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Cognitive Column - June 2013

Well, it looks as if we finally have something like Spring. If I remember rightly, by this time last year we had already experienced weeks of hot, dry weather, and a hose pipe ban was in the offing. This year it has been so cool, and as a consequence has produced so few flowers, that my bees have only recently started multiplying again; the queen has just started to lay the eggs that, in a few weeks, will become worker bees. This means that currently the hive is surviving through the endeavours of old insects that have lived through the Winter; they cannot be expected to live much longer. It’s a hard life being a bee, and these days they seem to have a lot of factors working against them. For this reason it is good news that the EU has decided to test the effects of having a temporary ban on the neonicotinoid insecticides. There is some dispute as to whether these lead directly to bee deaths, but they are known to affect bee brains so, given the current precarious state of our pollinators, it seems sensible to see whether removing the insecticide from their environment has an impact upon bee numbers.

Annette and PatchHaving started on a cheery note, I would now like to share with you a very sad story. It concerns Annette Thomson, whom many of you are likely to have known. She was herself an OU Psychology graduate, going on to obtain a PhD and to become one of our most effective tutors (both as an AL and at Summer School). Some measure of her qualities can be judged from the fact that she was recruited by OUPS to teach at the annual Revision Weekend. Our Society has its pick of all the OU tutors, from up and down the country, but it reached as far as Scotland to get Annette. It was not simply that she was a very good communicator; she gave so much more. Whereas with many people there is a sense of being lucky if they will meet you even half way, with Annette the impression was of not having to move at all – she would do the reaching out as far as was necessary. If you never knew her, you will now at least have the sense of a generous and remarkably approachable person. I will not say a great deal more that is specific to Annette’s life, because I believe Richard Stevens will write a piece about her for the Newsletter; instead I will get on with my story.

As I have indicated, Annette lived in Scotland, together with her husband and two daughters – clever girls, one a student at Oxford, the other at Edinburgh. It was one of those close-knit, well-adjusted families, seeming to spread as much fun and happiness to others as they were News & Views June 2013 21 clearly experiencing themselves. One day, a few years ago, I heard from Annette that she had cancer. She went through the usual course of treatment with fortitude, and eventually emerged apparently free of the disease, to the extent that it became possible to let her routine checks become relatively infrequent. During this happy period, when everyone was breathing sighs of relief, she suddenly sent me terrible news; her daughter Clara, taking a music degree at Edinburgh, had been diagnosed with a brain tumour.

Brain tumours are difficult to treat, because it is nigh impossible to remove all traces without inflicting intolerable damage on the brain. Clara had an operation, which put an end to the headaches she had been suffering and enabled her to return to university, although playing her instruments became difficult, since the removal of brain tissue had impaired movement on one side, very much as experienced by some stroke patients. Nevertheless, this irrepressible girl soldiered on, supported by both university staff and the many friends she seemed so good at attracting. Sadly, this window of calm was short lived. The cancer reasserted itself and, when palliative care was all that remained possible, Clara came back to her family to die. During this period, Annette announced the return of her own cancer; mother and daughter were both dying.

Annette was determined to tend her daughter to the end, and even managed to get through the snow to the graveside. Three weeks later, she too was buried. Clara’s funeral had reflected her nature and popularity; in her mother’s words, the service was full of light and love. The church was overflowing, with between four and five hundred attendees, large numbers from her old school, where she had been head girl, and a contingent from her university, where the flag flew at half mast. Her mother’s service was a rerun, and the church was filled once more with the many whose hearts had been touched by this family. The service, the Bible readings and the hymns, all were identical, just as mother and daughter had planned them to be.

The burial took place away from the church, in a country graveyard. Annette was laid to rest beside Clara, a few short paces from the red sandstone walls of an ancient Cistercian abbey, its ruined fabric bestowing a tranquil solemnity. At evening time the lengthening shadows of the mullioned window frames, long glassless, reach out to embrace the graves, until eventually all becomes dusk, as the sun dips behind the grey-green hills beyond. These were the hills where Annette walked with her dog Patch, and where I too once walked with her.

