Sunday, September 17, 2006

'Writer in Residence' at the Institute of the Future of the Mind (part 1)

Just as I was arriving at the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford university my phone told me it had picked up voicemail from the home phone; five messages recorded at regular intervals. As I climbed the steps up to the building I listened: 'Clare...Clare...' The voice was confused, creaky and ghostlike. Each time this voice was followed by a pause and the receiver would go down, a few mutterings would follow and then the line would go dead. I knew who it was, of course.

On the train I had been reading about the brain in Susan Greenfield's book THE PRIVATE LIFE OF THE BRAIN. I had got to a place that described how important potassium and sodium ions are in making sure the electrical signal travels along the neuron - how they are pumped in and out and this is one of the things that makes the whole thing work. I had found this piece of information reassuring because if a person's potassium level had fallen then this would surely cause much confusion - and no doubt things would return to normal as soon as that potassium was regained.

After making a few phone calls and ensuring that all was well, at least for the time being, I went on with my day. I met Dr Martin Westwell, the deputy director of the Institute for the Future of the Mind, who seemed to put aside most of his week almost entirely for my benefit, which I much appreciated. We went for coffee at the top of the building which has a balcony and penthouse-like views and talked intensively about my work and his. One thing he said which interested me particularly was that they had found that scanned the brains of people who were being kept alive in a coma and found that talk of activities such as tennis caused activity in the same parts of the brain as people who were fully functional.

This haunted me through the rest of the day and night. I thought about a remarkable book I'd read a few years ago called THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY written by Jean-Dominique Bauby - dictated very laboriously by a code involving the blinking of his eye since the author was suffering from 'locked-in syndrome' as a consequence of a stroke. Then I thought about the dying - how I'd heard that hearing was the last sense to go and have wondered many times how anyone knew - and Martin told me about the beheaded - how for a few seconds they would continue to live and remain conscious until the blood drained from the brain...

In earlier times there was a constant fear of being buried alive - there were known to be cases of people who were thought to be dead and yet 'came alive again' before burial. Maybe there are worse things than going mad. Maybe remaining sane is sometimes a more fearsome penalty.


Blogger mareymercy said...

Yikes - I hope you got some more enjoyable information at the Institute!

Sun Sept 17, 06:36:00 pm  
Blogger Marly Youmans said...

Oh, now you are ready to reread Poe, master of the “imitation of death”! Weird communication with the catatonic or the just-barely dead is right down his twisted alley of catalepsy and hallucination.

Sun Sept 17, 06:50:00 pm  
Blogger Susan said...

Normally I dream grocery lists, but this post is the stuff of nightmares! Reminds me of the Ecclesiastes bit about 'in much knowledge is much grief and he that increaseth knowledge..'

Sun Sept 17, 07:15:00 pm  
Blogger Lee said...

Welcome back! I've missed your posts.

From the entirely anecdotal but not unprofessional point of view of our GP, with whom I've discussed some of this: he finds that often the families of Alzheimer patients, for example, are often more distressed than the patients themselves. Naturally, one of the questions is how you determine and measure distress.

And just Friday I had dinner with a friend who is a neurosurgeon here at the university clinic, and we spoke exactly about these new findings concerning coma patients, but he was still sceptical whether this necessarily indicated true consciousness - whatever that may be in that 'black box' of the skull.

Mon Sept 18, 05:54:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So good to read your post - you certainly are learning some fascinating stuff - and weird - including the messages from home!!!

Mon Sept 18, 09:29:00 am  
Blogger Jonathan Wonham said...

So, how do they know hearing is the last sense to go when you die?

They ask people who have just had their heads cut off: if you can't hear me any more, nod.

The statistics are overwhelming.

Apologies in advance.

Mon Sept 18, 11:23:00 pm  
Blogger Lee said...

Joanathan, I've got to admit I wondered that too - though not with such humour (chuckling blackly, she says).

Tue Sept 19, 10:36:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, Susan, I didn't mean to give any of you nightmares - for my own rather miserable reasons I found this information important and very interesting.

Yes, Twitches, I have found out lots more information of a less bleak nature,

and Marlyat2 - I'm afraid I have never read any Poe, but I should, I know.

Thank you Lee - you keep some very interesting company. Consciousness is something that came up a lot last week - what is it, how is it defined. I think I know what it is - but how do I know? So often questions about the brain merge with the philospophical - a fascinating area...

and yes, weird is what I love Chiefbiscuit.

And Jonathan (and Lee again): I really don't know - but I have heard this so often I assume that the hearing centres of the brain have been monitored at such a time. I guess this might be a straightforward thing to do - but of course there is always that problem on analysis and interpretation you mentioned earlier Lee, the one about consciousness.

Thank you for all your responses - much more to think about here.

Tue Sept 19, 12:27:00 pm  

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