Mar 152023


Inspector Lestrade:We’re obviously looking at a suicide. It does seem the only explanation of all the facts.
Sherlock: “Wrong. It’s one possible explanation of some of the facts. You’ve got a solution that you like, but you are choosing to ignore anything you see that doesn’t comply with it.”


1.  Win any argument
2.  Reason – it’s not as good as you think
3.  Processed truth with additives vs. “the real thing”
4.  How not to fool yourself

1.  Win any argument

Winning any argument is simple: you just need to be better at arguing than your opponent.

But if that’s true, then arguing only shows who’s better at arguing, not who is right or what is true. Observe politicians or debates to see for yourself. Unfortunately, it means that if you’re clever enough then you can convince yourself of whatever you want to believe too – sometimes called the intelligence trap. That can be satisfying (arrogant?) but leads to self-delusion and perhaps to a career in politics.

Other people are surely swayed by your charismatic and impressive ability to argue too. conversation_topicYet, to repeat, it’s little to do with who is right, or what is true. So, the cleverer you are, the more likely you are to fool yourself (and others). No wonder our collective decision making is so poor. We are too easily influenced by the power of argument and charisma to vote for one choice over others.  It’s easy for us and saves having to think  ourselves, all we have to do is believe what sounded good. We’re as easily fooled by reason, as we are by blind faith. Sadly, as psychology repeatedly discovers, we’re the last to see we’ve been fooled or misled by anything – which is why it’s possible to win any argument, as politicians know.

2.  Reason – it’s not as good as you think

Surely logic, reason, ‘science’ aren’t that weak and easily manipulated are they? What’s going on?

Arguing – that is using reason and logic – is far less effective at finding out who’s right than we’re told – especially in the complicated world of everyday reality with all its opinions, partial information, lies and confused issues. Yes,  we can use reason and logic to help us, but like guns they depend so much on the motivations of the people using them. Or like shining a laser to illuminate a dark scene, it’s too dependent on where you choose to point and on who is doing the pointing. Reason is very sharp, but very narrow. Magicians fool us with magic tricks by directing our attention to an inconsequential detail, thus allowing the “trick” to take place in plain sight. Reason is good at that too.


David Hume, Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher, 1711 – 76


Bertrand Russell, British mathematician, philosopher, logician, and public intellectual. 1872-1970

Some of the “big” names in the field have said the same thing in different ways, for example:

 David Hume:Strict proof plays no part in human life outside of mathematics… rational demonstration is powerless in the face of some of the most elementary realities”.

 Bertrand Russell:In many respects we still have not got beyond Hume

and so many others.

3.  Processed truth with additives vs. “the real thing”

As hinted, you’re likely aware of this already from watching politicians, journalists and pundits who seem to get away with anything: always with strong opinions and certainty; always able to evade responsibility. They insist they are right – at least they seem to believe it themselves, which is why we find it hard to trust them. Multinational companies commission scientific research to get the results they want, or they demand strict proof from objectors, when strict proof just isn’t a logical possibility (Hulme again). Remember when there was “no evidence” that smoking causes cancer. Actually that field – deliberate manufacturing of doubt and ignorance – has its own name: “Agnotology”.

Science has the same problem. If a pet theory fails, it can always be claimed that better equipment was needed, and always that “more research is necessary”.

apple_doughnutReal or organic truth though is motivated by the quest for reliable knowledge about the world for the purpose of making better decisions and acting wisely. In contrast, processed truth is more like genetically modified, or additive laden processed foods but aren’t any good for us: tasty, cheap, and attractive though they might be.

All this reality can be a shock for trainee researchers who, after all, are supposed to be learning how to get at what’s true in complicated fields.

4.  How not to fool yourself

Richard Feynman (the physicist labelled “no ordinary genius”) put it this way: “The first rule is not to fool yourself… and you are the easiest person to fool”.

laserSo, if you want to, or if say you’re training to be a scientist (PhD for example) you can learn to do better. You can use the gun or laser beam of reason more wisely, to see more clearly rather than to manipulate. That’s an important start if we want to understand the world, and therefore make better decisions.

So how do we stop fooling ourselves? Here are a few directions:

  • One is to understand how ‘reason’ works, and its limits, so we’re not bedazzled by it, or by charismatic people pretending to know what they’re talking about (don’t look into a laser beam). It’s as easy to be fooled by reason, as by blind faith.
  • Two is to realise that feeling ‘certain’ that we’re right, is just that, only a feeling.
  • Three is to practice being wrong – just to get used to how that feels.

