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I’ve just listened to Lord Layard talk about children and happiness – the results of his report published recently.

I’ll focus on one aspect of the report – which as a whole seems ranging and unfocussed, a general gripe about modern life. But there are serious issues, and here are some of them.

Lord Layard said there was a problem with too much individualism – by which he seemed to mean the excessive individual pursuit of happiness through material success relative to others’ material success.

This is a ‘zero sum game’ because there is only so much relative material success to go around. What we need is a ‘positive  sum game’ based on gaining happiness through the following:

1) success measured in part in terms of being of use to others;

2) private pursuits that have ‘intrinsic’ (rather than relative) worth.

Lord Layard didn’t explain the link between happiness and these value-laden activities, but here are three linkages:

1) success in being of use to others counters inidividualism; it increases trust and empathy and satisfies us more fully as the social beings we are (and of course, trust and empathy are social goods in themselves);

2) the intrinsic worth of virtuous behaviour satisfies a person in a way that lasts – the satisfaction of buying a new pair of shoes will fade and is reliant on wealth, whereas ‘doing well’ through virtuous activity is less reliant on wealth, and the satisfaction it yields can stay with one for a lifetime (as Aristotle insisted two and a half thousand years ago);

3) values facilitate personal and social efficacy – they are easier to teach and once internalised within individuals and embedded in social norms can be taught and are thus enduring (as opposed to instrumental norms which do not internalise or embed in the same way and are harder to teach).

The problem is that Lord Layard didn’t say anything about how we inculcate such values. He did make an observation: we shoud encourage more psychology graduates to go into teaching. But he didn’t say why. Here’s a suggestion.

The problem with teaching values is twofold:

1) how do we disentangle them from class-based, racial and gender-specific assumptions (the problem of universalism);

2) how do we teach them effectively to diverse communities (the problem of particularism).

Here’s how the behavioural and neurosciences could help:

1) There is a nascent post-individualist picture of human nature emerging from the behavioural and neurosciences: that both in behavioural and evolutionary terms we are dispensed fundamentally towards fairness, justice, empathy and kindess. These are your universal ‘values’ not derived from class, race, or gender.

2) The behavioural and neurosciences show us how important (largely imitative) social cognition is. They can help teachers think about how to make the universal values accessible through localised social models that speak to kids’ contemporary experiences. (Although slightly different, think of the ‘Jade Goody effect’, and how this has facilitated effective behaviour change.)

It’s Valentine’s day. Here’s a Valentine’s Social Brain post.

It’s often thought that neuroscience will engender a bleak view of humanity, one where there is no place for the wonders of existence such as romantic love. Well, I want to briefly say that that’s rubbish. Neuroscientists actually study how emotions and reason constantly interact. And unlike philosophers (Aristotle perhaps being the great exception), do not relegate emotions to an incidental role in cognition.

What would a neuroscientific explanation of romantic love look like?

Something like this.

When I look into my lover’s eyes and feel overwhelmed by my love for her, that’s because of hormones swashing through my brain such as dopamine and serotonin. I feel in love because of these chemicals. But what triggers them? Partly animal attraction such as smell and so on. Partly my genes trying to snare me a partner with whom I can reproduce, build a stable and mutually beneficial relationship (so this doesn’t preclude homosexual love). And partly my conscious self talking to and being with her and understanding that she is right for me.

The brain is an information-processing hub and all this information leads to the production of the romantic-love-inducing hormones.

In short, these chemicals are sending me head over heels in love because the information being processed (whether at the unconscious or conscious level) all points to her being right for me.

What’s lost from the traditional view of romantic love on this picture? I can’t help falling for her because my brain is compelling me to do so with hormones. But then, that’s just what romantic love is, isn’t it? Being compelled beyond any rational control to want someone at all costs? And it’s not just animalistic because some of the information being processed, some of the information that leads to the hormonal compulsion, is at the level of self-conscious cognition.

But none of this explains the great mystery: what is the precise formula for chemistry and attraction in any particular case? Neuroscience can only explain the core processes that we all share. It can’t explain in full why I fall in love with a particular person. But then, a little mystery in life is no bad thing!

As Matthew Taylor has reported in his blog, we hosted on Tuesday an RSA/NIACE event on neuroscience and life-long learning. I want to pick up on two points that were made by speakers. First, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore talked about the ‘seductive allure’ of neuroscientific explanations – that even when neuroscience adds nothing to an explanation, the mere use of neuroscience language, or images of the brain, adds gravitas. Second, Paul Howard-Jones mentioned briefly that when teenage learners were taught about the links between brain function, learning and environment, they were more motivated to engage with learning and change their behaviour.

