Excerpts etc. from work past and future

Stories and your Brain (from ‘How To Forget’)

“Stop or I’ll Shoot”

 The next time you hear this shouted, perhaps you will pause for a moment; if only to appreciate what a beautiful, well rounded and articulate phrase it is.  It is a warning honed to perfection, it is how all warnings should be: clear, concise and terrifying enough to scare the bejezus out of a bejesuit.

This book is a warning. I wish it could be as unambiguous as, “Watch Out” or “Duck” or “I’m going to have to work late at the office again dear.”  I wish it could be as brief as “Stop,” “Danger,” or that road sign which simply says “!” and waits to accrue its meaning after the event.  But at 437 pages, it is a little more complicated – and not the sort of warning that requires the same speedy attention as ones made by a weak bladder.

Unfortunately the same blinding ambition which propelled humanity forward in the exploration and domination of the planet, sprinting ahead in the race to evolve when other species couldn’t be bothered, inclines us to ignore most warnings in favour of learning from experience. Despite having developed our primitive guttural belching in to speech, despite having created the most fantastically complex warning system the planet has ever seen, today eighty percent of communication is still non-verbal and though you know when your boss, parents or teachers are talking, it’s almost impossible to listen to what they’re saying.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!” is more than a warning though.  It’s a whole story in just 4½ words; with a clear beginning, middle and end, conflict, drama, life, death, action, resolution. Stories are warnings but somehow we’re more amenable to them, more willing to go along with them.  We don’t just listen to a narrative; we ‘suspend our disbelief’, we put our natural scepticism on hold and experience it.  We allow ourselves to learn because we’re not being told.

Since long before Aesop, stories have been used as warnings when the clear threat is simply not enough.  And we love stories because with each one, we can forget everything for a while and be born again as wide eyed children unwittingly ready to learn life’s important lessons: not to talk to strange wolves in transvestite’s clothing; how true toffs will know if you have a pea in the bed; or how you can sell beef for beans, thieve your way out of poverty, murder the victim of your robbery and still live happily ever after.

But the true power of stories, and why this warning comes as one, lies in your brain.  More precisely in a part of your frontal lobes which it took a hungry capuchin monkey to discover.  He lived in a lab where, in a doomed attempt to bring a lighter side to vivisection, all the capuchins were given coffee related names. Starbuck had teeth the colour of earwax and halitosis like mustard gas and on the day of his discovery he had been grabbing at snacks all morning.  He’d been wired up to brain activity sensors, studying the components that register hunger before, and pleasure in receiving, food.  Valuable research for the hunger-inhibiting diet pill trade.  After all, we certainly don’t want an epidemic of obese monkeys.

At lunch time, Starbuck’s lab technician stopped for her break and happened to be absently watching the monitors as she reached for her sandwich.  Which is when she noticed an amazing thing.  As Starbuck watched her, she saw the same brain patterning light up on his monitors as when he had been reaching for food himself.  She quickly realised that he was empathising and she could see exactly the parts of the brain where this happened.

From that one sandwich, we not only found that monkeys were capable of empathy, so just how far men have evolved away from monkeys, but also that the brain’s ‘mirror neurons’ extend into the premotor cortex, where we weigh intentions, and our parietal lobe where we register sensation.

Now we know why we wince when we see another person punched.  Empathy is hard wired into our brains.  We experience just by watching others’ experiences.  We tell stories to stimulate the mirror neurons.  We watch a film and become the characters, we read someone’s story and for the time we’re in it, the connections within our own brains actually reshape, they begin to mirror the connections in the character’s brain.

So this book, like every story you’ve ever read, heard or watched, will alter the shape of your brain.  Whatever you think, this book is guarenteed to change your mind.

Book cover voting results.

Over fifty people kindly looked through the selection of eight covers

that are currently being considered for my upcoming book.  George polled over thirty five of his friends on facebook, (for which, though slightly boy heavy and probably not my primary market, I am very grateful) and I nagged my more mature friends.  The results were very interesting.  Broadly, men tended to go for the fifties bold imagery looks, women were drawn to the girl with the scratched out face.  Slightly more men than women responded but even without weighing that bias out, the girl with the scratched out face very slightly pipped the blue at 22 to 18.  Possibly had I not offered the red one (below) too, the blue bold look one would have won, but the top two images were clear leaders, receiving by far the lion’s share of votes. So in reverse order the winners are.