There’s ‘knowing’ and then there’s ‘knowing’. As an ancient sage put it “To know, is to act accordingly”. We all say we know these things already, but do we actually behave as though we do? And maybe it’s more clear recently that figuring out what’s actually going on is difficult but important for all of us, not just in research laboratories.

The task is to see more clearly; accept uncertainty and doubt; yet not be paralysed by indecision. Because then we can make decisions we don’t regret.


Adrian West

Feb 162022
 Posted by  Nature of Thinking Tagged with:


Why can we not find anyone today who remembers they supported apartheid, or didn’t think Jimmy Savile was a little  ‘creepy’? What accounts for these errors in our perception when we consider the past, and our tendency to rationalise these away?

An answer with explanatory power is based on the underlying mechanism of memory, which explains “why” this is the case, rather than simply stating a ‘theory’ or idea.

Mind as Pattern Space

Memory evolves as new experience happens

Memories change as new experience happens

Memory is not as photographic and objective as it may seem; it is an evolving dynamic landscape, reshaped by new experience. As new experiences happen (Nelson Mandela becoming President of South Africa, posthumous news items about Jimmy Savile, with re-shaping emotional force), the original memories in the pattern space have new associations planted, and the space shifts and is reshaped – as floods or rivers reshape a landscape.


Recall is re-stimulation of part of the landscape such that the rest is bought alive too. But the past memory now has the additional emotional tone of the new connotations, from which it cannot be separated. Hence new recalls are coloured and we cannot remember an event with the same tone (beliefs about our behaviour or feelings) as we did at the time. Our re-perception dissolves into the original one and memories are now filtered through these new layers.

This is pretty much common sense (you can’t remember childhood events but from the perspective of now being an adult doing the remembering). Nonetheless it would explain why our memories of events are not ‘photographic’, but coloured and ‘reinterpreted’ so that the only recall can be that of modified memory with its connotations – there is nothing else, even though it feels like the genuine ‘memory’. It is the only thing we have, and which we experience as ‘the memory’, so for us that is ‘real’, even though it is not how we experienced it at the original time.

Memory is therefore:

  • Not photographic.
  • Is a patterning system – formed in experience.
  • Evolving – as new experience alters the pattern associations and landscape.
  • An ‘emotion server’ – the result of memory association is in part the telling of the summed emotions of the totality of associated experiences of that memory-space. Experience is laid down alongside “somatic markers” with which they are tagged (as described in “Descartes Error” by Antonio Damasio).
  • This mingling of association and perceptual fact can be used to influence us. As example, think of the BBC’s image on “Newsnight” of the former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn set against a Moscow skyline, wearing a black (greek fisherman’s) hat which appeared to be altered to look more Russian, perhaps to generate a negative emotional response (2).

Perception and reperception

The Story of Who We Are

What happens when we say, “Yes I know that now, but at the time it all seemed very different“, which apparently refutes the above idea that we can only experience memory as real, as it appears to us now in its modified form. That idea may be wrong. Or we could say the second powerful force at play is the well attested role of ‘identity’. Even though we can only see memory in the light of new tones (as above) if this fails to match our belief (story) of who we are, we are forced to ‘explain’ (rationalise/turn-the-kaleidoscope) to fit the memory into the story of ourselves: the memory is as it seems, but that can’t have been me – so it must have seemed different at the time. Easy.

Memory then is the re-stimulated area of the pattern space, reshaped by new information/experience, but in the service of the story of our ‘identity’.  Taken together these two forces yield consistent explanations for:

(a) Apartheid/Savile, and
(b) “I don’t know, I was really drunk at the time!” (Pink Floyd ) (3).


(1) Savile
(2) Hat – a claim rejected by the BBC
(3) Lyrics from “Money” in “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd

Adrian West

Sep 262017

Let we remember

Invert, always invert” recommended Jacobi. Like a cat, when we’re trying to see something clearly we should move our head around quickly to get different viewpoints before pouncing (style is important too). One way to do that with “thinking” is to ask, “if I turn this upside down, will I see it differently? does it make any sense?”  That is one axis we can move our viewpoint along.  Depending on the thinking task at hand, we may understand the problem better, or it may be a way of moving our trapped thinking to get new ideas.

An example. If the focus is on dealing with the problem of an ageing society. Invert the problem: is it the ageing society that’s the issue or is that element in fact ok, and it’s the young end of the spectrum – attitudes, work practices, how the economy works – that is actually the issue leading to a focus on the elderly as being the problem?

