The beautiful durability of human delusion

Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, by Beau Lotto (Hachette; Pb £12.30). The Psychologist, October 2017. Vol. 30 (pp. 73). 

Bertrand Russell once wrote ‘all that passes for knowledge can be arranged in a hierarchy of degrees of certainty with the facts of perception at the top’ and these degrees of certainty and facts of perception are the paragons probed in globally renowned neuroscientist Beau Lotto’s new book Deviate.

It begins with an accessible introduction to recent scientific observations of human perception using the infamous white/gold dress debate to emphasise what we know and what still remains mysterious about perspicacity. Lotto asserts that this real-time field experiment captured imaginations across the globe precisely because it revealed that it’s not just those on the other side of the world, from another culture, that may interpret the world differently to us but those closest to us also.

Lotto admits that an explanation for why this kind of simple simultaneous brightness contrast deviation happens is difficult to explain but suggests we might make progress if we concede that our brains ‘evolved to evolve’ to ever-changing environments, and they do this by continually redefining normality for us. It is not just impossible for us to see the world accurately but our brains do not care to, they care only about seeing the world usefully so that what we experience perceptually is the beneficial aggregate of past perceptions.

Reading this, it instinctively registered as a deficit. I started to mourn all the wonderful information we’ll never get to see due to the relentless reflexive pruning our brains apply to every new experience, but according to Lotto, this is not a deficit. In fact, Deviate stresses that human beings need delusion in order to move forward and that our ability to use our imagination to find relationships, even where there may be none, is a large part of what might fuel creativity and allow us to ask the kinds of useful questions that will us allow us to find new meanings in previously ambiguous environments in the future.

As an artist drawn to science precisely because of its robust relationship with uncertainty, I found Lotto’s thoughts on our relationship with doubt and dubiety’s role in creativity the most significant and inspiring part of Deviate.

It’s central contention is that to enter a situation with questions to be answered rather than answers that must be understood is the only way we can challenge our perceptual biases and allow the possibility of learning, and it’s this simple inversion of logic, the cherry on top of Deviate’s complex and provocative systematic review of perception that could have a seminal, Socratic influence not just on creativity but in the future development of creative solutions to all human problems, from education to relationships, political debate to conflict resolution and in terms of psychology, research prep, diagnosis and approaches to the therapeutic relationship.  

Deviate is the best book of any description I have read so far this year. It is an ambitious and triumphant trope that skilfully argues a scientific case for seeing differently that is hard to reject once your brain has decided it might just be useful to you too. 

Reviewed by Niall James Holohan, musician, writer and BSc in psychology undergraduate at Birkbeck, University of London
@nialljholohan on Twitter.


An invigorating look at heroin and jazz

Niall James Holohan reviews a BBC Radio 3 documentary featuring Dr Sally Marlow. The Psychologist, May 2017. Vol. 30 (pp. 83). 

The relationship between musicians and substance abuse is not a shocking revelation. From Berlioz, through Beethoven to The Beatles, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, there is a long and tragic lineage of artists falling foul of stimulant abuse. It’s often attributed to the collision of youthful abandon, wealth and the stresses of new-found fame; yet bebop era jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Chet Baker often lived gig to gig yet were still infamous for their heroin use.

This is the genesis of a brand new BBC Radio 3 documentary feature by Dr Sally Marlow, an addiction researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London [and one of the Associate Editors for these pages]. ‘Hitting The High Notes’ travels to Lexington in Kentucky to talk to musicians from the bebop period and medical researchers from the present day, who elaborate on the prodigious heroin epidemic prevalent in the 40s and 50s jazz music scene in the USA. 

Prudent music choices from the period place the listener at the heart of Harlem in the 1940s. Invigorating, imaginative narrative storytelling synthesise the political, racial and artistic factors that frame this poignant story. We hear the history of a ground-breaking institute for drug addiction, the ‘Narcotic Farm’, where music played a huge part. The researchers of the day were charged with understanding whether jazz itself was a contagious disease, part of a number of elements that predisposed people towards addiction; or whether the heroin epidemic simply reflected a lifestyle choice for an oppressed minority, spoiling for a much-needed revolution through the only outlet available to them in the underground arts world. 

It is a vivid and thought-provoking look at the musicians who made near miraculous new waves in music during this period, but also at the duplicitous nature of similar innovations being made by researchers in the burgeoning field of psychotherapy for stimulant abuse. The work done at the Lexington Institute in Kentucky ‘Narco Farm’ broke significant ground in the humanitarian treatment of those dealing with opiate addiction and the fields of occupational, recreational and music therapy… but there were also some highly unethical methods and procedures with the patients too.

The history of our relationship with stimulants can be traced back to the Stone Ages, but Dr Marlow’s documentary provides a fascinating look at the foundations of present-day treatment for substance abuse, via an animated snapshot of the past. 

- Hitting the High Notes aired on BBC Radio 3. Listen again.

- Reviewed by Niall James Holohan, musician and BSc in psychology undergraduate at Birkbeck, University of London 

Mock’n’Roll: Iain Ellis's "Brit Wits"

By Niall James Holohan, L.A. Review Of Books, July 2012.  

