, physical illness, and relationship breakdown can also be harnessed positively. Artists regularly draw on trauma and distress creatively, resulting in inspirational and aesthetically stimulating works of art. An exhibition of light boxes in East London is testament to this. Letting in the Light showcases the work of 35 artists, all of whom have experienced mental health issues. Located in a neglected section of fast-regenerating Stratford, an area marked for ambitious growth post 2012, the work illuminates a strip of the High St that includes ubiquitous betting, fried chicken and pound shops.
Letting in the Light. Image: Andrew Whittuck (c) 

The most recent project by Bobby Baker's Daily Life Ltd, at first glance Letting in the Light appears simply a pop-up exhibition of interesting and colourful artwork, until you read the text accompanying each piece, for example:
'In recovering from the depths of depression, I experienced 
a spontaneous outpouring of creativity, resulting in over 3000 abstract digital paintings to date'.

'This piece symbolises that there is a way out of the depth of despair into the world above, where there is light and hope'.
Oliver's piece is also a reminder that by focussing on the future and obsessing on past successes or failures, we neglect the present. This is surely a reason for the surge in popularity of mindfulness-promoting activities such as adult colouring-in and meditation.

The huge potential of complex and often messy human experience, socially constructed as success or failure, lies at the heart of what our project will explore. I declare our intention to build a monument to failure - by learning from what works.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

If, on the other hand... A proposal for a performance piece from Curious

One of our proposed collaborators, Helen Paris, from Curious, has been thinking about the performance piece they might produce. One area Helen and I have been talking about is the experience of failure and the implications of failing. She writes:

‘If, on the other hand...’
Over 45 minutes and 45 seconds a woman in her mid forties slowly falls down sideways from vertical to horizontal over an angle of 45 degrees. As she falls she delivers a litany of missed chances, wrong paths taken, choices she could have made, should have made, which if she had made might have made things better, might have made her just a bit more successful. 

If, on the other hand
I hadn’t said yes to the
Decided not to have had the
Missed the first one and got the 1.15 instead I
Turned down the offer of the
Said yes I did fancy just one more soupcon of
Cancelled the
Brought an entirely different set of 
Thought: to hell with this! I jolly well WILL take…

What makes a successful show? What makes a successful life? Choreographer Doris Humphreys describes how the modern dancer should always inhabit the ‘arc between two deaths’ - the moment of falling, between standing still and lying down. From the slip on the banana skin to the fall from grace, falling is often seen as failing. The possibility of failure is always present in the encounter with liveness.

Oh! the unswervering fidelity of live performance to life.

In the end, whatever decisions made, paths taken there is just this.

This very moment, with you. Here. Now. Then gone.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Causal Illusions and Success

Helena Matute
Today the Imperfect Cognitions blog has published an interview by Anneli Jefferson with Helena Matute who has been working on causal illusions and illusions of control.

Here is an extract, particularly relevant to the question whether some illusions lead to success:

AJ: In your work, you point to negative consequences of seeing cause-effect relations where there are none, as for example when this leads people to uncritically believing in unscientific forms of medicine such as homeopathy. Do you think causal illusions have predominantly negative effects? Can they also be ‘positive illusions’, to borrow Taylor’s famous phrase?
HM: Oh, they surely have positive consequences as well. Otherwise they would have not been retained to this day. This is a trend that evolution has favored, which means that those individuals who in the early times developed the illusion that they were controlling their environment had an evolutionary advantage. They were probably more active and more persistent in their attempts to survive and so were more successful. 
Those who believed that they had no control over their environment quite possibly reduced their motivation to act, and their actual chances to survive, as in learned helplessness phenomena. When Overmier, Seligman and Maier first described learned helplessness effects in 1967 they found their dogs had lost their motivation to initiate voluntary responses after exposure to uncontrollable events. If believing (or realizing) that you have no control leads you to feel depressed, passive, and unresponsive, then a lack of causal illusion in those cases can be quite damaging. So, yes, causal illusions do have a positive side in many real life situations, but today there are also many situations in which illusory beliefs can be quite damaging. For instance, it might have been positive to believe that an innocuous herb could heal you in the times when no scientific medicine existed. However, maintaining such beliefs at present may have disastrous consequences. 
To conclude, it is important to keep in mind that we cannot spend our life looking for biases, illusions and errors all the time, so we should be aware that we will suffer from some degree of illusory perception of causality from time to time. Thus, what I believe that what we should do is (1) be aware that we are all victims of these illusions, so we will be ready to detect them when they occur, and (2) recognize those situations in which causal illusions would have negative consequences for us and for those we love, as it is in those cases that we need to be particularly vigilant to detect and combat them. In other cases, just forget or make fun of your superstitions and illusions.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

The Drive to Succeed and Young People's Mental Health

Jasmine Parker - Wellcome Images
Today Vicki Abeles on the New York Times reports on a new study by Stuart Slavin showing that one in three young people in the States experience anxiety or depression due to school-related stress.

This does not apply only to teenagers, but to children aged 5 to 7 as well. The article suggests that the drive to succeed creates stress, and paradoxically undermines academic success.