Exploring the frontiers of human psychology

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We meet, speak and confess online, we even get hitched online. How is the internet changing how we relate to one another and our understanding of human nature? How far are we prepared to go in boosting our brains using the latest scientific developments?

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Questions of how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world have captivated people since the emergence of civilization. In a rapidly-changing, technologically-advanced world, investigations of human psychology have become ever more complex.
These topics and more will be explored during a series of profound and stimulating public talks and debates which take place during this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas (23 October – 3 November).
On 26 October, a panel of experts will be discussing how the internet is changing the way we relate with one another and what it means to be human during the event: A collective out of body experience? New technologies like Facebook and Twitter invite us to part and parcel up pieces of ourselves and share them in virtual spaces. If ‘all the world is a stage,’ as Shakespeare wrote, then what kind of stage is emerging online?
This event will delve into the role that theatre can play in answering some of these questions, particularly in comparing the embodied performance (theatre) and the disembodied performance (social media) and the effects on our sense of identity. Speakers include playwrights Stacey Gregg and Gary Owen, Marcia Karp (psychodramatic therapist),and Adam Wood (StoptheCyborgs, campaign group against googleglasses). The event is part of the Digital Bridges project at the University’s Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), in collaboration with the Watford Palace Theatre, and will be chaired by Dr Kathleen Richardson (anthropologist of robots and online social media).
Dr Richardson said: “Increasingly the offline world has become a source of data for a life lived increasingly online. As we spend more time online, what is happening to our body and sense of self offline? What does it mean for the way we fall in love, build friendships, maintain family and work relationships when we are increasingly absent? Are we having a collective out of body experience? New technologies are generating novel kinds of ‘performances’ between participants, but performances that dispense with a speaking feeling sensing co-present audience.
“Much like theatre, the digital world is a reflection, a double and a copy – albeit a distorted copy because images and representations are only available to us as a reduced copy (a site without all the senses engaged) as opposed to the theatre. One consequence of these trends is that people increasingly become actors to perform in the virtual world, which impacts on the sense of self in a locality and the present. Various digital trends encourage people to leave the local/present for a life more fulfilling somewhere else – internet dating, gaming, music sharing, social networking are all examples of these trends. This workshop will explore the idea of embodied performance of the theatre versus the disembodied performance of social networking.”
From ‘smart’ drugs to cybernetic implants for enhancing brain function, just how far are we prepared to go in boosting our brains? On Friday, 25 October, Professor Barbara Sahakian, Dr Raymond Tallis, Dr Alasdair Coles and Dr Pete Moore will discuss the latest developments and implications, highlighted in recent headlines, during their talk, Boosting the brain: how far should we go?
The use of drugs to enhance athletic performance is common but illegal. Some drugs recently developed in pharmacology to treat a variety of conditions have been found to enhance the performance of the brain. We have for years used caffeine to enhance alertness but now drugs such as Ritalin, developed to treat children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), which enhances mental alertness and concentration span, are being used by a significant percentage of university students to help with their studies and examinations.
Cybernetic implants have also been proposed as a means of enhancing brain function. These developments are at the frontiers of brain science and pose serious scientific and ethical challenges. Should students be drugs tested before exams? What are the long-term effects on people and society of the use of brain enhancing drugs or technologies? What does religion have to say about the question? How far are we prepared to go in boosting our brains?
Further Festival events that enable audiences to explore human psychology and cognition include:
Boundaries between self and world (1 November) Dr Jane Aspell, Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, will discuss scientific explanations of out-of-body experiences and recent experiments that aim to understand the neurobiological basis of ‘me-ness’ by manipulating bodily self-perception in healthy people. During her talk, Dr Aspell will be asking, ‘how does the brain distinguish between self and non-self, between my body and your body?’
From hieroglyphs to txt: scripts, language and the brain (2 November). Exploring scripts and writing systems, Dr Bert Vaux (Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages) and Dr James Clackson (Faculty of Classics) look at how humans have adapted to become so good at reading and using script. Covering writing systems from hieroglyphs to text language, they will look at the evolution and decipherment of scripts, including some remarks on recent attempts to decipher undeciphered scripts, and also consider what the different scripts of the world can tell us about language, and human cognition.
Melvyn Bragg in discussion: dementia narratives – the art of care (1 November). Melvyn Bragg discusses his novel ‘Grace and Mary’ within a wider context of older people’s care provision, as an issue of social justice to which the arts can contribute. With Liz Ellis, Curator, Families and Learning at Tate Modern and Gavin Clayton, Executive Director at Arts and Minds. This event takes place at Anglia Ruskin University.

Arts on prescription: a means to a new beginning (24 October). Arts & Minds present research findings from their Arts on Prescription programme for people experiencing depression and anxiety. The study demonstrates a creative and cost-effective approach to improving mental health.
Land of silence and darkness: a film by Werner Herzog (2 November). The outstanding documentary about the deafblind is presented. Delving beneath the surface reveals a powerful study on communication, a shared phenomenon that may be said to define the moment when we truly become human.

Perception (26 October – 2 November). Is seeing believing? With demonstrations for all ages, find out how illusions can fool your brain and reveal how we really perceive the world around us. Visit the new hands-on exhibition about the senses at the Cambridge Science Centre.
This year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas is bursting with over 200 events for people of all ages. Those taking part include Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, artist Quentin Blake, author MJ Hyland, Frank Field MP, columnist Owen Jones, George the Poet, teen writer Anthony McGowan, comedian James Mullinger and academics ranging from David Reynolds and Noreena Hertz to Mary Beard, Anthony Giddens and Richard Evans.
The Festival, which runs from 23rd October to 3rd November, was the first public engagement initiative by a UK university to bring together an extensive programme of public events exploring the arts, humanities and social sciences. Events are held in lecture halls, theatres, museums and galleries around Cambridge and entry to most is free.
Malavika Anderson, the Festival of Ideas Coordinator, said: “The Festival of Ideas has grown significantly over the last few years, in terms of both the number as well as the diversity of events on offer. We were delighted to have hosted over 14,000 visitors at the festival in 2012 and look forward to welcoming even more over 12 days this autumn. The theme this year – Frontiers – ‘explores how borders, boundaries and margins are being either challenged or reinforced around the world’ – has inspired the development of some truly exciting events.”

For more information, please visit: www.cam.ac.uk/festival-of-idea

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