ENGLISH-BORN CRITIC, essayist, novelist, and poet G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “Wit is a sword; it is meant to make people feel the point as well as see it.” This definition fits Iain Ellis’s book, Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor. Ellis traces the lineage of the wittier side of British music, from the early, edgy, novelty humor of music hall, through the rock ages, to the present day.

For the uninitiated, “British rock wit” may seem like Ellis’s invention of a subculture, but the links between British rock music and sociopolitical comedy are myriad, thrilling, and very real. In a roughly chronological narrative, pinned to 60 years of musical history, Ellis explores these links while providing key political context and fascinating sociological analysis. This book is more than a rundown of the thousand witty songs you’ve got to hear before you die; it’s a study of how some of Britain’s most intelligent artists reacted to their political landscape by effectively subverting the mainstream in order to free their own minds, liberating the minds of their peers and fans in the process.

Ellis’s blistering “alternative guide to British rock history” skillfully demonstrates that speed, invention, and the desire to subvert popular trends characterize both rock and wit. Their marriage is a match made in heaven: what might be facetious to simply say becomes funny and apt with the right bass line behind it. These lyrics aren’t “knock-knock” jokes read over bongos. Wit and rock elevate each other, as evidenced by the depth and light Johnny Marr’s shining guitar parts add to Morrissey’s expectedly dour lyrics in The Smiths’s “Cemetry Gates”, or in turn what the incendiary powerhouse sound of a rock band like The Who does to lyrics like those deployed in “My Generation;” Roger Daltrey via Pete Townshend’s pen. As a folk song, “My Generation” might be interesting, but it would not be as vital. 

One could argue, as Ellis emphatically does, that “rock music is naturally allied to subversion because rebellion is in its very DNA.” There’s a Brit Wit with a song and a killer turn of phrase to match every soulful rebel’s taste, and all are covered excellently here. In dramatic contrast to musical comedy, which intends to make an audience laugh, rock wit seeks to provoke thought. At the outset of his book, Ellis eschews the trivial (“not the concern of this text”) and draws a further line between titillation and those who “deploy humor for subversive ends and purposes.” Wit is the difference between that which simply makes us laugh and that which pulls the dust sheet from our childlike curiosity and ignites our desire to question authority. And if wit is social conscience cloaked in jokes, then rock wit adds more smoke and mirrors to the enterprise, in turn making its master, music, all the more provocative. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

It is often said that nobody is as obsessed with or does dirty humor as well as the Brits. While Ellis recognizes this fact, he artfully reveals how the British predilection for sexual double entendres, as showcased by artists like George Fornby, was a rebellious act that quickly grew into a sociopolitical force. “Brit wit” began as “cheeky turns of phrase cleverly pitched to get past the censors” in wartime, but matured into a political weapon. The Beatles are a lynchpin example, developing from relatively innocent humor, like simple asides to mock the press, into Lennon’s famously barbed turns of phrase which are peppered throughout the band’s catalogue, and these digs became more pointed as musical imaginations and the realm of public discourse broadened in the sixties. Ellis compares “Norwegian Wood” (on Rubber Soul), where Lennon quips: “I once had a girl or should I say, she once had me,” to “Revolution” (on The White Album), where the writers’ target has become the liberal masses: “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone, anyhow.” When the political temperature changed in Britain, so too did its musical humorists’ approach to establishment folly.

If rock’s most earnest lyrical players seek to align heaven and earth, rock’s humorists look for us to reorder the way in which we see the world, if only for the length of the song. There’s a suitable mischief in dropping knowledge on the listener’s back step while they admire the carnival from their front room. Far more than a fun way to converse, wit allows us to protest without being shrill. Ultimately, Ellis’s book is an attempt to showcase, as critic Charles E. Schutz put it, “the critically realistic function of comedy.” Ellis echoes Schutz’s assertion that young people are “preview revolutionaries” and poignantly portrays wit and music as freeing influences. For those who seek to challenge and change the world, and for those who question its set ways, the marriage of rock and wit and its ability to break taboos are irresistible.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that the most engaging part of Ellis’s book is the section covering the seventies, eighties, and nineties. As the British establishment turned further away from its “subjects,” so the disenfranchised hit back with fervor. As Ellis says, “UK punk took subversive humor to volumes never witnessed in rock music and rarely witnessed since.” His passage on The Sex Pistols (with a little help from cultural studies scholar Dick Hebdige) should be embossed in gold as a lesson in how wit and music, when done right, can take the Pepsi challenge with a Molotov cocktail any day of the week and twice on Sundays. That punks are “perennial piss takers” is well recognized, but Ellis also sees how punk’s often kneejerk “cultured insolence” grew into a considered, combative force as British artists used humor as a rebellious weapon and shield.

Ellis’s history of the maturing of wit in rock through changing political landscapes provides an addictive read for any fan of subversive wit. Even if you think satirical edge only adds salt or sarcasm to an already overcrowded global conversation on life and how we live it, this book skillfully reveals how wit, with its ability to guide rock with a smile, with its ability to lift our hearts and make us shake, has real meaning to us. Ellis traces a lineage almost a century old and it is not going away. As his epilogue articulates wonderfully, there has never been a society, British or otherwise, that wasn’t in need of “increasingly provocative artistic voices.” All modern artistic work of real value seeks to display intelligence alongside craft. In the marriage of rock and wit, we hear the sound of an artist’s belief in society’s longing to better itself.