The View From The Cage


In some of the first experiments on addiction, łab rats in cages were given the choice of two bottles to drink from, one containing heroine and one containing water. The rats chose the heroine, quickly became addicted, and usually died fairly quickly. This, along with similar experiments, was taken as evidence of the dangerous physically addictive power of drugs.

Then in the late 70s a Canadian psychologist called Bruce Alexander started thinking about how the rat felt in the cage, isolated, bored, scared, just like a human really. Is it surprising they took lots of freely available drugs? What if the rats had everything they needed? Would they still become addicted to drugs? He decided to find out and built Rat Park.

Rat Park had lots of space and lots of rats.


The rats had fun things to do.


Which including making more rats.


All in all it was a fun place for a rat to be. Plus, because this was still an addiction experiment, hard drugs were freely available.

The results? Well the rats in Rat Park still took drugs, but only occasionally. They consumed far less than the rats in isolated cages and the Rat Park rats didn’t get addicted. Conclusion? Addiction is as much psychological as physical. The isolated rats in the cages took drugs and became addicted because it was their only means of escape. The rats in Rat Park didn’t need to become drug addicts, they didn’t need to escape.

One of the key things is isolation. Humans are social creatures, and although sometimes we may yearn to be left alone it’s actually not very good for us. Isolation can be physical or psychological. People with depression will often withdraw physically from the world by staying in their home, or even just not being able to get out of bed, but even worse they get trapped behind psychological barriers as well. Emotional distance is more dangerous than physical, and that’s true for drug addicts as well.

The thing is we all live in a some kind of cage, although usually it is a metaphorical cage of our own construction, and some cages are nicer than others. Mine is a very nice one, I have my family, my work, my friends and a beautiful home in the country but there are still times when I feel the need to escape, just as we all do. On reflection I think this is why I have always read so much, you can open a book and step straight out of your own world and into the story. I don’t know if there are any studies that comparing drug abuse with how much you read, maybe there should be.

As for writing, I think that’s even more of an escape. Not only do I get to escape into another world, I can make of it anything I want. Even better I get to be a different person, an author, and just for a moment try out a different life, even if deep down I know it is an illusion.

In my darkest moments I fear that my whole life is a sham. Whichever way I try to frame it I’m still in my cage, I’m just painting the bars a different colour. But these moments don’t usually last very long. In my heart I know I have everything I need. There is nothing I need to escape from, and nowhere better to escape to. If I’m happy where I am it isn’t really a cage, it’s a home.


Simple doesn’t mean easy.


I’m coming to the conclusion that whatever it is you’re trying to do, the way to be successful can usually be reduced to a set of simple steps.

This should come as no surprise. Throw a metaphorical rock at the Internet and you will hit dozens of articles telling you how to do stuff. Want to lose weight? Follow these steps. Want to play the guitar? Watch this video. Want to write a book? Buy this book.

The problems come when people actually try to do these things, because simple is not the same as easy. Losing weight is a simple biological process, take in fewer calories than you use, and then do it the next day, and the next,  but for some people that is a very difficult thing to do. If it wasn’t then Weight Watchers and all the other companies who make money out of people wanting to be thinner would be out of business.

Playing the guitar is a simple process, you hold the strings down with one hand and twang them with the other. Whether it sounds good is another matter, to sound good you have to practise, for a long time, like several years.

Writing a book is simple. Put one word after another about 50,000 times. Hoorah! You’ve got a book. Anybody want to read it?

Part of the problem is that these simple steps are usually written down or demonstrated by people who are actually very good at what they do. They’ve been through the process, they’ve sweated and toiled, they’ve put in their 10,000 hours.

(Not totally sure about the whole 10,000 hours theory btw. In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell suggests that this is how long you need to practise in order to become expert in a particular field. This is based on evidence from what experts have done. The bit that’s missing here is that I’m not sure how hard he looked for people who had put in their 10,000 hours and were still crap.)