 

I wonder if these points are connected? Perhaps it is just our empiricist culture, but there is something convincing about literally seeing images of the brain. Images of neglected children’s brains really ram the message home that early years deprivation is a terrible thing. But we know it is anyway, so why is it that brain images make such a difference? I would conjecture that we associate the brain very closely with our sense of agency – our sense of self as a source of actions and decisions. And because this agency is so closely bound up with our identities as individuals, brain images both draw on our empathy and make us think very seriously about possible harmful affects upon ourselves.

 

I wonder whether it is viable to use neuroimaging to inform certain cohorts of young people about how their behaviour/environment affect their brains? Perhaps this would add, in explanatory terms, nothing more than ‘seductive allure’. But if it made such people think seriously about their agency and empowered them with the motivation to change their behaviour (where they could), perhaps this doesn’t matter?

One aspect of the financial crisis that hasn’t been examined is the role of complex social networks and relationships of trust. There are some reasons to think that networks beyond a certain size and with certain sorts of internal structure might lead to a breakdown in trust.

As I mentioned in my post, last week I attended a fascinating conference on the social brain and social networks. Two of the talks at the conference dealt with the issue of social network size and composition in terms of the evolved parametrics of the human brain (an organ designed to compute complex social relationships). The basic point was that there are limits beyond which networks become unmanageable and a dramatic drop-off in emotional closeness occurs. The upper limit is thought to be about 150. But there are also limits on the internal structure of the network. As far as I understand it, although ratios vary according to the propensity to communicate and extroversion of an individual (etc.), it appears that the best functioning networks are ones which scale up at a ratio of 3 from a core ‘inner’ network of close friends and/or family.

A common pattern (again, as far as I understand things) is an inner network of, say, 5, connected to a network of about 15, connected to a network of 45 and an outer network of over 100 (the scaling is not perfectly manifested in the network composition). As we travel from inner to outer networks several relationship characteristics reduce in intensity and capacity:

1) emotional closeness, including relationships like trust;

2) ‘theory of mind’ (what we understand about how someone thinks, their beliefs etc., what we think they are likely to do in given situations);

3) time spent with individuals.

For primates, emotional closeness and theory of mind (if that is not a misnomer) require immense amounts of time to be built up through grooming rituals – some primates only need to spend 2% of daylight hours on grooming for hygiene reasons but in fact spend 20%. It is estimated that humans would need to spend 40% of daylight time on grooming to sustain the complexity of the social networks they move within. But humans have language and vastly enhanced memories thus reducing the contact time necessary for emotional closeness and adequate theory of mind to develop and be sustained (think of the emotional closeness a well-chosen word can generate and how long that closeness can last).

The jury is out on what governs the size and scaling ratios of human social networks, but the influencing factors are likely to be a combination of the three relationship characteristics listed above.

My thought is this. Perhaps the technological, global and corporate world of finance allows individuals to hold together networks of such size that little is known about what anyone in the network is likely to do, believe or think. Moreover, perhaps the scaling ratios are skewed, so that emotional closeness is lost (the inner networks are too big perhaps, or the overall network size too large). And perhaps because of all this too little time is spent on developing trusting relationships.

These factors together could contribute to a kind of trust developing which lacks the normal interpersonal knowledge, closeness and time commitment. So perhaps the corporate world should consider the evolved parametrics of the social brain when organising its institutional structures?

Neuroscience is expanding massively. There is much fear that this will somehow herald a new social determinism, an anti-progressive agenda where people are marked out as winners and losers by the kind of brains they possess. The comparison case is genetics (although obviously neuroscience is not separate from genetics). After the genome was mapped, all sorts of anti-progressive implications floated around for a while – refusing life insurance to people with ‘bad’ genetic profiles and so on.

Does neuroscience have anti-progressive implications? I’m going to argue in as far as the facts are so far in, no, not at all – quite the opposite.

First, let’s define progressives along with my Chief Executive as: ‘enthusiastic believers in the capacity of human beings to collaborate to achieve qualitative advances in individual and social welfare.’ I would argue that the three major paradigm-busting discoveries of neuroscience are consonant with progressivism thus defined.

1) That many of our decisions are not made self-consciously (within our conscious control) but are made by our brains for us. There is a wealth of research on this now, but the seminal studies were carried out by Benjamin Libet. The basic idea is that we think we decide on an action but in fact our brains have already embarked on executing it before we become aware of the action taking place.

