A short tale for Guy Fawkes’ Night

“Mu-u-um…”

Oh-oh. That’s five-year-old-speak for, ‘I’ve got one of those questions.

“Yes darling?”

I tuck her in.

“What’s Torcher?”

I balk. What the heck have they been teaching her at that school?

“It’s what they did to Guy Fawkes. We learned about him today. He couldn’t write his name afterwards: after the torcher.”

Why can’t she ask the standard stuff like ‘where do babies come from?’, ‘Why is the sky blue?’ or even ‘why are there rich people?’

I gather my wits.

“Well, er, it’s… for example when they shine bright lights in your eyes when you want to go to sleep, or… erm… hurt you if they want you to tell them something… something they want to know.”

“Like, who helped you with the gunpowder?”

“Yes.”

“Guy Fawkes didn’t tell them.”

Dear God please don’t let her ask me what ‘hung drawn and quartered’ means…

“He must have been very brave.” Hmm: that probably wasn’t the right thing to say.

“Is that why we have fireworks? Because we want to remember how brave he was?”

Er… “No… no, that’s not it.”

Something whizzes overhead. The drawn curtains flash white, a split second before a deep boom echoes, outside and in.

Wait

“Did your teacher tell you how Guy Fawkes was found? In the cellar?”

“Yes! One of the Lords was… a friend, of the gang who wanted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. And he wrote him a letter saying, don’t go. Pretend to be ill. He didn’t say why. But the man thought… anyway he told someone. Like a policeman. And that’s how they found Guy Fawkes.”

“So they found him out without having to ask anyone anything.”

“Yes…” She frowns, puzzled, then brightens: “Without having to do any torcher!”

“Yes.”

I’d never thought of it before that question.

So now, whatever other people may be celebrating tonight – the saving of hundreds of lives; the confounding of Treason; the preservation of the Mother of all Parliaments to live to fight another day – when I bite into that lump of pitch-black parkin and gaze at the fireworks that light the sky, I lift my glass of blood-red punch to the tale that shows by example:

Torture doesn’t work.

‘I will choose free will’

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The more Metal among my readers may recognise the phrase in this title, but we now turn from the apparent perversity of people’s decisions to the even more uncanny matter of the mechanics of how they’re made.

In 1983 Benjamin Libet of the University of California San Francisco set up an experiment to determine the speed with which people take decisions. His volunteers were asked to perform a simple movement, at a time they chose, while a pickup measured the ‘readiness potential’ – a signal in the brain’s motor cortex known to precede physical movement.

Readings by the volunteers of the timing of their decision, from the second hand of a clock, showed that the signal in the motor cortex – of which they were not consciously aware – came half a second before their conscious decision. In other words the decision was made subconsciously and only afterwards did the subjects’ brains construct the perception of freewill.

Argument at once began to rage over how accurate the subjects’ timing readings could be, given that their attention should have been focussed on whether or not to make their move. Experiments in other fields of brain study have shown how a single line of ‘time’ is reconstructed by the brain ‘after-the-fact’ so, it was argued, we still have freewill – it just doesn’t look like it in that one experiment.

In 2009 Jeff Miller and Judy Trevena carried out a new version of Libet’s experiment in which volunteers had to listen out for a tone before making a 2-way decision: press the key or leave it. The experimenters found a ‘readiness potential’ building-up in both cases – press or leave – and concluded that the potential just signified attention, and not decision-making. Our state of attention is not something of which we are fully conscious, though it can of course be controlled with practice.

Libet’s own conclusion about his findings was that the readiness potential signalled preparedness to push the button but nevertheless a person could decide, within the final tenth of a second, not to go through with their decision.

But it could be said that this view – which acquired the nickname ‘Free Won’t’ (as opposed to ‘Free Will’) – just pushes the question one step along by leaving the mechanism for the final ‘restraint’ decision unexplained.

Improvements in measurement equipment – including siting the pickups within the brain – have in some cases shown even longer intervals (up to two whole seconds) between ‘trigger’ signals and apparent decisions.

Arguments still rage then: do we have fully-conscious freewill, or do our decisions bubble up, mostly uncontrolled, from depths we cannot reach?