Third Place

Second Place

First Place

Winner

All right.  I am quite chuffed that this one won, as I can reveal now that it was the one that I designed.  I’m also glad it appeals to women as they seem, on the whole, to be more interested in buying fiction than men… or at least most of the men that I know.  That said I doubt that any of these will be the final cover as I don’t detect much support for it within Transworld.  Which is why I will be submitting two covers for consideration.  The scratched out girl and a typographic surprise cover…

Thank you everybody.  And if you fancy helping some more you could click here and tell me which strapline you prefer.

Improve Your Memory

(From the preface of: What The F*** Did I Do With My Keys – What our brains are really telling us when we forget things., London, 2009)

What about that memory of your Dad, when he used to tell you you were stupid and how worthless it made you feel  Years after the event you’re still feeling it and, in your lower moments, blaming it for holding you back from pursuing your dreams or actually believing that you deserve success.

What about the memory of your first great love when they waltzed off with someone better looking? Or the parent who walked out leaving you with the psycho one, and all the hurt that went with it?  Could that memory, that embedded fear, have anything to do with why, now, you seem to bugger up all your relationships before anyone gets a chance to get too close?

Or, what about those happy childhood memories of carefree roaming, endless summers and Enid Blyton?  What happened when you grew up and real life turned out not to be full of magic, adventure and cream teas but stress, monotony and utter shit?  Is there possibly some connection between your nostalgic memories and the disappointment, the resentment, that you won’t admit to but still drives you to infantalise yourself with Harry Potter, Friends Reunited or pretending that you’re ‘mates’ with your own kids?

Maybe you find yourself inexplicably clinging on to relationships long past their sell-by date or in terror of asking your boss for a raise or relying on the blissful oblivion of drink or drugs – but if you ever get the sensation that there is something irrational holding you back in life it is, usually, something from your past that is doing it.

But the past isn’t really there, it doesn’t exist, it’s not another country, it is just one thing: a memory.

It seems incredible that the current ‘brain training’ racket, which seems almost to solely exist to justify the sales of hand-held gaming consoles to adults who should know better, is based on such a trivial gain.  Being able to remember faces, or shopping lists, or the capital of Lithuania is, no doubt, helpful but it is nothing that the possession of a pen and piece of paper couldn’t do equally well.  On the other hand, we all have troubling and intangible things in our heads which, if we could only completely forget them, we could really improve the quality of our memories.

So many of us believe that we’ve buried our painful pasts but, with no knowledge of how to forget effectively, we’ve usually just stored their sleeping shadows in the deepest recesses of our minds, ready to surface again when they will be least helpful. –  The field of psychiatry is almost entirely based on the tyranny of inexpertly buried childhood memories rising from the grave, like zombies, to menace us in later life.

In this book I aim to give you the right spade and the best plot, so that you can bury your own, no longer relevant or needed, zombie memories – to forget them completely, effectively and once and for all.


Living Blamelessly

Sunday Times March 15th 2009

Open Minds: Why have we stopped being responsible for our own actions?

At school we all envied Sammy.  When we were splashing through freezing slimy puddles, spattering our legs with foul smelling mud, he was warm in the library clutching his “note” perpetually excusing him from the cross country.  In fact, having been diagnosed with mild dyspraxia, Sammy’s note was continually updated by his concerned parents, who excused him from all sports for his entire school career.

Today, the envy has gone.  Sam has lived as if he always had a note excusing him from any of life’s adventures.  At thirty-eight, his circumference has been multiplied by pie; chronically obese, he suffers from continuous vertigo, countless phobias and desperately unhappy singleness.

Had he been born twenty years before, or to a less privileged class, his dyspraxia would have just been called “clumsiness”, for which there was no known note.  Possibly, the habit of exercise and a modicum of practiced coordination may have been acquired at an early enough stage to save him from such a waisted life.

Perhaps Sam was genetically “programmed” to end up like this but I have a terrible feeling that it wasn’t his genes or his dyspraxia that did for him, it was his “note”.

