Sofia Science Festival 2018: Deirdre Robertson, on the brain and behaviour

So, how could changing the wording of a letter to farmers reduce pollution in Ireland?

If you are waiting for the punchline, there isn’t one, but there is a scientific explanation, which Dr Deirdre Robertson of the Behavioural Research Unit of the Economic and Social Research Institute in Ireland will be giving at the 2018 Sofia Science Festival in her talk on behavioural science research.

Her presentation, on May 13 at noon, is entitled “How does the brain work?” and ahead of her lecture, The Sofia Globe did its best, given the theme, to ask her some intelligent questions.

One of which simply had to be how universal is the working of people’s brains.

The structure of the brain, Dr Robertson points out, is fairly similar and universal. She points to the research done (Richard Thaler won the 2017 Nobel Prize for economic sciences for his research in the field behavioural economics, the “nudge theory”) that there are simple changes you can make to an environment and to the information that you give to people which changes their behaviour.

“A classic example might be, making organ donation opt-out instead of opt-in, and that changes the number of donors in a country. That’s been tried in a number of different cultures and been found to have an impact, regardless of the country,” she says.

But she is quick to emphasise that there are other factors, behavioural “nudges” that may vary among different cultures.

“I suppose that’s what’s so important, in my role as a researcher, that we look at how behavioural science applies in the setting in which it’s going to be applied, instead of just taking what we know from a different context and just applying it without testing it.

“You can get a general idea of how people think, and behave, and how peoples’ brains work, but until you actually test something in a context, you don’t necessarily know it’s going to have the same impact across different cultures.”

Which raises the question, of course, of how much we know of the workings of the brain.

“We never know if we know everything, and that’s what science does, is to continually ask questions,” Dr Robertson says, explaining, for instance, one of the emphases in research is how different parts of the brain communicate with each other. We may understand quite well how a particular part of the brain has an impact on a particular function, but what is not yet clear is how it is communicating with other parts of the brain, and how that has an effect on behaviour.

Asked about the advances in recent years, she notes that behavioural science embraces many different disciplines, including psychology, behavioural economics, political science neuroscience, among others. Bringing together these different disciplines, which used to work disparately, enables progress on issues – for example – such as research related to social norms, or which are the cultural factors that predict different aspects of behaviour.

What about the premise in the Manchurian Candidate, the 1959 novel filmed twice – in 1962 and 2004 – that someone could be brainwashed into being an assassin?

Dr Robertson hasn’t seen the film, but says that conditioning is very strong.

Citing the familiar principle of Pavlov’s Dog, she says: “We are conditioned to see something and feel rewarded by it because it’s been associated with reward in the past, so I may get very happy – for example – when I see an Irish rugby shirt; someone else, a Bulgarian for example, may not, because they don’t have that association.

“There are so many elements of our lives that are built on that very simple pairing of making associations between two or three things. That is a fundamental building block of learning – everything, from what we like, to what we know, to where we want to live.”

As to the “Manchurian Candidate” idea, “In terms of conditioning someone to kill someone else, I’m sure it’s possible, but it’s just not so simple as associating something with something else – but you have to have a certain vulnerability to be conditioned in that way.” Nor, she adds, should free will be eliminated as a possible factor.

What about false memory, the conviction that something happened when it did not?

Dr Robertson says that this is a huge area, and US cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory Elizabeth Loftus has done pioneering work in the field.

Memory, she says, is fallible. There are different aspects to memory, encoding – the taking in of information to form part of memory, and retrieval, “when you try to remember that information”.

“When you retrieve information, that can create a memory as well, and you end up tagging the retrieving with the memory, and when you later retrieve it, it can get conflated with what actually happened.”

She adds that false memories can be implanted. “You talk to someone about, say, that time they ate an ice cream in Dubli and continue talking about it so much that the ‘memory’ becomes confused with a real memory.”

Which leads to a discussion about memory.

“If you say somebody has a problem with memory, we don’t actually know if they don’t remember because they never ‘made’ the memory in the first place, or if they don’t remember it because they’re having trouble retrieving it. If you pay attention to something, then you’re more likely to remember it.” Motivation, for instance in the case of an actor memorising all the lines in a three-act play, could be a factor in it being more likely that they will be remembered.

But then, what of those, like the current interviewer, who have appalling memories for names and faces? (And frequently prompts embarrassment by saying ‘nice to meet you’ to people to whom he already has been introduced on numerous occasions).

“Every person is individual, but it’s probably the case that at the time, you didn’t encode the name. It probably depends on the context in which you learnt someone’s name.

“When you’re being introduced to 10 other people, for example, it’s very difficult to remember all the names in your short-term memory long enough that they can be encoded in your long-term memory, whereas if you’re introduced to someone on a one-on-one basis, and you spend an hour with them, it’s much easier.”

Memory and Manchurian candidates aside, what’s the sneak preview on Deirdre’s presentation?

“I’m going to talk about how our environments are shaping us in ways that we may not necessarily realise and how we can use that to try to help us to be healthier, to protect the environment, and to save us money.”

Dr Deirdre Robertson’s presentation “How does the brain work?” is on May 13 at noon at the 2018 Sofia Science Festival venue, Sofia Tech Park. And that’s worth remembering.

For further details about tickets and venues for the Sofia Science Festival events, please visit the Festival’s website.

Created in 2011 by the British Council and the Forum Democrit, and under the patronage of the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science, from its very first year the Sofia Science Festival has attracted a large number of supporters. The Sofia Globe is a media partner of the Sofia Science Festival.

(Main image: (c) Gabriel González-Escamilla)



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.