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Aphantasia: 10,000 people make contact over visual imagery

'Heartbeat 1', Susan Aldworth 2010

‘Heartbeat 1’, Susan Aldworth 2010

Since we coined the term ‘aphantasia’ in a brief scientific paper last year (Cortex 2015; 73:378-380: Read manuscript), there has been a remarkable surge of interest in the extremes of the human experience of visual imagery: both in those of us who lack the ability to visualise at will – with aphantasia – and in those with superabundant imagery – hyperphantasia. When asked to visualise a sunset, for example, people with aphantasia are unable to conjure any kind of image to mind, and will often have assumed that terms like the ‘mind’s eye’ are purely metaphorical. At the other end of the spectrum, people with hyperphantasia describe imagery so vivid that they can find it difficult to be sure whether an image was perceived or imagined. Coverage in the press, on TV, radio and the web throughout the world, including the BBC’s on-line vividness questionnaire, has led to over 10,000 contacts from interested individuals, most of them falling at one or other extreme of the vividness spectrum. We are tremendously grateful to the several thousand people who have by now completed and returned our questionnaires: these paint a much more detailed picture of these phenomena than we could provide before. Thank you so much for doing this!

The final analysis of this wealth of data will take a while, but some patterns have already emerged. A first reaction, which came as a welcome surprise, was gratitude: people with aphantasia, in particular, were glad to have a handy term to describe this subtle but distinctive feature of their experience. Many participants have told us how they found it hard to explain this to others: they often met with disbelief. The new term seems to be useful.

Some sub-groups have come to light. The scientific literature already spoke of a link between low imagery vividness and prosopagnosia – difficulty, often lifelong, in recognising faces. This link is a recurring theme in the questionnaires. We were not too surprised by a second association: a small proportion of participants have described a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (asd). Alterations in the ability to imagine have long been regarded as a key feature of asd, and visualisation is a key ingredient of imagination (though not an indispensable one, as we will see).  A third sub-group also makes good intuitive sense: many folk with aphantasia report that their autobiographical memory, for personal events like holidays and weddings, is less rich that that of their friends and relations: for most of us visualisation is a big part of recollection. But none of these associations is true for everyone: there are many shades of aphantasia.

These shades have some other expressions. Some people with aphantasia, probably the majority, dream visually: but others do not. Some can ‘imagine’ in other modalities, hearing with the mind’s ear for example, but others can’t. Does this make a nonsense of the notion of aphantasia? We think not. We know that the brain activity involved in visualisation is complex and ‘distributed’, involving a widespread network of brain areas. Given this complexity, it is not too surprising that visualisation can be disrupted in a wide variety of ways. In particular, it is understandable, in neurological terms, that dreaming and wakeful imagery can behave differently in aphantasia.

We are learning other fascinating things from our participants. While most people with aphantasia describe this as a lifelong characteristic, others have reported the loss of imagery, due to brain injury or to psychological factors: we are very keen to learn more about these. We also hope to learn much more about the large group of highly creative individuals who have contacted us: I had not anticipated so much pleasure from looking at the art of aphantasic painters or from reading the prose of aphantasic novelists. Visualisation is clearly not a prerequisite for creativity.

Much has been written and broadcast about aphantasia over the past year. Our website gives links to several of these outputs . My personal favourites include James Gallagher’s original BBC broadcast, two personal accounts written by highly creative people with aphantasia, Blake Ross’s Facebook post (A personal account by Blake Ross) and Dustin Grinnell’s article in New Scientist (Dustin Grinnell in New Scientist) and a recent radio portrait by Sarah Jane Hall (The Mind’s Eye – BBC Radio 3 ‘Between the Ears’ programme).

So far most of our knowledge of aphantasia has come from first person testimony. This is the right (and really the only) place to start the exploration of this topic, but we are keen to ‘triangulate’ our knowledge by correlating first person evidence from questionnaires with data from neuropsychological tests – of autobiographical memory or face recognition for example – and from brain imaging techniques. We have begun a pilot study with local participants who are within striking distance of Exeter. We hope to have some preliminary answers over the coming year. At present the project is relying heavily on the enthusiasm of a small group of academic colleagues and undergraduate interns who have kept the project on the road: thanks to you, also! We are applying for research funds that will enable us to extend this work. We are considering a crowd funding appeal – you may be hearing from us 🙂

We have one further plan: at our Eye’s Mind project conference in May this year, in addition to a lively group of imagery researchers, we had probably the largest ever gathering of people with aphantasia from around the world, from Finland to the States. There was enthusiasm for a meeting dedicated to aphantasia: we hope to organise this sometime next year.

This research depends entirely on the generosity of those who are sharing their experience and time. This blog is an opportunity to report back on recent progress, and to thank you for your contributions. We aim to write regular updates as the story develops.

Aurel Sari: Biting the Bullet: Why the UK Is Free to Revoke Its Withdrawal Notification under Article 50 TEU

aurel-sari‘There is no going back.’ These were the words of Lord Pannick, uttered before the High Court in response to the question whether the United Kingdom could rescind its notification to withdraw from the European Union once issued under Article 50 TEU (Santos and M v Secretary of State for Exiting The European Union, uncorrected transcripts, p. 17). The claimants and the Government appear to agree on this point and accept that the UK cannot reverse its notification of withdrawal.

It is easy to see why this position should be attractive to both parties. For the Government, it means that once the notification has been issued in accordance with the UK’s constitutional requirements, it would be shielded from any subsequent domestic legal challenge. For the claimants, the irreversibility of the withdrawal notification is of ‘vital importance’ (uncorrected transcripts, p. 14). It is this irreversibility which, in their submission, pre-empts the powers of Parliament if the Government were to issue the notification without first obtaining the Parliament’s authorisation to do so.

The significance of this point was not lost on the Lord Chief Justice. He declined an invitation by counsel to assume that the withdrawal notification was irreversible and insisted that it was ‘absolutely essential’ for the Court to decide whether it was irrevocable or not (uncorrected transcripts, p. 192). In response, Lord Pannick confirmed that it was his position, as a matter of law, that there is no power to revoke the notification.

Earlier, Lord Pannick illustrated his position with the following analogy (uncorrected transcripts, p. 19):

I say my case is very simple. My case is that notification is the pulling of the trigger. And once you have pulled the trigger, the consequence follows. The bullet hits the target. It hits the target on the date specified in Article 50(3). The triggering leads to the consequence, inevitably leads to the consequence, as a matter of law, that the treatise cease to apply and that has a dramatic impact in domestic law.

