83. Bandwagon for sale, very low mileage.

A concrete windswept piazza, early in the morning, before the philosophers arrive.

I tried to warn the Liberal Democrats about the negative halo effect that occurs when anyone talks about mental illness in the media. As soon as the talk gets round to mental health, people become upset and change channel, without even knowing why. Not only that but they get grumpy and choke on their pop tarts. The reaction is deeply intuitive, like a brain stem reflex.

The Libs banged on about mental illness affecting one in four of us and needing to be put on the same footing as physical illness services, eliminating suicide etc, just as though they hadn’t read this blog. They didn’t listen and now they are a burned out ruin on the hard shoulder of politics.

Though the halo effect has been known for more than 50 years, this has not stopped a succession of doomed public awareness campaigns such as ‘defeat depression’.

We know that mental health information is perceived as toxic, but no-one has adequately explained why.

Since Shirley Star’s studies of public opinion in fifties USA, the consistent findings have been that people with mental illnesses are regarded as dangerous and unpredictable. Presumably, so too are violent criminals, but they get massive media coverage and scrutiny. Most likely, the ingredient that puts people off dealing with mental health is having to try and understand it. Once you start to think about it, even if you’re in the business, there’s a large parcel of mental work to be done before you can process the information.

For instance, drawing the line between unhappiness and depression, separating personality disorders from illnesses from disabilities, let alone facing the mind brain problem. We’re pretty quickly into Melvyn Bragg territory, but without his panel of expert communicators.

It’s exactly the same for other specialists. A motor mechanic recently tried to explain to me – in some detail – about what had gone wrong with the car’s air conditioning. I remember the phrase ‘wobble plate’, but to be honest that’s the only thing I can tell you about it now. I’ve had to abandon any smug pretensions to knowing my way round a Compressor. Though I will, soon, find an opportunity to say the words ‘wobble plate’, somehow or another.

I’d compare the negative halo to the effect of encountering a protest demonstration in a shopping centre.  First instincts are to avoid it, not particularly in case of violence, but more in case you are called upon to examine a complex issue, like whether a remote area of a foreign country has been shabbily treated. Thinking is the last thing you want to do in the Arndale Centre. But it’s the kind of thing you might do by listening to Radio 4 at about 8pm, alone in your car on a smooth stretch of highway. But then that’s your choice, if you’re in the mood for mental activity.

Outside the police station, a large sign reads PRIDE. I’m going slowly enough to recognise that PRIDE is an acronym – after each capital letter is a smaller word. Subliminally, I perceive the words to be: Pride, Respect, Integrity, Dedication and Empathy. Are these virtues (or sin, in the case of pride) really top of our list of desirable qualities in a police service? Surely, these are not the words you want to hear when the machetes are waving and the AKs start popping.

Having said that, I’ve had no success in weaving an acronym from the words, Taser, Cuffs, Tear-Gas, Smith, Wesson, Court and Prison.

Doubtless the police have their reasons for presenting themselves as social workers, such as the diminished number of real social workers. And obviously they have to try and maintain the moral high ground. Nevertheless, my brain stem reaction to the PRIDE sign was: misguided PR campaign. People are proud of the police because they stand up to horrible people, not because they are empathic. Bad Boys 3 will not be subtitled Good Boys.

The negative halo effect cannot be countered by dressing things up. On the contrary, we are set on guard most acutely by any hint of deception. Very large and fast neural systems are devoted to spotting trickery. It takes a lot of considered reflection to counteract such defences, which means weighing things up carefully. The very thing that stresses out the wobble plate.


26. Irregular conjugating with The Boss.

EP is on vacation this week, so this piece is being carved painstakingly onto an Android phone. I’m hoping that predictive text will take over at any moment and finish the last few paragraphs. If it works as usual the message will mutate dramatically and suddenly – for instance changing the word ‘many’ to ‘knuckle’ and ‘stifado’ to ‘Ericsson’. Most likely it will choose to finish off this piece with stock text such as Portia’s speech from The Merchant of Venice.

As a remedy for insomnia I watched a BBC World program about the dismantling of the German nuclear industry. Surprisingly, I found it completely fascinating. And it was then I realised that I am just about ready to start attending school.

Unfortunately, during the years I attended school, I was not ready for it. The problem seems to be this: education, work, sport and entertainment have been artificially separated and parcelled out unevenly to different age groups. So we have no entertainment at school, no work for young adults and no sport for older people.

For depressed people we recommend a mixed diet of behaviour, to include physical, mental and social stimulation. Such a mix is hard to achieve for large sections of society. Perhaps we should start by merging the goverment departments for Universities, Science, Employment, Culture and Sports to create a giant Ministry of Constructive Pastimes. Think David Willets, on a bobsleigh, playing flute.

In anticipation, universities are putting famous professors and lecturers on line, so that thousands of people can benefit, rather than just the few dozen students that can fit into a lecture theatre. The movement is called MOOC, or massive line open courses.

Educationalists have gone against the lecture as a means of communication, apparently because the average student retains only about 10% of the content. However, this figure can increase substantially in certain conditions, such as when exam questions are being ‘hinted’, when the lecturer is particularly charismatic, or by interweaving multimedia.

For instance, if Bruce Springsteen could be persuaded to lecture on irregular German verbs, strumming gently and occasionally singing a line or two, we would not be such dunces at language.

The trend toward mass market lecturing means a blurring of the traditional boundary between education and entertainment. For me, the importance of this is the prospect of a better deal for schoolchildren.

At present, children’s rights are subordinated to those of adults. For instance, chidren are compelled by law to attend school. They are forced to follow a national curriculum. Large group teaching is the norm, mainly because it is very cheap. Children endure a bargain basement approach to education that has increasingly sold out to child minding.

Adults no longer tolerate compulsory military service and cannot be compelled to work in mills. Many more are watching natural history or discovery channels and starting to enjoy finding out new information.

The coercive approach to schooling is relatively recent and followed the industrial revolution. In the UK children start school as young as age 4, so they are exposed to harshness, compulsion and judgementalism at just the wrong age. Here, for many, begin the roots of fear and helplessness that darken their perception of the world.

Children might prefer a mixture of activities, including a bit of paid employment, . It seems absurd that there are no teenagers in the house of lords and that there are no toddlers on the boards of large companies, even as non-execs.

As the managers would say, there are a lot of potential synergies in merging education and entertainment. The mind’s operating systems for music and speech seem to use different brain structures. People often remember the words of songs much more easily than prose or poetry. Some stammerers can get words out much more easily if they begin them as though singing.

We are used to opera and musical theatre, where drama can occur as a mixture of words and music. Far more people go to musicals like Les Miserables than ever read the book.

Movies like ET, Gladiator and Close Encounters attracted enough customers to support orchestral music by top composers.

So adding a musical dimension to a learning experience is likely to etch deeper and longer lasting memories.

The scale of MOOC seems to present an opportunity to incorporate a quality musical soundtrack into lectures. Whereas Horizon programs make do with incidental music, MOOC lectures could afford to have a house band at the very least, if not a full orchestra in the pit.

If it looks as though I am merely suggesting replacing school with television, something that seemed to suit me perfectly during my tonsillitis years, then my answer is this:

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as gentle rain upon the Ericsson Stifado.