Either way, you go to an expert and ask them “How do you do that?” and they will then try to summarise what they do, usually in a set of simple steps. And to them, it makes complete sense, that is what they do as they see it. But then give someone else those steps and it doesn’t work.

You see there is no magic ingredient, no magic button, no golden ticket. You’ve got to put the time in, do the work, make the mistakes, feel like giving up and then keep going anyway.

At this point you could just watch Kung Fu Panda rather than reading this post, it’s longer but will make you laugh more.

The point is this. If you keep going long enough you will get to the point where you can outline your success in a series of simple steps. Steps that will seem deceptively easy but that you know are simply the signposts on a long and difficult journey.

The Path Of The Sword by Martin Swinford will be published in May. For a limited time you can download a free review copy here






The Worst Detective


Once upon a time I was unemployed in Bradford. This was in 1991 when unemployment was a fairly normal state of affairs for young people living in the Grim North. Jobs were hard to come by and with four A levels and a degree in Psychology I wasn’t qualified for anything. Then one day a quixotic visit to the ironicaly named Job Centre actually brought about a glimmer of hope. There it was, the opportunity I’d been waiting for, the advert simply proclaimed:

.                                              PRIVATE DETECTIVE WANTED

Unfortunately, on reading further I discovered that you had to have your own car and phone. I had neither, and my hopes were dashed.

Recently I wondered what sort of private detective I would have been if only I had the necessary car and phone. Probably a very bad one. Which gave me an idea for a story. This is how it starts.

Theodor Smith, the Worst Detective in the World
“What does vole go with?”
“You know, like “A cat among the pigeons” or “A spanner in the works”. What is there a vole in?”
“Your bucket?”
“There’s a vole in my bucket?”
“Dear Liza!”
“Like the song!”
Theodor Smith gave Mandy what he considered to be his long suffering look.
“You alright?”
“I was giving you a long suffering look.”
“I thought you was having a funny turn.”
“Old Arthur upstairs, he looks just like that when he has one of his funny turns.”
“Oh yes, he’s enigmatic.”
“Is he?”
“Oh yes, not really badly though, I mean he don’t fall on the floor and twitch about like.”
“You mean he’s epileptic!”
“That’s what I said innit.”
“Maybe you should get on with your cleaning.”
“Well I was before you came and interrupted! Besides, I reckon her indoors wants a word.”
“We’re not married you know?
“Might as well be the way she treats you!”

That’s all I’ve got so far, but one day I will come back to it.



Lost Books – Software by Rudy Rucker

“I think you should kill him and eat his brain,” Mr. Frostee said quickly.

That’s not the answer to every problem in interpersonal relations,” Cobb said, hopping out.

― Rudy Rucker, Software

Lost books. These are the ones that got away. Usually I have a good memory for things I have read, but occasionally I find that while I remember a story, or even a fragment, I can no longer recall the author or the title. These are my lost books, but fortunately with the wonders of the Internet they are not lost forever.

In the case in point I was prompted by the book I am currently reading, The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov, to recall something I read a long time ago. The Naked Sun has many of same themes as the Asimov classic, I Robot, including the positronic brain and the Three Laws of Robotics. Thinking about this stuff brought to mind a novel I had read when I was at University which dealt with some related ideas but I couldn’t remember either the author or the name of the book. Eventually I managed to dredge up part of quote, something about killing someone and eating his brain. A bit of selective googling and I had it.

When I was studying Psychology I took a course on artificial intelligence, the point being that if you want to understand something, i.e. Intelligence, then thinking about how you could recreate it really helps. This was in 1989 and most of the stuff we take for granted now, the Internet, smart phones, etc., belonged firmly in the realms of Science Fiction. A friend of mine leant me his copy of Software by Rudy Rucker with the recommendation that I read it as part of the course. “This guy’s an actual computer scientist” he said. “He knows his stuff”

I thought it was great. I had read Neuromancer some time previously and Software felt like it was right in the same vein. These days you would say they’re both part of the Cyberpunk genre, but I never heard the word until much later. It’s a strange but compelling read, full of dead beat characters and dark humour. 
Anyway I read it, liked it, and gave it back. Never found out it was part of a trilogy until this week when I started looking for it again. Now I’ve found it I intend to read it again and then the rest of the trilogy.
Looking back at that period of time I realise that I had just started my first serious attempt at writing a book, a time travelling dystopian SF novel. I never finished it and it would be twenty three years before I tried writing again. 

The Habit of Happiness

I have recently finished reading The slight edge by Jeff Olson. One of the things he talks about is the link between happiness and success, so I thought I would share the 5 happy habits as recommended by Shawn Achor (his Ted talk is attached below). Being happy has many benefits and there appear to be […]

via The 5 happy habits #psychology #happiness —  I read this really interesting post on the blog so I thought I would share it. The 5 happy habits it talks about are:

Write down 3 things that made you happy in the last 24 hours.
Spend 2 minutes writing about one positive experience you had in the last 24 hours.
Exercise for 10 minutes a day.
Practice meditation for 2 minutes a day.
Perform an act of kindness without expecting anything in return.

I am generally a happy person so I went down this list to see if I do any of them. The list says that doing just one will make you happier, so here goes:

1 – I would never do this. I’m just not organised enough and I would spend an inordinate amount of time trying to work out which were the three best things and in what order. Which there is no need to do, it’s just the way I think.

2 – I could do this but I don’t have enough time to write as it is without putting an extra job on there as well.

3 – I got to this one and relaxed, because this is one thing I do, because I have a dog and I walk her at least twice a day. I’ve definitely been happier since I got a dog. I thought it was the unconditional love, but maybe it’s just the exercise.

4 – Meditate? Really?

5 – Kind of. Random acts of kindness make the world a better place and I think Karma works, not as some sort of mystical force or anything but a kind of illustration of quantum interconnectedness. Or as The Beatles put it: All You Need is Love.

Watch ‘My Name Is Earl’


Hungry Like The Wolf


I am teaching my psychology class about Psychopaths at the moment.

At this point I would like to point out that I do not consider classic eighties pop band Duran Duran to be psychopaths.


Having said that, you could be excused in thinking that any of their videos, or for that matter their song lyrics, are the result of a psychotic episode.

Burning the ground, I break from the crowd
I’m on the hunt, I’m after you
I smell like I sound, I’m lost and I’m found
And I’m hungry like the wolf

I mean, what’s that about? “I smell like I sound”?

Hungry Like The Wolf was released in 1982 in the uk and charted in the top 5. In the U.S. it reached number 3 in the billboard charts in March 1983 mainly thanks to the video getting a lot of play on MTV.

In May 1983 Diane Downs was listening to the song on her car radio as she drove her three children along a rural road near Springfield, Oregon. The song finished, she switched the radio off and then pulled over to the side of the road. Diane then shot all three of her children before shooting herself in the left forearm and driving to hospital where she claimed they had been attacked on the road. Two of the children survived and her daughter, aged seven, later testified against her in court. The prosecution argued that her motive was that the man with which she wanted a relationship didn’t like children, she was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. She still claims she is innocent.


At one point in her trial Diane sang the chorus of Hungry Like The Wolf.

Diane Downs’ case exhibits many of the traits associated with Psychopaths, for example callous disregard for others, lack of empathy, ruthlessness and lack of remorse. It is interesting from a writer’s point of view to think about these personality traits. You can use them to build a character and then to make sure that the character acts consistently according to these traits.

By coincidence I started writing a story about six weeks ago in which the protagonist may well turn out to somewhere along the psychopath continuum. I’m not exactly sure where it’s going but it is fun writing from the point of view of someone who delights in breaking the rules especially when your someone who has to spend a lot of time enforcing them.

I think I’ll call it “Hungry Like The Wolf”