Education: View From Here

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The Independent Online
HAVE YOU ever taken a close look at a pounds 20 note - other than just to check the numbers in the corner, I mean? I was surprised, the other day, to learn that all these years I've been ignorant of the picture on the back. Right there is a detailed drawing of Michael Faraday giving one of his famous discourses in the Royal Institution. There are rows of ladies and gentlemen, gazing rapt as he brings off one of those spectacular demonstrations of electricity or magnetism for which he, and the institution, became famous.

I discovered this little gem only last week when sitting in that very lecture theatre. The man sitting next to me pointed it out. There we were, in those very rows of seats, high up above that same wooden bench, looking down over all the heads in front. Of course, the theatre now has projectors and electric lights (and wouldn't Faraday have enjoyed those). And our modern lecturer wasn't wearing a frock coat. Indeed two of the lecturers that night were women. I was already feeling somewhat emotional. I had arrived an hour or so before, to see a queue under the great stone columns outside. I walked in, and was immediately transported back to my sixth- form days and the stifling girls' boarding school that had failed to turn me into a young lady. Just three of us did physics A-level, and our teacher, Mr Fife, took us to London for a lecture at the Royal Institution (my mother said an institution was for mentally ill people, and I must have got it wrong). He bought us tea in a cafe - the most exciting thing that happened that term.

I had to blink away a few tears and concentrate. There were four lectures, on the topic of "Mapping the Mind". The publicity material was crass: "Latest brain scans reveal our thoughts, memories and desires as clearly as an X-ray reveals our bones." Oh no they don't. Brain scans are fantastic - but what they reveal is levels of activity in different parts of the brain. Yes, the visual cortex lights up when a person imagines a visual image but is this "revealing our thoughts"? Yes, another area lights up when remembering, but can those beautiful shifting patterns really "reveal our desires"? Like bones?

It makes you wonder, though. If we could one day see all the patterns, in perfectly clear detail, would we know everything about another person's state of mind? Or is the experience from the inside forever private?

That night we heard about experiments suggesting there is a "high road" of conscious awareness and another "low road" of emotional processing. So our actions can be guided by what's going on in the valley, while we up here blithely deny all knowledge of it. We heard about some people with autism who cannot conceive that other people have an inner mental life - of thoughts, intentions and desires - and being unable to appreciate this in others may mean they cannot experience it for themselves. In other words, they may have no inner life - no sense of a self experiencing the world. This gave me the creepy thought that my own conscious inner life must be just a product of one particular brain module that evolved for understanding others. And I thought... well, what did I think it was?

I walked back out through those imposing columns, my head full of questions, and back to the tube. Funnily enough, after a 30-year gap between visits to the RI, I am going back again this week. I have been invited to dinner with the director, Professor Greenfield, and her husband. Yes, things really have changed. The problem is, I have a problem with the director. You see, people keep mixing us up. Susan Greenfield and Susan Blackmore. Not that I (part-time lecturer in an ordinary university) terribly mind being accused of being a professor and director of the RI, but sometimes it gets beyond a joke. So I have decided to take action. I shall quietly slip back into being Sue instead of Susan. And might even dye my hair orange. I doubt I'd be confused with the director then.

The RI is certainly changing, but what hasn't changed is that you can still pack a lecture theatre with ordinary people eager to hear about the latest scientific thinking - and that thinking is surely as exciting now as it ever was in Faraday's day. And now, if you've had enough of the pounds 20 note, let's try the edge of that pounds 2 coin.

The writer is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England

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