Tuesday, September 19, 2006

'Writer in Residence' at the Institute for the Future of the Mind (part 2)

Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams (who is also a pretty wonderful poet) took up last week's call to investigate the effects that modern living has on our children's mental health.

While I was at the institute last week a letter Professor Baronness Susan Greenfield had signed, together with 109 others, was taken up by the media. It had also been signed by eminent children's authors such as Jaqueline Wilson and Philip Pullman. In essence the letter expressed concern about the effect today's lifestyle was having on children. It reminded me of a post I saw on Minx's blog(scroll down to Sept 7th) about a child who couldn't or wouldn't talk due to overexposure to the television - which I guess must be an extreme example but a salutory lesson to us all.

As a result of this letter there was an article on the front page of the Daily Telegraph and Susan Greenfield was interviewed on the Today programme on Radio 4 (by telephone from her office by the side of my desk), and then on various TV and radio programmes throughout the day (see here for links). At around lunch-time she was whisked off to London and ended the day on Newsnight on BBC2 - about 17 hours after her first interview in the morning. An exhausting day, I should think, but very interesting (for me, at least) to observe. Apparently a session on the Today programme usually leads to such frenetic activity, and that is part of the remit of the Insititute - the engagement of the public with science.

Martin, meanwhile, was a support to her in all this but even so managed to show me a powerpoint presentation he has given to groups across the country. This included footage showing the effectiveness of an electronic devices which had been implanted into the motor centres of patients suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Half way through the film the device was turned off and the patient who had hitherto been walking quite steadily started shuffling and careering around; while another who had been successfully threading small wooden shapes through rods started to shake so much that all control was lost. It was dramatic and quite moving. It must be very gratifying for a surgeon to know that he or she can make such an incredible difference to the quality of a person's life.

But it wasn't just surgery that could affect a cure. Martin then showed me a man shuffling along slowly, weaving a little from side to side with his head down - until he reached the head of a line of paper sheets spread out along the floor. As soon as he saw these his stance was transformed. He stood upright and marched confidently and quickly along - but only until the end of the paper squares whereupon he would again assume the stance of the Parkinson's patient. Apparently this effect has been mimicked using patterns of blocks on spectacles but it only works in a proportion of Parkinson's patients. Interestingly the technique was initially thought to help more but the effect wore off in some patents after several weeks. The conclusion was that being the centre of attention can in itself be something of a temporary cure.

A little more care and attention may have been the reason that on second day I received no ghostly phone messages. When at lunch time I checked to find out if all was well an enraged relative answered the phone: '29 out of maximum of 30!' he announced, 'She's been having us on.'

Apparently a mental health nurse had visited in the morning to carry out an assessment - and when presented with the possibility of confinement in a hospital the confused ghost had returned to the land of the cognisant with spectacular rapidity - performing the small mental tasks required of her with impressive fluency. So that was a big relief.

It seems to me that the brain is a hugely mysterious organ and the more we learn the more there is to learn. It is like that bottomless purse in fairy tales - but instead of being a dependable source of a few coins this one holds a more substantial stash that is continually becoming heavier.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Clare,

Personally I think the brain can get tired too, just like any other part of the body - and why not?

There's short term tiredness, with which we are all so familiar - a day, or half day of extreme concentration that leaves us flummoxed and confused.

Then, there's also life and age. Everything gets tired and so quickly. Muscle reaction is the most noticed, but is that all? Lung capacity withers and calls for help sometimes. Liver and kidneys also, so why not the brain?

Surely the body's control centre can also get tired once in a while? But with the capacity to have a rest and be replenished? Although others may find replenishment a thought they cannot even imagine...

Tue Sept 19, 10:31:00 pm  
Blogger Lee said...

'It seems to me that the brain is a hugely mysterious organ and the more we learn the more there is to learn.'

Almost the same words as those of the neurosurgeon I recently mentioned. Fascinating, yet daunting when coming from a man who opens the skull on a nearly daily basis.

Wed Sept 20, 09:15:00 am  
Blogger Susan said...

I'm so happy to hear that the lady is not as ill as was feared! Perhaps she is dehydrated much of the time? I recall that happening to my mother...Fortunately, it came upon her so quickly that I knew to reject the speculation that it was "very common in older people". I insisted that it was something else, an open-minded doctor listened to me and intravenous fluids subsequently changed the picture radically.

I want to share a little computer lesson with you, Clare. I'm not very good on the computer, so I ask for help everywhere I go. I got this via Douglas of Crossword BeBop and Debra of Deblog....

The method for making links to particular posts (i.e., not just the blog itself): At the bottom of any given post there's a 'permalink'. Debra's are marked 'permalink', yours and mine just show the time of day. Right click on either and choose the option "copy shortcut". That will give you a link to exactly the post you're referencing. (Excuse my offering advice where none is asked, but I was glad to learn this myself!)

Wed Sept 20, 09:00:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes CFR, I agree, the brain does get tired - mine certainly does, anyway! I've found out a little about this - how the neurons lose connections as we age.

Lee: Brain surgeon is like the profession astronaut in most people's minds, I believe - the pinacle of achievement.

Thank you Susan! Very useful information - I shall copy it out and put it in my file on useful computer tips which I keep on my desk top.

I think it was the potassium levels at fault in this case - but I expect
this has a similar effect to dehydration. When you think of all that could go wrong it is a wonder so many of us manage to work at all.

Wed Sept 20, 09:58:00 pm  

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