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Life and death at his fingertips: watching a brain surgeon at work

Henry Marsh is one of the country's top neurosurgeons and a pioneer of neurosurgical advances in Ukraine. Erica Wagner witnesses life on a knife-edge.

Hands of a craftsman: surgeon Harry Marsh describes neurosurgery as bomb disposal work. Photo: Tom Pilston

It is just after lunchtime on a wet Monday in February when Henry Marsh is finally able to return to the operating theatre in the Atkinson Morley Wing of St George’s Hospital in Tooting, south London, and begin the work that will save a young woman’s life.

Jenny is not long out of her teens; the previous week, she had collapsed – from a haemorrhage, the result of an abnormality in the veins and arteries of her brain. She had been close to death: late at night, Henry had operated to remove a blood clot and save her life. But a later scan showed that the abnormality remained. If the problem was not corrected, she could suffer another bleed at any time. So this will be the second time he has been inside her skull.

While Jenny is prepared, Henry paces the hospital’s long corridors. There is time for us to sit and have a sandwich. He is restless: he wants to get on. He didn’t get this right the first time. He needs to get it right now.

I first encountered Henry Marsh late one night on my sofa. I was too tired to go to bed, and so kept the television on as one programme ended and another started. This was The English Surgeon, a 2007 documentary by Geoffrey Smith about the work that Henry has been doing for over 20 years now at the Lipska Street Hospital in Kyiv, Ukraine. Following a meeting with Igor Kurilets, a Ukrainian neurosurgeon struggling against the post-Soviet culture of poor resources and entrenched, old-fashioned thinking about medical care, Henry began volunteering his time in Kyiv. He brought not only his skills but equipment that had been discarded – generally for no good reason – by the NHS, packed up in wooden crates he made himself.

It is a remarkable, moving film and I was struck by the humane, caustic eloquence of its subject, which seemed unusual for a man in his profession. At the time I was running the books pages of the Times; I thought that he would make a fine reviewer. I emailed him, care of the hospital, not really expecting an answer, but he replied by return. Sure enough, he proved an excellent addition to my stable – and this month he’s published a fascinating memoir, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, which is why I’m here with him now, waiting to stand beside him as he operates on Jenny.

Henry is 64: he will retire next year. He is tall and white-haired; outside the operating theatre he is given to wearing battered leather boots and a long duster coat. You read in books of people with “surgeon’s hands”, long, tapered and delicate. Henry’s hands are not like that, but rather like the hands of a skilled woodworker, a keen gardener and an energetic beekeeper, all of which he is. He wears round, owlish spectacles that give him the air of the don he might have been; his first degree, from Oxford, was in philosophy, politics and economics. Medicine came later – he didn’t become a junior doctor until the relatively late age of 29, after spells as a teacher in West Africa and a hospital porter in Ashington, Northumberland.

When he finally went to medical school, at the Royal Free Hospital in London, he wasn’t sure about his choice. “I thought medicine was very boring,” he says bluntly. Henry is not a man to refrain from speaking his mind. “I didn’t like doctors. I didn’t like surgeons. It all seemed a bit dumb to me.” In Do No Harm he writes of his revulsion at what much surgery generally entails: “long bloody incisions and the handling of large and slippery body parts”. But while working as a senior house officer, he observed a neurosurgeon use an operating microscope to clip off an aneurysm – a small, balloon-like blowout on the cerebral arteries that can cause catastrophic haemorrhages. It is intensely delicate work, using microscopic instruments to manipulate blood vessels just a few millimetres in diameter. It is also, as Henry says, like bomb disposal work, in that it can go very badly wrong – with the crucial difference that it is only the patient’s life at risk, not the surgeon’s. If this or any other kind of serious neurosurgery goes right, however, the doctor is a hero. “Neurosurgery,” he smiles, “appealed to my sense of glory and self-importance.”

Most senior surgeons are pretty vain; few, in my experience, are as aware of their vanity as Henry is. As Jenny is wheeled in to the theatre, he acknow­ledges his desire to be “an alpha male”, whether he’s performing surgery or riding his bicycle recklessly along the now-flooded towpaths in Oxford, where he lives with his wife, the anthropologist Kate Fox. (Henry never wears a helmet when he cycles. He has seen too many brain-injured cyclists, even those who’ve been wearing helmets, to wish to survive, should he ever get knocked off his bike.) The young woman’s brain scans are up on the big flat screens on the walls of the operating room; when Henry and his team begin, what they see through the operating microscope will also be projected on these screens.

In black and white, looking like the deltas of a river, are the veins and arteries of Jenny’s brain. The problem is that, in her case, arterial blood can escape into veins, which are not designed to cope with the high pressure of blood as it’s pumped from the heart. Arteriovenous malformation is the proper name for the condition.