2) That the production of neural pathways (neurogenesis) is possible in adult humans and that neurogenesis is developmentally retarded by the wrong kind of environments. These two discoveries were made by Elizabeth Gould in the course of her work on the relation between neurogenesis and environment/experience. To be fair, these findings are not rock solid yet. The experiments have only been carried out on higher mammalian brains rather than human ones, but nevertheless, the findings look liklely to be true.

3) That decision-making cannot be funded by reason alone. Rather, the emotions are central to the making of decisions, as well as to following social conventions, possessing a sense of personal future and acting on moral principles. The work here that is important is by Antonio Damasio who studied the way brain lesions that knocked out emotional responses also impaired the ability of subjects to make plain old rational decisions (like where to go on holiday, or where to go shopping).

1) Might be thought to imply anti-progressive characteristics. Why? Well if our unconscious/semi-conscious decision-making processes are fixed then we are in trouble. This is because useful as these processes are, they are often simplistic and crude. But in fact, these processes are not fixed but are responsive to training. We can reflect on our unconsicous prejudices and reconfigure the processes involved.

2) Gives the lie to the idea that our brains fix our abilities completely from an early age (they do to a certain extent, but only a certain extent). It also reinforces the progressive point that material and social well-being when missing really do disadvantage children and young people.

3) Corrects the somewhat fuzzy but popular idea that if our minds are our brains then emotions and feelings somehow drop out of the picture (that we – that is, the agents who make decisions – are somehow purely self-interested rational creatures only concerned to maximize our own utility, possessed of nothing more than mechanical and cold reasoning powers).

So there’s my pitch for the idea that the three major discoveries of neuroscience can go hand in hand with progressivism. The century of the brain can very well be the century of real social progress also.

Happy New Year from the Social Brain!

 

Here at the RSA, we like to be optimistic. We even like to be optimistic about the potential of human nature – something that is deeply unfashionable these days. By a slightly circuitous route I’m going to argue here that we can be quite optimistic about 2009 and beyond, because we can be optimistic about human nature in general.

 

My boss, Matthew Taylor, has spoken about the fact that the conception of the self (and concomitantly of agency) we have inherited from the Enlightenment, is no longer tenable given what we know about how people think, feel and act. Experiments like those carried out by Benjamin Libett have exposed as myth the idea that all our decisions and actions flow from an adjudicating and executive self. Much of what we think, say and do is actually triggered by sub-personal psychological mechanisms. And cases like that of Phineas Gage, made popular by Antonio Damasio, have shown us that despite the myth of a logical, purely rational self, when we do make self-conscious decisions, these are only possible because our emotions are fully integrated with our rational powers (emotions make possible the appearing salient of one choice over another, and thus the very possibility of making a decision at all). Moreover, behavioural economics (and recent events) have given the lie to the Chicago School conception of ‘economic man’ as the right one to understand economic agency.

 

This might seem to put the RSA in a bit of a pickle. We are an institution with its roots in the Enlightenment, and proud of this fact too. So how can we be optimistic about human nature in the classical Enlightenment sense, if the Enlightenment self has been exposed as fraud?

 

Matthew Taylor also blogged a while ago about Zadie Smith’s quite excellent article in the New York Review of Books. In the article, Smith discusses lucidly, honestly and eloquently the fact that many writers are committed to a form of expression (lyrical realism) which is still wedded to the Enlightenment conception of the self ( a self from which nothing is hidden from view, as it were). Smith likens this form of expression to neural pathways we are stuck in – engrained grooves of thinking and feeling that are familiar and comfortable but which don’t accurately represent how we actually experience the world. Being stuck in these grooves is not good for literature because part of its remit is to give expression to the latter.

 

Smith admits she is partly guilty of conformism to lyrical realism. But she points to another style of writing,  citing Tom Mcarthy’s Remainder as its apogee. This form of expression eschews the full transparency and authenticity of the Enlightenment self, and (somewhat ideologically) commits itself to depicting where the latter comes up short (where it is not transparent to itself, where it is inauthentic). I have my own reservations about this particular literary approach (it is set up almost wholly in opposition to lyrical realism, so to my mind is still beholden to it). But I accept wholeheartedly that what we want from our writers in the twenty-first century is, well, an honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a self in the twenty-first century.

