Reflections on No Picnic

[A reconstruction of what I wanted to say, and what I actually did say, at the launch of the book ‘No Picnic’ on 27th May 2014. Hardcopies of the book and commentaries – including this one – are available by PayPalling £5 to]

I’ve just left a University meeting where someone made an impassioned protest about the number of duties academics have. They were still despairing about the amount of work we’re asked to do, as I left to get to my bike so I could cycle here.

On the way I passed a new development of luxury student flats named “impact”. A cruel pun on the need to justify research, I wondered?

I work as an experimental psychologist, and so, as I rolled down the hill, my thoughts returned to the research that occupies so much of my time, research I’ve been doing on learning and learning curves.

But as I arrived at to No Picnic these thoughts also fell away and I turned to think about failure.

My failure.

You see, I was originally part of the Furnace Park project. In the book, Matt says some kind words about me not being able to continue being involved because I had a newborn daughter. And it’s true, I do have a daughter and that does fill up your time. But the truth is that it wasn’t just that which meant that I dropped out of the project. Really it was a question of priorities. I was focused on my research on learning curves, about writing grants and publishing papers, with a limited amount of work time. Furnace Park just…fell off the edge of the things I could do.

So I was thinking about my failure to be involved, and about the instrumentalism – the need for results – which structured my time so that I decided I couldn’t afford to be involved.

And instrumentalism turned my thoughts to my first academic job. You see I’m a recovering social psychologist, and my first job after my PhD was on a project looking at brownfield land. Brownfield land is previously used land, like Furnace Park. Previously used land can be polluted, but possible harm from that pollution is always a risk, rather than a certainty, and people think about risks in funny ways – hence my involvement as a psychologist.

One thing we looked at was who the public trusted to tell them about risk. Was it the media, local government, pressure groups or scientists? We found that the expertise of the person giving the information was nearly irrelevant – people trusted information from people they thought were on their side, regardless of whether they were qualified to judge the risks.

One day, as part of this project, I was on a site visit to a housing estate which had been built on or near polluted land. The residents of the estate were understandably upset when they discovered the extent of the pollution and were pressing for a clean-up – a clean-up of great expense and uncertain efficacy. I was being driven around the site by the chief planning officer at the local council.

“They say to me, Tom,”, he said, “they say to me ‘how much is a human life worth, eh? How much is a human life worth?'”

“What I don’t tell them is that according to us it is exactly four hundred and seventy five thousand pounds”


Another thing I learnt from that project is that it is a myth that brownfield sites are barren and greenfield sites are always more important to protect because of the richness of the habitat. As you can see from places like Furnace Park, although left unused – often because unused – brownfield sites can become vibrant ecologies.

Thinking of this turned my mind to something Vaclav Havel once said. He was a Czech dissident in the days of the Soviet Union. He wrote samizdat – typed and illicitly copied essays which were clandestinely circulated. In those days you had to know the right people get hold of his writing (perhaps like the No Picnic book). In the 90s I could buy his writings in a book. Now you can find them all on the internet.

In one of his essays Havel writes about the value of art which isn’t aligned with the objectives of the state – purposeless culture. He says that, like the ecologies of the natural world, these ecologies of culture must be conserved and cultivated. You never know, he argued, where the thing you need most is going to come from. You never know when you’ll need to draw on the resources and wisdom stored in such a niche.

I couldn’t find that passage flicking through my copy of “Living in Truth” however.

Another passage that stuck in my mind concerns Havel’s writing on what he called the Post Totalitarian System. These, he said, were societies, both East and West, where the need for direct repression has passed. Here, he said, every person’s attention was kept nailed to floor of their self-interest. Control was maintained by material comforts, and the fear of sticking out.

I couldn’t find that passage either. Perhaps it is in his “Letters to Olga”

Instead, I found this passage, from his essay “Politics and Conscience”:

“As all I have said suggests, it seems to me that all of us, East and West, face one fundamental task from which all else should follow. That task is one of resisting vigilantly, thoughtfully, and attentively, but at the same time with total dedication, at every step and everywhere, the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power – the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans. We must resist its complex and wholly alienating pressure, whether it takes the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology, or cliché”

And that is the end of my meander in thought from the University, to learning, to instrumentalism, to ecology, to dissident publishing, and so to No Picnic. The book reminded me of the importance of spaces outside of the narrow instrumentalism that rules so much of my life, and it is a true testimony to a particular place, at a particular moment, with particular people. I look forward to reading it again.


