Big Ideas: Sergio Della Sala

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

Professor Della Sala opened Edinburgh Science festival with his talk “The Mind is Somewhere North of the Neck” and was also my first excursion to this year’s science festival events. I figured it would be good to start on something approximating home turf!

I must admit that my psychologist-sense (which is like spidey-sense, only a little less interesting) was tingling when the usher, resplendent in the science festival’s green t-shirts, handed all of us a blank piece of A4 paper upon entering the Infomatics forum. “You’ll find out what it’s for” he said jovially to a couple ahead of me who looked mildly panicked, as if imagining there would be some sort of test or would be expected to take notes.

Thankfully, it was not a demonstration I had encountered before- somewhat of a novel experience for a psychology graduate!- and was an interesting and entertaining part of Della Sala’s talk. I mean, how many academics would explain binocular rivalry, and then ask a room full of people to throw scrunched up balls of paper at them to see who was more sinister than the others? (That’s sinister in the left handed sense!)

This informative and amusing talk covered everything from brain gym to guru busting. We learnt why Dysarthia, whereby someone gets a knock to their noggin and supposedly starts talking in another language (like The English Patient), is likely all in the minds of those perceiving a change in accent, rather than an actual change in accent. We also learn that Popeye shouldn’t be eating spinach, and should really be eating broccoli. And we learn about  some Nobel prize winners who believe very silly things (from astrology to telepathy).

Also during the talk, Sergio somehow managed to teach us about the history of the clinical trial and blinding, emphasising the importance of seeking and checking evidence.
The talk really taught the value of a scientific and skeptical world view and its methods as a means of looking at the world and understanding it– whether this was to debunk brain gym, the idea that crime increases on the full moon, or that listening to Mozart somehow makes us smarter. We should always be checking to see if there is high quality peer reviewed evidence, and be on the look out for any economic incentives that might bias someones position.

We must also always remember: “If something looks too good to be true… it probably is.”

I’ll leave you with an example of one of the claims debunked in the talk: that we only use 10% of our brain. Consider if that was true – it would mean that nine times out of ten you could be shot in the head without suffering any ill effects.

If we all took Sergio’s advice, the world would be a far better and far more rational place; with less councils spending money on brain gyms and reflexology based nonsense.

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