 

Remainder sets to that task with iconoclastic relish and much dark humour. But perhaps rejecting the Enlightenment self needn’t go hand in hand with its nihilism? Perhaps it can go hand in had with a continued optimism about human nature?

 

How so? Experiments in neuroscience on brain plasticity suggest that neural pathways can always be reconfigured – that the grooves we think and feel in are just that, rather than fixed routes. So we are perfectly capable of reshaping our imagination, of thinking and feeling differently where need be. In the current economic climate there is much pessimism. But why? Surely, the credit crunch, despite its obvious immediate hardships, is also a great opportunity? It’s a chance to reassess what’s important. Moreover, the conception of self and agency that is emerging from the rubble of the Enlightenment notion of authenticity is not necessarily inauthentic and nihilistic. For it turns out that being a self is a far more social affair than we took it to be. How we perceive ourselves, what makes us happy and contented, the very content of our minds, all this is determined by things and others external to ourselves. But why is that a problem? Why does that make us inauthentic apart from in terms of a rather crude opposition to classical Enlightenment authenticity? Surely being a thoroughly socially and environmentally embedded self means only that the world is open to us in a different way than we previously thought, rather than not open to us to understand and work with in a positive way at all? In fact, the chances of bringing about lasting social progress on this new conception are better not worse, because it pictures us change-makers as social creatures dependent on our environments. And we need to think of ourselves more like that, not less.

 

So that’s my pitch for optimism in 2009. We have a chance to change things, we are perfectly capable of changing things, and the way in which we can change them is actually better than the way the classical Enlightenment conception of the self promised. So it’s Enlightenment social progress without the Enlightenment self. It’s an optimism about the potential of human nature without the Enlightenment conception of that nature.

 

All we need now is a political class with the vision to see this.

A recent post by Jonah Lehrer brings to the fore the positive and negative aspects of our brains’ unconscious cognitive processes. He talks of how our dopamine neurons drive us to find patterns of regularity in the world around us. For a language-using, tool-using animal, the ability to detect patterns in things is obviously enormously important. It is by recognising patterns that we can employ words, both verbally and graphically, and it is by recognising social patterns of behaviour that we can engage in sophisticated forms of cooperation. Finally, it is by recognising causal patterns in nature that we can develop sophisticated future-directed methods and stategies for sustaining and protecting ourselves.

But there is a downside to this sub-personal tendency to find patterns in things. We see order in randomness – we see things that are not really there. Jonah uses the example of stock markets; traders employ all sorts of complicated models to predict them, but these are often next to useless. However, I don’t think this is a particularly good example, as the desire to find patterns in stock markets is probably driven by the desire to make money, rather than the feeling of reward that pattern-finding simpliciter yields.

What interests me here is the double-edged nature of decision-making that is informed by pattern recognition and that is driven by dopamine neurons. On the plus side we take a joy in capacities that are so important for us: locating patterns of regularity in an overwhelmingly complex natural world; locating patterns of meaning in an overwhelmingly complex social world. In my opinion, the joy we take in music, poetry and the arts is deeply rooted in our pattern-finding capacities. A perfectly crafted three minute Motown song might lay down a pattern we find very easy to follow but now with heightened emotional intensity. A Bach fugue might thrill us with the excquisite nature of its counterpoint variations on a theme – taking our natural ability to detect increasingly fine-grained patterns of similarity and difference to new heights. A Mondrian painting might distill down the essential elements of landscape and our subjective view of it. And, even a conceptual work like Robert Rauschenberg’s telegram to the Galerie Iris Clert draws a pattern holding between things that we perhaps haven’t seen or thought about before.

Art is a wondeful example of the double-edged nature of our enjoyment in pattern-finding. On the one hand, we revel in tracking the patterns it traces out – that is, we revel in the familiarity of certain patterns like the human form, but also in testing our skill in tracing complex or unusual ones. On the other hand, some art actually disrupts our pattern-finding abilities – stops us from staying in familiar grooves, creates a dissonance that stirs us to try to understand anew. Adorno wrote about this latter kind of possibility for art, citing the compositions of Schoenberg and Berg as examples of art that disrupts our usual cognitive patterns and forces us to pay close attention to the precisie material structure of the object we are engaging with.