Another.  People who identify a plot on the part of the establishment, are called “conspiracy theorists“. Can we invert this idea? Yes,  we get something like “lack-of-conspiracy theorists“. Is there any value in that? Where does it lead though?  Well yes, people who unquestioningly accept whatever the establishment says are historically just as dangerous, possibly more so than those who see more suspicious explanations. But as far as I know we don’t have a corresponding term for lack-of-conspiracy theorists. Still, that’s the start of what may be a productive line of investigation for an idea, which is the point: invert -> new idea; new way of looking at a common-place.  After all, looking for something genuinely ‘new’ isn’t historically as successful as looking at the same thing that everyone already sees, but seeing that same thing in a way no-one else has done – to paraphrase Schopenhauer.

Similarly “Luddites” are people who distrust technology and want to hold it back. But is there any inversion of that term. A term to identify those who accept any new technologies uncritically as obviously good and unstoppable.  Isn’t that just as dangerous an attitude? – shouldn’t we have an equally provocative term to signal that danger – even if it happens to go against the mood of our particular times? Perhaps the mood of the times is as it is, in part because we don’t have such a term to make that alternate view ready to hand.  Instead of the unquestioned vision of the Star-Trek future (next-gen) where technology has advanced and almost flawlessly is at our service, it might be we’re headed for the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide future, where nothing quite works as it should and no-one is able to fix it – perhaps the microsoft future? If that’s a possibility we should be considering, so that we can handle it better, then we do need a word for blind unquestioning faith in technology and new ideas,  just as urgently as we need “Luddite”.

Or another phrase: “innocent until proven guilty” is richer than the obvious inversion. There are all sorts of re-combinations. One that strikes is “innocent even when proven guilty” . Does that happen? Indeed it does seem to apply at times – for example the “Train-gate” splashed over newspapers casting doubt over Jeremy Corbyn’s honesty…. now that the leaked full videos from the train are available they show Corbyn having been entirely accurate (there were no rows of empty seats, different frames of the video show heads of children and others appearing from them). So the media are guilty of misrepresentation on that occasion, but apart from some small-print retractions, they carry on as innocent, telling us what to believe now, with equal certainty.  It seems there is some mileage to be had pursuing the line of thinking that “innocent even after proved guilty” – by comparing and contrasting cases in society where retribution falls upon the guilty, and where it does not: which was the point. The start of an idea.

But for entertainment, lets take something more pointed – depending on your beliefs (beliefs simply being ideas that you identify with). The one I would like to develop here is Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s exhortation at the 2016 Labour Conference, that we  should not dwell on mistakes of the past, but instead celebrate our achievements – which makes a certain forward-looking sense in everyday life. The uneasy  feeling here however, is in spotting the conjurer’s trick, that what we’re being asked to ignore – not even acknowledge and actually learn from, but to ignore and leave behind as unimportant -  are not every-day-life things, but enormities occasioned by those when last they held power. The statement provokes the thought of generations who directly experienced two world-wars, namely “lest we forget“.  Those people were really concerned, scared, that after two wars to end-all-wars, there would be a third we would blunder unthinkingly into, immune to the prospect of the conseqences. Hence the UN, and the emotive call to sanity in the wording of its charter. It meant a lot to them with that experience which few alive now have visceral access to.

Idly inverting that phrase of hard-won pained experience  gives “lest we remember“, a handy aid for politicians when seeing recent history isn’t helping their agenda, and when people should be encouraged not to think about the horrors we supported last time…(and reminded that the reasons we gave were, to be generous,  obscure). Isn’t the risk of this that we’re just setting up to do it all over again?

There’s some insight value here if we explore.  All those labour party MPs voting against having any inquiry into the Iraq war…perhaps didn’t want to remember, or to learn from the experience – understandably.  Or perhaps they thought all useful learning has already been had, and it’s time to move on. Well, I suppose they would, wouldn’t they? It’s a  psychological and real-politic necessity. However there’s little evidence to the public of that learning, beyond the words.   And to generalise the insight, if winning is all important, then mistakes and errors of the past tarnish us, and must be forgotten  – which does make learning difficult. That would be why we blindly go about  setting up the  conditions to go round the same old treadmill yet again. “Without power we can do nothing” (untrue historically – think of the Suffragettes; anti-slavery…); “and we are just and therefore must attain power so that we good people can benefit all”…. ” now we have power”…. “the most important thing above all isn’t in fact to do the good we promised, but … to … hang on to power (because without power we are nothing)”… “therefore we must, for the sake of unity…”…. and so it goes on.  Be wary of people who say “the most important thing is winning”. Douglas Adams was right.

