wed 19/02/2020

Horizon: Out of Control?, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Horizon: Out of Control?, BBC Two

Horizon: Out of Control?, BBC Two

Do we have free will, or are we a bit like ants?

Your life in your hands? Think again © BBC

You know that kind of smoothly seductive but nonetheless ominous-sounding voice-over that loads of science programmes seem to love? You know, the kind that’s often used to lull us into thinking that what we’re about to hear is going to present us with some really seismic shift in our perceptions? Well, that’s what gets me about some science programmes. That, and the sense that the more dramatic the voice-over the less dramatic the content. That, and the graphics.

In this week’s Horizon we had both the ominous voice-over and the useless graphic. A stick figure popped up early on, a fuzzy blue interloper who bobbed up and down in the middle of a docile-looking crowd of humans, wearing big glasses and a sinister grin. You wanted to squish him with your thumb but we knew why he was there: he was meant to represent the devious and unruly unconscious mind, about which the programme set out to explore.

Some drew a line representing a tiny, tiny percentage of the conscious mind in a vast sea of unknowableness

But then the voice-over told us that, no, the unconscious mind isn't that unruly, primal thing at all – not just the thing of dreams and primal urges and Freudian desires and slippages (in fact, Freud didn’t get a look-in, which may have struck you, at least in passing, as a bit remiss, since Freud had invented the concept), but that, in fact,  it’s “one of the most sophisticated things”. In which case, we might have expected not a sinister-looking stick figure in shades with a passing resemblance to Bono, but an urbane sort in a dapper three-piece suit sitting in a darkened corner of the mind-room and sipping a martini. But that’s science programmes for you. They say one thing and then they try to illustrate it with some completely irrelevant and misleading graphic.

Better graphics, in my opinion, were produced by some reluctant scientists on request. What they produced was rudimentary. Presented with a blank sheet of A2, they were asked to represent a percentage of the conscious mind. One drew an itsy-bitsy cube in the middle of the blank sheet, whilst some drew a line representing a tiny, tiny percentage of the conscious mind in a vast sea of unknowableness. What they produced was guesswork, albeit educated guesswork based on some empirical evidence, but needless to say we’re all walking around completely unconscious of most of our actions most of the time (who knew?) The blank white space of our unconscious mind rules. And off we went to witness a number of experiments to undermine our hard-wired notions of free will.

We saw a bunch of fit twenty-somethings chasing a toy helicopter to demonstrate how we all harbour false assumptions about our behaviour, each of us imagining how we’re employing unique and clever strategies to get what we want, when really we're simply following a genetically predetermined path. And then we saw a colony of ants employing “crowd-think” to produce the best possible outcome for locating a new nest, and an neat analogy was drawn. The best bit was seeing an ant anesthetised so that it could have a radio microchip glued to its back – nifty work, but presumably you’d have to kill it to get the thing off again (or maybe the glue wasn't that sticky and the microchip was designed to just fall off at some point within the lifespan of the ant - to be honest, this question proved a bit of a point of distraction).  

Our sense of risk in most areas of life is usually way off beamThere was more seemingly prosaic stuff, too, like how much we take in when coloured objects are flashed before our eyes for about a millisecond (not very much), and why we seem to underestimate risk in everyday life (like getting cancer, or dementia by the time we reach a certain age). But the programme didn’t explore just why we seem to vastly overestimate risk in areas which are far less risky – like being, for instance, in a plane crash. This didn't seem to fit into the Optimism hypothesis promoted by the programme. In fact, our sense of risk in most areas of life is usually way off beam. We seem to both imagine our invincibility and harbour real terrors of impending extinction at any given moment. Living in this perpetual state of conflict we assume that nothing bad will happen to us while everything bad will happen to us. We're odd like that. I wonder if ants have these feelings as well.

Needless to say we’re all walking round completely unconscious of most of our actions most of the time

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Agree there wasn't really anything earth shattering in this programme and a missed opportunity. I've read some books related to the subject and the interaction between you conciousness and unconciousness is very interesting, a good description is that your conciousness is like a mahout riding an elephant! The funniest/oddist bit I thought (probably just me) is where they stated that a young guy thinking he had a 18% chance of getting cancer at some point rather than an actual 30% chance was an example of living with "rose tinted spectacles". Don't they know we have a 100% chance of dying.................? It would be totally odd, particularly for a young person, to dwell on what types of illness are likely to kill them at some time in the (hopefully) distant future!

Plus the fact is that not everyone in the western world has a 30% chance of dying from cancer. 30% is the average. The subject being tested may lead a very healthy lifestyle I.e. non-smoker, good diet with few free radicals and not much red meat, not promiscuous and not an immoderate drinker. To say that the subject was being over-optimistic may well be erroneous, especially if he had the above life-style, in which case his chance of getting cancer may well even be below his own estimate of 18%. We are not all average and some of us would be capable of providing a very good estimated (non-average) answer to such questions, based on well informed general and personal knowledge. This experiment really irritated me, as it in no way could be described as science!

This programme is yet another tedious example of neuromania that the media is so desparate to propogate. It is propelling the seductive myths of 'mind as computer' and 'you are your brain', which are of spurious philosophical origin. Anyone bored of these kinds of ridiculous metaphysical conclusions about freewill and rogue brains should read the fantastic collaboration of the philosopher and neuroscientists, Hacker & Bennett - 'The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience'. Incidentally, my favourite part was when they inexplicably conducted a behavioural study in an fMRI machine - 'Look at this behavioural change....I refuse to believe this is a real change until the BRAIN tells me so'.

Its dissappointing that the reviewer was unable to appreciate the wonderment and amazing material being presented in this programme. You seem to be looking for critical aspects of the programme which dont fit in with your own view of the world. Complaining about the graphics is really just pedantry. I agree many questions were left posed and unanswered - it was impossible to cover every aspect in very much detail in what is essentially an entertainement show based on science rather than a sceintific treatment of the available material. The central theme of the programme was not neuroscience per se, but in examining aspects of the unconscious mind and how it filters, controls and works in a way that we may well then (incorrectly) rationalise later. I found this to be amazing - it questions so much of our everyday 'rational' actions and behaviours.I thought it was obvious that the ideas presented were science's best guess at these hidden processes, with some evidence to demonstrate this - its work in progress, not irrevocable law.. I work in science/engineering, but dont usually watch Horizon, but this programme blew me away. It was imho a programe of excellent content and quality that only the BBC can produce, touching on things I had not seen before, and that made me want to know more - hence my google search where i stumbled on this site.

The chasing helicopter piece was nonsense! All it showed was that we keep an object we are chasing in our central field of vision. It proved nothing about BODY movement or strategy, it just showed head movement keeps the prey in view. Bad science, erronoeus conclusions. Otherwise interesting. Derek

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