Cultural Review Past, Present & Future

It’s Make Your Mind Up Time

A review of the 2012 Brighton Science Festival themed around consciousness.

This was the title of  an all day event I had the pleasure of attending today as part of the Brighton Science Festival.   Brighton loves festivals, whilst the arts festival is the most famous, there are also many other festivals including,  music, cinema, literature and science.  This was my first experience of  attending the Brighton Science Festival and on this occasion  both the theme and the format appealed.  The unifying theme of the day was – how much of our world is a  figment of our imagination?  

In answering this question we were effectively informed, guided and provoked  by experts and their friends from the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science.  The past year has been difficult for everyone in higher education given the coalition’s ideological assault upon the universities, their students and their staff. Against this backdrop it was great to see academics out of their natural habitats, making the complexities of  neuroscience  and consciousness accessible to lay people such as myself, without preaching they demonstrated why these debates are relevant to wider society and all delivered with a quiet humility which only real  experts can bring to the party.  David Willetts – this is what impact is really about, rather than the spurious values you have shoe horned into your Research Excellence Framework .

The day ran from 10.00am to 5.00pm with eleven experts each allocated 15 minutes  to enthuse on a  particular theme, with each talk followed by questions and answers.  I  did like the idea of short  punchy talks, rather than longer lectures.  It really worked as a mechanism to provoke thinking and debate.  However, I would have to concede by the end of the day I felt worn out and I had only been listening.  As one of the coordinators suggested we were working with the ‘building blocks of the psyche’. This construction work was meaningful, but given the subject matter it felt very emotive. My own interest related to how a greater appreciation of consciousness might inform our understanding of the management of organizational change. I will offer some selective highlights from the perspective of this viewer, although it doesn’t really do justice to the richness and warmth of this particular day.

Sam Hutton, Steve Mould and Romi Nijhawan highlighted  how what we see is shaped considerably by what is going on inside our heads.  Multiple perspectives of organizational change exist and this talk helped me to understand the distortions of perceptions and the challenges of communicating change. Andy Field challenged the old maxim that you have nothing to fear but fear itself.  He explained that evolutionary biology had equipped us to experience fear as a survival  mechanism.  In the context of organizational change  a lot of effort goes into addressing people’s irrational fears about change programmes, this talk suggested that they may be a far more rational coping mechanism. Zoltan Dienes impressed me in that he spoke about hypnosis with no script or notes, but perhaps he had induced me into this appreciative state.  He talked about  the different levels of suggestibility within people and I wondered about these levels and people’s willingness to buy into the rhetoric of change programmes. Andrew Dilley explored how we experience pain, again there is an ongoing debate about the role of pain in change programmes.  At lunch time, I enjoyed my sandwiches whilst sat on the pebbles on Brighton Beach.  It was a lovely sunny day for February and children revelled in throwing stones into the sea as they have done for many many decades.  There is something in these tiny acts of defiance which gives me hope.

After lunch Anil Seth delivered  my favourite immortal quote of the day ‘the “I” behind the eyes’.  Organizational change invariably removes the “I” from the  equation even if the eyes are full of tears. David Osborne as a barrister dealt with truth, justice and law in a refreshingly frank manner.  

He made the case for the collective action of juries which resonates with the belief in participative/democratic involvement in change. Robert Stovold and Greg Marshall highlighted the  tensions between science and religion. Organizational change  programmes are invariably presented as management science, but in reality they are invariably faith-based enterprises.  Dennis Chan talked on the theme of imagining the  future … and the past, drawing upon the experiences of dementia sufferers and suggesting the  brain processes are surprisingly similar.  

This is where my head and heart  currently reside. Organizational change is  preoccupied excessively with the future or the  spurious here and now, this is always at the expense of the neglected past. He mentioned that reminiscence therapy had  been effective in treating dementia, could we  use this to help people through the painful transitions of organizational change?  Finally, our belief in conscious  free will which has resided at the heart of our societies was challenged  by Patrick Haggard.  He drew upon neuroscience again to highlight some  of the challenges for society as we better understand how our consciousness is a consequence of brain activity, rather than the driver we once imagined.

As I reflect back on the day I am reminded of the auditory hallucinations which accompanied the day.  I began hearing voices in the Sallis Benney Theatre, but I could see nobody speaking.  It took a few minutes to realise that the speakers were using radio microphones.  There was a great guy who linked together all the different talks and his microphone appeared to be haunted  by some previous altered state of consciousness.  At times it would communicate with us when somebody else was speaking, almost like the ancestors of consciousness studies were  joining us and commenting upon proceedings through their audible whispers.   It really was odd you wanted to listen to the speaker, but another voice  was requesting your conscious attention.  It added to the day, but it was also a big relief when I realised that I was not the only one hearing voices.  Hearing Voices would have made for a good alternative title for a day that I thoroughly enjoyed.

As I trundled home on  bus the sun was setting over the sea.  The most beautiful sunset I have seen in a long time, the sky was  marbled and  the sun gracefully slipped down in front of this marbling.  Whilst consciousness science is important, football is more important and Arsenal thrashing Spurs 5:2  is as good as it gets.  Also, I am certain that it is real, but I will still check the evidence in a few minutes time on Match of the Day 2.