Under a spell

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Everyone knows Magic Spells, as usually described can’t happen in real, physical life.

Creating something out of thin air contravenes the intuitively obvious law of conservation of matter, while spiriting an object from a to b takes energy, which has to come from somewhere and then travel via some known, measurable means (sound waves, laser beams, the No 7 bus…)

Light, darkness, fertility, and all the other things magicians may want to invoke don’t just turn up on demand without a physical cause.

But ‘spells’ of a sort are nevertheless out there, and I think it pays to be able to notice them, particularly at times like the present.

Nobody actually refers to them as ‘spells’, though – that would be giving the game away.

Take a large body of people going about their everyday lives. Most of us – even those like me who like to think themselves immune to that sort of thing – have something in life that we want – or at the very least would like more of. If it isn’t the obvious one of money then it might be security, love, prestige…

And these wants make us susceptible to ‘spells’.

If they didn’t, then I defy anybody to explain why firms expend so much money and expertise on advertising things such as (to take one obvious example) dark reddish-brown fizzy drinks of whose existence we are all perfectly well aware already thank you.

Adverts, and the sort of spells that concern us here, don’t work by directly moving the physical world but instead cause us to believe something – whether it’s the classic ‘The Forest is Malevolent (and threatening that safety that you want)’, ‘There’s a conspiracy, founded in Continental Europe, to keep your wages low (and depriving you of more of that money you deserve)’ or ‘This Government is Benevolent (and has, with Herculean effort, dispelled a Plague)’.

All this has the effect of altering our behaviour. It harnesses energy in the form of enthusiasm – energy, in other words, that wasn’t previously visible.

Thus there are people who are now convinced that the present U.K. government have handled the pandemic well, and that here it is effectively all but over. This conviction stands, in spite of verifiable evidence to the contrary.

At the time of writing, the U.K. has suffered 43,000 deaths, with more added every day. Even Sweden, with their bold experiment of eschewing lockdown, have now suffered fewer deaths – both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population.

Added to our death toll, and less often spoken of, is the large number of people who have not, and perhaps may never, recover from C19.

Their number is not at present made public, and may not yet have even been collated. All I know from my own experience is that the total is not yet so vast that we all know one personally. So, even if the number were eventually to come out, those ‘under the spell’ of belief in our Government’s good management of the pandemic may dismiss the news because the idea of ‘surviving but never fully recovering from Covid-19’ doesn’t fit with our ‘background knowledge’ – our mental model – of colds and ’flu, two infections with which we have been led to compare it.

However this number, like the death toll, could eventually be verified – through health records, for example. Also verifiable in numbers are: the initial shortages of P.P.E. for people working in close proximity to the afflicted; the cost of attempts to devise the wrong sort of set-up for tracking the spread of the disease, and the ongoing non-existence of any Government-established means to do so. Though I do recommend one devised by the Research community.

So much for stark numbers. What have we actually been led to believe?

Most people think of a disease as some kind of ‘enemy’ which one must ‘fight’. This can be harmful on a personal level: if I ‘lose my battle’ with some affliction, doesn’t that make it sound as if I lacked the Character to put up a proper fight? But on a national level it can be useful: we are called upon to do things, even make sacrifices, beyond the everyday. We are kept informed of the progress made, using charts or figures, so as to keep up morale. True leadership is also, in a way, a ‘spell’ cast over followers.

Now think of the two dates which the U.K. Government chose for the easing of restrictions: 8th May (V.E. Day, and a Bank Holiday weekend), and 4th July (‘Independence Day’ – not here, but who in the U.K. doesn’t make the association?)

What are we being convinced of, without the words being said? What mental models are we inadvertently pulling out of the bottom drawer of our minds?

And so, as we pour out of our houses and flats, to the beaches and beauty spots – as the Government with its messages to our unconscious evidently intended us to do – they can step back in feigned shock and declaim “No! We didn’t mean that!”

But they did.

If, due to people having to return to work in indoor workplaces with their recirculated air, a second wave of disease comes, who will get the blame? The few individuals who take profit from those offices, shops and factories, or the very visible crowds in the open air where the virus quickly disperses and, as research has shown, is far less likely to be caught?

