The Brain is Plastic

Edinburgh Book Festival, which takes over Charlotte Square Gardens and runs concurrently with most of the other Edinburgh festivals, always sounds more exciting to me than it is. When I get there, I’m always reminded that all it is, is a small-ish bookshop, a coffee shop and some tents where talks happen.

Fortunately, we had tickets for a talk, by Dr. Ben Goldacre who writes the Bad Science column for The Guardian newspaper, and now this book. Unfortunately, he missed his train.

So we began with what a lot of people may have seen as the support act, David McFarland, who has a book, Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs: The Question of Alien Minds. He turned out to be a wry and engaging speaker.

Then Goldacre arrived at last, and it was sort of like a lecture by A.J.P. Taylor being interrupted by a set from the Rolling Stones. Goldacre’s charisma and speed of delivery made him an adrenalin jolt after the slow-burn wit of McFarland. Not that he “blew him away”, just that the change of pace was refreshing.

Goldacre writes about how most science stories in the press are completely bogus. Real and interesting and important press releases are ignored while the media goes after fake scare stories, and the Daily Mail pursues its “Sysiphean task of dividing all the objects in the world into those which cause cancer and those which cure cancer.” Goldacre is adept at channelling his outrage at this into humour. He’s also devilishly handsome. Technically a nerd, but if he was cast in a TV show as a nerd you’d just  say, “Ah, they just got a handsome guy and gave him comedy hair.” Fiona has decided to add him to her roster of “husbands”.

Goldacre WAS in fact cast in a BBC3 popular science show, but deliberately scuttled the ship before it aired, because they wanted to not only dumb down and falsify the science, but obliterate the ethics. “I don’t know why they thought *I* was the guy to do that show for them,” he observed. TV science is in as bad a shape as newspaper science, mainly because the majority of TV makers don’t care, it seems to me. They care about having TV careers, whereas, being a doctor, Goldacre doesn’t need to worry about that. Do they care about good television? Perhaps, but only in the sense of that phrase: “Did you see Oliver Reed drunkenly vomiting a chair leg through Clive James’ skull? That was brilliant television.” At some point the idea that television should be a degrading freakshow took hold.

Meanwhile, questions were asked, and Goldacre discussed the giant evils of Big Pharma and the smaller-but-still-giant evils of alternative health scam artists, and harked back to fifty years ago. At this point David McFarland got the biggest laugh of the event:

“Fifty years ago, my father was a doctor. The drugs companies used to send him all these little samples. I asked him what he did with all these little samples. He said, ‘Well, they’re all more or less Vaseline, so I just put ’em in my hair.'”

After the event we swung by a charity book sale we’d heard about from friend Nicola of the Edinburgh Film Guild (the world’s oldest running Film Society, though I should stress than back in the ’30s they had to get by without Nicola). No film books, but some science ones. I grabbed, and am enjoying, The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. Two Incredible Stories:

Scientist Paul Bach-y-Rita invented a machine in the ’60s that let blind people see. They sat in a chair and operated a huge video camera. The camera was attached to a contraption on their back that stimulated their skin. The little vibrators would wobble away in places on the back corresponding to where the camera image was dark and held still for the light bits. Eventually the patient could “see” the camera image with their back, the way the victim of the torture device in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony can “read” the name of the crime being carved onto his body. But nicer.

“‘Jigamy’? What the hell is ‘jigamy’?”

“That’s my wife! She’s not wearing her glasses. She’s holding a bunch of flowers,” the blind people would say. Only this time, they’d be right.

The same Bach-Y-Rita guy helped out when a woman lost all her sense of balance after an overlong bout of cheap antibiotics. she felt like she was falling, all the time. Even when she did fall down, and was on the floor, she still felt like she was falling. Can you imagine how horrible that must be?

Victims of this disorder are known as wobblers, but you MUSTN’T LAUGH.

Bach-Y-Rita fixed her up with a big sci-fi helmet that could tell which way was up (I’m guessing spirit levels), wired to a patch that sat on her tongue (the tongue is incredibly sensitive because unlike most of the rest of us, it isn’t covered with a layer of dead skin). The tongue pad could be electrically stimulated in different areas, depending on where the patient’s head was. This replaced her faulty inner ear apparatus… with her tongue.

