Interview with Sergio Della Sala
Professor Sergio Della Sala was born in Milan. He holds a degree in “Medicine and Surgery” from the University of Milan (where he was also first appointed as Consultant in Neurology) and a PhD in Neuropsychology. He came to Edinburgh in April 2004 from Aberdeen where he has held the Chair of Neuropsychology for over 10 years. He has held appointments at various institutions including the University of Milan, the University of Berkeley—California, the Applied Psychology Unit—Cambridge, the University of Western Australia—Perth.
His research focuses on the relationship between brain and behaviour, with particular reference to memory and amnesia. He published
over 250 papers in peer-reviewed journals, over 200 book chapters, reviews and editorials, and several monographs.
He is also interested in the dissemination of science and, wearing that hat, organized several events and exhibitions, particularly addressed to young people for the promotion of critical thinking.
He is the editor of Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions about the Mind and Brain.
Noneuclidean Cafe talked with Professor Della Sala by email in March and April of 2006.
Noneuclidean Cafe (NC): I thought Mind Myths was an excellent collection of essays. It had many findings that I would love to see more commonly known in general, and particularly among trainers and practitioners in the field of personal growth. What motivated you to put together Mind Myths?
Sergio Della Sala (SDS): Thank you for your interest. I had a list of questions that friends often asked me at cocktail parties about the mind and the brain. I realized that for many of them there was no easy source of answer. Therefore, I matched the questions to scientists who could tackle them and asked them to write a chapter with the view of summarizing what we really know about popular assumptions about how the mind and the brain work. Too often we think we know things that ain't so. Since then, my list has increased and now the Oxford Press will publish a second collection of essays entitled Tall Tales About The Mind and the Brain. I hope you and other readers will enjoy it.
NC: Let’s define terms a bit, as we might use them differently. I don’t really love any of the terms for the field of personal growth, including the term “personal growth,” but that’s the one I currently find least problematic. By personal growth, I mean two things. One is the ideal: The belief that people can change themselves and their lives for the better, in psychological and inter-personal ways, and also in material ways; and that there exist learnable techniques to help people make those changes. The other is the practice: The set of beliefs, techniques and teachings, and the related industry spreading those teachings, that purport to show people how they can change themselves and their lives. Within the practice of personal growth, I would put LGAT (Large Group Awareness Training) such as NLP and Landmark Forum, various meditation practices, different kinds of bodywork such as Feldenkrais, authors / speakers like Anthony Robbins and Jack Canfield, etc. While I do find there is often a credulity towards psychic phenomenon (ESP, energy fields, etc.) among students and practitioners in the field of personal growth, I’d like to leave anything in that realm outside the scope of what I’m calling personal growth. Do you find the ideal of personal growth (as I stated it) problematic? If so, in what ways?
SDS: I do not find at all the ideal of personal growth problematic. Indeed I find it desirable. Motivation for self-improvement is a good thing, as is to reflect on oneself and one's relationships. However, as it stands, the industry of personal growth techniques is based more on infomercial selling than scientific evidence. The simplistic use of psychology and neuroscience to back up unproven claims, and the wrong and often devious conclusions derived from such disciplines make these techniques difficult to accept. Moreover, most of these techniques assume that all clients, independently of any individual difference, would benefit from the same approach.
NC: What (if any) positives do you see in the personal growth movement?
SDS: The motivation for self-improvement is per se good.
NC: What are your biggest concerns about the personal growth movement?
SDS: The large amount of money involved in an industry the claims of which are unverified. It seems to me that more often than not the claim that a simple training program would help people to achieve their aims, or dreams, and would make everybody rich is lucrative only for the proponent gurus.
NC: What Mind Myths would you most like to put to rest?