But don’t we all have, or long for, our own notes?  The desire for something that will excuse us, or our children, for acting as we do – rather than as we imagine we should – seems an almost quintessential human urge.  Each advance in the human sciences is a step towards that Holy Grail: The Universal Excuse Note.

From Humanism to Phrenology, social theories and the genome project, we have quickly hijacked each philosophical, sociological or scientific finding to furnish more excuses for our own uncivilised conduct.

Personally I have, I think we all have, a “note” constantly lurking in my brain, waiting for the moment I’m caught being me, and not being the someone I know I really ought to be:

To whom it may concern.

Please excuse Marius’ borderline racism today; he is just trying to conform to the social pressures of his background.  Please will you also excuse him from any punishment for cheating on his wife – I’m sure you understand that he is merely a hostage to his selfish genes vying for survival. Lastly, if you catch him picking his nose, please will you excuse him as he is, after all, only a slightly evolved chimpanzee.

In the last few years, with advances in electroencephalograph (EEG) scanning, the brain and its workings have become the latest fodder for our universal “note”.  The Scientific American publishes a monthly magazine devoted to the brain, the Science and Self-Help sections of bookshops are bursting with brain books and you can tell when something has become truly ubiquitous – there’s a “Rough Guide” to it.

As our understanding of the workings of the “normal” mind, and the chemicals that are released in the face of various stimuli, improve, lawyers – and parents – are armed with an ever more sophisticated arsenal of mitigating and evidential factors.  Today, a murderer influenced by the chemical surges of pre-menstrual tension, though an apparently normal part of body function, is not a murderer.  Or, as I recently had to explain to the parents of two of my son’s school mates, “My son’s not actually an aggressive bully with a proclivity for sticking heads down toilets, he is suffering from melatonin underproduction and struggling to manage his teenage testosterone spikes.” I could tell from their contrite gawping that they quickly understood he was just as much a victim as their own little oiks.

If we, apparently, cannot control the chemicals and processes of our minds and bodies that effect our behaviour, are we actually responsible for anything we do?

At what point will we recognise that “my” brain, “my” rushes of adrenalin or floods of pheromones, is “me”?  If, when healthy, we can’t or won’t, even take responsibility for our own brains – and by association our own minds – then we are in danger of losing our identities, our individuality, ourselves.

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be why are we looking for excuses, but why do we feel so guilty in the first place?  Before humanism, we saw evil, or vanity, or stupidity, we did awful or idiotic things, but we had the ultimate “note”, “The devil made me do it.”

Now, though we’re still reaching for excuses, albeit more “scientific”, to apparently act like the venal selfish animals we are, the very fact that we’re looking for a “note” means we also recognise when we’re failing to be what we aspire to be: better. There’s hope!

The danger of the “note” will always be that we start to believe it and allow ourselves to stop striving; as Sam did.

Sammy’s parents, concerned for their child, gave in and encouraged Sammy to do the same.  Dyspraxia is, after all, a neurological disorder.  Had they looked deeper at neurological findings, they would have discovered that brains, especially young ones, have a phenomenal ability to “rewire” themselves through familiarity and conditioning.  It’s called “learning” or, if you prefer, “the process of creating new synaptic pathways in the brain”.

It seems counterintuitive to take the punishment, to run the race, to pound through the stinking puddles rather than find an excuse, but tearing up your own “note” might just be the best thing you’ll ever do.

Why she smiled

from Making Love – A Conspiracy of the Heart – Chapter 4 In Which

She smiled because there wasn’t much else to do. She smiled because at least she knew where she was going in life. She was going down. She found some reassurance in the steadiness of her descent. Last night and the express elevator of her life had dropped down another few floors, it had found yet further unfathomable cellars to fall to. Bing Bong. Sub Basement 101, Lady’s Separates, Loneliness, Humiliations, Women’s Unwashables and other Feelings of Dirtiness. And the doors swish open and there is the cavernous despair department, with all the sad salesgirls, with mascara blotted tears, waiting to spray her with their latest perfumes.

‘This is ‘Grief’ by Tristesse. Can you smell the evocative pungence of rejection?’

‘Try ‘Neurosis’ by Chagrin the compulsive scent of anguish, each drop squeezed from an aching heart.’

