86. Setting food on fire: not really politics and not really science.

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Warning: hair fires are getting more common.

Behavioural activation is one thing, but most therapists wouldn’t recommend attacking a breakfast cereal cafe in Shoreditch with fire torches, even if such action seemed to strike at the heart of the neoliberal orthodoxy. As a child, I remember putting various kinds of food on to an open fire to see how well they burned. Result: cereals burn extremely well. Discussion: a packet of Ricicles with the top torn off is virtually a Molotov Cocktail. Have people learned nothing from the great fire of London?

There must be better ways of challenging gentrification. Karl Marx spent years in the great reading room at the British museum, working out how to win the class struggle. Possibly he over-thought the whole thing, but direct action against muesli wasn’t on his agenda.

As the person next to you in the waiting room might say, let me tell you about my latest hallucination. I was half asleep at the time, so the experience would be of no interest whatsoever to a psychiatrist. ‘Hypnagogic’ or ‘hypnopompic’, both suitable names for an electropop band or a small disco in Albufeira, are words to denote an experience that occurs when you are just dropping off or waking again. Such things are firmly in the ‘that’s- yawn-normal’ category and would only rate a single line on page 119 of a psychopathology textbook, even if anyone was still writing those.

Anyway, here’s what it was like. It was a circular image, on the lower half of my left visual field. It was brightly coloured but hard to make out. There seemed to be a mountain and on top of the mountain something like a person. There was no sound, but somehow the words ‘good works’ became associated with it, though the words were not spoken.

That’s it. But what to make of it? A trip to the slightly-over-intimate optician at Specsavers, or start a new religion?  One explanation of why we dream is to allow the rehearsal of potential responses to feared scenarios. Primitive peoples would have dreamt of being attacked by wild animals but now we dream about how we would turn the water off if the pipes burst – you may have different nightmares, but you should still install service valves for each appliance.

In the dream scenario, we appear to be paralysed and unable to take necessary action. This is supposed to be because these dreams occur in REM sleep, when the body’s motor system has been taken off-line for maintenance. But this is not helping me interpret my vision. It’s unlikely that a man on a technicolor mountain will give me instructions, if only because there are no mountains where I live, unless you count the coal tips at the power station.

Good works could mean a number of things, but I’m sensing the gist of it as behaving more constructively or generously or just more usefully. At the very least ‘good works’ means I’m not going to pursue my latest business idea, which is a range of homeopathic soups, provisionally titled ‘Memories of Heinz’. And it probably means stopping putting opportunistically low best offer bids on ebay items, just in case the seller is desperate to raise money.

Decades ago, I remember Father Higgins causing a stir when he seemed to go against the idea of Prayer. I think what he said was that you are judged on what you do, not what you think or say. Looking at that now, it doesn’t seem too controversial, following all the scandals that hit the churches. People were clearly behaving badly yet talking sweetly to the boss.

At a meeting this week I found myself in the coffee queue, behind an eminent colleague. I noticed him place his cup just slightly off beam below the dispensing nozzle, so that he got the full quota of frothy milk, but none of the squirt of coffee, which comes out about an inch to the left of centre. I watched the coffee spurt to the side of the cup and I watched him not notice. I watched him take a slurp of his coffee and complain it didn’t taste of anything. Why didn’t I say something? Answer: too much thinking and not enough behaviour, just like Karl Marx.

Getting the balance right between thinking, emotions and behaviour is what therapists do – on diagrams. The point of my dream, I think, is that behaviour comes first and we should help colleagues operate coffee machines even if they work for NICE.

Lots of strands of information feed into our dreams. If ‘good works’ means something to do with behaving better, then it does chime with some of the stuff I wrote about last year. I suggested that behaviourism had been abandoned prematurely in favour of cognitive approaches. I suggested that Art and Music and other skills therapies had been neglected in favour of talking. And I praised hunter / gatherer activities, or pottering, which is the natural human condition. I attempted to steal Nike’s slogan ‘just do it’ to symbolise putting the B back into CBT.

People are abandoning old assumptions about how to protect against sadness and anxiety. They are resorting to eclecticism and mixtures of lifestyle improvements and increasingly, to apps connected with social contact and fitness. Not to mention the people who are connecting batteries to special hats to improve their exam performance, or using Nitrous Oxide to make TV more enjoyable.

This is heretical, but merely running for miles is not a good work. That is why athletic activities have to be artificially and laboriously associated with charitable causes before they acquire a moral value. This is even more heretical but I venture to suggest that neither knitting nor chatting nor a combination of the two are intrinsically valuable activities. It’s easy to say what isn’t a good work; much harder to say what is. Here are my first thoughts on the matter, in the form of a multiple choice question.

Which of the following is a Good Work?

Donating one of your spare copies of Songs about Jane by Maroon 5 (statistics show there are on average 2.6 copies per household) to Cancer Relief.

A mindfulness based breathing exercise, such as blowing up a balloon, pausing to enjoy the pleasing tension in the larynx and the slight dizzy sensation caused by lowered pH.

One short burst of primal screaming followed by a cigarette

Writing down a negative thought using lemon juice as invisible ink, revealing it with a hair dryer and then burning it

Playing the Killers’ song ‘Everything will be alright’.

A friend tells me the man on the mountain sounds like Moses, the person who probably invented bullet points and coined the word ‘covet’. Moses set fire to lamb at times but not I think as part of an informal science experiment.

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