York Festival of Ideas | Week Two

The York Festival of Ideas has come to an end and my brain is still buzzing. My calendar for the second week started with some neuroscience and psychology, and it ended with discussions about the possibilities of future technologies.

Although my head began running low on intellectual energy this past week, I’m glad I took advantage of registering for as many virtual events as I could because I found myself connecting dots between several topics. Initially, I felt way out of my depth during some of the talks ā€“ I figured they were mostly aimed towards scholars already in those fields. But as the programme progressed, it was rewarding to see how much knowledge I gained from just these one-hour sessions that gave me enough context to learn even more from the next ones.

Here are my highlights from the second and final week of the York Festival of Ideas 2021. If you’re interested, by now almost all of the recorded events can be watched on the festival’s YouTube channel šŸ“ŗ

Hard to Break: Why Our Brains Make Habits Stick

Russell Poldrack

Figuring out how to build good habits is something I’m sure many of us have had to face during lockdown. As my daily routines became practically non-existent when I began self-isolating, I realised how necessary it was to create healthy and sustainable habits to get me through the academic year in one piece.

Russell Poldrack began by defining two key characteristics of habits. Firstly, habits are things we do unconsciously. It’s the brain’s way of recording frequent actions so we don’t waste mental energy thinking about how to navigate our houses or brush our teeth. This creates space for being mindful of other things that are perhaps more fun or important.

Secondly, habits become detached from the goal or reward they were initially linked to. This is what makes habits so difficult to break because even when the reward is taken away, we still engage in our ‘default’ behaviour.

My favourite takeaway from the talk was the idea that a habit is not a personal failing but rather just the wiring of our brains. So instead of being in a constant struggle with our habit systems, we should focus on strengthening our goal systems.

Narratives of Conflict and War

Franziska Kohlt, Tom McLeish and Amanda Rees

This presentation proved the importance of acknowledging and understanding the influence language has on the way we perceive problems in the world. What I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since this discussion is Franziska Kohlt’s argument for why framing the pandemic through a warfare narrative is probably not the best idea.

The decision to declare ‘war’ against coronavirus and use terms such as ‘frontline workers’ creates a narrative that, like warfare, is polarising and impacts people’s response to the crisis. The lack of self-isolation, social distancing, and mask-wearing has shown us that people feel the need to prove their strength and fearlessness in the face of COVID like some kind of soldier running into battle.

So what other metaphor could we use in communications about the pandemic?

Kohlt used the example of a water metaphor and pointed out how this could lead to more responsible behaviour. If we speak about COVID as a flood, surely people would rather keep away to protect themselves instead of running towards the danger? This ‘flood’ would also prompt us to question why our governments were not prepared with resources and interventions to protect us from the impending disaster.

Finally, Kohlt emphasised how crucial it is to stop and reflect when it comes to science communication. We need to first determine the goal of our rhetoric that will then inform the choice of an appropriate metaphor.

As someone who’s been not-so-patiently waiting to get back to university studies this September, the York Festival of Ideas has been a real joy that has kept my mind racing in the best possible way šŸš€

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