I think there is a kind of joy in both these forms of aesthetic pleasure because they tap into three levels of pattern-finding that we excel at as human-beings. At the frist level, there is the unconscious pattern-finding that serves us so well as natural and social animals. The reward at this level is a kind of comfort in familiarity. At the second level, there is the joy in tracking complex unexpected patterns. The sense of reward here is not so simple – it is a reward that engages our conscious brains; we become aware of our abilities to track patterns because they are pushed to their limits and also because we notice unusual or unexpected ones. To a certain extent, this kind of feeling of reward helps us hone the unconsicous level of pattern-finding that informs simple decision-making. But it also enables us to make decisions that engage far more complex data. Finally, at the third level we are forced to reflect on our pattern-finding capacities per se – we reach a meta-cognitive state where we realise that we are constantly imposing patterns and that there are inherent dangers in doing this. In other words, at this level we actually cognise the double-edged nature of our dopamine driven pattern-finding capacities – we see that they enable us to track features of natural and social reality, yet we also see that in constantly employing this capacity we may in fact be simply imposing form rather than discovering it.

The lessons from this three-level view of pattern-finding and decision-making are the following. Our unconscious cognition can aid us greatly and in many situations should be trusted and not reduced to more self-conscious cognition. But this level of cognition needs to be trained and honed. It needs to be informed by experiences and learning that constantly calibrate its tendency to simplify – we need to be continually open to the new patterns around us. And the aesthetic pleasure taken in art can help us here. But lest we become self-satisfied about our honed capacities, we need to, if we can, reach the meta-cognitive level where we come to see that pattern-finding per se has a double nature – the wonder of our tracking patterns in the material world and the delusion of our imposing patterns that aren’t actually there.

I think there is a joy in exposing this delusional tendency. It is the joy of being – or aiming to be – both an embodied creature connected up reliably through perception to the world, and a self-critical and rational animal capable of reflective insight into its own cognitive predicament.

As reported in the Guardian, Neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have managed to fool people that they inhabit another physical body. The experiment involved an optical illusion which convinced subjects they were inhabiting the body of a dummy across the room. The illusion was so powerful that subjects flinched when the dummy was threatened with a knife and even felt they were ‘shaking hands with themselves’ (not quite sure what this really means!) when they walked across the room and shook hands with the dummy. The neuroscientists concluded that the proprioceptive sense of self (the sense of inhabiting one’s own body) is generated by the way the brain integrates multisensory perceptual signals (our sense of inhabiting our own bodies is a kind of ‘trick’ the brain plays and be manipulated).

 

Jonah Lehrer reports in his blog that there is a strong correlation between lower IQ and a dietary lack of iodised salt. He also reports that there is a strong correlation between high levels of lead and lower IQ in children (lead is often found in old paint in the USA and lead-painted apartments are often occupied by the poor). These two findings suggest that disadvantage in the poor may be much more grounded in environmenntal factors than previously thought.

 

Jonah also reports on a study that claims that happiness is something not only possessed by individuals but networks of people as well. Apparently happiness clusters around groups of happy people and its waxing and waning is far more reliant on factors external to individuals than previously thought – it spreads like a contagion amongst groups and this probably has an evolutionary basis in securing social bonds.

 

Finally, the Neurophilosophy blog reports on a study which shows that the brain’s response to fear is fine-tuned by culture – that basic responses are hard-wired but that these are calibrated by cultural factors.

 

This apparent ragbag of studies expresses in several key ways how brain science might effect the way we understand ourselves in the twenty-first century:

 

(1)   Our sense of ‘self’ is in part generated and sustained by multiple sub-personal physiological mechanisms, so that it no longer seems possible to think of ourselves as wholly self-directing and autonomous (as Descartes, Kant, Sartre et al thought we should).

(2)   Disadvantage, especially historically entrenched disadvantage, may well in part be grounded in environmental factors beyond the control of individuals (such as where they live, how much they have to eat, what they have available to eat). Is it still possible, in light of this, to expect individuals to drag themselves out of disadvantage by willpower alone? Shouldn’t we at least be focussed on alleviating environmental determinants of disadvantage first?

(3)   The whole ‘self-help’ approach to mental well-being that goes hand in hand with a certain form of individualist capitalism seems to misunderstand how people actually become happy. Happiness seems to be a largely socially embedded and constituted phenomenon, so that learning how to be happy involves learning how to maintain emotional connections to others (so that one’s happiness depends on relations, not intrinsic individual properties).

(4)   Despite what neruobiology might tell us, neuroscience does not fund determinism. There are certain hard(ish) limits on cognitive-emotional processes, but within these bounds, how we behave, perceive ourselves, that’s all up to us. Elisabeth Gould’s studies of neural plasticity also support this view of the brain as not only determining us, but something the functioning of which we can to a certain extent determine ourselves.

 

The overrall conclusion then is that ‘we’ are far more determined by extrinsic factors (both social and natural) than previously thought. So where appropriate we need to learn to work with the hard(ish) constraints our brains place on us. But within these constraints, we have the abilities to calibrate ourselves and our world to reflect the values and ideals we hold dear. And the hard constraints aren’t all bad – that we can only be properly happy by learning how to thrive in emotionally attuned networks is a constraint that’s just fine with me.

Karen Matthews is a terrible woman. There’s a sentence we’d all sign off on, wouldn’t we? Shouldn’t we? Well, it depends what is meant by ‘terrible’.

 

What, I hear you say, are you suggesting? That we feel sorry for her? To a certain extent and in a certain way, yes, I am going to suggest that.

 

When a neglected child commits some offence we say, quite rightly, that we shouldn’t blame her. We say that she is merely a victim of a certain causal history, one that brought cruel fate. But when Karen Matthews does something heinous we forget what has happened to make her the way she is. It’s as if something magical happens at eighteen that allows us to disregard the causal history in the case of a ‘consenting’ adult.

 

In fact, nothing magical happens at eighteen. What might happen is that a person develop the cluster of abilities that allow her to make informed and responsible choices – that she  be able to get enough distance, as it were, between her own desires and the decisions she makes. But that clearly didn’t happen with Karen Matthews, who went on living in an adult world with  (at least in part) the mind of a selfish child.

 

That the vast majority of people do in fact develop the autonomy to rise above the egoism of childhood is why we back up laws with punishments. Part of being an autonomous adult is thinking ahead to the consequences of one’s actions, and punishments are there to sway those that teeter toward temptation yet have the strength of will to resist. But it seems quite clear that Karen Matthews could only think ahead to the gratification of her own desires.

 

At the danger of reading too much into this case (a danger Chris Dillow suggests we resist), discerning why someone acts as Ms Matthews did, as Polly Toynbee has pointed out, is usually not hard to discern – a broken home, unloving parents, a history of physical and sexual abuse, a lack of education, bad diet, drug and alcohol abuse, perhaps even just genetically inherited low intelligence (although I doubt this is a factor in many cases, and even where it is it can usually be overcome). It is almost always for these reasons that such a  person sails past her eighteenth birthday without learning the abilities we unthinkingly ascribe to consenting adults.

 

This isn’t to suggest Ms Matthews can’t exercise choice simpliciter. It is to say that the choices that appear to her as possible and salient are limited (and in her case downright perverse) because of her underdevelopment as a person. If that’s so, why don’t we view her in the same light as the neglected child? Why do we say she is terrible for making the choices she did? It seems to me the factoring in of the relevant causal history in the one case and not the other is utterly arbitrary.

 

What usually happens when someone turns eighteen (or thereabouts) is  simply that a certain causal history does occur – one which enables the autonomy requisite to live the moral life of a fully developed adult human being.  When it has so occurred we take ourselves to be justified in blaming someone for lapses in judgement thereafter precisely because the right array of choices appear to her as possible and salient.

 

The villain of the piece here is the Kantian-Christian idea that each of us can act morally regardless of our causal histories. It seems to me that this is false. Moral action requires moral deliberation and that in turn requires possessing the cluster of abilities that allow the right choices to appear to one.

 

This is not just a philosophical position (although I happen to think the position is justified by philosophy alone), it is a position that is beginning to be backed up by science. Neuroscientists can produce brain scans that display the difference between normal and neglected children. What sets them apart is that the former and not the latter possess the neural pathways that fund various cognitive abilities, including the abilities essential for responsible behaviour. Neuroscientists can also produce brain scans that show the difference between adults who can and can’t delay their own gratification in order to exercise self-control and think ahead to consequences, and the difference is the same lack of relevant neural pathways. But it’s not all doom-and-gloom causal determinism: neuroscience also suggests that for most of our adult lives, neural pathways can be engendered anew.

 

So in a sense Karen Matthews is a terrible woman – she is terrible at being a woman because she still acts with the egoism of the selfish and confused child. An awful failure of socialisation afflicts her just as it afflicts the neglected child.

 

The bonus of seeing things this way is that the failure, as a social failure, concerns us. And we would do better to be thus concerned than to indulge in the self-congratulatory vindictiveness that seems to abound. After all, did we choose the causal histories that meant for us turning eighteen did actually mark passage into responsible adulthood?