Unfortunately for Lord Pannick, the analogy does not withstand closer scrutiny.

The applicable rules of interpretation

Whether a withdrawal notification is reversible or not is a question that turns on the interpretation of Article 50 TEU. Since Article 50 TEU forms part of an international agreement, its interpretation is governed not by English law, but by the rules of international law. Of course, as is well known, the Court of Justice of the European Union adopts a teleological approach to the interpretation of the EU’s founding Treaties which differs from the general rule of treaty interpretation laid down in Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT). In particular, the Court lays greater emphasis on the aims and objectives of European integration than Article 31 VCLT might warrant (see Gardiner, Treaty Interpretation, pp. 136–137).

Leaving aside the longstanding doctrinal debates about the autonomous nature of the EU legal order, the fact remains that the founding Treaties of the EU are instruments of international law. It is therefore perfectly appropriate for a domestic court to construe Article 50 TEU by applying the rules of interpretation set out in the VCLT. In fact, this seems even more appropriate in the light of the subject matter of Article 50 TEU. It is no coincidence that the German Federal Constitutional Court interpreted Article 50 TEU against the background of the relevant provisions of the VCLT in its judgment in the Lisbon case (para 330).

What, then, are the applicable rules of interpretation? According to Article 31(1) VCLT,

A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose.

Article 50(2) TEU stipulates that the Member State wishing to withdraw from the Union must notify the European Council of its intention. However, the text is silent as to whether a Member State subsequently may revoke its notification. In the absence of express terms, we have to consider whether an answer emerges from the text, context and the object and purpose of the treaty by implication.

The purpose of Article 50 TEU

According to Article 1 TEU,

By this Treaty, the HIGH CONTRACTING PARTIES establish among themselves a EUROPEAN UNION, hereinafter called “the Union”, on which the Member States confer competences to attain objectives they have in common.

It is difficult to find a more succinct statement of the object and purpose of the TEU: the establishment of an organisation upon which the Member States confer certain competences to attain certain shared objectives. These objectives are set out in greater detail in Article 3 TEU, while the scope of the EU’s competences is defined in Articles 3–6 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Article 5 TEU declares that the Union must act within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Member States and that competences not conferred upon the Union remain with the Member States. In Declaration 18 made appended to the Lisbon Treaty, the Member States recall these points and add that it is for them to increase or reduce the competences conferred upon the Union.

What emerges from these provisions is that the Union’s competences are based on the consent of its Member States and that the authority to increase or reduce these competences (sometimes described as Kompetenz-Kompetenz) remains firmly within their own hands. Article 50 TEU takes the principles of consent and conferral to their logical conclusion and confirms the right of a Member State to withdraw from the Union. In the words of the German Federal Constitutional Court, the ‘right to withdraw underlines the Member States’ sovereignty… If a Member State can withdraw based on a decision made on its own responsibility, the process of European integration is not irreversible.’ (Lisbon case, para 329). Against this background, we may conclude that the purpose of Article 50 TEU is to confirm in express terms the Member States’ ability to withdraw from the EU and to lay down the procedures for doing so.

The arguments against revoking the withdrawal

In his submissions before the High Court, Lord Pannick relied on three arguments to suggest that the UK would not be able to revoke its withdrawal notification once issued (uncorrected transcripts, p. 16–17):

Article 50 is deliberately designed to avoid any such consequence. There is no mention of a power to withdraw. And the very possibility of a power to withdraw a notification would frustrate, again, Article 50(3), which sets out in the clearest possible terms, what the consequences are of giving the notification under Article 50(2).

It is convenient to consider these arguments in reverse order.

  1. Frustrating the procedures

First, Lord Pannick suggests that revoking the withdrawal notification would frustrate the consequences attached to the notification by Article 50(3) TEU. According to that provision,

The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

Once notified, the withdrawal is inevitable, says Lord Pannick. That is the point of his bullet analogy: once fired, the bullet has to hit its target, either upon the entry into force of the withdrawal agreement, two years after the date of withdrawal notification or at the end of any extension period agreed between the UK and the European Council. There are two flaws with this reasoning. First, the completion of the procedures described in paragraphs (2) and (3) of Article 50 TEU is conditional upon the withdrawal notification. There is no logical reason why that withdrawal notification may not be revoked before those procedures are completed. To use Lord Pannick’s analogy, nothing prevents the UK from firing a blank round. Second, the procedures listed in Article 50(3) TEU need not reach their end point. Article 50(2) TEU imposes an obligation on the Union to negotiate and conclude an agreement with the withdrawing Member State. No corresponding duty is imposed on the withdrawing Member State itself. At first sight, it might seem reasonable to assume that such a duty must be implied. However, for the purposes of the withdrawal agreement, the withdrawing State is essentially treated as a ‘third country’ (cf Article 218(1) TFEU), as evidenced by the fact that pursuant to Article 50(4) TEU, the withdrawing State shall not participate in the discussions or decisions by the European Council or Council concerning the negotiation and conclusion of the withdrawal agreement. Consequently, it would be absurd if the withdrawing Member State were thought to be bound by the principle of sincere cooperation under Article 4(3) TEU in these matters. In any event, the terms of Article 50(3) TEU make clear that at most, the withdrawing Member State is under an obligation to negotiate, but not necessarily conclude, a withdrawal agreement with the EU (in other words, the duty is for a pactum de negotiando, not a pactum de contrahendo). This is so because Article 50(3) TEU envisages that the withdrawal agreement may fail to enter into force at all, which is precisely why it provides for the two-year time period as a fall-back solution. However, that two-year time period may be extended by the mutual agreement of the withdrawing Member State and the European Council. The extension is not subject to any conditions. Consequently, the two sides may agree to an indefinite extension of the two-year period if they so wish. To use the bullet analogy again, the target may keep on moving indefinitely and the bullet may never hit home.

Notifying an intention to withdraw from the Union does not necessarily mean that the procedures triggered thereby have to be completed. Nor do these procedures inevitably have to lead to the termination of the applicability of the Treaties to the withdrawing Member States.

