Richard Wiseman and Ian Rankin

'Who understands the human mind better: Psychologists or crime writers? This was the theme of a free public event organised by the Society's Scottish branch, which took place on 21 June 2012 at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. Karen Goodall (Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh) listened to the debate.

Despite the summer downpour the venue was full, a testament to the popularity of the speakers: best-selling novelist Ian Rankin and psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman. Rankin, arguably Scotland's best crime writer, is author of 33 titles, including the hugely popular Inspector Rebus series. He recently received the OBE for services to literature. Wiseman researches the psychology of luck, self-help, persuasion and illusion, and is the most followed UK psychologist on Twitter. His bestselling books have been translated into over 30 languages and he was named one of the top 100 people who make Britain a better place to live.

Prior to the event, Dr Elizabeth Hannah, a Chartered Psychologist and Honorary Secretary of the Branch, commented: 'Ian's Rebus novels provide real insight into the human mind, so it will be interesting to see who the audience feels has the better understanding. As a psychologist, I have high hopes for Richard!'

The evening started on a lighthearted note, with Rankin, who is currently finishing his 18th Inspector Rebus novel, admitting that he might have finished his final draft, had he not committed to the event. For the audience, it was a worthwhile sacrifice as the unscripted conversation between Rankin and Wiseman provided a unique insight into the overlap between psychological understandings of the human mind and the writer's craft.

Topics that were explored included the function of novels in imposing order on an often chaotic and unfathomable world, for both writer and reader. Rankin illustrated this by recounting the feelings of helplessness and incomprehension he experienced when his younger son was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder. He noted that writing alleviated his distress and allowed him to 'play God'. He was told that his son would never walk; Rebus' daughter was then subjected to an accident which left her in a wheelchair, although she later regained use of her legs as Rankin admitted that he 'felt a bit mean'!

Literature, as a way of 'trying on other guises' was explored. Rankin admitted to enjoying 'acting as Rebus', as the physical and confrontational character of Rebus is the antithesis of his own personality. Wiseman pondered whether literature is a way of enabling readers to explore darker aspects of their personality in safety, which led to a discussion of the complexity of evil. Rankin recounted his conversations with prisoners on death row in America whilst researching his television series Ian Rankin's Evil Thoughts. He noted the relative ease with which we can feel an empathic response towards an individual during face-to-face interaction, whilst the 'cognitive part of the brain' simultaneously baulks at the severity of the crimes they have committed.

Empathy as a bridge between minds was proposed as a key element in literature, for both the reader and novelist with Rankin discussing how characters come alive only when both the reader and writer feel empathy towards that character. After an enlightening 90 minutes the audience was left with a strong impression of the interface between psychology and literature. Who won the debate? The jury is still out as Rankin and Wiseman's skillful handling of the topic opened up further questions to be pondered as we filed back out into the rain. A rematch has been promised though, so watch this space!

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