Annette and I shared a love of Bach, and standing by the graveside, the strains of the final movement of the Saint Matthew Passion were running through my head. This is not simply the poignant conclusion to what is arguably Bach’s finest choral work; it is intended as a farewell to the Christian Messiah, following the crucifixion. Annette described herself as “agnostic, nearly falling off the edge of Catholicism”, but she knew that the Requiem she and Clara had planned would serve a powerful ameliorative role. The priest spoke superbly and, as Annette’s husband Norris put it, everything was about celebrating a life, rather than mourning a death. Nevertheless, so many people voiced their sense of injustice that so much tragedy should be visited upon such a good family. Throughout these sad proceedings the final couplet of Romeo and Juliet came repeatedly to mind: For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo. They too had been a duo (albeit probably fictional) who had met an untimely end. Yet surely the story of Annette and Clara was even more woeful. The deaths in Shakespeare’s play had at least mended the feud between their warring families; the deaths of the two women we remembered in Scotland that day had sundered a united, loving family. In fact this family had continued strong throughout, brimming with mutual support; Norris and Rosanna still maintained a calm dignity, with warm smiles and welcoming words for all. I had been asked to read one of the Bible passages in the service, a famous section from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, concerning faith, hope and love. Its message is that love has the power to outlast everything and to transform the mundane into the invaluable. This, I believe, is what underpinned all that was good in the Thomson family. The qualities they had, those characteristics that made fate seem so especially, unjustly cruel to them, were the very qualities that enabled them to weather this long and tragic storm.

If you were fortunate enough to have met Annette, you will not need to be told that she loved the OU, it’s staff and its students, but she wanted me to let you all know how happy she was to have met and worked with you.

In my last Column I commented upon the shocking news of patient neglect in NHS hospitals. I described the nurses as failing to show the human quality of altruism, but of course another label for this would be love, of the kind I was referring to above. There is talk now of training nurses to have compassion, as if it is a skill, rather than the natural aspect of personality that traditionally motivated so many girls (it was usually girls) to become nurses. In other words, the intention is to run a mechanistic, pressured NHS, designed to squeeze out all tendency to spontaneous kindness, then make compassion just one more task to be learned and performed, like delivering medicine. Who dreams up this distressing nonsense?

I have recently been lecturing on a hypnosis training course and also attending a hypnosis conference; both were excellent opportunities for catching up on recent findings and practice. Professor Leslie Walker described how, several years ago, he became interested in using hypnosis to assist cancer patients coping with the nasty side effects of chemotherapy. Moving on from this he set up a highly patient-centred cancer centre in Hull. Hypnosis and general counselling were available, and there was a drop-in centre where patients or their families could come at any time for a cuppa; they could also chat with someone able to talk supportively about their progress or anxieties. Research was begun to test the anticipated benefits of hypnosis, comparing the patients who used hypnosis with a control group who attended the Centre, but did not make use of that approach. Statistical testing showed a highly significant improvement for those who had been hypnotised. However, statistical significance is not the same as medical significance; statistically the results were highly unlikely to have been a mere fluke, but medically the improvement was not as great as had been anticipated. The reason was simple; all patients were getting lots of warm, caring support. With that on offer, the so-called control group (without hypnosis) were already doing about 40% better than patients at other hospitals.

These kinds of results are not simply about patient wellbeing; the treatment leads to faster recovery, shorter hospital stays and fewer drugs being needed. In other words, treating people well has the potential to save the NHS money. Nevertheless, I am assured by the staff in Hull that another centre like theirs will never be built – far too expensive! Today’s world seems to be administered by those who know the cost of everything, but have absolutely no understanding of the true value of anything.

We mustn’t end on a gloomy note! Let me share with you one of those quirkily worded notices that I enjoy. It was at a BMW garage in Reading, where they seemed to be promoting one of the models. The banner said, “Exceeds all expectations – including the price!” Logically there is only one way to interpret that; if you expect it will cost £24k, for example, it will actually be more like £30k! That isn’t what was meant of course, and I imagine only odd people like me spotted the unintended irony. It is remarkable how the brain is able to extract intended meanings from words that say something different. That’s except for the brains of those mean people who mark exams, of course; they have disconcertingly literal brains when it comes to marking exam scripts!

Well, it will be the Summer School season before I write again, so it’s time for my annual invitation to come on a lovely country walk. I shall be course directing (or module directing as they call it nowadays) in Sussex, for the last two weeks of July. If you are going to be there and you enjoy a good walk, pack a pair of trainers and join me for a hike over the Downs; the views are outstanding and it’s so much more healthy than shopping in Brighton – saves money too!

Very best wishes to all,

Peter

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