An Open Letter to Andrew Dodman

Dear Andrew Dodman,
Director of Human Resources,
University of Sheffield

Our University has a problem with inequality. Standard undergraduate student fees have lept three-fold since 2012, with the average debts of a graduating student around £44,000 [1]. Our Vice Chancellor took home £370,000 last year, whilst the University benefits from the zero-hours and short-term contracts of many staff who are intimately involved to the administrative and intellectual life of the institution. In the middle, academics with open-ended contracts, of whom I am one, have suffered years of below inflation pay-rises [2].

This is the context for the current University and College Union (UCU) action short of a strike – a boycott on assessment by Union members, voted for by the largest turn out in the Union’s history, in support of protecting pensions – another area in which unjustified cuts are planned which will profit those who have, and squeeze those who have not. Directly these plans will reduce the pension for current staff, and it will also impact on the students and wider public to which the University is obligated, who will get less from demoralised, under-rewarded and over-managed University lecturers.

You have announced that all University of Sheffield staff participating in the action will be docked 25% pay. I would like to request that all the savings made from cutting my pay are redistributed to my students in the form of a fee rebate. The University shouldn’t profit from action staff are taking in the name of a fair reward for working here, and students deserve some compensation.



Tom Stafford
Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science
University of Sheffield



events Me

Psychology in the Pub, Sheffield

(Local news warning: just details of a talk I’m giving)

Psychology in the Pub is a Sheffield event which happens in the Showroom Cinema Bar. I’m giving a talk there on the 15th of March and I’ve just written the blurb. Here it is for your enjoyment

Thinking Meat: Understanding brain and mind

You’re brain weighs the same as half a brick and has the consistency of warm butter. Yet such a mundane object allows you to have every thought you’ve ever had, every feeling, dream or hope. This talk will be an introduction to what I view as the central puzzle of psychology: how the brain creates the mind. I’ll discuss fundamental insights from the study of perception and action and suggest how these provide important clues for understanding all of human psychology. The talk will feature: Lego Robots! ‘Subliminal messages’! Britney Spears! Pirates! And a no-holds-bared personal revelation from the speaker

The content will be similar to the talk I gave in Manchester recently, which you can hear here

events Me science

Talk: Infering cognitive architectures from high-resolution behavioural data

I’ve been invited to give a talk at York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis. I’ll be speaking on the 13th of May, a friday, to the title “Infering cognitive architectures from high-resolution behavioural data”. It’ll be an overview of what it is exactly that I try to do as part of my work.

Abstract: I will give an overview of some of the work done in our lab, the Adaptive Behaviour Research Group ( ) in the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield. Across human, non-human animal, simulation and robotics platforms we investigate the neural circuits that allow intelligent behaviour, bringing to bear psychological, neuroscientific and computational perspectives. We are particularly interested in the action selection problem – that of deciding what to do next (and of doing it). This talk will focus on my own work looking at 3 paradigms where we have collected high-resolution behavioural data in humans – mistakes made by expert touch typists, eye-movements during visual search and a novel paradigm for investigating the learning of new motor skills. I will make comments on how we analyse such data in order to make inferences about the underlying architecture of human decision making.

books events Me psychology

The Narrative Escape

My ebook “The Narrative Escape” was published last week by 40k books. ‘The Narrative Escape’ is a long essay about morality, psychology and stories and is availble in Kindle format (this means you can get it for you iPhone, iPad or in PDF too). From the ebook blurb:

We instinctively tell stories about our experiences, and get lost in stories told by other people. This is an essay about our story-telling minds. It is about the psychological power of stories, and about what the ability to enjoy stories tells us about the fundamental nature of mind.