 

 

The price of obedience II

They twist their hands. They sweat, they grit their teeth. They claw their hair, the battle in their minds playing out on their agonised faces…

And those are just the perpetrators.

And the rest of us – those in the field and those whose connection extends no further than being of the same species – have ever since then been struggling to explain why, nevertheless, in so many cases they press on.

Where does empathy go, or what is it that overpowers it, in Milgram’s experiments?

Milgram himself was the first to be shocked by the outcomes, and the first to put forward an explanation. He proposed that our mind – the set-up of our thought processes – passes through something of a phase change, going from an ‘Autonomous’ state, in which we act entirely of our own freewill, to an ‘Agentic’ state, in which admonitions such as ‘I/the institution take full responsibility…’ (a typical experimenter reply when pressed about the consequences of any harm that might be done) are taken literally. It’s as if some part – not all – of the volunteer subjects’ mind is thinking ‘that pain I can hear isn’t my doing: it’s the experimentor’s’.

The obedience-over-empathy effect is strongest if the experimenter is nearby: hearing instructions via a phone link rather than from someone physically present reduced average compliance from over 65% to under 20%. It’s also stronger if the ‘victim’ can’t be seen. We’re a social species after all and we don’t want to let down (on the one hand) or harm (on the other) those who are near us.

But there’s more.

Dressing the experimenter in casual clothes rather than the classic white lab-coat, and switching the experiment’s location from prestigious Yale to a nondescript building on the edge of town, both had the effect of reducing compliance for an otherwise identical experimental set-up.

Similarly, the sexes of ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ made a difference: men were far less willing to inflict pain upon women. This may be cultural, or it may be older: perhaps our higher-pitched screams, nearer to humankind’s ‘emergency signal frequency’ of a baby’s wail, are simply more effective at their job.

Some spoilsport has even suggested that this explains the Australian result: the women in that study were ‘teaching’ other women, on instructions from a male experimenter. Yes lads, it’s true: we’ll gang up on you if we have to, simply to survive.

What the effect of the clothes and buildings appear to show, though, is that our willingness to inflict pain on others is, in the life of human beings as a species, a fairly modern thing. And that what brought it to the fore was the hierarchical state in which we all live now: we have simply become accustomed to putting our minds into Neutral gear and obeying orders, especially from those who are nearby, no matter the consequences to those who are out of sight.

In the words of laboratory assistant Charity, in the sequel to ‘The Price of Time’ when asked “What would you do?”:

“I’d do what I was paid to do.”

The price of obedience

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Would you – yes, you – torture someone, just because you’d been told to?

In the wake of the Holocaust and the trials that followed, in which the defence ‘I was only obeying orders’ gained notoriety, a young psychology student set about trying to find out.

Stanley Milgram was only 28 when he first devised the experiments on extreme obedience which now bear his name.  For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the set-up, the experiments took place in a laboratory into which the volunteer subject, together with a conspirator in the experiment, were led having been explained they were taking part in an investigation into learning and memory. The two drew lots to determine who would ‘teach’ and who would ‘learn’ – the lots had been fixed so that the volunteer would ‘teach’.

As the two were shown round the set-up and informed of what they were to do, and  the ‘learner’ attached to electrodes through which the ‘teacher’ would administer a mild shock in the event of an incorrect answer, the ‘learner’ would drop into the conversation the ‘fact’ that they had a heart condition. The ‘teacher’ would then be reassured that the experimenter, and the institution sponsoring the investigation, would ‘take full responsibility’. The experiment would then begin.

The ‘learner’, on being asked to memorise pairs of words, would occasionally make mistakes. When this happened the ‘teacher’ was to administer shocks. These began at a barely-perceptible 15 volts but rose by a further 15 volts with each incorrect answer. The voltages – in increments of 15 all the way up to 450 – were clearly displayed on the row of switches on the console before the ‘teacher’, along with helpful phrases such as ‘mild pain’, ‘severe pain’, ‘danger of death’ and ‘xxx’.

For comparison U.K. Mains voltage, at 230 volts, is plenty enough to put a life at risk.

