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

New Image

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.

Advertisements

75. Feeding jokes and riddles into Multivac.

WP_20140823_006

 

Because I’m worth it.

 

Obviously I can’t say anything about it, but I’ve been on Jury Service. I’d love to tell you all about the case but I can’t. Suffice it to say, as a spectator experience, this beats soaps and reality shows and probably boxing too.

There are some things I just have to write down. There’s a lot of time hanging round in the jury waiting room, which is about as comfortable as a Ryanair departure gate. Though they do have daytime TV, it keeps being interrupted by the How to Be in a Jury DVD. Luckily one of the ushers is a stand up comedian and keeps popping in to try out material on the captive audience.

For some reason, jokes, like dreams, don’t seem to bed themselves into the memory banks very well. When it’s time to remember a joke to tell, the memory just vanishes. Isaac Asimov based a whole short story, ‘Jokester’, on this premise, concluding that jokes were part of a psychology experiment carried out by aliens.

This time I resolve to write them down straight away.

A man comes into the doctor’s surgery.

‘Doctor, I think I’m a moth’.

‘You really need a psychiatrist rather than a GP’

‘Yes, I know, but your light was on’.

No-one laughed apart from me. That’s a bit worrying, since the jury is one of the very few occasions where a random sample of the population has been assembled. Is my sense of humour, statistically, a bit odd? Everyone seems very normal, at least compared with the people I normally meet. Perhaps they have heard it before, or perhaps its because I like psychiatrist jokes more than the average person. Perhaps I am tuned in to contrasts: here’s an ultra sober setting, a Crown Court where people are being tried for sex crimes and murder. And here’s one of the court officers, dressed in a gown, telling gags. Humour often arises out of adverse situations, but why exactly? Why do people make sick jokes about Princess Diana or Fred West?

The usher announces further delays. We see one of the judges arrive in his Impreza and a flunkey goes out to open his door and hold an umbrella over him as he walks five yards to the court entrance. That would never happen in the NHS, not even for Lord Winston.

A man comes into a doctor’s surgery.

You should know I’ve got a rather unusual congenital problem

Tell me more about it

I was born with five penises

Hmm. That must make it difficult to get your trousers on

Actually, they fit… like a glove.

 

I laughed more than the others again, but I like stand up and even pay to see comedians live, which probably places me in a small minority of the population.

The usher pauses ever so slightly between the words ‘fit’ and ‘like’ in the punchline. For some reason that bit of timing is critical in adding humour, the split second somehow priming the laughter pump, like turbo lag. As he finishes the last line he turns and swoops out of the room in a grand exit.

Jokes and dreams. Why can’t we remember them? Is it a lack of concentration, which stops us filing them away properly, or do they just belong to a different part of the brain from the usual memory, like singing uses a different system from talking? Is there an equivalent of a Save command in the memory system, that somehow doesn’t always get pressed?

There are many psychological theories about joke memory, including a rule that the very best jokes are the most difficult ones to remember. Maybe it’s because jokes are inherently discordant and can’t be processed into patterns. And perhaps humour offers a defence mechanism against discordant experiences, like horrific crimes.

I have a friend who races snails. He takes it very seriously. In fact he has one extremely fast snail that he enters for national competitions. For the snail Olympics, to make it even faster, he decided to improve the snails power to weight ratio by removing its shell. After this, it won its next race easily.

I asked my friend how he felt about it.

He said, great performance, although somehow… just a bit sluggish.

I’d like to think that a sense of humour is an asset in working with people with mental health problems. I used to think it was a moral imperative to state a witty remark if it happened to come into your mind. Nowadays though, especially with regard to some people’s interpretations of political correctness, the smart move is to keep it to yourself. No-one would be allowed regular comedy slots in an NHS department, not even dermatology. Even though you can buy a book called ‘The best ever book of dermatology jokes’ on Amazon.

Here’s a joke I found sent into a forum. You are meant to answer the question: Why does no-one trust a dermatologist? The answer is supposed to be ‘he keeps making rash decisions’. Instead someone has responded, in capitals:

BECAUSE THEY SAY YOU NEED A MOLE REMOVED WHICH CAUSES NO PROBLEMS AND INSTEAD LEAVE AN UGLY AND EVEN BIGGER SCAR

I don’t know why that’s funny, but it is. Discordant notes again I suppose. It doesn’t pay to overanalyse it.

At the end of ‘Jokester’, once it was revealed that jokes were nothing more than part of an experiment, humour was simply ‘turned off”. Was Asimov anticipating the PC movement, or was Jokester just a true story?