  1. No express power to revoke

Lord Pannick also relies on the fact that Article 50 TEU does not provide for the power to revoke the withdrawal notification in express terms. This argument is unconvincing. The competences of the EU depend on the consent of the Member States. Competences not conferred upon the EU remain with the Member States. Consequently, in so far as Article 50 TEU recognises the unilateral right of a Member State to withdraw its consent, that withdrawal can only be subject to those conditions which are expressly stipulated in Article 50 TEU. Put differently, the burden of proof is not on the withdrawing Member State to demonstrate that it has the legal capacity and authority to retract its withdrawal notification, but on the EU or its remaining Member States to show that it lacks that capacity.

At this point, it is once again necessary to recall that the Treaties are instruments of international law. As the European Court of Justice has acknowledged, the EU must respect international law in the exercise of its powers (Case C-286/90, Poulsen and Diva, para. 9). Pursuant to Article 68 VCLT, a notification to withdraw from a treaty in accordance with its provisions may be revoked ‘at any time’ before the notification takes effect. In the present case, this means that the UK would be able to revoke its withdrawal notification before the withdrawal agreement it may conclude with the Union enters into effect or before the two-year time period or the extension period agreed with the European Council runs out. The EU is not a party to the VCLT and as such it is not directly bound by Article 68 VCLT. Whether the rule forms part of customary international law, which would be binding on the EU as such, is subject to debate. However, it is worth noting that the International Law Commission, which drafted what later became Article 68 VCLT, took the view that ‘the right to revoke the notice is really implicit in the fact that it is not to become effective until a certain date’ (Draft Articles on the Law of Treaties with Commentaries, p. 264). This point applies with full force to Article 50 TEU.

State practice offers several examples of States revoking their decision to terminate their membership in an international organization, though the exact legal characterisation of some of these examples is open to discussion (see Wessel, You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But Can You Really Leave?, p. 6). Nevertheless, the practice of the International Labour Organisation in particular suggests that the possibility to retract a withdrawal notice before it takes effect is accepted. It is also useful to point out that States may withdraw their intent to be bound by an international agreement, as the United States did in relation to the Rome Statute, or withdraw their application to become members of an international organisation, as Switzerland recently did in relation to the EU. Of course, one should be careful not to read too much into these examples, even by way of analogy. However, they do underline that States enjoy a wide measure of discretion to withdraw instruments and notifications they make in relation to treaty actions.

  1. The design of Article 50 TEU

Finally, Lord Pannick argues that Article 50 TEU was deliberately designed to avoid the possibility that a Member State might revoke its withdrawal notice. There is no evidence to support this view. The preparatory work of the intergovernmental conference which drew up the Treaty of Lisbon is not in the public domain. However, Article 50 TEU reproduces verbatim, subject only to minor editorial changes, Article I-60 of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. The negotiating history of that provision establishes very clearly that the right to withdraw from the Union was intended to be unilateral. Amendments attempting to tie this right to substantive conditions or to the successful conclusion of a withdrawal agreement were rejected (see CONV 672/03, pp. 10–12). As a note from the Praesidium of the European Convention explained, ‘it was felt that such an agreement should not constitute a condition for withdrawal so as not to void the concept of voluntary withdrawal of its substance’ (CONV 648/03, p. 9). This desire was reflected in the very title of Article I-60, which read ‘Voluntary withdrawal from the Union’.

The significance of this negotiating history is that it fully confirms the interpretation and conclusions reached earlier. The unilateral nature of the right to withdraw means that it is for the United Kingdom to decide both when to notify the European Council of its intention to withdraw and whether or not to revoke that notification. This position may please neither the claimants nor the defendant, but this is where the law stands.

Aurel Sari is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Exeter, specializing in public international law. His work focuses mainly on questions of operational law, including the law of armed conflict, the legal status of foreign armed forces and the application of human rights law in deployed operations. He is a Fellow of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

(Suggested citation: A. Sari, ‘Biting the Bullet: Why the UK Is Free to Revoke Its Withdrawal Notification under Article 50 TEU’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (17th Oct 2016) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))

Abstract Expressionism: how New York overtook Europe to become the epicentre of Western art

João Florêncio, University of Exeter

A new exhibition, Abstract Expressionism, opens at London’s Royal Academy this weekend. It is the first major survey of the movement since 1959. Abstract expressionism is often considered the first artistic movement to shift the centre of Western art from Europe to the US, and more precisely New York. But what is it, and how did this happen?

Associated with a group of artists working in New York in the 1940s, abstract expressionism came to be known as the quintessential American and modern art movement. Heirs to the progressive abandonment of figurative and naturalist painting styles that had been taking place in Europe since the early 20th century, the painters associated with the movement came to be known for their innovative use of new synthetic industrial paints, large scale canvases, and the development of very individual abstract styles.

Some of the most easily identifiable include Franz Kline’s quick and simple brushstrokes, at times likened to Japanese calligraphy; the drips and rapid splatters of Jackson Pollock; Robert Motherwell’s large repeated ovals and rectangles; and Mark Rothko’s large blocks of colour.

Franz Kline, Vawdavitch, 1955.
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Despite often being seen as “childish” painting that “anyone could do”, abstract expressionism has a history that is more interesting than we might suspect at first. Because the emergence of the movement in the 1940s and its internationalisation in the 1950s wasn’t only due to the work of its artists. It was also due to both the art criticism and political environments of its time. So much so that we cannot think abstract expressionism without considering the work of critics such as Clement Greenberg and the role of art as a cultural weapon during the Cold War.

A European story

Writing at the same time as the abstract expressionists were developing their signature styles, Greenberg became the critic that most famously endorsed the movement. He claimed it represented the most “advanced” form of Western art. To justify this, Greenberg looked at the work of older European artists such as Manet, Monet, Cézanne and Picasso, arguing that European painting had been progressively moving away from representations of the three-dimensional world outside. According to him, this was also accompanied by a progressive flattening of the pictorial space.

Greenberg argued that this showed an increasing concern with investigating the potential and limitations of the elements that belonged exclusively to the medium of painting: a flat canvas with specific dimensions (length and width) upon which paint is applied. All historic examples of paintings that give the impression of three-dimensional space on canvas, all painting that tries to mimic the world outside of it, were, for Greenberg, paintings that tried to conceal their true nature.

