The Morvern peninsula in Scotland. Photo: Philip Capper on Flickr via Creative Commons
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The play’s the thing

The Highland games on a remote Scottish peninsula unite young and old.

For such a large area of Scotland – and 250 square miles is a lot of land by British standards – the Morvern Peninsula is not very well known. People know about Skye and the outer isles; they may be familiar with Mull and Kintyre; but a mention of Morvern often brings blank looks. This is perhaps because in those hundreds of square miles there live no more than 350 people: it has a population density of less than two people per square mile. To put this in context, the south-east of England has over 800 times as many people per square mile.

I am fortunate to have a house on the shores of one of Morvern’s sea lochs. From my window, I look out to the hills of Ardnamurchan, on the other side of Loch Sunart. The largest mountain in that direction is Ben Hiant, the Gaelic for “holy mountain”. In the morning, it is often wreathed with clouds but then it reveals itself in those shades of attenuated blue so characteristic of Scottish uplands. It is holy, I imagine, because some Scottish saint lived there a long time ago. Early Scottish saints, by the way, were often just the local missionaries; their wives were saints, too, as were their children – a nice idea.

At high tide, the sea is 20 feet or so from my front door; ebbing, it exposes a swath of foreshore covered with salt-resistant grass. On this shore, hidden among the shells, there are sprigs of samphire and wild flowers, plants that do not mind being inundated by the sea twice a day. Deer graze there in the evening: shy creatures, watchful, easily panicked.

Morvern is unhurried, which is an important part of its charm. There is one main route through it – a single-track road with passing places on which the sheep congregate and only reluctantly give way to cars. This road leads to the village of Lochaline and the ferry that crosses the sound to Fishnish.

People pass through it on their way to Mull and Iona. They are moved, no doubt, by the empty hills, the high, tumbling waterfalls and the sheer wildness of the landscape. This is the Scotland that is portrayed in the Ossianic ballads.

In July, things get going in Morvern, the highlight being the Highland games. Morvern is very proud of these games and with good reason: of all the games that take place in Scotland during the summer, there can be none with quite as magnificent a setting. A gently sloping field above Lochaline is set aside for the purpose; behind it is a sharply rising forest, dark and impenetrable, but when you look to the front, you have a heart-stopping view of Mull and its mountains. You can see fairly far down the sound – towards the point where the shore turns west and the seaway leads to islands such as Jura, Islay and Colonsay.

Everything is softened in this light, as if portrayed by a watercolourist who has then applied a delicate wash. Often there are veils of rain that drift across the sea and shroud the shores and the hills beyond. Every few minutes, it seems, the sky changes; white light suddenly becomes silver, fades and then reintensifies.

Everybody turns up at the games, as they do in small towns across the Highlands. They are generally undeterred by the two enemies of any outdoor activity in north-west Scotland: the weather and midges. This year, the weather was benign – as it has been, atypically, for the past few games – and the midges were discouraged by the sun. Most of the people present were local, although visitors are always warmly welcomed. This year, we went with an Australian guest – of Scottish ancestry – who was in transports of delight when the Mid Argyll Pipe Band marched into the field in a flurry of kilts. The band sets the comfortable, family-friendly tone for the whole event: it includes ten-year-olds and 60-year-olds, the youngest, tiniest drummers taking their cue from the older drummers beside them.

Then the fun begins. Most people associate Highland games with what are called “heavy events”. These are in essence feats of strength in which kilted figures throw heavy objects as far as they can manage. You can spot these contestants very easily, as they are all built like oxen, have low-riding kilts and look as if they could toss anything, including you, a good distance without undue exertion.

The traditional throwing objects are great ball hammers of the sort that must have had an industrial use in the days when the Scottish economy made such things as ships and chains; today, I suspect that their principal use is at Highland games. These hammers are whirled round and round in a sort of dervish dance and then, if all goes according to plan, are let go. Occasionally one of these mighty men fails to let go and can travel some distance through the air with the hammer before regaining his footing.

Then there is shot-putting, which consists of throwing a cannonball as far as you can and hoping that it does not hit one of the judges. Cabers are also tossed – usually retired telegraph poles. There is an art to tossing cabers, as the contestants need not only brute strength, but also a good sense of balance. This is not a sport for those whose experience is limited to, say, tossing salads; cabers can go in unpredictable directions. At this year’s games, the heavy-event judge unfortunately slipped and could have found himself prostrate in the path of an incoming caber. Fortunately that did not happen.

There is vertical throwing, too, in which people throw a 56-pound weight over a bar that is raised progressively higher. It is important to remember to step aside after you have thrown this weight. One of the heavy contestants told me that at a recent games elsewhere, a thrower forgot to move away. Staring up at the descending weight, he decided to catch it, which was not, it was explained, a good thing to do.

However, these competitors are not easily damaged; this one, I was reassured, had no more than a sore chest for half an hour or so. Scotland is still making these men, it appears, and they move around from games to games throughout the summer, picking up prize money at most of them.

The same contestant told me that he would be taking part in something like 15 games this season. His proudest moment recently was to attend the Scottish games in, of all places, Hawaii. He won. Now he would like to compete in Canada or even Japan. In his youth, he was a regular competitor in the Morvern games in the athletics events. “Then,” he said, “I became stronger.”

The games were about much more than heavy throwing. There were races in which anybody could enter – and did. There was high jump and tug of war. And in a well-known feature of the Morvern games, there was the annual appearance of the members of the Lochaline belly-dancing club, who dance with exposed midriffs to what can only be described as Egyptian-Scottish fusion music. This is not a good idea if the midges are out in force, as midges love exposed stomachs. For other stomachs, there was home-made marmalade to be bought, and rickety tents sold this natural larder’s bounty – venison and seafood.

It would be easy to sneer at Highland games and some do. They are wrong: for most people at this little set of games in Morvern, it’s all about community and tradition and a vague sense of belonging to something. If it affirms identity, with the pipe bands and the tartan and the caber-tossing – Caledonian clichés of the most resounding variety – then it does so in a way that is gen­erous and unthreatening. It is also about how a rather fragile society, far from the opportunities of the Scottish cities, can enjoy itself and remind itself of the advantages of being in an intimate place, far away from Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Identity is a crucial issue in contemporary Scotland. Next year, this country will cast the most important vote for it in many centuries. That has nothing to do with this innocent afternoon of play, this celebration of Homo ludens; or perhaps it has everything to do with it. But that was not on anybody’s mind that afternoon, and understandably so.

Alexander McCall Smith’s new book, “Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers” (Polygon, £16.99), is published in August

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge