Psychology at the Cheltenham Literature Festival

Ella Rhodes reports on highlights involving the British Psychological Society.

04 September 2015

Alastair Campbell will be among the authors interviewed by eminent figures in psychology and neuroscience at BPS-supported events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. We spoke to some of the speakers as well as the psychologists who will be interviewing them.

Campbell, the former Director of Communications for Tony Blair, will be interviewed by Vincent Walsh (University College London) about his new book Winners and how they succeed. Campbell told The Psychologist that he had a great fascination with the workings of the human mind. He said he had been previously inspired after speaking with a psychiatrist at a National Theatre event.

He said: ‘One of my favourite parts of the book actually came by chance from a similar kind of event when I shared a platform at the National Theatre with an American-Iranian psychiatrist called Nassir Ghaemi. We were there to talk about power and madness before a performance of King Lear, but he was fascinating about what in the book I describe as the positive side to what we would term mental illness. Those people and those qualities that sometimes drive them beyond what we would consider normal but in a way that does real good for the world. Churchill. Darwin. Lincoln. Martin Luther King. So who knows – maybe Vincent Walsh will end up in the paperback if he comes out with some interesting insights.’

Professor Walsh, who will also be interviewing journalist Matthew Syed in the same session, said he was hoping to ask both questions around the philosophy of winners – whether they are born or made and what winning means in different contexts. He added: ‘I’ll be probing them both on specific examples they use in their books. I’ll ask what makes a winner, whether winning is always essential and how important it is to lose. I’ll also be talking about how people build resilience to deal with inevitable failures people meet with when they try and get the best out of themselves.’

Professor Kevin Dutton (University of Oxford), will be interviewing journalist Åsne Seierstad whose book One of Us explores Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who killed 77 people in two terrorist attacks. Dutton said he was hoping to speak to Seierstad about several main areas, including a general view of who Anders Breivik is, whether he is sane, what triggered his murderous spree and what similarities he shows with other mass murderers.

When asked what psychology can bring to such an event, Dutton said: ‘For a long time I’ve been of the opinion that us psychologists got on to the science of the brain pretty late. Right back to the Ancient Greeks and medieval poetry there’s a lot of psychology there, but it’s just not written in a psychological form. We add a bit of science to insights which have already been put out there by the poets, writers and philosophers of yesteryear. In my chat with Åsne I hope to carry on that tradition, sit down together, work as a team and put science and art literature together and form an offender profile of sorts.’

Rory O’Connor (University of Glasgow) said he thought it was very important for those from the arts and sciences to come together at events such as the Cheltenham Literature Festival not only to share with each other but to reach the general public. He added: ‘If you work in an area like suicide and self-harm, it is vitally important that we go beyond our ivory towers to communicate the science, the evidence-based practice, and also dispel the many myths that exist, in my case, around suicide.’

Professor O’Connor will be interviewing journalist and author Matt Haig about his extraordinarily popular book Reasons to Stay Alive, which discusses his own personal experiences with suicidal thoughts and attempts. When asked what psychologists can bring to interviews with authors, O’Connor said: ‘As psychologists we try to understand mind and behaviour – so I’ll attempt to bring that inquisitive thinking to the interview. I’ll also take a life-course approach and explore the emergence of his mental health problems, the moment when, aged 24, he was on the brink of suicide, his subsequent recovery and his fear of becoming unwell again. As I was reading his book, lots of things struck me as interesting and intriguing, so hopefully some of the questions that I plan to ask will resonate with other readers at Cheltenham.’

I The Cheltenham Literature Festival runs from 2 to 11 October.