If that’s all so, then what can we learn from this exercise? Is a better way forward to genuinely acknowledge a past; acknowledge rather than dismiss it, and  then actually learn from it in order to move forward – as JF Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs, hence handling the Cuban missile crisis more wisely. Obvious, and easy to say, but it does seem by observation, that such an attitude of genuine learning and adapting is rare in practice. The “lest we remember” gambit is common though.  Yet this is a powerful opportunity  because people sense whether we’re genuine, or dismissing and explaining away. That is why trust vaporises. If everyone is playing the same game we ourselves don’t notice (“they’re all the same”)  until… someone people can trust comes along, then there’s shock all round that the game isn’t being played properly. Perhaps having values you believe in turns out to be more important than compromising them in order to win….truly rare indeed in politics it seems, but yes, really.

I won’t pretend the above are crisp work-shop-able uses of inversion as an insight/idea tool, and whether you like that particular line of thought will depend on your own beliefs. But I think it does illustrate how the mundane use of inversions can lead to ideas and investigations of perspectives we might not otherwise come up with.  In that example it’s important to say there is still work needed to develop and make constructive use of those explorations,  it just illustrates an effective way of exploring further when otherwise we feel stuck, or worse, when we’re certain and don’t believe we need to look any further.


May 172016
 Posted by  Nature of Thinking Tagged with: ,


What difference would it have made to the human race if we had never discovered reading and writing? How would your life have been different if you were born into a society where reading and writing had never been invented? If I try to really imagine that, then in comparison it’s as though there would be no ‘memory’ as we are used to it, just what I can remember. And no ‘facts’ as such either, just remembered hear-say and experiences. I couldn’t check facts, other than asking someone. And how could I learn other than from listening to others?  It is very hard for me to think what that would be like, because reading and writing are such a part of what we are and what we depend on. Of course people got by before writing, but it’s an unimaginably different world for me.

Such an enormous transformation comes from an idea that seems so simple as to be hardly worth describing - making marks to represent words.  Yet apparently it wasn’t so simple at all, and for thousands of years  no-one thought of it, or if they did it must have seemed a useless idea,  a bit abstract and silly perhaps, not very practical or exciting, and anyway everyone would have to learn stuff for it to be any use, and there’s more important things to do.

The same is true of ‘counting’ – for the extraordinary value our species got from the blindingly simple idea of just counting things, you’d wonder how there could have been an eternity before that idea had occurred, or seemed worth anything, to anyone at all. Or how about the idea of making pictures of things? – that hadn’t occurred to anyone at some point, yet again as an idea more powerful in history, more dramatic than anything Apple or Google have invented.  We could keep going – how about “finding out by going and looking” – a radical idea, heretical at the time, which we’d now call “science” – doesn’t seem all that complicated or interesting at all now. In fact, for all these most important of inventions the problem may well have been that they seemed too simple to be useful, too ‘obvious’ to be interesting, too ‘easy’, and therefore hard to see the value in. The fish being unaware of the water it’s swimming in because it is everywhere; not being able to see the wood for the trees; or what is right in front of our face:

Too close to be recognised,
Too deep to grasp
Too easy to believe
Too amazing to be understood intellectually

Answers to the most important challenges – poverty, depleting resources, pollution, war and violence, and so on might be delivered by science, technology, communication, information or economics. But those paths are just as likely to make things worse – accelerate destruction or be used just to make the already wealthy wealthier, as they are to solve the big problems for us all.  Because of that, what is really needed most urgently is an advance in how we use our minds. How we think and decide, individually and collectively without getting lost in narrow argument and name calling. The most important breakthrough therefore is not science, technology, information or economics, but in “how we think” – something that has received comparatively little attention to date.

If we keep thinking in the same way that we do now, then I’m doubtful that advances in other fields will make much difference – it is, after all, how we use those advances that will make the difference, and that means how we think about the tools we invent, and how we act in consequence.

That breakthrough “thinking” might be complex and sophisticated, like relativity.  Sophisticated and clever solutions have appeal – from our Hollywood education we learn to expect any worthy solution should have a super-hero persona. Yet as we have seen, as often as not the dramatic steps forward come from directions too mundane to be interesting.  And like the early days of scratching marks on stones, I’m inclined to think the big answer is already staring us in the face: too close to see.