Some of the results of these experiments are well-known, but they come as a shock to those who stumble upon them for the first time. Some people have tried to explain-away the apparent cruelty by postulating that the volunteers knew, or else twigged during the experiment, that the shocks were a sham and the ‘learner’ had been detailed to act the pain – to scream and bang the desk, and then fall silent.

Most people, once the initial shock clears, have the natural reaction ‘I would never obey cruel orders…’. But people do. They – we – do it in experiments and in real life, as yesterday’s grievous anniversary reminds us.

Why is this?

No-one else in the animal, plant or fungus kingdom (and please weigh-in to say if I am wrong here) inflicts deliberate, prolonged suffering on other individuals of their own species. There are parasites who appear to do this to their hosts, there are species who practice infanticide and even cannibalism in extreme survival situations, but nobody – nothing else on earth – tortures.

Since the sixties Milgram’s experiment has been replicated all over the world. Every demographic has had a go – women as well as men. The proportion of people who complied and took the process all the way to the lethal 450 volts, fell for the most part between 40% –  men from Australia – to 90% – men from the countries of Eastern Europe still recovering, at the time of the experiment, from their totalitarian states  .

But one outlier stood stark: 16%.

There are theories which attempt to explain this away, but nevertheless: Women of Australia, I salute you.

New Year: new… tree

Happy New Year!

Herewith a tale of new beginnings:

Ages and ages ago we bought a living Christmas tree.

After it had done its time indoors we put it outside. But it quickly ran into trouble.

No, I don’t mean it attracted the wrath of the local posse of fruit trees –

“You’re not from round ‘ere are you?”

“No. Norway actually hey what’s with the strimmer..?”

Rather, unbeknown to us green buyers of such things, living Christmas trees come in two varieties:

  • Grown in a pot and sold ‘undisturbed’
  • Grown in the ground, harvested and shoved into a pot.

Ours, it seemed was of the latter, ‘disturbed’ kind. It had had its roots severed in order to fit in the pot and, by the following December, showed signs of struggling.

It looked too sad to use for decoration. But the local nature reserve have a special area dedicated to retired Christmas trees (they really do!) so we made up our minds to take it there and plant it out.

The middle of winter is the best time.

But each year midwinter came and went, then new year, then the February Cold Spell, and then spring would put an end to it.

Each summer the poor tree had looked more and more forlorn, its lower branches losing their needles and the baldness progressing upwards. The top, though, fought on and even produced cones – probably out of desperation.

However… <drum-roll please>

This year I had a better idea: a home for the tree which would be easier to reach than the Nature Reserve. This one wouldn’t require the drive across town: only a leisurely cycle ride to the ‘path to The Planets’ (upon which, if you scale up your cycling speed to the real solar system, you end up travelling faster than light, thus arriving home before you set out) – easy.

The mild weather this New Year has made all sorts of resolutions easier – well, less arduous at least – to carry out. There are more joggers on the river path than a normal first week of January would bring, for example. I have finally fixed the light in the garage. And having put it off for months, we’d got the bike trailer up and running.

We headed off with the tree in the trailer, its roots and earth wrapped in a carrier-bag.

The cycle-path is a former railway: flat, and easy to ride.

We carried on, past farmers’ bare fields towards a shock of red sunset under moody clouds, until we spotted mixed woodland: not just broadleaf. We didn’t want the tree standing out too much: someone might ‘manage’ the land there, and deem it out-of-place.

We turned and bounced down the muddy path, into the trees.

There’s a sound the wind makes in bare winter trees that has no word. It’s not a whisper or rustle, like leaves in summer. The proper term ‘Psithurism’ requires leaves (or at least needles).

It’s not a roar: it’s too gentle; not a rush because it has no beginning or end.

It just is.

We found a spot for the tree.

I have few regrets in life, but one of these is that I didn’t get this done earlier.

The soil wasn’t hard to dig. We’d brought water, and root-food. I remembered to disentangle some of the roots, so they’d know where to go.

I wonder if a tree can feel that it might soon be on the mend: that it now stands a chance.

I almost daren’t check up on it in time, in case I’d already left it too late.

But a practical friend pointed out it would need watering.