If you think the latter, are you sure you’re not under a spell?

 

Very short book review – ‘Sapiens’, by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A broad sweep through the prehistory and history of humankind with a fascinating thesis about ‘what makes us different’ – even from the other human species like the Neanderthals (I shan’t spoil it for you). Never a dull moment among our ancestors’ twists and turns.

Why did I not give 5 stars? Only because some of the final chapters’ speculation about the future seemed, to me, a little dated and let the rest of the ‘story’ down. But perhaps that’s just me.

View all my reviews

‘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.

War and Peace

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You’re out of luck. The raid that your Squadron Leader said would be a walk in the park has gone wrong: they were waiting for you and you’ve been shot down. You’re injured – no idea, as yet, how badly. And they’ve found you before you could get to shelter.

You’re carted off to some unknown place in the dark by men whose language you don’t understand but about whom you’ve heard… well, you’d rather not think about it.

The Enemy.

You’re thousands of miles from home.

After a preliminary roughing-up, you find yourself alone in a cell. Nothing happens, for what seems like hours.

The cell door opens. You feel a sick lurch.

You’ve already given your name, rank and number when you first got here.

What now?

But nobody’s shouting at you and, apart from the guards at the door who haven’t moved from their posts, there’s only one of him.

“Hi. My name’s Hans.”

He gestures to imply you needn’t bother rising from your bunk. He pulls up a chair. It occurs on you, as he recounts the events of the previous night and how your people were caught out, that he doesn’t even have that harsh accent. He sounds just like you.

You gather, as he carries on talking, that they must’ve known all about the raid days, maybe weeks, in advance. Hell, about the entire history of the Squadron, sounds like. You don’t know it, but you’re nodding agreement with some of the stuff he’s saying.

He asks when you last ate: you realise how hungry you’ve gotten.

We don’t get much in the way of decent food round here, but I’ll see what we can rustle up…

You find yourself joking about your food – about the guys responsible for getting it to you. The rats. The QM who’s always on the make. Yeah, same here.

He leaves, returning later with food, even a few magazines. Film stars. You haven’t been to the movies in months. You get nostalgic. He asks about your favourite films. Their lads, he tells you, stencil the Divas on their planes: how about you..? You banter a little, about the planes. He tells you there’s a movie theatre here at the camp, and as soon as the medic’s treated that burn…

You find yourself talking, over the food. You’ve been careful: not given anything away. No numbers, no strategies, no tactics…

Or have you?

His name was Hans Joachim Scharff. A successful salesman in civilian life, he became one of the Luftwaffe’s top interrogators: the very antithesis of the harsh, ‘we have ways of making you talk’ trope of war films.

On the other side of the world, at roughly the same time, former missionary Marine Major Sherwood Ford Moran, an American Japanophile who spoke the language perfectly, was working the same magic on captured Japanese soldiers following failed raids on Pacific islands.

They’d sit in the shade on folding wooden chairs not far away from the immediate battlefield, and just talk – about places, about food.  The captives were often grateful for someone who spoke their language: who understood them and knew the rhythm of their lives back home. It would almost be rude not to talk…

It got so sometimes they’d even seek him out, for a chat.

Because whether in the pub just down the road, or in mortal peril halfway round the world, everybody loves to witter about themselves, really.

Which brings me to my turn, and Kate in Portsmouth.

I was not a captured soldier in dread of what might happen next, and of course my job was to give information: not withhold it.

But shock has an unexpected effect on the mind and on your ability to deal with direct questions. You blank out. The people needing the facts are working against obstacles, but these obstacles are not of your deliberate making: they lurk in the hidden parts of the mind, with our species’ other survival instincts.

I don’t remember the room. I couldn’t recall her face for the life of me – not even hair colour – but I do remember that it was she who eased me in to the talking and that all else, bar the street incident, left my mind.

Someone brought me a coffee. I remember wondering how they knew I took sugar.

We ran through it, all of it, in the present tense. The only interruptions would come if I stopped for lack of inspiration. They generally took the form “and what happens now?”

I don’t recall giving any details about appearances at this stage: only actions. I’m poor at remembering appearances.

Or so I thought.

We came to the end of my run-through of the incident: to my arrival at Geordie-Man’s house.

I thought that was that – I’d failed almost completely to give any useful details…

Then we went back and ran through it all again: but different this time.

“He’s coming towards you. Can you hear his footsteps?”

“What’s his hair like?

“What sort of clothes is he wearing?”

And back I was, in Burnaby Road…

MRI scans have since that time shown that the brain activity of someone imagining a situation is all but indistinguishable from that of the same person perceiving it in real life. This, it’s my guess, is how the true victims – those less lucky than I was that night – find their interviews so traumatic. I can only hope that, like ‘therapy’ is supposed to do, it helps get some of the awfulness out of their minds.

My interview, as mentioned before, took a whole three hours. It didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel like any time at all. I became kind-of suspended: taken out of the normal flow of time, re-playing bits of reality like an eighties film fan would re-play action highlights of a video.

And that is how it’s done: the technique now accepted as ‘best practice’ in police stations throughout the U.K. for victims, witnesses and suspects alike. Kate – who’d ‘been on a course’ recall – must have been one of the earliest pioneers.

Its name is PEACE:

Prepare – Engage/Explain – Account, Clarify & Challenge – Close – Evaluate

There’s a free course here, for the curious.

And for the skeptics – of whom I admit I was once one – I give you experts from Liverpool who’ve demonstrated how well this kind of interviewing works, even on hardened criminals and terrorists.

I leave you with two quotes from top interrogators:

“The best (interviews) suspended moral judgment and conveyed genuine curiosity.”

“Rapport is the closest thing interrogators have to a truth serum.”

Eyewitness

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In the light of an interesting recent find, I’m stepping aside from our history of interviewing techniques for a moment, to ponder their content instead.

How good can our memory for a face – a voice, a person – really get, even when poorly seen like in my picture here? And are some faces more memorable, on some kind of absolute scale, than others? What if we were witness to a crime..?

No-one should stand on the right. But below me, and blocking the way to walk down the rush-hour escalator, is a bunch of rowdy Italian lads with whom I’ve no desire to argue. It’s 1980s London and I’m on my way to work.

So I stand, on the right.

Till someone kicks me in the back.

I turn around to see a pin-stripe suit topped by a pale, contorted face. I can’t work out how old he is. The language shocks: I’ve never heard anyone in a pin-stripe swear before. I forget, today, the words of my mild protestation – survival instinct hands me uncharacteristic restraint – but I remember the kick in the chest – the loss of breath. I recall wondering if the Italian lads know CPR. But when I turn to step off the escalator, they’ve gone. A sturdy, white-haired gent in tweeds – my guess is a retired Colonel – addresses a point just beyond my right shoulder:

“I say! That’s no way to treat a young lady!”

The pin-stripe scuttles off like a rat.

I think – I hope – that I thanked the gent in tweeds. I hope he read the thoughts on my face as for the first time in my life 21-year-old feminist rebel me – the only woman engineer in my workplace – realised that men of the Forces could also be kind. There’d been a string of anti-war protests of late, and I’d been on every one.

Fast forward a year, and a train carriage rushing through deepest Hampshire. A man and a young woman in the heavy, sprung seats across the way from me are arguing, and it’s getting ugly. They’re not a couple: they’re strangers. She’s sitting in the draught from the window he’s just opened.

I hate an argument, and this one’s so easy to resolve. I lean over and suggest they swap seats, putting him in the fresh air and keeping her in the warm. She rises to move, but he lets fly at me. Survival instinct cuts in again: I recall the words and voice – the pinstripe, even.

“That bloke kicked me on an escalator on the tube last year. He’s a ruddy menace. I’ll find the guard.”

I wonder how many other women the pin-stripe’s picked on, over the years. Did he get worse? Did he get caught?

