EIBF 2013: brainy stuff

A version of this post was first published on the Stoffers blog.

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival I’ve been going along to many sessions about the brain, psychology, mental health and the psych industries. Of HUGE interest to me both generally and in relation to themes in my creative writing.

Office Politics Jkt TPOliver James’ new book Office Politics has the author of Affluenza and The Selfish Capitalist turn his gaze to work and ‘the people who make your life hell in the office’, as he put it. James theorises that ‘the ruling elite have completely disconnected from the rest of the population’, and we have to play their game, in a sense, to achieve emotional health.

Playing the game is to always include ‘some measure of thespianism’. He assured us he didn’t mean deceptiveness, well not entirely, but participation in the game (that the other workers are playing), outside of dirty tricks. He mentioned networking, oiling the wheels that are vital for moving between jobs, and an ‘appearance’ of sincerity. Apparently these kinds of actions in the workplace are a better predictor of career outcomes than intelligence and personality traits (!). (You probably know some greasy a*hole who operates like this.)

He said he wasn’t advocating that people become ‘false’, but if you can become better at office politics you can reduce your ‘emotional labour’. In becoming emotionally healthy, under James’ definition you will:

–          live in the present, experience life first hand

–          will have fluid, two-way communications

–          will have insight (ie. into the influence of your own early years)

–          can engage in real playfulness

–          have vivacity (not the same as hyperactivity)

–          have authenticity (as opposed to sincerity)

I thought his talk contained a lot of contradictions, but perhaps these are ironed out in the book. I would argue that for many people these acts of thespianism—of trying to play the game or look like they are—could be emotionally taxing. Couldn’t the knowledge that they have to put on masks in order to get ahead be dispiriting to some people? Aren’t they also then engaging in (and therefore encouraging) this problematic ‘disconnect’ he mentioned at the beginning of his talk? If they have to put on a mask at work will they truly be able to just shed it when they get home? Won’t this cause fracturing, confusion and yes, certainly emotional labour, in many?

A more enlightening panel I saw was with Giovanni Frazzetto and Kathleen Taylor, chaired by Claire Armistead.

how we feelFrazzetto’s book is How We Feel: what neuroscience can—and can’t—tell us about our emotions. He trained as a molecular scientist, and began this book with the question, ‘can science teach me how to live?’ He decided that emotions were the perfect place to explore this question. The information Frazzetto gathered in the laboratory could not always help with his research on emotions, and so where there were gaps he turned to the arts and humanities.

He gave a specific example of an anxious night he spent. Science could indeed trace the fear signal in his brain and explain the physical reactions, but it couldn’t so easily give Frazzetto advice on how to deal with this. So he turned to philosophy. And in doing so he also found new ways into his research on fear with mice. (Of course this is all detailed articulately in the book.) He concluded that we can only make full sense of emotions if we draw on different areas.

Taylor, whose book is The Brain Supremacy: notes from the frontiers of neuroscience spoke about the coming era of transformation in the sciences. The focus is shifting in terms of where science turns for answers, and neuroscience is a rapidly growing field. However, said Taylor, we cannot just treat neuroscience in the same way as other fields as there’s a whole new layer of ethical questions that need to be asked. This branch of science is not just about manipulating ‘stuff’, it’s about the organ that makes us who we are.


What we know about the brain is comparable to a teaspoonful of water in an ocean. But human beings are so fond of their fixes, said Taylor, and the media wants to paint pictures in black and white. Science, however, does not respond well to certainties, and this constant social pressure toward simplifying things does not bode well for neuroscience.

‘The brain is irredeemably complex, you can’t just turn it into a sound bite’, she said. She gave us insight into the mechanics of neuroscientific study and mentioned that medical ‘quick fixes’ are certainly something that needs watching.

She mentioned some spectacular possibilities of neuroscientific study that, of course, would need strong ethical interventions, since corporate and military interest is so strong. One such is dream recording. Taylor strongly feels that doing all research in public, having transparency (not doing it with private money for private interests) would help, regarding the ethical implications.

Good news, it looks like at least part of this session was recorded as a podcast!

I’ve seen three more brain/psych-related panels which I’ll mention in a coming blog post…

PS. The four sessions I chaired are done with, and they all went well. Very different authors and audiences, all good experiences, some sessions more intimidating than others. I learnt a few things but overall the experience was very similar to chairing at Australian festivals (as I had expected). Literature-lovers are lovely people. Also, G and I saw Ali Smith and got our books signed, chatting with her about Scotch whiskies—definitely a highlight.

The last weeks in Edinburgh will be spent seeing more sessions at the festival, researching a planned manuscript (today I started proper!), and working on the Spineless Wonders anthology (still reading all your wonderful submissions) and my chapbook of flash fiction. A lot of ideas for the latter have been generated by festival panels, actually, from the ones on the brain through to sessions on Italo Calvino and Muriel Spark.

One thought on “EIBF 2013: brainy stuff

  1. Pingback: EIBF 2013: is psychiatry doing more harm than good? (More brainy stuff.) | LiteraryMinded

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s