Ooh, look, shiny official Brain Awareness Day poster!
Phew. OK, my first lab report of the semester is away, out of my hands, done.
It was a tricky one to churn out: not because it was difficult to write, but because I have been rather busy. From Cambridge to Hastings, I have been running around a lot the last few weeks. But no matter – that’s what laptops are for, right?
I love my laptop. It means I can work pretty much everywhere. I have a little HP number (with a missing Alt key, but it’s still my baby). I hear stories of people’s laptops (particularly Macs) breaking down, but I have always used HP and they have never failed me (touch wood!)
I’ve been writing on the tube, in cafés, in museums, in bed. I tend to get a lot of work done “on the run” – I’m sure a lot of students do, even if it’s “just” reading. I always have a book in my bag.
Recently, I’ve adopted the bed for doing work at home, because my desk in the living room is simply too close to the kitchen, and I find myself procrastinating. So, I prop myself up with four pillows, and arm myself with a cup of tea, and get a lot done.
Outside the house, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time at the Wellcome Collection, sitting in their café/restaurant. Not only do they have free wifi, but their caterers, Peyton and Byrne, produce delicious, wholesome food. I finally tried one of their Mainly Frosting cupcakes the other day…. Yum.
But where is your favourite place to get work done? Where do you usually study? What’s the WEIRDEST place you’ve set up in to get your work done? Maybe I’m not the only one who writes lab reports in museums!
Image credits: I took it. ME. MY cake.
That’s more like it! After having a rather disappointing time with Daniel Levitin last week, Oliver Sacks delivered. Like his famous The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (and most of his other books), Musicophilia follows various case studies – this time, evidently, all related to music. Sacks offers us a potted history of each of his patients, with touching personal insight into their plight. It feels to me that Sacks is getting more sensitive with age – he used to be accused of being too detached from the humanity of his patients, treating them as oddities rather than people, but Musicophilia defies this accusation. Sacks connects with his patients, and some of the passages are not only very poignant, but show Sacks’ deep admiration for their ability to overcome adversity, sometimes in ingenious ways.
To give an example, Sacks talks of the famous amnesic, Clive Wearing who, despite not being able to remember anything that has happened more than a minute or so ago, is still able to play the piano and organ with the same fluency and skill as he could before he suffered the brain damage he bears today (as a result of severe encephalitis). This musicality is Clive’s link to his “former self”, as attested to by his wife.
Sacks also relates strange tales of musical hallucinations, of amusia and musical dystonia. He lets us in to the musical world of people with Williams syndrome and of the musical savants. But for me, the most incredible and moving thing of all is the obvious relief that music brings: helping people with Tourettes to channel their energy, giving people with dementia a pathway to their past, giving rhythm and the gateway to movement to people with Parkinsons, and expression to aphasics, who are unable to connect with language in any other way.
I have a couple of very minor issues: firstly, with the fact that Sacks revisits a lot of previously covered cases (ones mentioned already in his other books, which he could then ask you to read as well), and secondly Sacks really over uses footnotes. There was a footnote ever few pages, and some were incredibly long. In fact, some pages were more footnote than main body text. However, as I said: minor issues. These did not detract from the book’s wonderfulness.
It is a beautiful book, tempering science with humanity, and giving us an insight into worlds far detached from our own – some cases may be familiar (the stories touching upon depression were quite uncomfortable for me) but others are other-worldly. It gives a true appreciation of the breadth of human experience, and the wonder of music that connects us all.
This has been on my “to read” list for literally years, but I have to be a honest: I was a little disappointed. It is by no means a bad book: it is a very, very good book. The simple problem is that it was so heavily “talked up” for me – I have had people telling me I have to read this book, it’s amazing, etc. etc. Even on the cover, Classic FM Magazine claims I will “never hear music in the same way again”. Huh.
So… You will excuse me if I found the whole experience a bit of an anticlimactic let down. I fell like I should reiterate my previous disclaimer: This IS a good book. I just did not feel it was ground breaking.
OK, so, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s focus on the positives.
Levitin writes a wonderful, clear and comprehensive guide to musical structure and basic theory. And more: he goes into the science behind how we process sound, and what it is about musical structure, above mere noise, that makes us sit up and listen.
It’s obvious that Levitin knows his stuff: as a music producer turned neuropsychologist, you would hope so. Unlike some music/science researchers, he uses practical, real-world examples, and offers to let you listen along on his website. This definitely brings Levitin’s sometimes theory-heavy text to life: I worry that without these working examples, he would lose the interest of the impatient lay-person.
