Report on Psychology Group Meeting - Meeting, Friday, 18 November 2016

Though the weather was quite cold and very wet we met at our usual venue despite the fact that some of our regular attenders could not be present and I felt afterwards, and I think others there will agree with me on this, this was an interesting, stimulating, informative and all round enjoyable meeting.

Being a little late because of the weather some members assisted me with setting up the equipment then chatted with others whilst I prepared the computer and paperwork. Though the original intention was to begin by watching the final episode of Eagleman’s series on the brain entitled ‘The Future’, the discussion ball had started rolling. Many issues both interesting and relevant to psychology and its subfields such as developmental, clinical, forensic and occupational/organisational psychology were raised. Whilst this might seem good natured but undisciplined or deviating from our ‘subject’ careful thought would show that many of the issues raised relate back to areas of thought and behaviour that are of interest to psychologists. It also, I think, reflects on the nature and purpose of our group which is to learn not by formal lectures based on a syllabus but by pooling and exploring relevant resources through presentation and discussion. This usually includes the offering of knowledge and experience built up across an entire working lifetime.

We then began watching our video presentation but as time was pressing we agreed to watch half at this meeting followed by discussion and to watch the second half next time. To begin with in this programme Eagleman asks how is it possible that the human brain which has changed very little in its size and structure over the last 100,000 years take from being hunter-gathers to being able to construct and run a technically sophisticated and globally interconnected society. He suggests that this is because humans are capable of communicating by language, of learning constantly from our environment through cultural transmission and of innovating to add to our total fund of knowledge. In his introduction he then poses such questions as, given the relentless march of new technology, could humans ‘upgrade’ their brains by linking directly to it, use it to expand our senses or even map our brain structure together with its processes and move our minds to computers thereby making us immortal?

As regards our advance socially and technically Eagleman put this down to our brain’s sometimes remarkable ability to show plasticity, that is, the ability to reorganise the inter-connections within our brain to preserve lost neural functions or to learn and develop new skills and concepts. This is possible he claims because all our brain’s cells and neural networks operate in the same way and can thus be adapted to alternative functions. We then saw this being demonstrated by very moving examples of the results of radical neurosurgery.

So what of the future for brains and neuroscience? We then looked at controversial field of cryogenics before looking at the attempts to create computer image called a ‘Conectome’ which seeks to map the position of a person’s 86 billion neurons and trace their 1000s of trillions of inter-connections. Do this and your brain is on a computer and you’re ‘immortal’, but is your mind there and what’s the difference between the two? This issue led us on to interesting discussions about: the fundamental differences between the ‘data processing’ of computers and the ‘thinking’ of our brain; the limits of current computer technology; and the nature of ‘thinking’ in terms of our ability to learn and create as an ‘emergent property’ of our complex integrated brain system.

By then unfortunately we had run out of time though we were only about half way through our video presentation so we all agreed to watch the second half at our next meeting and discuss its contents then. We are able to do this as we do not conform to a time restricted rigid syllabus and are able to take such time as is appropriate to participate in group discussions that are often, I think, as interesting and stimulating as any presentation we might observe.

At the close of our meeting we briefly discussed whether or not we should do as last year and have a meeting in December. Though not everyone may be able to attend we agreed to meet again on the 16th December at our usual time and place. As one member put it, ‘…I really don’t relish having to wait another two months for such a good conversation’. Was there ever such music to the ears of a Group Leader?

I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible again then.

John Moore – Group Leader
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