“What proportion of the body’s blood goes to the brain?” Henry asks me – and for a moment my own heart is in my mouth, and I feel like one of the interns he questions in the meetings he holds every morning at 8am. He calls these “Hill Street Blues meetings”, after the American cop show, which always began with a similar gathering. They are, as far as Henry knows, unique to his hospital. I sat through one this very morning, six hours ago now, and watched a few young doctors quake under his interrogation. But, having read Do No Harm, I know the answer: 25 per cent; a quarter of the body’s blood feeds the engine of the brain. That is why this operation is so necessary, and so dangerous.

It has taken a while to get the patient ready for surgery because Henry has insisted that she have an angiogram – an injection of dye into her bloodstream which will show whether or not Henry has managed to seal off the vessels he is after – while still on the table. If the angiogram were to happen after surgery (which would make things much easier) and Henry hadn’t accomplished what he is setting out to do, he would have to go back in again, something he is less than keen to consider.

But setting up the angiogram so that it can be done during the operation isn’t simple. A few hours earlier, I’d watched Henry insist to another doctor that the procedure really was necessary. It was clear that he wasn’t going to take no for an answer; it was clear, too, just how insistent he had to be.

Henry’s persistence is probably his chief characteristic. “Zing”, he calls it, a restless energy that always looks for another problem to solve. It is this “zing” that got his patient the angiogram; it’s also what got him to Ukraine. It’s the force behind those morning meetings; and it enabled him to raise over £100,000 so that one of the balconies on the ward could be converted into a roof garden for the use of patients and staff.

Another few thousand pounds was raised to convert an unused biohazard lab into an “on-call” room for his fellow surgeons: a quiet place with a bed, and a desk, and a computer where they can rest between rounds and operations. (Most hospitals used to have these; the European Working Time Directive, which states that doctors must not work more than 48 hours a week, other than by choice, supposedly put paid to the need for such places. Unsurprisingly, Henry doesn’t have much truck with the European Working Time Directive, but not merely because he worked long hours in his youth and believes that “if it doesn’t hurt it’s not worth doing”. Shorter hours produce much less continuity of care, and much less training for young doctors.)

Although he is one of the most senior and experienced neurosurgeons in the country, and pioneered surgery performed under local anaesthetic in the UK, Henry insists that he is not a great surgeon. The surgery itself, he says, is not technically difficult. “It’s the decision-making that is complex and difficult; you are making very human decisions, about the quality of life and the way people will be affected.” This in turn requires a considerable emotional investment – in the patients, in the work. He knows that senior management believes neurosurgeons are arrogant. He does not disagree. “Neurosurgeons deal with life and death every day. It makes you pretty impatient with the tick-boxing that exercises managers.”

Do No Harm is in many respects a self-lacerating document: by and large, it contains stories not of triumph, or the author’s skill and expertise, but of the emotional and psychological toll exacted when things go horribly wrong. When patients are left paralysed or blind, or when they die, it is the surgeon who walks away. Because of this, Henry says fiercely: “Doctors cannot suffer enough.”

His understanding of the nature of suffering is deep and personal. When he had just qualified as a junior doctor, his three-month-old son, William, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It had been a normal birth, but then one night, as Henry tells it, “My first wife felt he wasn’t quite right. His fontanelle, the soft spot, was very tight – which can be a sign of swelling in the brain. So she took him to the clinic, and they measured his head and said it was far too big. He was admitted as an emergency to the local hospital, in Balham, and she rang me to say that he’d been diagnosed as acute hydrocephalus”: swelling in the brain. A brain scan showed the tumour.

“He was operated on a week later – and it was absolutely torment waiting. The main thing I remember was that at the end of the operation we didn’t know what had happened; we had to wait a few hours for the surgeon to find out. I learned a hugely important lesson from that: which is that when your nearest and dearest are undergoing brain surgery, it’s extremely miserable.” William’s tumour was removed, and he is fine. He is the eldest of Henry’s three children; there are also two daughters from the marriage, Sarah and Katharine.

Scrubs up: Marshs post-surgery decisions determine his patients quality of life. (Photo: Tom Pilston)

As a result of this terrible experience with his own son, Henry always rings the family as soon as possible after serious surgery and waits until the patient is awake in recovery. Only then can he be sure that an operation has been wholly successful. He doesn’t think many surgeons make these sorts of calls. “It’s a kindness; it shows you understand what relatives are going through. But also, if things go wrong, mostly people will forgive you.”