My argument in ‘The Narrative Escape’ begins by exploring Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience, looking at them as an example of moral decision making – particularly for that minority that choose to disobey in the experiment. A fascinating thing about these experiments is that although they tell us a lot about what makes people obey authority, they leave mysterious that quality that makes people resist tyrannical authority. I then go on to contrast this moral disobedience, with conventional psychological investigations of morality (for example the work of Lawrence Kohlberg). In using descriptions of moral dilemmas to ask people about their moral reasoning this research, I argue, misses something essential about real-world moral choices. This element is the ability to realise that you are acting according to someone else’s version of what is right and wrong, and to step outside of their definition of the situation. This is the “narrative escape” of the title. The essay also talks about dreams, stories and story-telling and other topics which I hope will be of interest.

There is also an interview with me available here, which discusses the ebook and some other more and less related topics.

The essay is available in Italian as “La Fuga Narrativa Link for the English edition.
…And coming soon in Portuguese, I’m told!


Study Leave

I am on study leave. I’ll be in Berkeley, California, in February and some of March, and then from mid-March I’ll be in New York. I am contactable by email.

books events Me psychology

The Rough Guide to Brain Training (Moore & Stafford, 2010)

The Rough Guide to Brain Training is a puzzle book which incluces essays and vignettes by myself. The book has 100 days of puzzles which will challenge your mental imagery, verbal fluency, numeracy, working memory and reasoning skills. There are puzzles that will look familiar like suduko, and some new ones I’ve never seen before. Fortunately the answers are included at the back. Gareth made these puzzles. I find them really hard.

I have 10 short essays in the book, covering topics such as evidence-based brain training, how music affects the developing brain, optimal brain nutrition and what the brains of the future will look like. As well as the essays, I wrote numerous short vignettes, helpful hints and suprising facts from the world of psychology and neuroscience (did you know that squids have dounut shaped brains? That you share 50% of your genes with a banana? That signals travel between brain cells at up to 200mph, which is fast compared to a cycle courier, but slow compared to a fibre optic cable). Throughout the book I try to tell it straight about what is, isn’t and might be true about brain training. I read the latest research and I hope I tell a sober, but optimistic, message about the potential for us to change how we think over our lifetimes (and the potential to protect our minds against cognitive decline in older age). I also used my research to provide a sprinkling of evidence-based advice for those who are trying to improve a skill, study for an exam or simply remember things better.

Writing the book was a great opportunity for me to dig into the research on brain training. It is a topic I’d always meant to investigate properly, but hadn’t gotten around to. The claims of those pushing commercial brain training products always seemed suspicious, but the general idea – that our brains change based on practice and experience – seemed plausible. In fact, this idea has been one of the major trends of the last fifty years of neuroscience research. It has been a big surprise to neuroscientists as experiment after experiment has shown exactly how malleable (aka ‘plastic’) the structure and function of the brain is. The resolution of this paradox of the general plausibility of brain training with my suspicion of specific products is in the vital issue of control groups. Although experience changes our brains, and although it is now beyond doubt that a physically and mentally active life can prevent cognitive decline across the lifespan, it isn’t at all clear what kinds of activities are necessary or essential for general mental sharpness. Sure, after practicing something you’ll get better at it. And doing something is better than doing nothing, but the crucial question is doing something you pay for better than doing something else that is free? The holy grail of brain training would be a simple task which you could practice (and copyright! and sell!!) and which would have benefits for all mental skills. Nobody has shown that such a task or set of tasks exists, so while you could buy a puzzle book, you could also go for a jog or go to the theatre with friends. Science wouldn’t be able to say for certain which activity would have the most benefits for your mental sharpness as an individual – although the smart money is probably on going jogging. It is to the credit of the editors at the Rough Guides that they let me say this in the introduction to the Rough Guide to Brain Training!

There wasn’t room in the book for all the references I used while writing it. This was a great sadness to me, since I believe that unless you include the references for a claim, you’re just spouting off, relying on a dubious authority, rather than really talking about science. So, to make up for this, and by way of an apology, I’ve put the references here. It will be harder to track specific claims from this general list that it would be with in-text citations, so if you do have a query, please get in touch and I promise will point you to the evidence for any claims I make in the book.

Additionally, I’ll be posting here a few things from the cutting room floor – text that I wrote for the book which didn’t make it into the final draft. Watch out, and if you do get your hands on a copy of this Rough Guide to Brain Training, get in touch and let me know what you think.

