Jeremy Clarkson. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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The neuroscience of Jeremy Clarkson

If humans can’t control themselves, they cannot be allowed the freedoms others enjoy: humans learn self-control, she says, in the same way that toddlers learn to control their bladders.

The great Jeremy Clarkson drama is, at heart, a question of neuroscience. Can our brains, formed and tweaked over millions of years, adjust to modern times? Or are we doomed to let their ancient structures rule for ever?

Perhaps it helps to compare Clarkson to Sims, the central character in Jennifer Haley’s brilliant play The Nether. Both are accused of an ongoing series of only vaguely defined transgressions. Both are largely unrepentant. They consider themselves to be beneficent figures: they provide pleasure and entertainment, albeit of a kind that is frowned on by many. Neither see grounds for criminal proceedings: it is the tenor of their lives and their general proclivities that the authorities seek to rein in.

The difference is that Sims is an entrepreneurial paedophile. In The Nether, the internet has become a fully immersive experience, gratifying all the senses. Sims has created a virtual world where customers’ avatars are free to have sex with childlike avatars – and even slay them with an axe, if they wish.

Is this wrong? It is an unsettling question for the audience, especially since the set makes the online world an immersive experience for them, too. The online children are not real; they are the online personas of consenting adults. No one is physically hurt. The uncomfortable truth is that we have no rules for how virtual adults should behave, even towards virtual children. Technology has already outrun the evolution of our morals.

Sims exploits this. His creation, he says, mitigates against people with his proclivities offending in the real world. Their brains make them do these things, he says. He is merely providing an alternative path of action. Does he have a point? The scientific literature certainly associates paedophilia with specific abnormalities in the brain. In 2003, the Archives of Neurology reported the case of a man whose brain tumour had caused him to start sexually molesting his eight-year-old stepdaughter. When the tumour was removed, his sexual interest disappeared.

This month, German researchers have reported that there is “growing evidence that paedophilia is linked to both structural and functional brain abnormalities”. One of those abnormalities is in the areas of the brain that deal with impulse control. The question is, does that make us any less inclined to condemn behaviour when those impulses are acted upon?

It seems not. The American neuroscientist and philosopher Patricia Churchland puts it like this: “An explanation is not an excuse.” If humans can’t control themselves, they cannot be allowed the freedoms others enjoy: humans learn self-control, she says, in the same way that toddlers learn to control their bladders.

This brings us back to Clarkson. Top Gear creates a virtual experience for those who have learned to control their bladders but not their impulses to do (or watch) silly or dangerous things. The programme’s appeal is often described as adolescent – and with good neuroscientific reason: in teenagers, the frontal lobes are not yet fully connected. These are the structures responsible for assessing consequences and making judgements. The Clarkson issue is about whether this half-formed physiology and the appeal of its world-view can justifiably be exploited and enjoyed by adults.

Now, though, someone has allegedly been physically hurt. The incident invokes ancient brain structures that flood us with deep-rooted but possibly anachronistic moral certitudes. We, the audience, are left in turmoil and yet utterly compelled to watch as the BBC’s moral dilemma plays out. Having had its way with Jeremy Clarkson for so long, should the corporation now control that impulse towards the axe?

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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