Mark Rothko, No. 15, 1957.
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London

What is crucial here is that, by producing this narrative of European art, Greenberg was able to claim that, for the first time ever, the most “advanced” form of Western art was no longer being produced in Europe but instead in New York. For him, it was painters like Pollock, Motherwell, De Kooning, Rothko, Kline, and Newman that were now, thanks to the new abstract languages they were developing, carrying on the work that had begun with the European avant-gardes. European artists, he argued, had not been able to carry this to completion, due, in part, to the weight of tradition, something that America did not have to carry.

So it was in large part due to critics like Greenberg, but also collectors like Peggy Guggenheim, and curators like MoMA’s Alfred H Barr, that abstract expressionism eventually gained momentum among the art glitterati of New York in the 1950s, despite never being popular among the wider American public.

Lee Krasner. The Eye is the First Circle, 1960.
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Cold War art

But there is also politics to consider. Abstraction had been allowed to thrive in part due to the earlier sponsorship of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which saw an incredible amount of government funds being used to directly employ artists and commission new public artworks in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Most of the works funded by that programme were American regionalist paintings and large social realist murals. But some of the funds were also used to support the early work of some of the artists whose career would eventually progress towards what came to be known as abstract expressionism.

Willem De Kooning, Woman II, 1952.
© 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016

But perhaps one of the most iconic contributors to the dissemination of the movement as the culmination of Western art history was the Cold War. In the 1950s, at the peak of the ferocious anti-Communist sentiment of the McCarthy era in the US, the agendas of institutions like MoMA in New York and critics like Greenberg converged with the political interests of the CIA. Such convergence led to a series of exhibitions that would tour Europe during the Cold War years. The most famous of those was MoMA’s The New American Painting, which came to Europe in 1958-59. This show was responsible for bringing abstract expressionism to all major European capitals, including West Berlin.

Whether or not these exhibitions were funded or facilitated by the CIA, as some have convincingly argued, they were certainly responsible for cementing the perception of America as the legitimate heir of European aesthetic and political values. Against a USSR perceived as totalitarian and oppressive, with state-sanctioned socialist realism coming across as kitsch and formulaic propaganda, abstract expressionism, with its variety of individual voices and painterly styles, would eventually become a symbol of the autonomy, liberty and creative freedom allegedly enjoyed by all in the West. These were values that, from then on, became manifest in the generalised perception of the US as the ultimate beacon of Western culture.

The Conversation

João Florêncio, Lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Three ways Sports Direct can rebuild its reputation

Dr William Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies for the University of Exeter Business School takes a look at the three ways with which Sports Direct can rebuild its reputation.

This post first appeared in The Conversation. Conversation logo

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Will Harvey, University of Exeter

Sports Direct has had a turbulent time of late. Investigations into the working conditions at the retailer’s warehouses led to criticisms from unions, MPs and its own law firm about its labour and governance practices.

Even an attempted PR move to change the company’s image – a Sports Direct “open day” for journalists and members of the public to look around its warehouses – ended in controversy after boss Mike Ashley pulled a wad of £50 notes out of his pocket during a security check.

In a bid to restore confidence in his company, Ashley appeared on prime time news in a rare television interview and agreed to an independent review of its working practices and corporate governance. Will this be enough for Sports Direct to put criticism behind it and move on?

Sports Direct is neither the first nor the last company to face a reputation crisis. To weather these storms, research would suggest three important actions, some of which the company have already put into action.

1. Proactively address critics

Proactively addressing the criticisms the company has had around its labour and governance practices is an important first step in rebuilding confidence. This shows that the company is serious about how it treats its employees and how it is organised.

There have been major shifts in how other organisations in the UK engage with and treat their labour and in how seriously they take the issue of corporate governance. Empowering employees in the workplace through involving them in strategic decisions and ensuring a diversity of skills and backgrounds on company boards are two recent trends.

The challenge for Sports Direct will be to show its staff, shareholders and the public that it takes both issues seriously – not as a knee-jerk reaction to external pressure, but because they are an important part of the company’s values. This takes time to achieve and should be more than a tick box exercise.

For Sports Direct, agreeing to an independent review, instead of using its own law firm, is a step in the right direction.

2. Top-down, bottom-up

Inevitably, when a company does seek to change its reputation, there is both resistance and scepticism from certain quarters within it. This is why such change must be both top-down and led in this case by Mike Ashley and Sports Direct’s chairman, Keith Hellawell. But it must also be bottom-up, with champions leading the change across the entire company.

Too often, attempts at change lead to major disconnections between leaders, managers and the rest of the workforce. This was a problem at food producer Beak and Johnston, which historically had a hierarchical approach to managing workers in the context of a tough working environment of meat processing. Over time, however, this multi-million dollar company has empowered workers to be accountable for line performances and provide input into company strategy, which has transformed the company’s culture and financial performance.

Sports Direct staff need to be brought on side.
Joe Giddens / PA Wire

A disconnect between leaders and workers not only creates tension internally among the workforce, it also raises questions externally among analysts, unions, journalists and others around the authenticity of the change process.

3. True values

Most organisations make grandiose claims about their values. However, when a company faces major questions about its reputation then those values come under greater scrutiny. What is particularly interesting about Sports Direct is that there is very little information on the company’s website about its values. Much more is said about its strategy, business model and operations.

Clearly, writing a set of values does not imply sound labour and governance practices, but their absence might suggest too great an emphasis on economic performance. Sports Direct should consider embedding a strong set of values which are meaningful to its members. To be clear, this should not be a window dressing exercise for its website, but an opportunity to much more closely engage with its core internal and external stakeholders such as employees, customers, investors, unions and regulators.

It won’t be easy, but Ashley’s presence this morning on BBC Breakfast is an important first step, as demonstrated by the boost in the company’s share price that followed it. But it must be about more than just PR soundbites. Other important steps include more directly engaging with key employees and shareholders who are concerned not only about the short-term turnaround, but also the company’s long-term reputation and survival.

Working on the above with a strong and committed board, senior management team and group of employee representatives will help to rebuild the company’s reputation from within. And this, over time, will be recognised externally.

The Conversation

Will Harvey, Director of Public Policy Research Cluster, Director of Research and Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to win friends and influence people – using robots

How we connect to others in public, how gestures and gaze convey information about intentions and feelings and how touch can shape the sense of trust – Professor of Social Psychology, Professor Mark Levine, explores human-robot interactions.

This post first appeared in The Conversation. Conversation logo

A male robot thinking about something. Isolated on white background.

A male robot thinking about something. Isolated on white background.