Too close to be recognised,
Too deep to grasp
Too easy to believe
Too amazing to be understood intellectually




Graphic design: Sophie Brown

Feb 032014

“Earthrise” 24th December 1968 by astronaut William Anders, Apollo 8 mission (1)

“Like so many iconic American products, Los Angeles smog is now being made in China”

Noticing this intriguing statement in a cafe newspaper the other day, we continued reading. The brief excerpt went on to say that recent research concluded that “Pollution caused by China’s manufacturing for export contributes as much as 12 to 24% of daily sulphate levels in the Western US”. (2)

The “Boomerang effect”
That in itself is interesting, as it demonstrates that the by-products of industry are being exported half way across the world. (It makes one wonder where the leaks from Fukushima will end up…but that’s another story). What is pertinent, and somewhat ironic, is that this increase in air pollution has actually been caused by companies in the US. Continue reading »

Dec 142013


We’re running a workshop, Adrian is in full flow delivering our “Practical Thinking” programme. I set up my laptop on a side table and to make the most use of down time as it occurs, I decide to write a piece for Fellowship of Mind

At this point  I hear a light knock on the door and go out to answer it. A construction worker in a high-viz jacket tells me he was just passing and points to a bag that has been left in the corridor and could I take care of it? I carry it quietly, intrigued and a little anxious about finding its owner, back into the room, as the delegates grapple with critical thinking exercises.  Prompted by the mystery parcel, my storytelling imagination weaves a metaphorical tale…

Continue reading »

Oct 032013
"Lady with an Ermine" by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489-90.

“Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489-90.

It is almost a truism that we, ourselves, are our own worst enemies when it comes to understanding ourselves and thinking clearly. Without investigating the pioneering psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, I would like to take a simple model of a conscious/unconscious mind and see how that might help us understand ourselves a little better and help us think more clearly.

Why we do things is often quite mysterious. I want to explore how accessing the less accessible parts of our minds and personality enable us to think more clearly and make decisions that are more in tune with our whole personality rather than based on purely rational factors.

Let’s look at some history of the idea of “outside influencers” within the human mind, some modern examples of the shadow self and how this might work in practice when it comes to making decisions and sticking to them. Continue reading »

Sep 202013

Somewhere in a Psychology Laboratory

What you believe affects your ability to do maths, apparently. If you make up a question about a medical drug and ask people whether the numbers you present mean that the drug is effective, most get the correct answer. But if you rephrase the study to be about gun control instead, those with strong views on the topic will be much worse at seeing what a few numbers really mean. If you’re intrigued about the details of the questions, see the study itself which is from Yale [1]. What’s surprising is that being good at maths made no difference to the outcome. It’s as though the more skilled someone is the more quickly they ‘see’ an interpretation they want to see, or the more they strive to find one. That’s a problem if you think that having good information is all that’s needed to improve our decisions. Continue reading »

Aug 152013


All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players
(As You Like It, Act 11 Scene V11)

An avid fan of all things Shakespeare, I went to see the RSC production of As You Like It recently in Stratford. I was gripped by the story and hoped that Orlando and Rosalind found the love they were searching for, and indeed they did. It was an uplifting performance by the central characters, Pippa Nixon as Rosalind and Alex Waldmann as Orlando. The production, directed by Maria Arbeg, and running until the 26th September, was often reminiscent of a Glastonbury of yesteryear. Camp fires burned and free love (and beer) were prevalent. I left the theatre totally overwhelmed by the feeling of love the central characters felt for each other, and the optimism of young love and opportunity of a life yet lived. Contrast that with my visit in June to see Hamlet.  Continue reading »

Aug 092013

Picture the scene, it’s the school holidays, I am, to all intent and purpose, highly stressed.  I am juggling childcare with the demands of work, I am frazzled and harassed and, for once, I took my eye off the ball. Isabelle fell, in spectacular style.  I was downstairs, she was upstairs and I heard an almighty thud.  I ran to her aide, she was crying having fallen off the toilet, yes, the toilet.  She wasn’t badly hurt thankfully and I breathed a sigh of relief, as I did so she ran happily out of the bathroom. I followed her, smiling at her clumsiness, tissue in hand.  As I cleaned up the floor, I noticed that she had injured herself, and the area in question was her nether regions. Without hesitation I took her to the hospital, little did I know what lay ahead? Continue reading »