Amazon link (only £5.24!)
Scientific references and links used in researching the book
Cross-posted at


York Cafe Scientifique 2/9/09: The Learning Brain

On Wednesday the 2nd of September I will be speaking at York Cafe Scientifique about ‘The Learning Brain’. This is what I promised to talk about:

Your brain is not fixed clockwork, but an ever changing economy of abilities, habits and desires. Everthing we do, every thought and experience, changes the brain and how we think and feel in the future.
Dr Stafford will talk about the discoveries psychologists and neuroscientists have made that reveal just how changeable the brain is, the astonishing ability it has to learn and cope with astounding injuries. Using examples taken from everyday life, he will evidence how the brain’s capacity to learn has a surprising influence on our behaviour. Why do people insist that coffee tastes better from their favourite cup? Why do people compulsively check their email? How do your reduce prejudice? These and other questions will be considered from the perspective of The Learning Brain.

Venue: City Screen Picturehouse, Basement Bar, York
Time:7.30 – 9.00
Details: here


Three weeks on the road, first stop San Francisco

I’m going to San Francisco on Monday. I’ll be in Berkeley and then San Francisco for the Annual Convention of the APS. After that I’m flying to Rome, then by ferry and train to Thessaloniki, then train back through eastern europe to home, via Zurich, Brussels and London. If you’re in any of these places, or you have recommendations for people to see and things to do, let me know…

books events Me

Emotional Cartography book launch

Tonight we are launching ‘Emotional Cartography – Technologies of the Self’, an edited collection inspired by Christian Nold’s project of making maps of individual’s emotional responses in different areas. Christian edited the volume, which has a contribution by me (the last chapter) on the how technology can augment how we think. Tonight we’re having a book launch at which myself, Christian and Sophie Hope will speak. If it’s not too late notice, you’re welcome to come down.
events psychology

The psychology of coffee

I do not do research on why people have a favourite coffee mug. I do research on fundamental mechanisms of learning and decision making, and how they are built into our brains. I was on the Today programme discussing the psychology of coffee last week and I mentioned favourite mugs (you can listen to what I said here, or read it in this Telegraph article which quotes me from that programme). I was asked to be on the Today programme because of an article I wrote in 2003, Psychology in the Coffee Shop. This was a light review and opinion piece about all the ways in which psychological theory intersects with the experience of drinking a cup of coffee. It is this article that comes up as the first hit if you google “psychology” and “coffee”.

This is my opinion, briefly, on favourite mugs: coffee and tea contain caffeine, which promotes dopamine release. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger in the brain, known to be intimately connected with learning and reward. The dopamine release brought about by a caffeinated drink hacks our natural learning mechanisms, causing them to seek to identify and repeat whatever is consistently associated with that dopamine release. This is why rituals, such as favourite coffee mugs, develop.

Before appearing on the Today programme I did ask myself if I should really be speaking to the media about something which is really no more than an entertaining opinion. I decided I should, partly because my research does cover the wider topics of learning and the development of preferences, partly because although it is just an opinion it is my professional, theory-motivated, opinion as a psychologist, and partly because I wanted my grandmother to be able to listen to me on radio 4.

I’ve been surprised by how much interest there is in the “why you have a favourite mug” aspect of what I’ve said. Several people have got in touch to ask about “my research into how coffee tastes out of favourite mugs”, or to find out how I “proved that coffee tastes better from your favourite mug”.
I have done no research into whether coffee does or does not taste better in your favourite mug. I am taking this as an accepted fact, for which I have offered a theoretical explanation. I regard the taste of the coffee from a favourite mug as something people can verify for themselves, without needing a psychologist to tell them. We all know that the drink is chemically the same from whatever mug it is served in, but yet people develop preferences. This is because taste and enjoyment are not merely about objective measurements, such as temperature, chemical composition and whatnot, but about psychological factors as well, such as the history of learning experiences that each individual has had.

Arguably, it might be something of a waste of public money if I spent my professional life asking people about their favourite coffee mugs. It is not clear that things such as this are interesting in themselves, or that anyone needs to have their choice of beverage receptacle validated by the latest research in psychological science. Despite the impression formed by some in the media, this is not what psychologists do. We investigate the fundamental principles of the operation of the mind, how they are played out in behaviour and how they are based in the brain. Sometimes we even make some progress in our understanding, and then are in the position to give a deeper perspective on some phenomenon with which everyone is familiar. This, I hope, is the case with the favourite coffee mug example.


