Report on Psychology Group Meeting - Meeting, Friday, 15 April 2016

We met at our usual venue, Deputy-Leader Judith took the Chair and the report of the last meeting was read. Under “matters arising” on the agenda one member asked for copies of video clips shown at past meetings to be made available as I had described in my above report. In accordance with U3A policy I felt obliged to ask for 25 pence disc to cover their purchase but believed that we should follow proper procedure and that all such transactions should involve and be recorded by the group’s Treasurer. I stated my belief the amounts involved were not the issue but as one member put it transparency in all financial transactions was. As the Treasurer could not be present a fuller discussion of this issue has been postponed until our next meeting.

We then watched David Eagleman’s programme called “Control and Free Will”. In this he looks at how and to what extent the workings of the brain controls our body and generates our conscious sense of free will. He then goes further and poses the question as to whether, given its source, this sense is to some extent at least an illusion. Although he is a psychologist who makes a special study of how the biology of our brain creates mind and behaviour he also discusses how the brain itself is influenced by our social environment.
By showing experiments both natural and designed David shows to what extent the automatic functions of our brain are part of a normal life. He also shows that by training the brain can become adapted to take on pre-consciously quite complex functions leaving our conscious mind to move into an almost detached condition which he calls a “flow-state”. This state might perhaps be something like the goal one tries to achieve through meditation or yoga exercises. He also shows how mental states can be influenced or even manipulated by information collected pre-consciously. He then goes on to ask why, if the brain can do so much pre-consciously, bother to generate such a uniquely high level of consciousness at all? The prediction of future conditions, planning for them and the making of complex decisions all seem to be good reasons especially when you’re trying to survive in a dangerous and complex world.

So if we are all so anatomically and genetically similar why do we see such striking differences between individuals even within societies? Well as Eagleman points out we now know that which of our genes are expressed and when are influenced by the effects of our cultural, physical and family environment. Quite how this happens is still a matter of research but what’s clear is that there is no such place as a centre for free will in our brain. In a complex and chaotic world such as ours, however, despite the fact that consciousness only takes up a small part of our brains work its use in the exercise of free will is essential to our survival.

All this having been said, however, the power of social influences in our exercise of free will must not be underestimated but we ran out of time and were unable to consider this further. I don’t think we should though abandon an interesting topic because it doesn’t fit neatly into our time frame and as Judith pointed out we could consider social influences at our next meeting and then move on to the topic of decision making. This seems like a wise option to me and will propose that we do so.

Our usual room has been booked at The Owl Hotel for the 20th May between 2 and 4pm and I look forward to seeing as many members as possible again then.

John Moore – Group leader
Back to Top