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Paul Broks

One on one - with Paul Broks

Senior Clinical Lecturer at the University of Plymouth

04 April 2009

One person who inspired you
Perhaps the negative inspiration of the grammar school physics teacher who threw me out of the class – bodily – for innocently asking whether thoughts consumed calories. Those were the days.

One moment that changed the course of your career
Opening a copy of New Scientist a few years ago and seeing an advertisement about the Wellcome Prize for science writing. I was commuting, forlornly, between Sheffield and Birmingham at the time and my first thought was utterly practical – if I won the £25K prize it could buy me out of the day job for a while. I was a runner-up, but one member of the judging panel, a distinguished publisher, came straight out with the offer of a book contract. Writing has since become a parallel career. I’m working  on film, theatre and book projects, and I?have a regular column for The Times.  

One book that you think all psychologists should read
Julian Jaynes’s 1976 cult classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which makes the startling claim that subjective consciousness (in the sense of internalised mind space) arose a mere 3000 years ago through the development of metaphorical language, process itself driven by increasing social and cultural complexity. Some of the historical and classical scholarship may be dubious and the neuropsychology is sketchy, but the book is a wonderful imaginative achievement, a pioneering attempt to fuse ancient history, psychology and neuroscience.  

One cultural recommendation
Learn to love jazz.

One thing that you would change about psychology
I’ve always felt that clinical psychology trainers should take neuropsychology more seriously. Brain function is a crucial dimension of clinical formulation across a number of specialties, yet many clinical psychologists are ignorant of even the basics of neuropsychological theory and practice.  

One proud moment
Serving, fleetingly, as Les Paul’s roadie (see picture). The 93-year-old musician and inventor of the solid body electric guitar still performs regularly at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway. I interviewed him backstage for a film I’ve just made about another jazz guitar legend, Pat Martino. The interview over-ran, with the house manager rapidly turning homicidal. When Les finally ambled off towards the stage I realised he’d left his guitar behind.

One challenge for psychology
We know quite a bit about specific domains of brain function, but we’ve scarcely begun to figure out how these processes converge to create a unified sense of self.  

One regret
Not taking up writing sooner.
One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Don’t define yourself by your career. Picture yourself on your deathbed wondering did I spend enough time in the lab/clinic/committee room? I’ve worked with some brilliant scientists and clinicians over the years and some rather dull ones. The former usually have an emotional and intellectual hinterland – a life beyond professional psychology.  

One alternative career path you might have chosen
Professional football.

One hero from psychology
I’ll choose a philosopher rather than a psychologist. David Hume, leading light of the Scottish Enlightenment, is a major figure in the history of psychology but his ideas may yet come to influence our thinking about the relation between brain and mind in the century ahead. The kernel of the problem of consciousness is, I believe, contained within his famous maxim: An object may exist, and yet be nowhere.                

One resource
Broks, P. (2004). Into the silent land:?Travels in neuropsychology. London:?Atlantic Books. ‘My first attempt to explore the fragilities of mind and selfhood through stories rather than science.’

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One thing that ‘organised psychology’ could do better
The BPS could do more to engage with the general public through the print and broadcast media. There is a hunger for psychological ideas and information in our society that is too easily sated by the intellectual junk food of pseudo-science and psycho-twaddle. It would be great to see the BPS collaborating with publishers and media organisations to develop something along the lines of the (now discontinued) Wellcome Prize.

One great thing that psychology has achieved
Respectability. Psychology has come of age as a science, partly through its clear emergence as a ‘hub’ discipline linking – and ‘psychologising’ – once disparate areas of the biological, medical and social sciences.

One final thought
I’ve come round, belatedly perhaps, to the view that not all aspects of the human mind are amenable to objective, scientific analysis, and that some facets of experience will always be more clearly viewed through the subjective lens of literature and the arts. Academic psychology should be wary of scientism and remain open to alignments with the arts and humanities.