Living in London until February

I am living in London, around Russell Square, until the end of January. I will be desk-surfing two days a week at School of Everything in Bethnal Green, and I’m hoping to sort out three days a week at Birkbeck. My survival tactics for this stint in London are a) not to rush anywhere and b) ride a bike. If you’re about, get in touch.


New York calling

I am going to be in Philadelphia on the 4th of September for a meeting, and am thinking of paying a visit to New York the following weekend, simply because I’ve never been. Does anyone have any recommended activities for me?


Edinburgh recommendations

Who would like to recommend things for me to see while I’m at the edinburgh fringe festival?

Here’s my starting list of shows I’ve circled:

Things I’m definitely going to see (mostly a healthy dose of the improv)

The TEAM – Architecting (Traverse Theatre, all sorts of times)

ImproJam – The Karaoke of Comedy (C socu urban garden, 17:45)

People Will Talk – An improvised play (Sweet Teviot Place, 17:30)

Rules of Drama and Suspense with Bronya and Siony (Sweet Teviot Place, 16:20)

Things I’d probably enjoy if I went to see them

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn (Spotlites @ Merchants’ Hall, 31st to 2nd, 20:15)

Knapps’ Last Tape by Samuel (Spotlites 16:10, 3rd-6th; Assembly 15:55)

Pillowman (The Vault, 11:55, 4th-9th)

Ed Hamell – Hamell on Trial (Underbelly’s Baby Belly, 17:40, 18th-24th)

Henry Rollins (Gilded Balloon Teviot, 22:45, 18-25th)

Things I just liked the sound of from the book

Mark Wason – All the thoughts i’ve had since i was born (Pleasance Courtyard, 20:00)

Which To Burn? Rachel Ogilvy (Gilded Ballon 13:15)

Who’s Afraid of Howlin’ Wolf (C soco 20:45)

Recommended by friends, or with friends in

Alex Horne – Wordwatching (Pleasance Courtyard, 19:40)

Funk it up about nothing (Musical Theatre, George Square, 17:15)

Matt Green – Grow up green (Pleasance Dome, 19:00)

Political Animal (Underbelly, 22:30)

Secret Agents (Pleasance Dome, 19:50)

Shakespod (C 17:10)

events technical notes

Comments off, tom off

Sorry folks, i’m turning off the comments on the site for a little while. There has been a massive increase in comment spam – a veritable whirling shitstorm and I’m going to batten down the hatches until the spam-catching software has caught up.

In other news, I’m in Bristol until sunday and the Oxford monday until wednesday, so drop me a line if you’re about or there’s anything you think I should see there.

Technical note WordPress plugin for turning off comments here

Update Comments back on now. Plugin appears to have fairly major flaw of preventing the user from accessing the blog at all, which was okay while I didn’t want to use it, and prevented me getting lots of comment spam, but isn’t a long-term solution


Come and play

Who would like to come with me to any of the following events?

  • Told By An Idiot’s Casanova @ The West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. I can definitely make the 12th, 18th, 19th or 20th of September, and am open to offers on other days.
  • Jim White @ Social, Nottingham – 12 October
  • The Battle of Ideas @ Royal College of Art, London – 27th & 28th of October
  • New Model Army play Sheffield Corporation!! 18th of November
  • Mercy and Grand: The Tom Waits Project @ West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds – 28th of November
  • Categories

    Edinburgh recommendations?

    I’m going to Edinburgh for the festival next weekend (17th – 19th). Does anybody have any recommendations for shows to see? Please let me know if you do…


    donate to wikipedia

    For those who know me:

    On thursday I am going to work out how to donate some money to wikipedia (it may have to be in dollars) and then i’m going to bung them some cash. If you’ve got an urge to donate, all you have to do it let me know how much you’d like to donate and i’ll add it to what i send them and you can owe me

    Update: This morning i gave wikipedia


    Save the Cemetery Chapel

    [local news warning]

    The conspiracy of planners and property developers to turn the whole world into yuppie flats for contemporary urban living ™ reaches the Sheffield General Cemetery – they want to convert the anglican chapel, fencing off the top entrance to the cemetery and enclosing the surrounding land in the process.

