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Cognitive Column - August 2013

Well, the days are shortening, but at least we’ve had a Summer this year. Fruit trees have flourished and so have my bees! I do hope you have been flourishing too; perhaps you attended Summer School, in which case I suspect you will have enjoyed yourself, because the vast majority of students do.

I spent a couple of weeks looking after the DD303 Residential School at Sussex, and I had a very good time. Compared with the tutors, who are working closely with the students almost all the time, Module Directors are inevitably somewhat on the side-lines of activities. Nevertheless, I do like to lend a hand with the projects when possible, especially when they are in fields I have worked in; that basically means Attention or some aspects of Language. An example of the latter is to experiment with homophones, to determine how their meanings are accessed; it’s a topic I have enjoyed for many years. Try the following sentence:

Eye no ewe will fined this hard, four many words ah knot write!

To be exact, eight words are not right; their homophones (same sound, different word) have been substituted. If you are having problems with understanding the sentence just try reading it aloud (or should that be “allowed”?) to yourself and listen to what you are saying. If you read it to someone else, without letting them see the printed words, they will have no difficulty at all. This shows how remarkably good our brains are at resolving ambiguity, because around two thirds of the words in the sentence could have referred to something completely different. If we processed the printed word simply be translating the letters to sounds (as some theories have suggested) then we would have as little difficulty in understanding the printed sentence as someone who has it read to them. The fact that we struggle reading it shows that we make use of the actual spelling when accessing a word’s meaning. However, for words that are seldom seen, where their visual pattern is unfamiliar, we probably rely almost exclusively on the “sounding out” way of processing. That’s how you are able to read the following so easily:

The wurds heer ar mutch eezier tu mayk sens ov!

However skilled we are at reading, it is in processing spoken language that we really come into our own. Whether speaking or listening, the speed with which we process the information is remarkable, especially when we remember that neurons are very slow when compared with the processing elements of a computer. The neural speed is achieved by using vast networks of neurons, all processing in parallel. Different unique patterns of activity represent different words, and input comes not only from the speech we hear (or print we see) but also from other sources of information, such as overall context and the meaning of the sentence processed up to that point. Depending on the situation, various activity patterns are likely to be present simultaneously, such as for ‘you’, ‘yew’ and ‘ewe’, and they may partially overlap. This makes the process of finding the right representation all the more remarkable, but generally speaking all the converging information will result in one pattern of activity being far stronger than all the rest. An analogy is to think of a large rubber sheet, stretched horizontally, so as to be flat. Lots of attachments underneath, all over the sheet, make it possible to pull the sheet down at any point, to create a dip. If you roll a marble over the sheet it should quickly end up in the deepest dip, which is equivalent to finding the word with the strongest activity. If for any reason a dip isn’t strong it may take some time for the marble to find the rest point, and it could end up in another nearby dip which wasn’t meant to be the main one.

Where do all those thoughts lead us? Well, they are thoughts I have had recently while chatting with my 99 year old father. As a result of deterioration in the blood supply to his brain, he now has considerably fewer neurons than he had say a decade ago. That, I fear, leaves the poor man with rather poorly defined dips in his sheet! Conversations go far more smoothly if I stick to a topic he has introduced, because then the depleted system is given a little boost by context effects. If I launch into something new he struggles for some time to make sense of what I have said. Speech production clearly uses much of the same system as is employed when listening to someone else. So, when my father is formulating a sentence he sometimes experiences considerable difficulty in locating the word he wants. Sometimes he might use a related word (equivalent to finding a nearby dip) and often I can guess what he is getting at. Sometimes, however, I am floored, and have said to him, “I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say there.” His response, sad but amusing, has been, “No, nor am I!” Once, when he was on good form and communicating quite well, I asked him whether, when he couldn’t find the right word, he knew what he wanted to convey. He replied that he did not. Obviously we can’t draw any strong conclusions from the introspections of an extremely elderly person, but there is perhaps something revealing about the anecdote. I will enlarge by way of a digression.

I remember a TV programme, many years ago, covering a lecture tour of a media character of those days, called Malcolm Muggeridge. After a particularly effusive introduction from the spokesperson of the group to whom he was about to speak, he rose and said, “Well, after that description of me I really can’t wait to hear what I’ve got to say!” A neat quip, which got the intended laugh, but does it contain a grain of truth? I think it does. When I am about to give a lecture I have no idea at all what I am going to say. I certainly know what it is going to be about, but the words used to convey that message will be selected “on the fly”, just when needed. In fact “selected” perhaps conveys too strong a sense of consciously choosing. I do not choose; the words simply appear. As with everyone (especially my father!) I sometimes find that a word hasn’t emerged, so I have to find an alternative; then I am choosing. Clearly, a person in this position knows what they want to say, it’s merely that the best word for conveying the message is currently eluding them. If my father is right about not even knowing what he wants to say, then we must conclude that it is not only that vast “sheet” of words that has deteriorated, but the conceptgenerating mechanisms behind them must also be shaky. As with many people who reach his age, he gets confused.

On a not dissimilar theme, I note that Michael Gove recently demonstrated his incompetence as Education Secretary by endorsing the views of untrained, self styled English teacher, Nevile Gwynne. This eccentric advocates the use of “good English”, which is no bad thing, but goes on to claim that failure to speak grammatically means that a person will not be able to think clearly and as a consequence bad decisions will be made! The implication here is that, rather than thoughts triggering the selection of words to express the thought, it is actually the other way round; thoughts derive from the word sequences. That would mean sloppy sequencing results in muddled thinking. Goodness knows what causes the particular set of words to emerge in the first place! I have a friend at my Local who, when offered another pint, might very well reply, “No, I can’t have no more, thanks.” Now I’ve always taken that to mean that he doesn’t want to drink any more, but Gwynne presumably believes that the double negative results in my friend coming to believe that he does want some more. The poor guy must find it very perplexing that his drinking companions fail to include him in the next round! He’s never said anything, but I suppose he’s too embarrassed – I’d better just get him another drink next time. Having given this topic some thought now (with careful attention to grammar of course) I’ve come to understand how it is that, while Britain’s influence in the World has waned, the United States has become the greatest superpower ever. It’s because we’ve ceased to teach grammar to our children (they don’t even know what a gerund is, for Heaven’s sake – no wonder we lost the British Empire!) whereas the Americans, as we all know, speak the very purest English.

There is a story told of a boring academic who gave a lecture that seemed to go on for ever. He kept wittering on about how a double negative makes a positive (as in “I don’t want none,” strictly meaning “I do want some). He went on to point out that, in mathematics it was very similar, because a minus x a minus gives a plus (as in -2 x -3 = 6, not -6). All this was spun out interminably, but he finally reached his pathetic punch line, which was no more than to point out that, although two negatives make a positive, two positives don’t make a negative. At that point, a weary voice from the back of the lecture theatre said, “Yeah, yeah!”

Anyway, enough from me; you must have better things to do than read this nonsense, and I’ve got to go and force beers on my grammatically challenged friend. Actually, I’m thinking this could get quite expensive, having to buy him a pint every time he declines doubly negatively. Perhaps it would prove cheaper to pay for him to have grammar lessons.

One of the better things you should be doing might well be revising for an October exam. If you do have one approaching I wish you all the very best of luck. Perhaps I shall see you at the OUPS Revision Weekend, in Warwick. After that, I suppose the next time you might hear from me will be via this Column, a little before Christmas.

All good wishes,

Peter

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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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