Interestingly, Levitin doesn’t focus solely on music 100% of the time. He draws parallels with other human-specific phenomena, particularly language and art – I found this especially reassuring, because it makes the overall concepts of the book more accessible to non-musicians.
Levitin also touches upon many interesting neurological and developmental cases – amnesia, Williams syndrome, Aspergers. But he only touches. Not enough to satisfy. I find the same frustration that I felt with Pinker’s “Language Instinct”.
But one thing that Levitin returns to, several times throughout the book? p. 127 “As reported by Oliver Sacks…”, p. 243 “as Oliver Sacks describes it…”, p. 260 “…in a movie narrated by Oliver Sacks…”. Strangely, Sacks finds the book “Endlessly stimulating”, which the publishers chose to emblazon on the back cover.
A good, comprehensive and engaging read. But I don’t feel I learnt anything brand-spanking new.
I have a strange urge to read Oliver Sacks next…
Synaesthesia. What does this word mean to you? You may never have heard it before. You might have an inkling of what it means. You might be a synaesthete yourself.
Synaesthesia is (typically) Greek – it pretty much means “mixing of the senses”. There are many types, because we have many senses, and they can be mixed in a variety of different ways. The most common kinds are colour-grapheme synaesthesia and colour-auditory synaesthesia. Fairly self explanatory, but to clarify: colour-grapheme synaesthesia is when printed letters or numbers cause the synaesthete to experience particular colours (well, see above!) and colour-auditory synaesthesia is linked to music, voices or “noise” producing an experience of colours. The colours experienced are internally consistent: if a synaesthete experiences a middle C as blue, it is ALWAYS blue. If a sharp rap on the table is experienced as a flash of white light, then this will always be the case. That is not to say that all synaesthetes experience middle C as blue or a knock on wood as white flashbombs, but those are some examples.
Various neurobiological theories exist, trying to explain synaesthesia. The most popular is that synaesthetes have unusual, cross-sensory connections in the cerebral cortex, which have been “improperly pruned” during development of the nervous system. It’s difficult to know for sure, but what is certain is that these vivid, cross-sensory experiences are very real, and for more people than you might expect.
What advantage might it hold for synaesthetes? Well, a lot of incredibly creative people have utilised their quirk to their advantage: for example, the physicist Richard Feynman reported seeing equations in colour, which no doubt helped him to visualise his work (and may well have helped him win that Nobel prize!!). Kandinsky on the other hand claimed to be a colour-auditory synaesthete: he used music to illicit colourful tones in his minds eye, and utilised this as part of his artistic process, creating “visual symphonies“.
So what? It’s an interesting quirk, but why research it? It doesn’t seem to cause any harm, so why should neuropsychologists (including me, a mere student) be interested in studying it?
And here in lies the big question. What can what we know about synaesthesia help science in any way? Yes, it’s really interesting, but does it have any practical applications? This, according to Dr Jansari (with whom I had a meeting yesterday) is the big So What? We need to be able to answer that, in order to make a study out of it actually worth doing.
One possibility is that artificial synaesthesia (i.e. helped by computers) could be utilised by people with sensory deprivations, to help them experience the world in a more holistic way. Sounds impossible? Might not be – the intriguing Steve Mann (also known as Mann as Cyborg) started an experiment in the 1980s (using his weird and wonderful wearable computers) to map senses to other senses (synaesthetic synaesthesia, if you like) – such as experience sights as sounds, and so forth. This has made very slow progress (or at least seems to – Mann’s own website is a bit of a shambles and it is very hard to get any information on him), but you may have, in the past couple of years, about a gadget that allows blind or visually impaired people “taste sight”. The concept is phenomenally weird, but most reports I’ve read have said that it is actually pretty effective.
So there might be a point to researching synaesthesia, after all, beyond my natural British obsession with the weird.
So, are you a musical synaesthete? Do you see colours or shapes when you hear music? Or do you know anyone who is? I would love to hear from you!
I went back to South Kensington again yesterday. After my trip to the Science Museum, I came back home, pottered around for a bit, and then went to the Science Museum’s Dana Centre.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t know much about Dana before I went there tonight. But the event, No Pain, No Gain, popped up on my twitter feed a couple of nights ago, and I thought, “Why not?” It looked interesting – pain is something we all experience, and with three different speakers, we were bound to be in for some fun.