Mark Levine, University of Exeter

Despite being trapped in Moscow, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden often ambles through meeting rooms and conference halls in New York City. He does so using the same technology that lets 11-year-old Lexie Kinder, housebound with an incurable heart condition, wander around a South Carolina school and take classes with her peers.

Advances in tele-operated robots are now allowing people who are confined by circumstance to have a presence at a whole range of public events. They attend weddings and funerals, enjoy conferences and festivals and even, at a more mundane level, commute to work without ever leaving their homes.

At the moment, these robot representatives are really just screens and cameras on wheels – driven remotely by users with keyboards and joysticks. The wheels allow the screen to be moved around, and the camera allows the user to see and hear others.

However, as anyone who has ever used Skype to attend a meeting will tell you, while having your face on a screen can certainly give you a presence, it’s not the same as actually being there. At the very least, the experience is somewhat disembodied. No hands to gesture with or to touch. Limited sensory channels for experiencing a real connection with other people.

Being There, a recent research project has been looking at how we can draw on developments in digital technologies to enhance the experience of being there in public space. We have explored the psychology of how we connect to others in public; of how gestures and gaze convey information about intentions and feelings; and how touch can shape the sense of trust in humans and technology.

Our research seeks to improve the quality of interactions between the robot proxy and the humans it comes into contact with as well as to allow the user to trust robots more when they act as our representative. Using telepresence technology with the Nao robot platform that includes the capability for gesture and touch, we have been looking at how we might improve the human-robot experience in public spaces. This could work by developing technology which means the robot recognises human non-verbal behaviours, expressions and personality, picking up gestures, visual cues and body language.

Robots and high society.
PA

In doing so we have also been developing capabilities in remote emotion sensing and in tracking objects in public space. Both of these are important technologies for allowing a remote robot operator to participate effectively and to experience events to the full. If we can capture and analyse the emotions of people in public spaces in real time and convey that back through the robot to the remote operator we can enhance the experience of being there in person.

If the robot knows where it is in relation to other objects with a high degree of accuracy, it can navigate with confidence and promote safety and security. Giving robot proxies the ability to sense the environment on our behalf raises all sorts of interesting ethical and privacy questions. When we think about robots we can easily conjure up a dystopian future where autonomous machines replace or enslave us.

Controlling the controllers

However, the far more pressing danger comes from what we are prepared to reveal about ourselves. The data that can be leveraged to enhance the performance of a robot proxy can also be used in ways that threaten our privacy and security. Our robot proxies will, as a matter of course, be gathering data about us and about the environments they find themselves in. The danger comes not from the robots, but from the way the technology itself is engineered.

Perhaps the most obvious concern is the one where the teleoperation system is compromised and people use the robot proxies to wander around places that they should not be able to access. Then there is the question of the kinds of information that a robot proxy could or should be allowed to collect about others.

Finally, there is the question of what robot proxies can know about the people who use them and who that information might be shared with. This complex set of questions has been at the heart of our interdisciplinary project.

Digital technologies can be used to enhance the public realm by creating new ways to participate for those who might be excluded, and improving the experiences of “being there” in public space for all. However, each potential advance is accompanied by a corresponding question about its ethical implications.

As robot technology becomes increasingly versatile, and able to represent us in new and more sophisticated ways, so we will need to think through what the limits to the trade off between utility and privacy should be.

Mark Levine, Professor of Social Psychology, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Brexit: why uncertainty is bad for economies

Professor Kevin McMeeking, Associate Professor of Accounting in the University of Exeter Business School, takes a look at how the post-Brexit economy is faring.

This article first appeared in The Conversation. Conversation logo

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Kevin McMeeking, University of Exeter

The predicted economic blow of a Brexit vote was core to the Remain campaign before Britain’s referendum on EU membership. Since the vote, the lack of an “Armageddon” has been held up as an example of these fears being overblown. In reality, it is likely to vary significantly across society, affecting people and businesses in different ways. In particular, there is the more nebulous, long-term effect of uncertainty to take into account.

For example, one immediate affect of the vote was a fall in pound sterling to the US dollar – from an average of US$1.42 in the six months prior to the referendum vote to the US$1.30 mark. The evidence of previous plunges in sterling, such as in the wake of Black Wednesday in 1992, suggest that net exporters of goods in the UK will benefit but net importers of goods will suffer.

GBP/USD exchange rate before and after Brexit.
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Any gains here, however, could be offset by the increased levels of uncertainty surrounding the UK’s relationship with the EU as a result of the vote. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has argued that political, economic, regulatory uncertainties will persist while the UK redefines its openness to the movement of goods, services, people and capital.

A market for lemons

That uncertainty is bad for business is a well-established theory in economics. In a seminal paper, Nobel-prize winner George Akerlof created a scenario where buyers couldn’t distinguish between high quality cars and low quality cars (which he called “lemons”) in a second-hand market. Buyers would only pay a fixed price that averages the value of the high quality and the “lemons”. Sellers (with the information advantage) responded by removing good quality cars from the market, only selling “lemons”. This resulted in exchanges that could benefit buyers and sellers being lost and an inefficient market. This information asymmetry, Akerlof showed, also led to a degradation of the quality of goods traded.

Significant resources are invested to mitigate against this information problem in businesses. Companies offer guarantees, warranties and refunds to consumers. Consumers and companies review services before buying them. Annual reports are long and detailed. Company management liaise extensively with interested parties such as analysts and institutional investors. Firms also invest large amounts in derivatives to try to reduce uncertainty and manage their risks. But the government will be hard pressed to use similar strategies.

If British suppliers pass on increased costs that are a likely result of Brexit uncertainty to consumers then UK sales are likely to fall. This is bad news for an economy that is already struggling to boost spending. Early evidence suggests that petrol prices have risen, travel company bookings have fallen and the housing market has slowed. Less visible effects might follow such as a delay to investments from overseas or the removal of services like “roam-like-at-home” rules on phone calls and texts in the EU.

Mark Carney: no lemon.
Twocoms / Shutterstock.com

The Bank of England’s response has been to cut interest rates to 0.25% – the first cut since 2009 – and to also expand its quantitative easing programme to try to get people spending. The effects of this will take time – and there is, as yet, no guarantee that they will work – but this does not leave the Bank of England with many more fiscal cards left to play.

Lessons from Canada

To assess the actual economic impact of Brexit uncertainty, Canada offers some lessons and the sovereignty movement in Quebec (which almost won a referendum in 1995). Uncertainty here prompted a rise in ten-year bond rates and an adverse reaction from stock markets. Undiversified low-growth firms, with transactions focused in the local markets were the worst affected.

Independence from Canada would be costly for Quebec in three main ways – increased levels of debt, increased tariffs and financial transfers. Brexit might benefit the UK by reducing the costs of regulation and reduced payments into the EU, but it is inconceivable that the UK can enjoy the same trading relationship with its European partners without paying for the privilege – as Norway and Switzerland do.

Uncertainty also affects individuals. If they choose to leave for more stable futures, this could impact the broader economy. This would be particularly damaging for niche high-tech markets and government organisations, companies or industries that rely heavily on EU immigrants for large numbers of employees such as the NHS. A brain drain would leave a skills gap that British employees cannot service leading to a decline in trade. UK universities are concerned that they might see a significant decline in tuition fee income and the loss of academic talent in the short to medium-term.

The overall economic effects will take time to materialise and likely vary across the country. The businesses (and people) that are the least diversified; with little or no access to alternative income streams are likely to be the most at risk during these uncertain times.

Kevin McMeeking, Associate Professor of Accounting, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Ross Poldark was a victim of Cornwall’s changing industrial landscape

Dr Joseph Crawford, English lecturer in College of Humanities, takes a look at hit BBC series Poldark. He asks if the main character, Ross Poldark, was victim of the changing face of industry in the South West.

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Joseph Crawford, University of Exeter

In July 2016, the BBC announced the commissioning of a third season of costume drama Poldark, months before the second series was even due to be broadcast. This represents an impressive vote of confidence in the series, especially as season two will apparently not be repeating the famous “topless scything” scene which won the National Television Awards’ prize for TV Moment of the Year.

The real pivotal moment depicted by Poldark, however, is one of historical change in south-west England. In the mid-18th century, Cornwall and Devon were major commercial and industrial centres. Cornwall’s tin and copper mines were some of the largest and most sophisticated in Europe, while the profits from the Cornwall and Devonshire wool trade helped make Exeter one of the biggest and richest cities in England.

By the mid-19th century however, much had changed. The rise of the mechanised cloth industry in England’s North and Midlands sent the south-western wool trade into serious decline. And while Cornwall’s mining industry survived well into the 20th century, it experienced repeated crises from the 1770s onwards. This was primarily due to newly discovered tin and copper mines elsewhere in the world, leading to the large-scale emigration of Cornish miners to countries such as Mexico, Australia and Brazil.

The era depicted in Poldark shows the region on the very tipping-point of this transition. Ross Poldark’s struggles to keep his mine open and profitable are symptomatic of the economic difficulties experienced by the region as a whole during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

As south-western towns lost their traditional role as centres of trade and industry, their focus shifted increasingly to tourism. This was especially true during the long years of the Napoleonic Wars which form the backdrop to the later Poldark novels. Cut off by war from their favoured resorts in France and Italy, a generation of English tourists began taking holidays in Devon and Cornwall instead.

By the late 18th century, writers in Devon were praising their native county for its natural beauty and its ancient history, rather than for the wealth and industry of which their parents and grandparents had been so proud. By the mid-19th century, the same was increasingly true of Cornwall.

This economic shift led, in turn, to the development of the Victorian mythology of the “romantic South-West”, still beloved of local tourist boards today.

This mythology is built upon a version of the region’s history which emphasises its remote and wild character, playing on associations with Merlin and King Arthur, druids and witches, smugglers and wreckers and pirates.

Like most costume dramas, Poldark’s primary concern is with the travails of cross-class romance. But it is also a narrative about de-industrialisation, and about the struggle of local businesses to remain competitive and economically viable within an increasingly globalised economy – a story which has some resonance in early 21st-century Britain.

The poverty of the Cornish miners with whom Ross Poldark identifies is not simply the result of gratuitous oppression. Instead they are the victims of a new economic order which has little interest in preserving local industry for its own sake.

Wild West

The show has certainly not been shy about making lavish use of the beauty of its Cornish setting, and has already triggered something of a tourism boom, with visitors flocking to the region to see for themselves the moors, cliffs, and beaches which Poldark employs to such dramatic visual effect.

Industry by the sea.
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But it also depicts the historical struggles of the region’s inhabitants to preserve the South West as something more than just a pretty place for other people to visit on holiday. In this sense, it is rather symbolic that season one of Poldark ends with Ross being falsely accused of wrecking. The legend of the Cornish wreckers, which reached its definitive form in Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, is founded on extremely slender historical evidence, but it persists because it fits in so neatly with the Victorian mythology of the South West in general, and Cornwall in particular: a mythology which viewed it as a lawless and desperate land, filled with crime and adventure, and remote from all true civilisation.

In Poldark, the looting of the wrecked vessel is motivated by hunger and poverty, which have in turn been caused by the economic depression besetting the region. But after spending the whole season struggling against Cornwall’s industrial decline, Ross finds himself in danger of being absorbed into a new kind of narrative about the South West – one which will have no place for men like him, except as picturesque savages.

Of course, in this respect, Poldark rather wants to both have its grain and (shirtlessly) reap it, too. Ross Poldark and Demelza appeal to their audience precisely because they embody the kind of romantic wildness which, since the Victorian era, has been the stock-in-trade of the south-western tourist industry.

They are passionate, free-spirited, and dismissive of class boundaries and social conventions: hardly the kind of people that the self-consciously respectable merchants and industrialists of the 18th-century South West would have wanted as their representatives or champions. But by setting its story of class antagonism against the backdrop of this crucial turning-point in the history of the South West, Poldark does serve as a reminder that the quietness of the region, which has proven so attractive to generations of tourists, is not the natural state of a land untouched by commerce or industry. It is the silence which follows their enforced departure.

The Conversation

Joseph Crawford, Lecturer in English, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Melania Trump, the Daily Mail and a history of libel tourism

Dr Timon Hughes-Davies, a lecturer in the Law School looks at the recent complaint between Melania Trump and The Daily Mail. 

This article first appeared in The ConversationConversation logo

Timon Hughes-Davies, University of Exeter

Readers of the Daily Mail were recently treated to a fairly rare event: the paper published a retraction of a news story it had run about Melania Trump, the wife of the Republican presidential candidate and prospective first lady of the United States. The retraction related to a story published both in the newspaper and the Mail’s website, which repeated allegations from an unofficial biography of the third Mrs Trump.

