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Yesterday at our weekly RSA staff meeting we remembered with sadness and deep fondness our colleague Dr Emma Lindley who died at the weekend.

Emma was a member of our social brain team and in her relatively short time with us made a substantial contribution to our work and the life of the Society. Here is an extract from the tribute that one of Emma's colleagues read at the meeting:

' Emma’s writing voice had depth and reach; a mixture of academic acumen, personal openness and polemical flair. Her blog posts attracted considerable attention, leading to various important contacts and project openings. Her posts on “The Atheist hair club”  and the “The Importance of Art” were so evocative that Andrew Park of Cognitive Media illustrated them in the style of RSAnimate.  

While Emma enjoyed the public aspects of her job, her identity as a social scientist and researcher was primary and she really was Dr Emma Lindley. She devised at least six research proposals for funding, including an innovative research design to determine whether talking to strangers on trains improves wellbeing, devising strategies to help people with mental health conditions become entrepreneurs, and overcoming behavioural barriers that prevent more people from cycling.  

Before she went on sick leave earlier this year, Emma was becoming increasingly confident, autonomous, and hungry for more responsibility. This confidence was reflected in being lead author of a commissioned think piece on societal attitudes to ageing: “What older people want: Sex, Skydiving and Tatoos” and Emma found herself talking about it on BBC’s ‘You and Yours’ programme shortly after it was published.'

On the tube to work I was thinking about Emma and the fine-grained way she thought about the social world. Trying to look through her humane but analytical eyes, I realised how much there is to observe and think about.

In simple control and order terms the rush hour works pretty well. People wait for others to get off before boarding themselves, it is relatively rare for trains to be held up because people are blocking the doors and the basic courtesies like standing up for a pregnant woman are generally observed. People understand and accept the norms and don't want to defy them.

But where responsibility is less clear, there are collective action problems. Crowded compartments are never quite as full as they might be because people don't move as close to others as they could or they keep rucksacks on their back rather than putting them on the floor; yet the people failing to take responsibility should surely feel for the plight of those left standing on the platform.

More importantly, as Emma observed, we take up only a fraction of the opportunities for sociability that public transport could enable. Around a half of the people in my compartment yesterday morning had on headphones, were interacting with their mobiles or both. I wondered why this seems so much more anti-sociable than reading a book or newspaper. The answer is that I can speculate about, or form a connection with, a stranger if I know what they are reading.

Someone was half way through Catch 22, someone else was reading the report of the Manchester United game I watched on TV the previous evening. Their activity provoked thoughts in my mind: 'Heller's novel has been on my must read list for years, I really should get round to it', 'how much of Man U's result was down to luck?'

Of course, these thoughts stayed in my head. The norm against engaging other passengers in conversation is powerful. Indeed by far the most frequent cause of people speaking out to strangers on the tube is to ask them - often irritably - to move up the carriage.

Yet, on the rare occasion that anyone has spoken to me - perhaps to tell me that are an RSA Fellow or, spotting that I have been to a football match, asking what the score was, I am always keen to respond warmly. These small interactions can be life enhancing. Regardless of their content, that they have been successfully accomplished makes us feel better about ourselves and the social world we inhabit.

On the tube we nearly all put on brave face, indeed I fear that most of us would try to avoid someone who seemed in mental anguish. But while we have no idea what is going on in other people's heads, we can be almost certain that a smile, a small act of kindness or an invitation to converse would do no harm and could make a small but powerful difference, especially to someone feeling anxious or lonely.

This sense of a missed opportunity to enrich social life, and the questions behind it, fascinated Emma both as a researcher and as someone acutely aware of how fragile our social existence can sometimes feel.

Emma has gone but we are determined that her way of seeing and thinking will live on in our work.

 

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