Not only could she now walk about, hop, and dance while wearing this preposterous contraption, but there was a short residual effect when she took it off. When she wore the device longer, the residual effect lasted MUCH longer. After a year of treatment, she is no longer a wobbler.

This is all just from chapter one… the book details how brain function may not be as fixed as has been thought. “The brain is plastic.” 

After the book sale, we dropped by producer Nigel Smith’s for a film meeting — which was really encouraging. A reader had looked over our current project, and loved it. This gave the whole thing a pretty upbeat feel, and we were able to make some positive plans for moving forward. Which reminds me, I have to write some director’s notes for the film.

I’ll shut up now.

14 Responses to “The Brain is Plastic”

  1. Hmmm. “Guilty Robtos,” eh? He has the air of a Replicant about him. Does he work for the Tyrell Corporation on the side?

  2. Hey — I was supposed to go to the book festival courtesy of Granta, but with the weather and th train/hotel prices I thought better of it. You make it sound so exciting, even if it is, as you say, a mere coffee shop…

  3. Well, the weather was pretty uninviting, turning the grounds into the Somme, but a handy boardwalk makes that OK. and you can be under canvas for most of it. A pretty nice relaxed hangout.
    Next time you’re thinking of coming, check if my spare room is free!

  4. I gave up on television science years ago when Horizon turned all fluffy!

    I still have fond memories of the time when even children’s television was exciting – being introduced to chemistry by Johnny Ball (I even got a chemistry set one Christmas with tons of noxious chemicals to play with! Yay!) or watching How!

    And there were tons of adult science docs exploring DNA and so on! Not to mention the Open University. The lectures might be dry discussions but I found them easier to follow before the trend of sexing up docs with visual effects came into fashion and eventually superceded content entirely under the flash.

    Now if you can’t have CGI dinosaurs or wacky effects nobody is interested.

    Luckily I’ve moved towards the internet now that I’ve found a series of lectures reading through Karl Marx’s Capital, classes from the University of Berkeley and a channel dedicated to the Open University on YouTube!

  5. Goldacre says the same thing — Horizon went soft, and the newspapers turned into comics. Everything’s available online, but people aren’t being led to it.

    I propose a series called Walking With Physicists, in which giant CGI and animatronic Nils Bohrs and Albert Einsteins roam the landscape, TALKING.

  6. “We strongly suppose Einstein’s shock of white hair was a warning signal to ward off any roaming bands of physicists who might be in the area trying to steal his ideas.”

    I suppose it doesn’t stretch reality as much as the “Einstein as matchmaker” film IQ!

  7. The entire purpose of historical celebrities is to play matchmaker in Hollywood movies! I look forward to the movie that drafts in Hitler to that end.

  8. Ben Goldacre is, in the manner of your Fiona, on my list of best pals just from reading his articles.

    It’s good to hear like-minded people bemoan the retreat of the once great Horizon from inspirational science teacher to fancy placard-waving doom monger. Why do program makers think we’re all attention-deficit simpletons? Is there a static image lasting longer than one tenth of a second or anything anyone says that isn’t visually represented for us like a slap on the head? Although, remembering AJP Taylor’s straight to camera monologues, there is something to be said for the occasional pictorial illustration. Watch the beautiful, stately documentary In The Shadow of the Moon for a glimpse of what Horizon used to be.

  9. For my sins, I’ve actually worked in TV science, and it’s much, much worse than anybody suspects. I well remember, with a shudder, one producer referring to “primary research” (because he liked the sound if it), when what he meant was an office boy Googling pub facts.

  10. Book Festival – good fairy cakes in cafe – good coffee as well. I tend to avoid the talks on the whole as it feels like paying publishers for their publiciy – snark !

    Science – v good blog

    crossing paws for project

  11. Maybe we’ll swing by the book fest again and have coffee and cakes. The talks don’t quite justify the nine quid you pay to hear them, but I can’t resist going to one or two.

  12. oh quite funny article over at bbc website on the sharklike actions of grey haired old dears jumping the queue for the talks !

  13. Heh. You have to watch those dears.

  14. The Brain is Plastic especially after watching Hearts for 40 years……

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