Another city, another year: Portsmouth, in fact, and at least two years on. It’s hot, it’s dark and I’m among friends in the student dive, all jumping to George Melly’s lively jazz. I’m dancing on a table. As you do. Someone tugs at my sleeve – well yes, I suppose I shouldn’t really do this: 8 stone might be too much for a Students’ Union table. I glance down to gauge my leap. The sleeve-tugger isn’t one of our crowd. She’s saying something, with difficulty over the loud music:

“I’ve seen you before. You were on that train: you stopped that argument…”

Two years. A flash of a face in the dark. I stared, gobsmacked.

To be fair, she might have been one of those rare people with the gift of super-recognition. But other strangers have remembered me, from other glimpses and other incidents. It’s just this particular one struck me as the most extreme.

And so back to that recent piece of research: how many other people, I wonder, do folk remember?

What it can’t yet explain, though, is this: why always me?

Nine steps to Guilty

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So, we return from our brief intermezzo in York Magistrates’ Court to the matter in hand: how, in the face of overwhelming odds, to get at the truth.

We’ve progressed from the inciting incident, through primitive attempts to beat or twist the tale out of people, to the first science-based monitoring of the signals inadvertently given out by a body under stress – a process which carries with it the rather less scientific assumption that heightened stress implies lying.

The road now takes us to Chicago, a city still bruised from the beatings led by its recently-deceased Chief of Police, one Jon Graham Burge, and native city of one John E. Reid.

John Reid started out ‘on the beat’, but also trained in using the polygraph. A physical giant of a man, he enthusiastically embraced the idea of telling an interrogee that they were lying – ‘The polygraph says you are lying’ – in order to put them under stress. Recall, the philosophy that lies behind polygraph use is that constructing a fake tale is more physically stressful than recounting the truth. The interrogee doesn’t get to see the traces and these days, with electronic displays instead of pens on rolls of paper, they can’t even use sound as a clue.

Reid used this particular gambit in a gruelling interrogation which culminated in the confession, by one Darrel Parker from Nebraska, to the murder of his wife, Nancy. Darrel Parker was found guilty at his trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The successful case launched Reid’s career. He developed and polished the method, now adopted throughout the U.S.A., which still bears his name.

In the preliminary phase the interviewer simply chats, in a non-threatening way, with the suspect. From this they ‘calibrate’ their body language: how the interviewee looks when relaxed, under stress, or puzzled. Questions about the crime are then worked into the conversation, and signs of stress and lying are sought. One of these signs, quoted in the manual, has an almost superstitious ring to it: a person trying genuinely to recall an event will look up and to the right, whereas one lying will look down and to the left. No-one, as far as I know, has proven this scientifically, nor indeed specified whether it’s the other way round for left-handers.

We now come to the meat of Reid’s method. It takes us down nine steps:

  1. The interviewee, having been left alone for a time, is re-joined by the interviewer, who is now carrying an impressive-looking file. This file is said – or implied – to hold solid evidence of the interviewee’s guilt.
  2. ‘But you’re, kinda innocent’ – perhaps there’s some excuse for the crime, such as desperation, impaired judgement, or being ‘put up to it’ by someone else, the ‘real’ criminal. The interviewer watches or listens for signs that one of these get-outs resonates with the interviewee, while all the time…
  3. Stymieing any of their attempts to deny guilt altogether.
  4. By this time the interviewee will want to try and explain why, or how, they couldn’t possibly be the guilty party. They’ll do this because none of their outright denials will have been acknowledged. This might take some time. Two hours without food will take its subtle toll on most civilians, without being outright inhumane.
  5. At this point the interviewer has to appear to soften. The manual advises lowering position, approaching the interviewee; speaking quietly and appearing comforting. Using clues from the previous discussion, the interviewer can then…
  6. Present the interviewee with a ‘soft’ and a ‘hard’ version of why, or how, they committed the crime.
  7. By now the interviewee would have to muster quite some will-power to dismiss the entire conversation and revert to protesting their innocence. They may think all grounds for protest have been exhausted.
  8. Other people can now come in to the room, and the interviewer encourages the interviewee to confirm what has already been said.
  9. The interviewee signs their ‘confession’.

Most juries to this day regard a confession, more even than forensic or eyewitness evidence, as definitive proof of guilt.

