Friday, 7 October 2016

Finely honed machine.

If the fan belt broke in your car the whole car might stop working. If the battery goes flat the car won't go. Your alternator, again, could be the cause of the breakdown. There are many parts that make up a car engine and, even though the car will still run during minor problems, you need them all to be working for the car to work properly.

It's much like that in your brain. Except there's way way more parts to your brain - and you can't see them. There are 9,200,000,000 nerve cells alone and each of these has several protruding parts to it. Each protrusion on each nerve cell can, in theory, make a connection with any other. They don't, obviously, but they could. It is estimated there are more potential connections in your brain than there are atoms in the entire known universe.

It's with baffling statistics like that that Dr Ashok Jansari starts off his rather unwieldily titled "Never Mind The Neuro-Bollocks:An Attemped Navigation Through All That Neuro-Stuff That Is Thrown At Us!" at Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub. I'd feared, by both the subject and the title, that it'd be an over long and somewhat confusing talk but in the name of self-improvement, and curiosity, I headed down anyway. I wasn't the only one. It was standing room only.

Dr Jansari's introduction on the Greenwich SitP website went on a bit. It was more like a job application with links to previous work he'd done, mentions of his ability to speak Gujarati, his identical twin brother, and his frankly extraordinary account of having visited Venice 45 times. I took two pints in to the talk in preparation and although the talk was a little long I only needed to pee once.

Lengthy it may've been but it wasn't dull. The doctor began with a brief history of neuroscience and neuropsychology. Presented in a manner that helped laymen like me understand. The general gist being that, in comparison to other sciences, it's very very new. We're at the baby steps stage.

In ancient Egyptian times there was some thought about how the brain works but then nothing really developed until the mid-19th century with French physician Paul Broca. Broca was perplexed by a patient who'd come to him who could only say one word - 'tan'. In fact it was more of a guttural noise than a word but the patient came to be known as Tan.

If asked mathematical questions Tan could answer them using his fingers. He could nod his head and he could remember things. His brain was clearly working in many ways but the part of it that formed speech somehow wasn't. This was the beginning of the understanding that different parts of the brain perform different purposes.

Dr Jansari was very keen to put an end to the fallacy of the left brain and the right brain. It's not as neatly carved out as that. Areas of the brain do 'light up' when receiving certain stimulus but these can be scattered about all over the cranium. Lighting up can also occur for other reasons so further research is clearly needed in this area and studies are, as yet, inconclusive.

This is where the neuro-bollocks part of the talk came in. Because research is so expensive to carry out very little has been done leading some in the past to progress with ideas that are yet to be fully tested or peer reviewed. The science of the brain may be moving fast but not fast enough for some. Dr Jansari urged caution.

He spoke about a couple of his patients and their particular cases. One lady would forget who he was if he left the room for over a minute. She knew she liked watching Eastenders and she remembered how to make a cup of tea. When she was given a mobile phone she was able to learn how it worked. When asked later she'd claim not to know what the phone was. But as soon as she got a reminder on it to make a cup of tea she picked it up, acknowledged the message, and went off to the kettle. Clearly the part of her memory that performed tasks was fine but the part that could relate them was damaged.

This brought Dr Jansari to an interesting point. He divested me of my notion that long term memory consists of remembering things from years back or one's youth. Short term memory relates to what you're doing right there, right then. Long term memory begins as soon as you stop doing that thing. I was working this morning and I went to the shop to buy a paper and some crisps about an hour ago. That stuff is now in my long term memory.

Another patient had developed, after an accident, prosopagnosia. An inability to recognise faces. Shown a picture of, then PM, Tony Blair he had no idea who he was. Quite a lot of you would probably think this a good thing. But this wasn't a protest against the Iraq war. He simply had no idea who he was. Shown a famous photo of Marilyn Monroe it took him about seven seconds to identify her. I chose the word identify rather than recognise for a reason. People with this condition simply look for clues. He knew in his mind Marilyn Monroe had blonde hair and big red lips. The person in the photo had the same. Essentially it was a lucky guess. None of us are above it but few of us have to resort to it so often.

Accidents and head trauma made up a fair part of the talk. From the US athletes retiring in their thirties as millionaires but with dementia from continued bangs to the head to Fred West and Mohammed Emwazi (better known as Jihadi John) who both received severe head injuries in their youth and changed from normal youngsters to the infamous murderers they eventually became.

Clearly not everyone who gets clattered on the bonce by a cricket ball is going to start beheading infidels or raping and murdering their own family but it does suggest further research into this area could be massively beneficial to humanity as a whole. Even if these two, rather stark, examples are more correlation than causation it'd make sense to do the research and try to find out.

A talented and enthusiastic speaker Dr Jansari made a great advocate for the importance of the work done in the fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology. I doubt many would argue. Towards the end he moved into the fields of meditation and mindfulness which I find a little more problematic. The tiniest hint of religiosity and I'm out. If he was, as I think, talking about spending time entirely in the moment, focused on the thing you're doing right there and then, I think he's on to something. I don't see why an industry needs to be built round it. I think it's something we can all take time out to do occasionally and I hope that I do do that.

Thinking about 9,200,000,000 nerve cells hardly relaxes the brain but coming along to these enlightening, interesting, and fun Skeptics talks certainly gives it a good workout. As I strolled back to Cutty Sark DLR station in the crisp, autumnal air I really felt the benefit of that workout.

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