He is less willing to forgive himself. Most of the chapters in Do No Harm have titles taken from abnormalities of the brain: “Aneurysm”, “Meningioma”, “Astrocytoma”. But towards the end there is one called “Hubris”, which recounts the story of an operation that took place over two decades ago, on a man with a petroclival meningioma, a benign but extremely large tumour. The procedure took 15 hours – and towards the end of all those hours Henry, attempting to remove the last bit of the tumour, tore the artery that keeps the brain stem alive, causing catastrophic damage and leaving the patient in a permanent vegetative state. He no longer does 15-hour operations.

As Jenny’s prone form is brought into theatre, his team springs into life. “The quality of my working life is largely determined by the quality of my junior doctors. It’s in my interest that they’re happy,” Henry has said to me – and the same applies to everyone he works with: anaesthetists, nurses, technicians. Operating isn’t solitary work, and I am one of at least half a dozen people present. He greets hospital porters by name. He has worked with Judith Dinsmore, his anaesthetist, for over a decade; one of his aides in theatre has been assisting him since he became a consultant in 1987, as has his secretary, Gail Thompson.

This situation is now highly unusual in the NHS; as in so many other organisations, the perception is that centralisation brings benefits of streamlining and cost efficiency. The men and women who work with Henry Marsh think otherwise. A few days after this operation, Gail describes how she is supposed to schedule Henry’s clinics through a central booking service but does not. “A central booking service won’t keep slots aside for emergencies, for instance. I know Henry’s patients, so when they ring I know if it’s serious or not, and I can deal with it appropriately. Centralisation in the NHS is stopping all that.”

Tim Jones, the specialist registrar, begins to set Jenny’s head in a Mayfield clamp, an alarming-looking metal jaw that holds the patient’s head steady during surgery. Sharp pins drill bloodlessly through the scalp and grip the skull tightly.

Tim is 35, and the person Henry sees as his likely successor. A charming and energetic man – tirelessly helpful to a novice like me in the operating theatre – he took three years out of his medical training to do a PhD in physics because he is very interested in imaging technology, such as the scanner he will soon use to pinpoint where Henry will need to get to inside Jenny’s brain. Last year he won the Norman Dott Medal for outstanding performance in the Intercollegiate Specialty Examination in Neurosurgery, a rare honour. It’s worth remarking that four out of the immediate past five winners of the award have worked in the Atkinson Morley unit at St George’s.

Henry stresses that these surgeons have worked with many other doctors besides himself – but clearly Tim, at least, finds his boss an inspiring figure, not least because he is so open about discussing his own mistakes. This is extremely unusual, in Tim’s experience. “He calls it ‘the departmental hairshirt’,” he laughs. When I ask Tim if he is married, he laughs again. “No. I don’t even own a house. I’m a bit of psychopath, I guess. You have to be to do this job.” Performing surgery, he says, is “exhilarating” – a sentiment that Henry seconds.

Because Jenny has been operated on before, the incision in her head is already there. Tim cuts open her stitches. During surgery the patient is almost entirely draped in sterile sheeting, with only the area on which the surgeons will be working left visible, the edges of the wound held tight with small blue clamps that look almost like paper clips. There is a great deal of blood in the scalp, and the clamps keep the incision from bleeding. As Jenny’s head is opened Henry pulls up his chair, and the operating microscope leans over the patient like an inquisitive crane.

“Here,” he says. “Have a look.”

I come close to his shoulder and look down into the microscope’s second eyepiece. A glittering, undulating landscape of shining whites and greys and reds is revealed in vertiginous 3D; to look through this remarkable instrument (each one costs about £120,000) is to feel as if you could step right into the patient’s brain.

“There,” Henry says, pointing with a delicate instrument at a pulsing, slender cord to the right of my field of vision. “Artery. Mustn’t touch that. Touch that, the whole thing’s over.”

Looking down, I find myself thinking how impossible it is, finally, to comprehend that what I am observing – the matter of the brain – is everything we are. Here is the soul, here is the mind, here is every thought we might have or ever have had about the world around us. Nothing more than shining, pulsing matter. It seems far more difficult to consider than the idea that the pinpricks of light we see as stars in the sky are enormous burning balls of gas thousands of light years away. Our understanding of the universe, our understanding of those stars – it’s right here, under this microscope. From my earlier conversations with Henry, I know that despite his years as a surgeon (indeed, perhaps because of his years of work as a surgeon), he finds this notion as remarkable, and as puzzling, as I do.

See it through: Marsh performs delicate work inside a patient’s skull. (Photo: Tom Pilston)

When I first met Henry, he planned to work until he was 67. He changed his mind when he was threatened with disciplinary action for wearing a wristwatch as he walked through the hospital last year. The rule now is “bare from the elbows down” – not just in the operating theatre, obviously, but anywhere at work.

