We held a series of debates at the Secret Garden Party festival that explored the neuroscience behind politics, the psychology of celebrities, and what we know about consciousness science. Luke Muscutt facilitated the discussions – he summarises what we learned about ourselves, each-other and the world…

Now that the clocks have changed and the nights are drawing in, we can certainly say that summer is over. It’s getting darker and colder, so let us ease the journey by sharing what we learned during the mind-blowing debates at Secret Garden Party. This was the second year I hosted the debates and met scientists in all sorts of fields, together exploring topics that are completely different to my day job as an aerospace engineer. The best part of my festival – picking their brains until my own was melting out of my ears.

The festival went by in a muddy flash and now that I’m home, recovered from the hangover, and back in my ‘normal’ life, I’m asking myself: what on earth did we learn about ourselves, other people and the world?

Debate 1: Trump, Brexit, Theresa – what happened?

This year we kicked off with a debate on post-truth politics. We delved deeper into this nauseating topic by exploring the psychology and neuroscience of why people voted the way they did rather than the issues themselves. For this we invited political psychologist Keith O’Brien and pioneer of neuropolitics Darren Schreiber to deliberate on why our brains let us down.

Ourselves: We judge people in an instant

It only takes one tenth of a second for us to make a decision on a person’s face to judge whether they are kind, friendly, and in the case of political candidates, competent. People who look more competent actually do get elected more – even if they aren’t.

Others: People don’t make very good decisions

Decisions about complex issues are mostly based on rules of thumb – people’s brains aren’t wired to consider every element. When there are a lot of choices with complicated factors, we tend to save energy and simplify the decision making process by focusing on single aspects. For example, when selecting a political party, people may choose based on only some political issues.

The World: Computer simulated monkey brains have been used to predict elections

Just like a picture paints a thousand words, a face can tell us a lot about someone’s strengths and weaknesses, and even predict their chances in an election. By looking at pictures of chimpanzee faces we can figure out how likely it is that a chimp will become the leader of the troop. This even works when using a computerised face detection algorithm to judge political candidates: this is known as a ‘computer simulated monkey brain’.

Debate 2: I’m a celebrity… why do you care?

The festival theme was celebrity, fame and media, so our second debate explored celebrity culture and social media. We pondered the effects of technology with media psychologist Ellen Helsper, and discovered how body language reveals what people think, but don’t say, with Big Brother psychologist Geoff Beattie.

Ourselves: We love celebrities because we want to better ourselves

Our brains are drawn to people who have desirable skills, so that we can learn from them and improve ourselves. Before modern culture, we were attracted to good hunters that could provide food for our survival. Nowadays we revere talented musicians, eminent actors and successful athletes. We respect these people and consider them to be special, and when enough people feel the same, celebrities become famous. But, it’s not all about love – there is something cathartic about watching people crash and burn.

Others: There are no celebrities without fans

It’s pretty obvious, but celebrities can’t exist without lots of fans! However, there isn’t a magical cut-off at which point you have enough fans to become a celebrity, and with the advent of social media everyone is kind of a minor celebrity in their own right.

The World: Fame is a type of afterlife

Since the start of history humans have counted on the honour and glory they achieve from famous deeds to continue after their demise – giving them a sort of afterlife. Today the desire to live on continues – even Michael Jackson has released albums since dying! Actually, scientific research shows that when people are reminded about death, they become more interested in being famous.

Debate 3: Is your iPhone conscious?

By Sunday, most festival-goers were in dire need of rest, relaxation, and contemplation of their own existence. What could be better than a tour of consciousness science to start off the day, or in my case, to continue the previous night! Joining us for our final debate were neuroscientists Anil Seth and Vaughan Bell – together we considered what it means to be conscious.

Ourselves: Consciousness helps us learn better

Being aware of your own mental processes is a really good way of getting better at things. Rather than just automatically reacting to everything in the world, conscious awareness allows us to step back and carefully consider what we experience. This advanced logical reasoning and adaptability is unique to humans. 

Others: We might live among zombies

Other people might be unconscious zombies that seem conscious, but are not. Known as philosophical zombies, this is a real theory, but the majority of neuroscientists believe that this is not the case. Research shows that people’s brains have similar patterns of brain activity to one another. Consciousness is dependant on the brain, and so different people must have similar experiences – and probably aren’t zombies.

The World: Your iPhone isn’t conscious

Technology probably can’t become conscious. The fundamental way that computers operate is very different to human brains – they’re good at calculations, but that doesn’t mean machines consciously experience doing the calculations. A nice way of thinking about it is that a computer may be used to predict the weather, but no one expects there to be wind and rain inside the computer.