These allegations – which are recited in the complaint and have been widely repeated on the internet – relate to her immigration status, the circumstances in which she met her husband and her employment when she first came to the United States. Given her husband’s position on illegal immigration, the first of these might have proven to be the most politically sensitive allegation.

The retraction followed the filing of a complaint, in a Maryland court, against the Daily Mail and another defendant – a blogger who made similar allegations. It appears that the complaint is only in respect of the article’s publication on the Daily Mail’s website, rather than in the print version. However, the retraction appeared online and in the paper.

Libel tourism

Such a claim, by a US citizen against a British publication, raises issues of jurisdiction and it is interesting that the complaint was filed in the US, rather than in the more claimant-friendly jurisdiction of England and Wales. While the Daily Mail is a British newspaper, its website has a significant international readership: the court papers refer to United States web traffic of 2m visitors per day.

But the Daily Mail’s article was most prominently published in England and Wales and it might have been reasonable for Trump to issue proceedings in the High Court. However, recent changes to both English and US law have significantly restricted the ability of claimants to start legal claims outside their own country of residence.

Retraction as it appeared in the Daily Mail, Friday September 2.
Daily Mail

Until fairly recently, English courts were relatively relaxed about “forum shopping” or “libel tourism” in defamation. In cases where the publication took place outside the claimant’s own jurisdiction, English courts were easy to persuade that they should hear the claim. When Liberace was defamed by the Daily Mirror in 1956, he chose to sue in England and Wales – he was entitled to protect his considerable reputation in England. If the Daily Mirror had been available in the United States, then he might have chosen to sue in that country. To a large extent, the decision was up to the claimant.

However, there has never been an unrestricted right for non-residents of England and Wales to bring claims in English courts. In 1937, M. Kroch, a resident of France, who had been defamed in a Belgian newspaper, was refused permission to bring a claim by the Court of Appeal. The report does not explain why M. Kroch wished to sue in England, but it does record that he failed to establish any sort of reputation or connection within the jurisdiction, apart from staying in rented rooms while bringing his claim.

However, as long as the claimant had a reputation within the UK, and the libel had been published – in defamation terms, that the words had been read by a person other than the author or subject of the statement – the courts would grant permission for the case to proceed.

It is fair to say that the bar was very low, both in terms of the claimant’s public profile within England and Wales and the extent to which the statement was published. In the 2005 case of Khalid Salim Bin Mahfouz and others vs Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld, the Saudi businessman sued Ehrenfeld, an American author, for alleging that he had helped to fund terrorism. While the claimant had some connection with England and Wales, Ehrenfeld had none – and the book in question was not published in the UK. However, the first chapter was available online and 23 copies had been sold, via the internet, to buyers in England. This was a sufficient connection with England and Wales for the High Court to allow the claim to proceed. The court found for the plaintiff.

Protecting free speech

The Ehrenfeld case, and other high-profile claims, provoked a strong reaction in the United States – the state of New York enacted the Libel Terrorism Protection Act in 2008 and, in 2010, Congress followed suit with the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Cultural Heritage (SPEECH) Act.

Both these acts prevent American courts from enforcing English (and other jurisdictions’) libel judgments, unless the foreign court provides at least the same level of protection to free speech as American courts. It should be noted that, by treaty or as a matter of international comity, courts will generally enforce international judgments.

On the British side of the pond, the Defamation Act 2013 also tackled the issue of libel tourism – now, where the publisher is not a resident of the UK or other Lugano Convention countries, the court has to be satisfied that England and Wales is “clearly the most appropriate place in which to bring an action”. However, this would not necessarily prevent a non-resident, such as Mrs Trump, from bringing a claim in respect of a publication within England and Wales.

Given the context of the current presidential election campaign and the importance of Melania Trump’s reputation as reflecting on her husband, it is how this will play out with American voters that is important – so it is the coverage in America and the chance to answer those allegations to the American public that matters most. Given this, it would have been difficult to argue that England was the most appropriate place to take action.

The Conversation

Timon Hughes-Davies, Lecturer in Law, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is Katla crying wolf? Icelandic volcano’s rumblings don’t mean airspace chaos is imminent

Physical Geography lecturer, Dr Kate Smith reflects on the 2010 eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, and the recent rumblings of its close neighbour Katla.

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Kate Smith, University of Exeter

There have been rumblings in Iceland recently.

But given its position in the North Atlantic, this is perhaps no surprise. The location makes the country a notorious volcanic hot spot, regularly hit by seismic activity.

Two recent earthquakes in August 2016 have now led to international reports of imminent eruption risk of Katla volcano. They both occurred within the 9km by 14km central crater – or “caldera” – of the volcano in southern Iceland, and were the two largest earthquakes at the volcano since 1977.

So how worried should we be? Will there be a repeat of the chaos in the skies after an ash cloud drifted over Europe in 2010 caused by an eruption at Eyjafjallajökull, Katla’s close neighbour?

In historic terms, we’ve certainly been waiting for an explosive eruption of Katla, one of Iceland´s most active volcanoes, for quite some time. Lying beneath an icecap up to 700 metres thick, over the last 1,100 years explosive eruptions large enough to melt through the ice have occurred on average every 50 years. The last such eruption was in 1918, and the current pause of 98 years is the longest on record.

Katla in 1918.
wikicommons

In the past earthquakes were felt two to 10 hours before Katla erupted through the ice. Since June, earthquake activity in the caldera has been elevated. The large earthquakes on August 29 marked the peak of this seismicity, followed by a series of more than 100 smaller events, finishing early on August 30.

Meanwhile, the rivers that drain from the ice-capped volcano have been smelling of rotten eggs. This smell comes from hydrogen sulphide (H2S), a volcanic gas found in fluids within the caldera beneath the ice. Unusually high H2S levels near Múlakvísl river have prompted official advice to avoid the immediate area. Changes in levels of volcanic gases around volcanoes and enhanced seismic activity can be signs of increased movement of magma and a future volcanic eruption.

So does all of this physical evidence point to an imminent eruption? Well, probably not. This activity is not actually unusual. Since the 1950s, periods of enhanced seismicity and increased gas pollution have not been followed by explosive eruptions, and there is no sign of swelling of the volcano or harmonic tremor (continuous rhythmic earthquakes) suggesting magma movement.

