The Science of Sin with Jack Lewis – Edinburgh Science Festival 2019

As I said in my last post, I’m currently at Edinburgh Science Festival, learning lots about public engagement and science communication, but also getting the chance to sneak into some of the shows for free. Monday evening saw me make my way back to the Pleasance to see ‘The Science of Sin’ presented by Dr Jack Lewis.

(On an unrelated but important note, I am now very familiar with the cafe at Pleasance, and wholeheartedly recommend their curly fries, veggie chilli nachos, and English breakfast tea, though I’d avoid the halloumi burger if I was you.)

The Science of Sin was probably the show that I was most excited about, though also the one I knew least about. I hadn’t heard of Jack Lewis before, and during the beginning of his talk he attempted to explain why – fantastic TV series hidden away on niche channels. Still, I was frustrated that I hadn’t found his work before, because it’s right up my street.

Image of Dr Jack Lewis presenting
Image credit: Hire conference 2018

Jack is a Neuroscientist by training, and now describes himself as an Author, Broadcaster and Consultant. To that I’d also add that he’s a passionate advocate for good science, a talented blogger, and my favourite kind of atheist, more on this later.

Front cover of 'The Science of Sin' by Dr Jack Lewis
The Science of Sin by Dr Jack Lewis

His talk focussed on his latest book, The Science of Sin, which aims to bring together the latest findings from neuroscience research to shed light on the universally fascinating subject of temptation – where it comes from, how to resist it and why we all tend to succumb from time to time.

Each of the book’s chapters is inspired by one of the seven deadly sins, and Jack’s talk was structured in a similar way, littered with tips and tricks to help us better manage out most troublesome impulse.
My favourite being, if you wake up painfully early and cannot get back to sleep, do not use this time for good. Do not head to your desk to make a start on work, do not spend your additional time beating your high score on whatever game you’re pretty sure you’re addicted to right now. No, do something you actively dislike; choose to use this time to clean the oven (or equivalent task that you repeatedly avoid). Why? Essentially, your brain is like a petulant child, if you reward it when it wakes up early you will remain awake, and you might just wake up early tomorrow as well. Forcing yourself to clean the oven will make your brain regret acting up, and you’ll find yourself yawning and sleeping soundly within a matter of minutes.

Image of cartoon drawings of each of the seven deadly sins

The rest of the talk looked more at how the seven deadly sins relate to human social interactions, and how each of the sins are essentially extreme versions of things that, in lesser doses, are good for you. He talked through each of the deadly sins and explained how they connect to the survival of the human species. Without greed, our ancestors wouldn’t have put on the much-needed extra chub that enabled them to survive times when food was sparse; without lust, our ancestors would not have found their partners and reproduced; without envy, our ancestors would not have been driven to self-improvement after seeing someone else succeed. The seven deadly sins are deadly only when pushed to the extreme; and the extremes of each of those ‘sins’ result in isolation.

So, back to that ‘favourite kind of atheist thing’… I wanted to draw attention to how respectful Jack’s discussion about religion, and how science relates (or doesn’t), to it. He is someone who respects religion and understands that it offers people a variety of things that science, currently, does not. He explained how he had been a member of his local church choir despite being raised atheist purely because he loved singing, and he went into depth about the impact that the church has had on his life in terms of community. In science, we don’t have an obvious community; we do science in labs, in offices, and in schools across the world, but we don’t have a place where we go to meet other scientists on a regular basis. We don’t have a place to go to where everyone knows your name (if you’re not singing the Cheers theme tune right now then I suggest you change that asap), a place filled with people that you know you can rely on; a sense of community.

Image credit: John Atkinson, Wrong Hands

After the show I went to get my book signed (no shame, I am a book nerd and a science nerd and a signed science book is 100% relevant to my interests), and we ended up having a beer in a pub round the corner from the venue. Nerding out with fellow scientists is one of my favourite things, and the conversations that we had left me thinking a lot about the way that scientists treat their work, and how they then decide to communicate that work with people that have chosen a different career path. I’m still mulling many of those thoughts over, but I’m sure once I’ve had chance to think some more they will prompt future blog posts – a few of them would be a bit political so I want to make sure that I’ve put enough thought into them before throwing them out into the internet!

For more information about what Jack does head to his website, and I’d recommend picking up a copy of his book too – buy it from the publisher here (I’m doing my best not to buy books from Amazon, hence the publisher’s link). This blog post on Jack’s website also includes videos from the time that he went to Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park – a place that’s usually reserved for religious preaching – to talk about neuroscience.

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