Variations on the theme crossed the Atlantic to the United Kingdom in the seventies. I still remember a Police representative in a TV documentary from that time describing their interviews using the delightful English euphemism of ‘leading the criminal into a walled garden’ – note the implied assumption of guilt.

But there’s a twist to the tale.

Recalling ‘Frenchie’ (Byrnes’ first case), and then the mystery of the missing diamond ring among those comprehensively-polygraphed young women from Berkeley, can you guess what it might be, before peeking?

To crown it all, psychologists have now found that the only difference between a typical person and an ‘expert’ in determining whether someone is lying is the degree of confidence expressed in the result – not its accuracy. To reiterate: a psychology professor, a police inspector, and others whom you may think would have some secrets gleaned from a career of experience, are no better at detecting a new acquaintance’s porkies than you are.

The problem of ‘false positives’ – guilty confessions by innocent people – has not gone away. Here in the UK it has brought us the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, and a slew of other miscarriages of justice.

And compared with certain techniques developed on both sides during the Second World War, we have gone backwards – away from our Navy Base encounter with Kate.

Tuning in: Music and empathy

A car pulls up in our street, its windows wide open.

Music is playing in the car – lively music with heavy bass heartbeats.

The street is, to use the technical jargon ‘acoustically bright’ – a few young summer trees notwithstanding, you can hear every word of a conversation along its straight, wide, semi-detached-lined, length_

The music stops – cut off with the engine.

Though the car’s an inanimate object, and the sound has no more bearing on its original creators than the electrons bringing you this post have upon me,  I can’t help feeling – just for that fraction of a second before reason takes over – ‘Doesn’t that seem rude?’

I’ve wondered, every summer for years, why the feeling springs unwanted to my mind.

Just the other day, I found the answer.

Some people relate to music more deeply than others – almost like as with an intense friendship.

It looks as if I’m one of these people.

Weirdly though, I might have known all along.

In ‘The Price of Time’ and its yet-unpublished sequel ‘The Evening Lands’ characters have the ability to ‘visit people’s minds’, including their own. Inside a mind are rooms with machines for the various faculties (power of reason looks like a Difference Engine, while a portrait gallery represents ability to remember faces, etc).

Last year a plot turn required a character to see empathy. I chose to represent empathy as a crystal dial like an analogue radio set, which ‘picks up’ people’s feelings by resonance.

The crystal dial has radial lines with the names of everybody the person cares about.

And in one particular character, these names are interleaved with those of their favourite pieces of music.

 

Is this how it’s supposed to be?

“I barely know what living feels like…”

Sometimes, under severe stress or trauma, our brains ‘step us out of ourselves’, to give us the time and – almost literally – the headspace needed to realign our thoughts. People say – or used to, I’ve not heard the expression recently – ‘beside myself with grief’ and similar. This is the phenomenon that the metaphor so beautifully describes. We’re not there: mentally, we’re somewhere else.

With most of us the trauma passes, the balance restores and, back in our own heads, feeling once again as if we’re completely ‘there’, we go on with our life.

But sometimes the upset’s so severe, so fundamental, that this doesn’t happen. Sometimes there are relapses, or prolonged periods of ‘dissociation’. Sometimes, real life becomes the exception rather than the rule.

Victims of this condition – Depersonalisation Disorder (DPD) – are able to carry on doing everything they must – holding down a job, looking after a family, all the usual social interactions, but don’t feel they’re actually there, doing those things. The quote at the top of this piece describes a sufferer’s almost Existentialist longing for her ‘normal’ state of ‘connected-ness’.

But there’s more:

Is it possible that, instead of being the result of a memorable trauma, the ‘damage’ – whatever it may be – that gave rise to the state of depersonalisation, had always been there, or had been set-off before memory dawns, when the person was still very young?

If you had this, you’d never know the ‘normal’ state of ‘being connected’ – of stitching together conscious experience as a continuum like everybody else – feels like. You’d develop coping mechanisms to ‘get into other people’s heads’ at times when this is needed and learn, by imitation, how to socialise.

Able to do everything expected of you, and unsuspected of fault by anyone else, you’d go through life never knowing that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be…