The episode still fills him with an ill-disguised anger. “If you treat people like naughty children, they’ll behave like naughty children. I love my work: I have my limits.” But it was the last straw in a long line of grievances he bears against the increasingly unwieldy machinery of the NHS in the 21st century. It’s much harder for him to raise money now, he says, for things such as the roof garden, or the beautiful photographs he has arranged to have hung in the ward so that his patients have something pleasant and distracting to look at, rather than peering out at the cemetery just beyond the building’s walls.

“People were willing to give money when they felt it was more like a charitable organisation – but now that the NHS is being privatised by the dumb fucks who run the government, people think: ‘Why should I give money to the NHS?’ Now the buses are owned privately, you think: ‘Why should I give way to the bus?’ Whereas when it was a public service, you thought: ‘I’ll let the bus go first.’ But I’m not going to do that now! You lose a lot that way.”

It is the failings of the NHS that make headlines, he knows, not its successes. “There’s all this mouthing off about how we have to have a ‘blame-free’ environment – but it’s blame, blame, blame all the time. One is no longer trusted. Of course, in any system there’s a certain small percentage of people who are freeloaders or incompetents; but if you design all your systems to deal with that percentage, you may end up so pissing off the 95 per cent of people who are the good guys that you lose more than you gain. I don’t know what the answer is. I’m glad I don’t run the NHS. But you have to trust people.”

Would I trust Henry if I were a patient, or a patient’s relative? I reckon I would. In the day I spend at the hospital I see two surgeries. Before Jenny’s operation in the afternoon, Henry and Tim work together on an older man, who, by a very peculiar coincidence, is suffering from the same kind of malignant tumour that killed my father a few years ago, a glioblastoma.

My father’s was deep in his brain and inoperable; this patient’s tumour is closer to the surface, though it has already cost him much of his eyesight. The operation will be no cure; Henry has made it clear it might buy him a bit of time, but not much. “More and more of modern medicine is palliative, anyway,” he says. “We are not curing people; we’re keeping people alive. These are quality-of-life issues. They are very hard decisions to make: do I want more chemotherapy? Should I have a double mastectomy? These are hard for patients, too.”

The radiotherapy my father was given was probably useless, Henry tells me as Tim opens the patient’s skull. And indeed, although my father spent nearly six weeks in hospital to have it, it didn’t seem to do much good. I have never discussed this with Henry before; now I consider the six weeks my father might have had at home, rather than in hospital – institutions that Henry compares baldly with prisons.

In the afternoon, Jenny’s operation took longer than expected. Henry had said he thought he would been done in an hour or so; in the end, he was working for about four hours. Not one, but three interoperative angiograms had to be done to check that he’d done the job. Sitting straight in his chair – its arms holding his own arms steady as he moved his instruments with finely calibrated delicacy – Henry peered through his microscope, using an electrical current to cauterise the three tiny blood vessels in her brain which were putting her in such danger. Often, he has said, there are many more blood vessels to seal off in such cases, but Jenny’s were tricky because they were so very tiny, and so close to a major artery, as I saw. (This is the stuff, remember, that he thinks is “not difficult”.) Jenny’s operation was a success. She went home from hospital two days later and her problem will not recur.

The prospect of retirement is rather alarming to Henry. He will keep his bees; he will build bespoke bookcases in his workshop; he will, no doubt, lecture (and continue to work as a surgeon) around the world. He plans to go back to Ukraine at the end of this month despite the trouble there.

His hospital in Kyiv is off Maidan Neza­lezhnosti – Independence Square, where the revolutionary protests took place. He is in touch every day with his friends there, all of them Ukrainians who dislike the Russians and hate Vladimir Putin, he says. “I’ve always believed very strongly that Ukraine was an incredibly important country. Because it is the focal point, the pivot between east and west, which goes back hundreds of years. You’ve got Asiatic Russia to the east, and western Europe to the west. It’s one of the most profound fault lines in Europe.”

His colleagues’ concern – for their safety, for their future – is tempered by a certain fatalism. “They’ve always lived in a country where the state is essentially against you. We in the civilised west may criticise our politicians and the state, but the default feeling is that the state is there to help you. In places like Ukraine and Russia, that has never been the case. The state is your enemy. It’s very hard for us to imagine that. It’s very much rulers and ruled.”

Henry says he doesn’t fear for his own safety: but playing it safe has never been his way. His seeming arrogance and self-regard (“Kate and I have been rehearsing a few interviews, so that when I’m asked, ‘Why did you write this book?’ I’ll say: ‘To draw attention to myself.’ That’s the honest answer”) are undercut by his sincere knowledge of his own fallibility – and the price that fallibility can exact. A rueful shrug. “My life is a succession of proving to myself that I’m not as frightened as I think I am.” 

“Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery” by Henry Marsh is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£16.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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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?

***

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.

***

 

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?

***

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