Earthquake activity at Katla also regularly increases in summer and autumn. As the summer progresses, more glacial ice melts, and small floods can occur. These larger volumes of melt water also increase pore pressure in the crustal rocks and can trigger earthquakes. Changes to water flow can also alter how much geothermal fluid is in the rivers, hence the smell.

Land of fire and ice.
Chmee2/Valtameri, CC BY

In winter the melting reduces and water exists only in small pockets at the base of the ice, which reduces pore pressure in the crust and reduces seismic activity.

After effects

However, volcanoes can change rapidly and in unexpected ways. We can’t say for sure that Katla will not erupt in the near future. A 98-year repose period is long, and twice before eruptions of Katla have followed Eyjafjallajökull in the 1820s and in 1612.

So what would happen if Katla did erupt? Eruptions from this volcano over the last 120,000 years have been varied, but the most likely eruption would be from the central caldera. A very small eruption wouldn’t melt through the ice, but a larger one could melt through explosively. Explosive Katla eruptions typically involve ash clouds and large floods (jökulhlaups) of meltwater, ice and sediment that flow across the surrounding lowlands. Lava is not usually seen since most eruptions are subglacial.

A small explosive eruption from Katla is the most common eruption type and would last from days to a couple of weeks, produce a plume up to 14km high, ash fall in Iceland and a large flood, but would be unlikely to affect anywhere outside of Iceland.

A larger-scale event could last weeks or even months. In this case the plume would be up to 25km in height and could impact air quality and air travel in the UK and Europe within two days if the wind blows ash in that direction. Iceland could expect heavy ashfall, with implications for travel, agriculture and air quality, and a large flood. Such floods can have peak discharges (water flow rates) greater than the Amazon, and cause major landscape change and local tsunamis.

If there is an eruption, both Iceland and the UK should be well prepared. Evacuation plans exist for local communities and information is available in several languages. The UK Meteorological Office monitors ash in the atmosphere and is able to predict what areas could be affected.

Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud of 2010.
PA

When I began studying Katla in 1999 I was told she could erupt any time. This remains true today and with every day that passes, we get closer to an eruption. But I wouldn’t bet on it happening right now.

Icelandic and international scientists work hard to investigate Katla´s past and carry out 24-hour monitoring with sophisticated equipment to understand its present and future. We study volcanic ash, rocks, jökulhlaup deposits, river levels and gas emissions on the ground. Earthquakes and GPS records are analysed remotely and we use satellites and overflights to examine the ground and ice surfaces from the air. An eruption may not be imminent – but it is exciting that we can detect and interpret these clues to assess Katla’s next move.

The Conversation

Kate Smith, Lecturer in Physical Geography, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Teen obesity caused by going into ‘power-saving mode’

As new research on the subject of teen obesity hits the headlinesProfessor Terry Wilkin – Professor of Endocrinology and Metabolism in University of Exeter Medical School – looks at the evolutionary trait of ‘power-saving’ which may be trapping them.

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Terry Wilkin, University of Exeter

It is possible that modern teenagers are trapped by a trait which evolved thousands of years ago to help them through puberty, but which now leaves them vulnerable to obesity.

Adolescents need an extra 20-30% energy every day to fuel the growth and changes in body composition that characterise the six years or so of pubertal development. Energy comes from calories in the food they eat, but how could hunter-gatherers guarantee the extra calories they needed as adolescents when their food supply was limited?

We believe they may have unearthed a strategy that worked well for our ancestors, but which does quite the opposite now.

In our research, we have been monitoring a group of children as they progress through childhood from five to 16 years of age (the EarlyBird study). We found, as expected, that more energy was burnt as children got bigger. However, after the age of ten, the calories they burnt unexpectedly fell, despite the fact that they were growing faster than ever. The amount of calories burnt by age 15 was around 25% lower in both boys and girls. Only at 16 years of age, when the growth spurt was over, did the energy spend begin to increase again.

The study has three important qualities: it is longitudinal (which means that it measures the same group of children throughout), its age spread is very narrow (which means that age-related changes can be more accurately identified), and few people dropped out of the study (important statistically).

In a publication last year, we described two distinct waves of weight gain; one occurring sometime between birth and five years of age, and the other in adolescence. The early wave affected only some children – the offspring of obese parents – while the later wave in adolescence involved children generally.

Poor parental eating habits passed on to their children seemed a likely explanation for early obesity, but we had no good explanation for the later wave of obesity, until now.

Mystery solved?

Energy balance can be thought of as a bank account. Calories are deposited, and calories are spent. Body size (the balance in the account) depends on the difference between the two. So, although the explanation we offer is entirely speculative, and we will never really know because we don’t have the data on our ancestors, the researchers proposed that a downward shift of energy expenditure into “power-saving mode” might help to conserve the calories needed for the growth spurt in puberty.

The energy burnt over 24 hours has two components: voluntary and involuntary. The voluntary component is physical activity, which is easy to understand. What people understand less readily is that the involuntary component is by far the bigger one. Involuntary energy expenditure (so-called resting energy expenditure) is used just to keep alive; to keep the blood temperature at 36.8°C, fuel the brain to think and enable the organs to function.

Involuntary energy expenditure accounts for around 75% of the total calories burnt in a day, which explains why physical activity has a limited impact on obesity. A fall of 25% in resting energy expenditure makes a big hole in the calories burnt each day.

Why does all this matter, and why does it occur? It matters because it makes obesity more difficult to avoid if teenagers are trapped by a long period of low-calorie burn. We don’t know for sure why it occurs, but could speculate that it may be a throw-back to earlier evolutionary times, when calories were scarce but adolescents still needed 25-30% more calories a day to fuel growth and bodily changes.

Not as easy as buying a burger.
Nicolas Primola/Shutterstock.com

How did hunter-gatherers assure the supply of extra calories needed to reach maturity? It is possible that their bodies adapted by switching down its calorie expenditure, so as to divert the calories to the energy needed to grow. Obesity is a recent problem, and the adaptation now works adversely in a world where calories are cheap and readily available in a highly palatable mix of sugary drinks and calorie-dense foods.

The worst outcome is that adolescents and their families take these findings to mean that they can do nothing about teenage obesity. The best is that a new explanation for teenage obesity leads to better understanding, and an avoidance of the foods that are the cause.The Conversation

Terry Wilkin, Professor, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.