Sarah Dale -Tales from the Cheltenham Science Festival 2012

The IMH Blog is pleased to reblog the following post from Sarah Dale from her blog, Creating Focus.  You can view the original post on the link below:

Tales from the Cheltenham Science Festival 2012 by Sarah Dale

Regular readers of my blog and newsletters will know that I am a fan of the Cheltenham Science Festival. True it’s something of a relief that geekdom seems to be gaining in social acceptability these days.

These things are all relative however, and psychologists are maybe in a different place from pure mathmeticians for instance. My own observational study seems to have confirmed this by  going along with my other half (an engineer who’s a pure mathematician at heart) to a mathsjam event at 10pm on Saturday evening. I went – I have to admit under some duress – on the promise there would be no quadratic equations to contend with after a long day and a very relaxed evening of curry and wine.

What were the first words to greet us, as we found the table of mathematicians calmly calculating away in the midst of modern Hogarthian-style drunken excess swirling around them? Yes – “we’re just doing some quadratics”.

Well, I thought to myself, I like to be open-minded but you can count me out.

So one of the joys of the festival is that it can accommodate me (psychologist, aspirant writer, maybe five on the geekometer) and my husband (who I think scores more highly, though I wouldn’t like to state how much more highly as the figure will be subjected to various mathematical tests before I can press publish).

This was illustrated nicely in one particular moment when he was podcasting about the maths behind board games whilst I was whiling away an hour entitled What happens when you pray?. The panel included atheist psychologist Chris French and broadcaster and Church of England priest  Rev Richard Coles (if you’re my age you may remember him as an ex-Bronski Beat and Communard with Jimmy Sommerville – takes me back to my undergraduate Rock City days here in Nottingham). It got close but being British and polite kind of skirted round the really heated debate that I would have liked to see as to whether being religious and a scientist are mutually exclusive or not. Hot potato stuff. Cheltenham, are you brave enough?

Brains and minds

There was a bit of a brain theme to the events I had chosen to go to. A live brain scan event (expertly facilitated by Evan Davis) looked at whether you can tell from brain activity whether someone is lying (early days but you can see the potential).

Given the live nature of the event, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to put the Festival’s slightly performance-pressurised Director, Mark Lythgoe, in the scanner and look for what happens in the brain in stressful situations – but maybe that’s for another day. Derek Jones, from Cardiff University, delivered a highly accessible and engaging explanation of what an MRI scan actually does – made me realise I didn’t know that I didn’t know that.

We also saw Bruce Hood speak about children’s brain development and the sense of self. It’s fascinating stuff. I’m not a developmental psychologist but I do wonder how much the neuroscience will confirm or deny long held theories such as Piaget’s work, or personality theory. We must be getting close to being able to do that I guess – are the Big Five personality factors visible in the brain? I don’t know if anyone knows the answer to that (yet).

And the highlight for me – mindfulness with Mark Williams

I have written about working through Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book, and eight week mindfulness programme before, which you can read here. So it was a delight to attend a session chaired by Kathy Sykes (festival Director with Mark Lythgoe), where Mark Williams was speaking along with David Sillitoe, BBC correspondent who has tried mindful meditation for himself, as well as reporting for television on it.

The session itself was interesting, drawing on the sound neuroscience backing up ancient claims for meditation. Mark, as a clinical psychologist, comes across as the style of psychologist I have aspired to be from an early age, and still do – practice based on solid scientific evidence with an ever present curiosity about developments in the field, as well as striking me as the kind of person you would want to turn to in times of distress (his field is to do with treating depression). I think it’s always valuable to meet people who provide that professional inspiration, in whatever field you might occupy. David’s reflections as an initially somewhat cynical experimenter with this topic were also highly relevant. His use of the word “counter-intuitive” particularly struck me – both I and clients have found aspects of mindfulness practice to be very counter-intuitive given our western life-styles and the way we’ve been educated to strive towards achievement rather than cultivating awareness of the present.

One of the strengths of the festival is that a talk to an audience of probably a thousand people can be followed by a “talking point” move to another marquee where, on sofas, it is possible to continue the audience questions and shift to a more relaxed seminar style event. So, for me, this developed into something very much like a book coming to life. Probably the most enjoyable way of learning for me.

A reflection that chimed well with one of my recent newsletters (Fads and Mockers) was that of the popularity of mindfulness as a fashion at the moment. There are any number of books and courses about this right now – in an unregulated market that makes it very difficult to work out what’s sound and what isn’t. Mark’s comment was that at first he felt the need to try to police that somehow. He soon realised that was nigh on impossible and then described it as watching the tide come in and out and you then have to assess what’s left on the beach. He recommended starting at the Mental Health Foundation site, Be Mindful, for anyone wanting to find out more.

And in the meantime the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, where Mark is based, has produced some really good videos. I’m including two here – one, a short introduction to mindfulness, and the second a full lecture about it if you have more time and interest.


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Sarah Dale

Sarah Dale is a chartered occupational psychologist and author of Keeping Your Spirits Up. She has a business background as a chartered accountant, and runs her own consultancy, Creating Focus. She is currently looking for inspiring women of age sixty plus to interview or to invite to write letters to her as part of her plans for her next book. For more details, contact Sarah on or 07748 494688.

Sarah’s website is and she can also be followed on twitter (@creatingfocus) or Facebook (Creating Focus).

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