SDS: None, myths are good, fun and make the world richer. I would like people to be more able to separate myths from reality to make informed choices. Science does not have the purpose of debunking myths. Science is a path of discovery, which is independent from personal beliefs. For instance, people believe that a vial in a cathedral in Naples contains the blood of a Christian martyr, and that this blood has the power to melt and resolidify again miraculously. Years ago we published a short paper in the scientific journal Nature, in which we reported how this could happen. The Encyclopedia Britannica defined the phenomenon as unexplained; we offered an explanation. We did not claim what people should or should not believe. We simply tried to account for an intriguing natural phenomenon, which appeared unnatural or supernatural. Time ago we thought that thunderstorms were God's punishments, and the believed them to be supernatural. It was a myth, as was the divine cause of the Black Plague. The same applies to the myths surrounding the functioning of the mind.
NC: I’ll ask you the question my wife sometimes asks me: If someone believes in the healing power of crystals, and they get strength from that belief, what’s the harm? Why should we try to educate a person with those beliefs that their beliefs are false?
SDS: I have no desire to educate anybody. Indeed, if you think about it, the acronym for "Public Understanding of Science" is PUS, not a pleasant feeling. This is unfortunately reflected in the ways that scientists often communicate to lay-people, as to edify them rather than listening and accepting criticisms; the so-called unconventional medicine would see less of a fortune if doctors were prepared to review their relationship with patients. This said, playing with crystals, collecting stamps or believing that Italy will win the Football World Championship are not per se offensive activities. The danger lies in attributing to these activities powers or functions they do not possess. If one has a serious disease it would be better to see a surgeon rather than wearing crystals (I have witnessed one too many problems derived from this faithful belief in placebo effects). Further, freedom to access exoteric deeds or unconventional treatments should not be read as the right to see these unproven techniques subsidized by taxpayers' money. Third, it is often advisable to to tackle difficult problems with the help of well-trained professionals, rather than hand over your hope to unlikely short-cuts. So, everybody is free, of course, to believe in whatever they want. Still science has the duty to state what we know (and change it when new knowledge accrues) and share it.
NC: In a number of areas, the scientific data is not completely in, or is inconclusive. For instance, a recent study did not show the link between following a low fat diet and lowering the risk of certain kinds of cancer that many expected. Now, even though the scientific support wasn’t what was hoped for the value of an overall reduction of fat in reducing the risk of cancer, and no study of that size and scope has been done for the effect of minimizing what have come to thought of as the “bad fats” (saturated and trans fat), I have a hard time believing I’m not making a healthy choice if I keep the consumption of fat, particularly saturated fat and trans fat, down in my diet. Any suggestions for how people should balance looking for scientific evidence, and having to make decisions in which that scientific evidence is not yet available?
SDS: This is a very fair and interesting point. There is far too much mumbo-jumbo spread in the name of science, in particular in popular magazines and TV. What we read is often sensationalized as the ultimate discovery, only to be disproved the following week. I do not endorse this way divulging science. Science is a method that the community agrees upon and entrusts to professionals to carry out. As we have the right to access information, we should have the right to depute. But scientists are fallible, gullible, pushy and wrong in the exact same proportion as any other group of people from a community. We need to accept that a lot is simply not known, or not firmly known, or not seen eye to eye by different scientists, or will change when new information becomes available. It's the nature of science to be probabilistic and uncertain. By the same token, we need to appreciate the acceptance of basic principles: donkeys do not fly. Until this claim is debunked by an unrebuttable demonstration that a donkey flies (even if he cannot talk).
NC: For non-scientists, who want to stay informed of the recent research into the brain and mind, and who want to check what they are taught in personal growth classes and books against what is currently known, what would you suggest? Are there any resources you think would be useful?
SDS: It is relevant to understand that any scientist would know a very limited amount of a relative narrow field. When I read about dinosaurs, even if I am a scientist I know no better than a non-scientist. This said, if you really want to be informed, read The New Scientist weekly.
NC: Anything you would like to add, which I didn’t ask about?
SDS: No. Thank you for your questions.
NC: Thank you.
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