    Petition here:

    Look out for a benefit gig in the cemetery grounds on the 9th of July….


    Sharrow Lantern Carnival 2006

    [Local news warning]

    Sharrow Lantern Carnival this sunday – should be lots of fun. Kev’s put up new photo galleries here, so click if you’d like to see what it is all about (or relive some memories)

    events politics technical notes

    Delocator UK

    Mike Dewar has got the Starbucks Delocator UK to beta and the database now needs populating – so if you know of any cool indepedent cafes, get yourself to and add them in.

    In case you don’t know about the Delocator family (US, CA), the way it works is this: you put in a post code or a description (e.g. “Sheffield City Centre”) and the Delocator shows you were the indepedent cafes are, so you don’t have to visit starbucks and encourage that pestilence in your city.

    Well done mike!

    Update 20.3.06: I asked mike if the results could provide an emailable URL and he’s done it. Look – here’s the results for near where I work – how’s that for user-responsive development!


    Comments closed

    For the foreseeable I have closed comments on this weblog. If you’d like to say something about a post please email me on tom [at] idiolect [dot] org [dot] [uk]. If you put ‘comment’ in the subject line I will update my post with your comment put below. The technical problems caused by comment spam are just too much for me to deal with and I don’t have the time and ability to easily sort things out. I will open the comments again if anyone brings me the corpse of a comment spammer (preferably mutilated)


    email loss

    I use my email inbox as my To Do list. Every email in there that i’ve read and haven’t filed represents something that i need to do – someone to reply to, something to sort out, etc.

    Yesterday, like a fool, i managed to delete my inbox. I’ve only got a backup from the 5th of February. So, if you emailed me about anything between now and the 5th of February and i didn’t get back to you please email again – you were in the To Do list, but now i’ve no way of remembering. Likewise, if there’s anything I said i’d do, now is a good time to remind me (what probably happened before was that I said i’d do something and emailed myself so that i had the reminder tagged in my inbox).

    Moral: be very careful when moving essential data files


    Reborn II

    I’ve finally got MT working again. It might look the same to you, but it runs on a different server and it’s been a complete nightmare difficult to say the least to get it all working properly. Recommends: install phpmyadmin to manage the MySQL database and MT-Medic for Moveable Type debugging.

    In other news, i’m just got back from SfN and i’ve signed up for Scype which is fantastic (and fantastically easy).


    SfN 2005

    The world’s biggest scientific meeting, the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, happens next week in Washington DC. They’ll be over 30,000 researchers and clinicians there, as well as the Dalai Lama talking about neuronscience and meditation, 17,000 presentations and a variety of side scientific meetings and social events (i’m intrigued by the Hippocampus open mike event, an evening for researchers interested in the hippocampus organised around the format of a poetry slam).

    Anyway, from tomorrow I’ll be in Washington – I’m going early for the computational cognitive neuroscience conference. I’ll be there until the 16th, so if anyone has any recommendations for things to do, or if any readers fancy meeting up (maybe we could go to the hippocampus social?), let me know. tom [at] idiolect [dot] org [dot] uk


    missing children

    I have lent out these two books and can’t remember who to:

    Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. by Paul Bloom
    What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson

    Has anyone got them?


    Edinburgh Fringe Festival

    I’m going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival over the bank holiday weekend at the end of this month. Does anybody have any recommendations for shows I should try and see?



    Not much posting cos i’m on holiday, ain’t i. Festival fun in devon this weekend:



    email problems

    If you sent me email between the 3rd of August (wednesday) and 8th of august (today, monday), then i may not have got it because my email arrived all stripped of senders and contents (great). I’ve no idea why, but please be understanding if i don’t get back to you about something you sent me…



    Excitingly, Andy Brown’s photography website has been updated. Stop by for some excellent documentary, portrait and music photography.

    My friend Cat now has her photos at, and I’ve put my photos back on-line, here (what, you didn’t notice they were down?), including the burning man photos. Hugh & Matt’s photos from Nepal/Thailand are also back up after space-shortage made me take them down as well.