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20 April 2022

Uta Frith Q&A: “There is a fear of clever women”

The psychologist discusses Agatha Christie’s Marple, changing research culture and the history of alphabets.

By New Statesman

Uta Frith was born in Rockenhausen, Germany, in 1941 and moved to London to study clinical psychology in 1964. She is regarded as a pioneer of research into autism and child dyslexia.

What’s your earliest memory?

I was probably three years old. I was playing with a glass perfume bottle shaped like a tennis ball, with a knobbly surface. It slipped onto the dressing table and broke.

Who are your heroes?

As a child I was really into fairy tales. Gretel of “Hansel and Gretel” was an obvious heroine for me because she was so clever. When I became an adult it dawned on me that the witch was the heroine, because she must have been ingenious to have built a gingerbread house that you could live in. At school I learned that there is a fear of clever women. One manifestation of that fear is the idea of witches.

[See also: Lynda La Plante Q&A: “My Mastermind specialist subject? Serial killers”]

What book last changed your thinking?

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Kevin Mitchell’s Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are. It’s an argument for sheer randomness in all the factors that shape us as we grow up.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Cincinnatus, who I learnt about in Latin lessons, and who is the only historical figure I know to have given up power voluntarily. It’s a difficult thing to do.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

The history of alphabets. I have done quite a lot of research into literacy and reading.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

London in the 17th century, so I could witness the first experiments at the Royal Society. Although as a woman I would not have been allowed entry, unless I had sneaked in with the visit of the formidable Margaret Cavendish in May 1667.

[See also: Annie Macmanus Q&A: “I’ve often been a woman in a man’s world”]

What TV show could you not live without?

Agatha Christie’s Marple.

Who would paint your portrait?

Emma Wesley has already done it as a double portrait, which recognises that I am part of a husband-and-wife team.

What’s your theme tune?

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, but now with a tear in my eye, because of Brexit.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I campaign for something called “slow science”. The motto is “Less, but better”, an idea I hope will change research culture. Researchers are far too pressurised. The motto has been credited to Dieter Rams, who transformed modern design.

What’s currently bugging you?

Whenever I watch the news, I wince at the excessive emphasis on emotional reactions. I think factual reporting ought to be neutral, like when you report science. If you need that in order to get facts about what’s really important in the world, I’m not so sure that you will get facts.

What single thing would make your life better?

I wish I wouldn’t be getting older. I wish I wouldn’t have to watch my weight. I wish I was able to move without pesky joint pain.

When were you happiest?

When I first met Chris Frith, my husband for 55 years, who continues to make me happy.

[See also: Neil Gaiman Q&A: “As long as there’s a Tardis, all’s right with the world”]

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Museum curator at the V&A. It would allow me to tell others about exciting discoveries.

Are we all doomed?

Of course, in the long run. But in the short run, psychologists have shown that we can rely on our brains’ optimism bias. We always hope for the best.

“Two Heads: Where Two Neuroscientists Explore How Our Brains Work with Other Brains” by Uta Frith, Chris Frith and Alex Frith is published by Bloomsbury

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder