The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Getting it wrong

All the discussion generated by my previous blog posting has made me think much more deeply than I imagined; about what it is to be the carer, the close relative and/or friend who is the visitor or written correspondent, and the way I come across to them.

    I'm not one for the blame game, but I see now that I am part of the difficulty for visitors, or even those who know me only through my writing. It's not just the other person. I'm sure I give a dismissive impression about myself sometimes that cues a visitor or correspondent to turn quickly to other things.

    Sometimes I may not want to discuss in any detail my ailments if, for whatever reason, I'm feeling unwilling. It may be as simple as 'I haven't shaved this morning and feel like I look like something the cat dragged in.' The visitor, of course, really doesn't care about that and nor should they. It's minutiae that's not even on their radar. But you know how it is. Ego's a pain.

    As long as the air is filled with chatter it seems all right. Silence is awkward. Silence or breaks in conversation aren't tolerated in our society. They're taken as cues for action – e.g., that it's time to go [maybe it is, maybe not] – or just to fill the space with ... anything.

    In other words, silences can be minefields for clear communication – and in the end it's no-one's fault.

    And sometimes it's a matter or plain can't. In wrestling with something that badly needs discussion, I can often be my own worst enemy. The words just come out wrong – and this gets worse the less I am sure of the topic, and, to be perfectly frank, the way this disease has progressed. So the other person gets it wrong.

    If I give wrong cues, of course it's misinterpreted. If others give wrong cues, the result's the same. Miscommunication. I can patch it over a bit in written communication, but not face-to-face.

    What I'm scared of is that people reading the thread concerning visits will now be so afraid of not 'getting it right' that they won't communicate at all. That's the last thing I want.

    In my present state, even being sent a long email daunts me a bit. The brief email with a sincere 'no need to respond' [I probably will!] is often all I need, and most appreciated. But don't make it so short that you leave out something in your life that is important to you. If it's important to you, it probably is to me.

    I'm not as I was even 12 months ago. I'm less stable in all sorts of ways. More than ever before, I need far more quietness and solitude [where I do my best communicating], and the necessarily flexible routine I have. 

   My best therapy [which in my case means "stress release"] is composing my blog stories, even though they now take ten times as long. They are also my way of communicating with the world, especially my family close friends, even though, as I said in almost my first blog piece in 2010, that idea is anathema to some.

   If few read them, that's OK. It means they're interested in the topic, however bad my story. If this interests you, read the comments on the previous story. They are better than anything I've written on the subject.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Horses on tables and elephants in the room

"The horse on the table"

It was only comparatively recently that a friend wrote to me and said, "Have you ever read that story about the horse on the table?"

   I had to admit that I hadn't.

   I went searching for it online and found it. It's only a couple of book pages in length, but the intent of the story can be condensed much further. Reading it will set the scene fully, but here's the gist of it.

   The horse on the table is a rather more specific form of the 'elephant in the room' – the thing strongly affecting people's lives that is very important but no-one can bear to talk about. 

   In this case, it's referring to the impending death of the person being visited. It sits on the table right between the visitor and the person with the illness. Very often, no-one knows how to deal with it, because it's not going to go away. It's just there where it doesn't belong. Like a horse between the salt and pepper shakers.

   The problem is that sometimes it's X, the ill person, who doesn't want to confront it, and at other times Y, the guest, prefers not to. Both might not want to. Both may want to, but are scared the other does not.

   So more often than not, the horse sits there as the visit goes on, looming larger and larger as long as it doesn't get a mention.

   I've had this sort of experience, but much depends on my visitor[s] and my relationship with them. I surely don't want to spend the entire time talking about my illness, and I'm certain they don't want it to be the sole topic of conversation. I do want to know what is going on in my visitors' lives, and the wonderful gossip they have up their sleeve to share with me.

   I have no qualms in talking about details of my illness or, for that matter, my impending death, with detachment that makes some people shrink in horror. With some people I can even joke about it, up to a point – sometimes in a macabre way that would unsettle others. 

   Tracey and I have no horse on the table. What's happening to me physically and intellectually as this disease progresses affects us to the core and there's simply no room for equus mortis.

   The only visit that's unsatisfactory is the one where we're trapped in this groove of talking about inconsequential things when, after the best part of an hour, no true contact has been made. I haven't even been asked how I feel. That question's too much like inviting the horse to loom up with a quizzical look in its eye.

   By the end of the visit I end up knowing how painting their back room is going, the antics of their neighbour I wouldn't know from Adam, and the potholes in the street down the road, but they have no better idea where I'm at than they had when they arrived. Of course, they may gather a good deal about me without asking, from the shakiness of my arm and the difficulty I have to sit down and the other observable points of deterioration but....

   It's nice to be asked. Watto wouldn't hesitate, so don't you.

   The horse is on the table and always will be, but don't be afraid of it. It won't eat you, I promise. And you'll feel all the better for asking.
   'My son, it is the horse on the dining-room table. It is a horse that visits every house and sits on every dining-room table - the tables of the rich and of the poor, of the simple and of the wise. This horse just sits there, but its presence makes you wish to leave without speaking of it. If you leave, you will always fear the presence of the horse. When it sits on your table, you will wish to speak of it, but you may not be able to.

   'However, if you speak about the horse, then you will find that others can also speak about the horse - most others, at least, if you are gentle and kind as you speak. The horse will remain on the dining-room table, but you will not be so distraught. You will enjoy your repast, and you will enjoy the company of the host and hostess. Or, if it is your table, you will enjoy the presence of your guests. You cannot make magic to have the horse disappear, but you can speak of the horse and thereby render it less powerful.'*

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tit for tat and Trinder's hat

We were chatting the other day with Maureen and Watto, and something came up where I said, "It's tit for tat."

   "What's the origin of that, I wonder?"

   "Perhaps it's come from 'this' for 'that'," Maureen suggested.

   That sounds logical, but I wanted to see what the oracle said.

   Some sources indicated that Maureen was on the right track, but there was another I found worth reading. It contends that it's a variant of "tip for tap", as recorded c. 1466:
   "Strokis grete, not tippe nor tapp."
   The change to "tit" and "tat" made its first recorded literary appearance in 1556:
   "That is tit for tat in this altricacion [altercation]."
   It goes on to mention that the saying is the parent for the Cockney rhyming slang for "hat" best known for its use by the famous comic, Tommy Trinder (1909 – 1989).  He called his hat, which came to be his trademark symbol, his "titfer". No doubt it always caused a bit of a titter.

   I didn't know that, but then I'm a baby-boomer, and he was most famous for his keeping Britain a little bit cheerier during that awful conflict a few years before I was born.

   On a more serious note, I've always felt that Christianity's ideal of turning the other cheek has certain merit. While the religion as it's been practised over the last two thousand years has many horrendous things to answer for, that ideal is an advance for western civilisation compared with the 'tit for tat' so emphatically expressed in the Jewish and Islamic texts (and in the Old Testament of the Bible). "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."

   Gandhi echoes the same sentiment as the New Testament Christian dictum with his saying, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." Not to retaliate was explicit in his doctrine of ahimsa (non-violent non-cooperation), used with great effect against the British.

   Even so, there is very little evidence that Christians practise or have ever practised the ideal, but I'm not surprised by this. I am also convinced that turning the other cheek simply cannot be applied to everything. It wouldn't have worked against some of the world's great dictators, who can only have been restrained by violent resistance. 

   In this respect, the Taoist approach is the most sensible, and I wrote an ANZAC Day story in 2012 about that.

   Yet it can be applied with good effect in other ways. There are times when turning the other cheek seems to resulted in a better outcome; or at least its derivatives of compassion, tolerance, acceptance and forgiveness have. In some circumstances it's the only way to move on and find some peace, hard as that can be to achieve. I have several examples of that, but I won't go further with them here.

"Tit for tat," eh? And here was I, with my schoolboy mind, hoping to unearth something much more vulgar.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Our Moon, Jupiter and Stellarium

There was a lot of talk last night on social media about an interesting phenomenon – the Moon and Jupiter being so close together you could have been forgiven for thinking that the Moon had its very own moon.

   It wasn't a perfect night for viewing it from Armidale, with intermittent cloud and mist. Christian didn't even bother getting the powerful binoculars and tripod out, even though the unusual sight was visible at times.

   I opened the program Stellarium on my big computer. It's a brilliant program (freely dowloadable for your computer), and I have it set to view the sky in real time. I found the Moon quickly, which isn't surprising because it's one of those sky objects most sighted people do recognise, I'm pretty darn sure.

   Jupiter is a wonder because with even medium-power binoculars you can view it and see its own moons as shining pinpoints of light. With no other planet can you do that.

   After some fiddling and zooming I had the image of the Moon and Jupiter at the right size. Being in real time at that magnification, it was crawling downwards to screen left (or 7 o'clock) to where the relevant data for the sighting were, at the bottom of the screen.

   I quickly took a partial screen capture and immediately posted it to Twitter, saying this:
Behold the moon, Jupiter and its moons from Armidale a few minutes ago.
   Christian and I discussed the phenomenon for a few minutes and then the rather splendid image I tweeted started to be retweeted. 

   At that point, with people complimenting me on the great photograph, I realised I had better explain on Twitter the source of the image – that it was computer generated via Stellarium, but in real time and a perfect match for the real thing in terms of technical and astronomical accuracy. It was not a photograph. Anyone with Stellarium would easily spot it if they were familiar with the program, so what would be the point of pretending it was?

   The image is so dramatic that it set off a retweeting storm. I even "trended". (Don't ask if you're not a Twitter fan; if you are, you'll know already.) Because I and my followers have followers across the world, it went worldwide.

   It deserves to, because it's beautiful. Here it is. But remember – it's not a photo. I used to be able to do plenty with cameras, but not that.

Jupiter, with its moons, on the right. Viewing it in the real sky can be more dramatic.
The night sky, Armidale, Tuesday, 19 February 2013 7:45 PM via Stellarium

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Gap Year 2

A look at this picture gives you a pretty good indication of how this is going to pan out. But before that, one vital last dip into the past.

   Hard as it may be to believe for those of us who just don't get it, we can even thank the zombies for their role in this journey.

   Yes – zombies. Let me not venture into this subculture, but Christian's interest in the phenomenon at high school led to other things. In the zombie manual, it showed how to secure a house against zombies. He prowled round, highly critical of glass doors, weak window-frames and locks. He explored relative strengths and weakness of building materials, which led to strategies for countering such problems as wild weather or another earthquake. (Or a meteor blast, perhaps?)

   It wasn't about zombies really. It was about social breakdown in the event of a catastrophe. What would be the best course of action? How would you deal with suddenly never having electricity again? What would be the best foods to store for survival? If order in a city environment began to collapse, how would you survive?

   How could you protect yourself against something more dangerous than zombies – that is, out-of-control humans? How does society control itself in normal times, and what is it that really breaks down in a severe crisis where everything that humanity has come to depend on disappears? 

    If the urban space became unliveable, how could you survive in the wild? Where do you go, and what can you eat? What is essential equipment? What is survival psychology?

   These are highly complex questions of societal power, social interaction and personal development, and over a long period of time led to his thinking about relationships on all these levels.

    As usual, he went to the oracle – the internet – and built a huge mental database of survival skills in all circumstances. He scoured it for the answers. He read everything about survival, especially military manuals – unquestionably the best source of information on survival in existence. Bear Grylls became a hero, and the zombies got lost somewhere between the tropical jungles and the frozen Arctic wastes where Bear strutted his stuff.

   As he garnered and processed this information, there was one thing that stood out for him like prawns' eyes. To survive, you have to be fit. To be fit, you must eat the right foods and train your body for strength and endurance. 

   Having accepted that, he applied it with ruthless, yea, missionary intent. He spurned with a contempt that was almost palpable any processed foods of the wrong sort. He continued Parkour with his little group of equally dedicated friends, adding new fitness regimes to increase the strength and endurance demanded. Admiring audiences of kids would gather at the creeklands while they went through routines, jumping the creek to loud applause.

   Being hero-worshipped, even on a small scale, is a far cry from being a gangling unfit hunched-over figure with an inferiority complex and trying to look invisible.

   He has a several great friends, whom I'd love to tell you about except that it would invade their privacy, but one is Robert, a long time member of the SES – the State Emergency Services. Encouraged by Robert, Christian started to train with SES, and met up with a group of people of a wide variety of age, personality and experience, all aimed at one goal – to help people survive emergencies. Experience and training were passed on from older to younger women and men through cooperative effort and teaching new skills.

   Nor was it all one way. His flying experience, e.g., had made him skilled in hands-on communications; with air traffic control, communicating clearly with other aircraft of all types, and with ground vehicles. When emergencies such as bushfire happened, he had no difficulty directing air and ground traffic and passing on instructions from SES seniors.

    He was appointed Deputy Comms Officer in the SES as a result of these skills and his reliability. That's a big responsibility for a nineteen-year-old, and a great confidence-builder as well.

   He learned to read maps and use a serious compass, and went out on camping expeditions with friends, to practise the theoretical survival skills he'd absorbed. One friend of ours in particular was an experienced bushman who showed him much about Australian natural ecosystems and their denizens; knowledge and wisdom that can be passed down only by being right there, on the spot, in the environment.

    He looked at the night sky on these camping trips as planets, constellations and galaxies were pointed out to him. Only those who have been in the centre of that great immensity in the darkness of the bush really know that feeling of connectedness with the universe around and above.

   He came home from one of these voyages of discovery and sat at the piano, and for the first time in two years, began to play.

   He comes from an extraordinarily musical family, and had lost interest in the formal lessons he'd been having while in the later years of school, especially when our lives were so disrupted by my illness. The music that had been locked away inside him simply flowed again. Not Mozart or Bach, but themes he'd picked up through gaming or favourite TV shows. His own variations on the beloved Dr Who theme echoed through the house, along with tunes I didn't recognise, together with melodies of the 1930s and 40s that he'd picked up.

   Meanwhile, he maintained his regime of fitness and had been interested for a long time in the principles of personal defence. In the street at night, walking alone and accosted or threatened by an individual or group, what do you do? In a bar when having a quiet drink with a group of friends, what happens when someone wants to pick a fight, or draws a knife, or decides to glass your face?

   At school, he'd always been the potential victim. That wasn't going to happen again. Yet like everything from driving a car to riding a horse, understanding what you should do based on a good youtube video is fine in theory – but what really happens when face to face with a thug (or attacked by a group) is a different matter altogether.

   Through a good friend of ours, he met up with a man and his wife who teach a brilliant programme of personal discipline and tactical fitness. I wish I had time and the space here to explain how it works, but it's not one of the usual smorgasbord of martial arts on offer. Far from it. His trainer spends a lot of time teaching techniques for defusing a potentially dangerous confrontation to avoid the brewing violence completely. 

   But... should it be unavoidable, the programme also teaches the harsh techniques of dealing with it decisively. I mean, really dealing with it. The training is tough, it can hurt, the scenarios are as near to real as you'll get, and combines solid fitness with genuine defence.

   Let's just say that now, if he encounters violent circumstances, he's unlikely to be trapped. He'll make eye contact and stand there, tall and straight, right up to his full height, apparently totally relaxed but keenly alert, a calming presence and happy to negotiate. And if that doesn't work, woe betide the attacker who thinks he's chosen an easy mark.

   So what's in this for the formal educational benefits of Gap Year? You can readily see the benefits for personal development. What about that career?

   I was just coming to that.

   Last year he did a TAFE Certificate 3 in Fitness. It was his first brush with formal education since school. He'd chosen it for obvious reasons and he had no difficulty doing it, though there was a bit of the old rebellion there occasionally and he had to pull in his horns.

   It was a good start, because it taught him something of how tertiary education operated.

   That vision of that night sky in the bush stayed in his mind. He'd continued to read about it and had an enduring interest in the universe itself – where it had come from, is now, and where it is heading. He understood with great clarity the essential principles of science and the scientific method. He put his binoculars on my expensive but sadly-unused videocam tripod and studied the heavenly phenomena he was reading about.

   Wonder of wonders, he joined the Town Library and chose books on astronomy, relating his reading there to what he was seeing above him in the night sky. As usual, he became passionate about it and entertained us in great detail with the fundamentals of quantum physics, light and time, the Hadron Collider and Higgs Boson. That's when he wasn't lecturing us on the dynamics of the human body and its relationship to health, strength and fitness.

   It's all fun and games at our place.

   From that, he became aware that if he wanted to make a career in any branch of science he had to do a university science degree. And in studying the rules and regulations to do that, he came to a rather unpalatable realisation. His knowledge of the fundamentals of science that most students take with them into university courses is dangerously patchy. 

    He had developed a keen interest in chemistry. Periodic Tables of the Elements in one form or another dotted the house.  But he had not studied chemistry, nor taken in many elementary mathematics operations he should have understood fully when leaving high school. These gaps now stood as a serious barrier to his newly cherished ambitions.

   There was no choice other than to catch up. He went back to the Town Library and borrowed the books that would reveal and fill the gaps; Mathematics for Dummies and others. He bought a special notebook, sat down with a pen and got started. Visions of scientists standing clustered round a whiteboard discussing equations appealed, so his mother acquired one for him. Besides, it was ecologically more sound than using paper, wasn't it?

   At his request I started bombarding him with tables again so he could get away from painfully slow addition and multiplication. "Seven nines!" I'd hit him with just after he finished a mouthful of his dinner. If the answer – not his dinner – didn't come out on cue, then I'd drill it before he could take another bite. "Nine sevens!" "Nine what's are sixty-three?" "How many sevens in sixty-three?"

   He enjoys it. Seriously. He's still rusty on his twelve times tables though. And subtraction. We gotta work on that.

   So, he's enrolled in a bridging courses in Maths and Chemistry through the university, to make sure he's up to the level he needs before taking on the science degree. They count towards the degree when he enrols at university full-time. He's enjoying it. Also, he now has full access to the University Libraries.

   There's much more to this tale and it's already too long, but I wanted to get it out there that Gap Year can be a vital part of life education. I'm not saying it's the only way that a period after high school can be spent productively. Nevertheless it can clarify for school leavers what they don't want for a career, how new skills can be acquired and related to old ones and motivate them to achieve at their full potential. But it needs solid support and patience of parents or guardians.

   Even more importantly, we shouldn't be too ready to condemn what we think is a waste of time. If it weren't for those zombies setting him on the path to home and personal security, I'm not sure where he'd be. One thing's for certain; he now knows the direction he's heading.

   "Everything is mathematics," he says joyously, "It's awesome!"

   "What about three years ago when you said, "That's what calculators are for."

   "I didn't know what I was talking about. I had no idea."

   "The Music of the Spheres, my friend. You may remember me telling you about that a while ago."

   "Oh yeah…. I guess I just wasn't ready."

   At age twenty, he's still got a long way to go. But then, in our own ways, haven't we all?

gap year 1 | gap year 2
May I record my sincere thanks to Christian for generously allowing me to share his experience of growing up with you.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Gap Year 1

Christian age 18; high school grad.
Gap Year? What's a Gap Year? In my day, dare I use those fateful words, things were different.

   You matriculated, or not, and went straight on to something that could easily turn out to be your lifelong trade or profession.

   When my daughters left school in the 1990s, things were different, but not as much as in the 21st Century. Straight from school, Daughter No. 1 went off to Wollongong University to do Science, did well and got a Biology position at the University of Melbourne. Daughter No. 2 was less sure, mucked around a bit after leaving school, and for reasons I won't go into here, had an epiphany. Read about it here if you like. She set about doing a degree that would see her teaching in her chosen and challenging environment.

   But with Tracey's son, Christian, it was a new ball game.

   His personality as it developed was markedly different from that of my girls, which is hardly surprising, given that they share no DNA. He matriculated in 2010, the first year we were battling with this cancer.

   All through school he'd been something of an enigma. He had wrestled with reading, which perplexed me. I was a trained primary school teacher and felt that I should at least understand the problem. Let's not get into that but just say his reading problem was fixed. His reading skills rocketed and doors that had been locked before flew open. The book-world of information was his oyster.

   One thing I knew for certain was that he was highly intelligent, and had mastered from a very early age concepts of time, space, and logic that often matched those of a university undergraduate. He adored books, particularly science, bookmarking pages and storing considerable amounts in memory.

A fascinating book. Free download!
   But he had little tolerance for school, and it for him. Bullying was a problem, as he was the most inoffensive, non-aggressive kid you would see. Bully gangs recognise that a mile away. Worse still, he tended to believe anything the verbal bullies threw at him. Sensitive kids do, and that's why this form of harassment does them so much damage.

   He was a born researcher – but only in what interested him. He loathed any sort of homework – very frustrating for his mother and me because if he'd applied those research skills to an ancient history essay, he'd have aced it. Even more frustrating, he had excellent English language skills with creative writing. He'd write some long story of a thousand words or so, and then he'd simply erase it and move on.

   He was, and remains, highly adept at computer and online gaming, with their attendant computer skills, so it will be little surprise to you that his secure place was the computer or game console, where he was happy to eat junk food and avoid exercise. He had a growth spurt in height, as adolescents do, and put on girth weight; not grossly so – he just got pudgy. Taunts in vogue amongst adolescents in the high school playground to describe someone overweight were added to the list of insults.

   These are things kids bear alone. There's nothing really that can be done about them, especially when there's an element (or a lot) of truth in them.

   I'd better get to the point, but I just wanted to make clear these circumstances and what seemed the enormity of his crimes against his intelligence by getting indifferent school grades. The grades weren't bad, but we knew he could have done so much better.

   It wasn't his fault, of course. Personality is what it is. I used to comfort myself with the story of Einstein. "This boy will never amount to much," so the school report to the disappointed parents of one of the greatest scientists of all time was said to have gone.

   The final years at high school were the most difficult all round. I was undergoing treatment for this deadly disease, so we were coming and going to Melbourne, and at times he was living alone in this house trying to figure out how best to give the illusion that all was OK. And like many smart kids, he could do that quite well most of the time.

   He was, and remains, a 'serial enthusiast'. It's all or nothing with him, usually one or a couple at a time. He decided he wanted to learn to fly small aircraft, researched it all thoroughly, and was flying solo by the age of sixteen. And then while in his last year of school, he got interested in Parkour.
Parkour … is a training discipline that developed out of military obstacle course training. Practitioners aim to move from one place to another, negotiating the obstacles in between. The discipline uses no equipment and is non-competitive.
   Note that last term. He loathed sport that involved competition with others. He enjoyed hugely anything where he was in competition with himself. But at that time, he was an unlikely candidate for an outdoor activity of the type you see in movies where youths leap across rooftops and over walls and gates with alarming dexterity learned from Parkour and free running

   Still, he researched every scrap written about it and watched each "how to" youtube video, dissecting technique and driving us crazy discussing it. (Just put a fraction of that effort into your English assignment!) He then went out and tried those first rather awkward but technically correct shoulder rolls down a grassy bank at the creeklands. He got bruises and scratches and learned how to tolerate pain. His mother was valiantly and constantly washing grass stains out of his clothes. 

Fun-run: self-competing
   It was a price she was happy to pay. Anything that got him out of the house in the open air she was willing to put up with. He thought his shoulder rolls were pretty good and we did everything to encourage him.

   He got better at it. Now hold that thought.

   When he left school he had one overriding problem. He had no idea what he wanted to do as a career. All he knew was what he didn't want. Learning to fly only proved to him that it wasn't a career choice after all.

   There was no point in pushing him into something.

   And this is where Gap Year came in. What I feared might be a colossal waste of time turned into something hugely productive. In that period he turned his life around. The physical aspect was just the start of it.

The scientist
Mother and son featuring orthodontist's joy.

gap year 1 | gap year 2

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tales of a transitory psychopath 2

I don't know if you know this but if you're normal, you have amygdala areas in your brain. These control your emotions and fears and when suppressed, allow you think with ruthless logic untroubled by almost anything else; just your own survival.

   It seems that's what kicked in when I faced that tricky situation on the motorbike. I've heard several similar stories (some mentioned in comments by readers of Part 1) and you may well have experienced the same lack of fear on your own behalf or for others. Suppression of response to its signals allows you to ignore anything else except for the best way to tackle the task at hand.

   The amazing thing is this; in some people, that spot in the brain doesn't respond to anything. They have few if any fears about personal safety, they think with utter calm, and they have no conscience. All they know is that they have an objective, and nothing else matters.

   These are true psychopaths. They do very well in the military for special ops and in matters where a conscience would get in the way.

   Some psychopaths can be serial killers, but few are. The words often are used interchangeably and they should not be. Serial killers are probably psychopaths, but they are a sub-group. Some of those we regard in society as great achievers have strong psychopathic tendencies. They're going to achieve their goal no matter what it takes and who gets hurt. Sexual predators are also a stark example. Their amygdala area is vastly underused.

   All people with emotions are on the psychopathy scale somewhere. Some of us can damp it down almost to nothing for limited periods, and others can't at all. They're the ones most likely to panic in an emergency.

   I was given a reference by Mark Colvin to a fascinating article about a Cambridge researcher named Kevin Dutton who spent some time with an British military officer with this quality of no amygdala response. His daredevil life must be beyond the understanding of most of us. The article documented some of his actions. To most of us, they are unimaginable.

   Dutton allowed an experiment to be performed on his brain, where the amygdala was dampened down electromagnetically so that he could experience what it was like to be a psychopath – for twenty minutes or so. It was, he said, to be "suddenly locked down into a hypnotically deep code red of extreme and ruthless focus."

   In tests demanding skill, logic and daring, he performed far beyond anything he'd been capable of before. From that brief experience, he knew what it was like to through life knowing that no matter what you say or do, guilt, remorse, shame, pity, fear, all those familiar, everyday warning signals that might normally light up on your psychological dashboard‚ no longer trouble you.

Leaving aside the fact that the true psychopath doesn't have a conscience, it shows yet again what the brain is capable of when it can switch these responses on and off. It happened again to me when I had that first seizure, and even more when Tracey answered the phone from the neurosurgeon in Newcastle telling us that my tumour was highly malignant.

   I remember that feeling of switching off emotions. All I said to Tracey was, "What's the way we deal with this? What are the steps we take now?"

   That was it.

   For most of the time since, it's been that way. It's not courage or anything like that. It's just that I'm one of those people, probably like you, who doesn't always collapse in a screaming heap when there's an emergency. 

    Well, not yet anyway. This is going to be tested much more severely.

Afterthought: I should have said when I first posted this that the amigdala in Tracey's brain must be flipping on and off constantly, which, I must say, has been enormously to my benefit.
October 22, 2012
"Psychopathy's Double Edge"
By Kevin Dutton [Original brain image, adapted by me.]
psycho 1 | psycho 2

Friday, February 1, 2013

Tales of a transitory psychopath 1

Thirty years ago I bought a shiny new motorbike. The reasons why are possibly of some interest, but for now I want to stick to the main plot for this ride.

   It wasn't a very powerful one but it had no problem maintaining a speed 100 kph (60 mph) on the open road over any distance, and cost next to nothing to run. I used it mainly to get around town, and in particular, to go to the university and back.

   I was a competent and careful rider, but the big problem with a bike is meeting up with something unexpected – a great pothole that wasn't there last week, an oil slick or loose gravel on a corner, or the idiocy of some car drivers and pedestrians. For unknown reasons, a motorbike just doesn't seem to register as an object on the road, even if it's coming straight at them.

   I left the university late one evening, sun low in the western sky. The Arts Building is on a hill, and the road down the hill curved into an arc that took me eastwards across a strip of road separating town and gown. In those days the speed limit on that stretch was 90 kph (55 mph, American friends).

   There was a car ahead of me going toward the town, just as I was. When I was about 50 metres behind it, it briefly slowed to a crawl, coming to a gentle stop by the roadside, so I started to overtake it. The driver seemed to glance behind him in my direction, and then wheeled sharply across the road.

   Right into my path.

   No, this isn't an insurance assessor's report even though it looks like it. That came later and I won't bore you with it. At all.

   I knew there was no way of avoiding an accident. 90 kph isn't raceway stuff, but with a car suddenly slewed across your path, there's not much you can do but slam into it.

   Now here's what I was leading up to. At this moment, my brain went into completely dispassionate, calculating mode. It takes far longer to describe the reasoning than the second or so I had to think about it, but this was the logic:

   No avoiding impact. Where to hit?

   It was not quite Hobson's Choice, but close. I was heading for the driver's side front wheel. I had at most a metre of width to play with.

   If I chose to hit the car in front of the wheel, I could more easily be run over by that wheel. If I chose to slam into the side of the car, I could be run over by the back wheel.

   There was only one spot to aim at, and that was the gap just behind the front wheel. I felt no fear. It was a clinical decision. 

   The driver had missed seeing me because he was looking back into the setting sun when he checked, before wheeling across the unbroken line in his 180 degree (illegal) turn. He tramped on the brake and I hit my target squarely.

   Everything stopped suddenly. Fortunately there were no other vehicles around. The motorcycle jammed firmly between wheel and mudguard.

   I simply stepped off the bike, my front wheel wedged where I'd aimed it. It stayed upright, just like a bicycle in a rack.

   My purpose in telling you this story isn't about a lucky escape. It's not that exciting, after all. But it did exemplify one quality that I didn't know I had until that moment of stepping off the motorcycle, and that's what I want to go on to talk about.

   It's not really about me; it's about this fascinating quality that many people used to dealing with emergencies have.

   To put it to you straight, if you do have it, you're something of a psychopath. It can be useful, or it can be deadly.


psycho 1 | psycho 2