The Dana Centre is very cute – not what I expected at all. What I expected was a lecture theatre or hall or stage or something more formal. Instead, there was d. cafe and a load of chairs, with some temporary staging for the speakers to sit on. It was very relaxed and informal, with people supping glasses of wine and positively taunting me with their chips (I resisted getting some – go me).
There was quite a mixed bag in terms of audience members: some were obvious students (with varying degrees of eagerness), some were just Londonites looking for an alternative evening out. Some (as it transpired in the Q&A session following the talk) were even trained professionals: notably, there was a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist sitting across from me.
All in all, there was a really good atmosphere prior to the talk, so I settled down and prepared myself.
Promptly at 7pm, the speakers arrived on stage.
First, the facilitator Andrew Rice (Professor of Pain Research, Imperial College London) gave us a general introduction, with a brief overview of why people are interested in studying pain. There are obviously many different types of pain – acute, chronic, and then the weirder kinds like Phantom Limb pain and pain which causes pleasure (either inflicting or receiving it).
That over, he introduced the first speaker, Julie Keeble of King’s College London. She seemed to be full of nervous energy, which was quite exciting. What was more exciting was that she talked about her current research and clinical trials on TRPV1 blockers (TRPV1 is basically a protein channel that responds to noxious heat signals – in other words, when it gets activated and you feel a burning sensation!) She briefly summed up current drug treatments for pain, with the respective pros and cons. She drew attention to chronic pain problems, such as rheumatoid arthritis, and how the current drug treatments for this are not ideal. But if you can block the pain signals in the first place… A tricky balance: you don’t want to block ALL pain signals, otherwise you won’t realise when your cup of tea is too hot, and end up burning your throat. Hence the ongoing research. It sounds promising, and I hope to hear more soon.
Next up was another Imperial bod, Praveen Anand of the Imperial College London Pain Centre. His slides had far more neurosci jargon, and I think he may have tried to cover more bases than he had time allotted to him… But it was fascinating none the less. He brought to light some interesting factlets, like the multiple uses for some common SSRIs – not only do they treat depression, but they have some effectiveness in treating diabetic foot pain. Who knew? Well, he did, obviously… And, chillis activate the same nerve channels as heat signals. Whilst chillis don’t actual change the physical temperature of your mouth, they do provoke the same nerve patterns! The same is true for mint –> cold.
He briefly discussed congenital insensitivity to pain and erythromelalgia, but unhelpfully the facilitator and some of the “backstage crew” interrupted him a couple of times to ask him to wrap it up, which did distract me a little bit. I know why they were doing it, but it was a bit frustrating.
Finally, we had the lovely Katja Wiech from the University of Oxford. She was great fun: I have to be honest, I think she was my favourite speaker, but I may be slightly biased as she was the one talking about the psychology of pain. She looked at the subjectivity of painful experiences, and what a sense of control can do to our tolerance of pain. She has conducted fMRI studies of religious versus atheist subjects, and found significant differences between the distress experienced in either group when in pain. The data suggests that by “passing control” over the God, the religious participants where less distressed by pain than their atheist counterparts. Different areas in the brain are active whilst the participant is in control (or has given over control to someone they trust) than when they feel out of control of their pain. Weird.
After we’d done our clapping, there was then a half hour Q&A. Topics covered included the activity of synthetic drugs (and why more “messy” drugs like naturally derived opiates, cannabinoids etc. are more favourable), the gender divide on pain experience, brain plasticity and age, and… guess what…
I asked a question.
“Right at the beginning of the evening, you mentioned masochism but none of the speakers touched upon the subject at all. I was wondering if any of you had any insights into this phenomenon.”
And they did. It was wonderful, and they spent a fair amount of time discussing it. Apparently, it’s quite a hot topic at the moment, so I may have to do further reading, but research has shown that certain levels of pain do actually make pleasure centres in the brain fire – it’s not purely psychological, but may have basis in biology. A possible dissertation topic, perhaps?
A thoroughly good evening, and I’m sure I will go again. I even suggested possible future themes on my feedback form.
The Dana Centre is on Queen’s Gate, a stones throw from NHM and SciMus, in South Kensington. Most events are free, but you do need to book tickets in advance. There’s a handful of space-related talks coming up – not really my forté but I’m sure they’ll be bang on, if the talk I went to is anything to go by.
Oh, and who knew that NHM goes green during the night?