‘This is our latest, the dolerous odour of ‘Lu’, an Eau de Toilette for the woman who knows just what her life is heading down. You will find it is at its most fragrant when you flush.’

Coulda Woulda Shoulda

My phone starts vibrating in the middle of breakfast and manages to shimmy straight in to the butter dish before I can reach it.Wiping the screen I can just make out a smeared text message.

“Jst ws thnkng of U hope yr well! Missng U.”

My wife looks over and I know my ears are reddening under the scrutiny.The thoughtful, if vowel-lite, text message is from T. an old, once significant, girlfriend.We had lived on a boat together in the mad old days and when I sailed off into the uncharted waters of parenthood, with someone apparently more sorted.It was she who stood on the waterfront of my child-free life, shouting, “I coulda been a contender.” But if something coulda, you’ll always ask yourself whether it woulda.

I look at the text as casually as possible, as if it was just one of my twenty-a-day spam messages offering to upgrade my phone, but for a second, I feel the vigilantly repressed young buck inside me rearing triumphant.I pretend to delete the message whilst, at the same time, remind G. to eat with his mouth closed and I slip the phone, a little too easily, in to my jacket.

Of course, I know I should have just deleted it immediately but a voice from a rose-tinted past is a sirensong and the older I get, the significance of what an alternative life might have been, becomes ever more poignant.

“The past is a foreign country…,” said the writer L.P.Hartley, but it isn’t, or there’d be a budget airline offering 9p tickets there.“…they do things differently there.”Wrong again.In fact the whole problem with the past is it is so terribly unchangeable, however you look at it, whatever was done, it’s always exactly the same.I think if you’re going to be remembered in the Oxford Book of Quotations for just one line, you rather owe it to yourself to get it right.

Of course if the past was another country and you could get there on EasyTimemachine® then of course you’d do things differently.Wouldn’t you?

Later, in the loo, I examine the buttery grease stain in my jacket lining and toy with the idea of replying.Using the now well established excuse argument, the Clinton Literality Defence, I convince myself that texting, technically, is not like I’m making an actual call.But of course in some ways, like fellatio, it is much more intimate.And if I did, what would I say?

“Hey lng tm no hear, I’m good, U?” or

“Miss U 2. Stay hppy” or

“O Gd wht hve I dne, it shd hv bn U. Pls frgve me.I Lv U, cm bck nd tk me awy frm all ths.”?

Or, of course, I could just take the patently sensible option and delete it.

My thumb hovers over the delete option and I realise that that the one thing that defines this mid-life that I’ve blindly stumbled into is that the world is no longer just about possible futures and directions, most of my alternatives are just what coulda been.“What if,” has become, “if only”.That, and the fact that nowadays my back goes out more often than I do.

Sitting looking at the message I feel I am constantly frozen between the two diverging headlights of reigniting feelings that may damage my often troubled but known-quantity status quo, and the infinite delights of a fictional alternative life.

And, like so many resultant rabbit pies.I do nothing.The phone’s backlight turns off and I put it away again.

Of course it’s only a few days before the wheels of the reality lorry pound me into the road.

It’s after dinner, story time.I’m upstairs trying to make Count Olaf sound like Vincent Price.My phone, back on the kitchen table, starts vibrating.Before it can sidle into the unidentifiable gunge that eternally surrounds our youngest’s uncleared plate, my wife helpfully picks it up and reads the text.

“Upgrade your phone now and receive…”

She deletes it from the inbox and, without really thinking, glances at the screen.She says nothing until later.The kids are in bed, their lights are out and they are quivering beneath their duvets desperately trying to think of some ray of hope in a world darkened by the evil Count Olaf.We’re both reading at the table and without even looking up she says, “Do you ever hear from T.?”My stomach crashes and I know I’ve been rumbled.

“Yes,” I say, trying to breathe evenly and think of icebergs and penguins and cool, cool, desperate not to blush, “she sent me a text just the other day, out of the blue.”

“Oh, really?You didn’t mention it.”

“No.Well.Thought it best to ignore it.”I hold back from attempting anything that might appear affectionate, a dead giveaway that I might have something to compensate for.

“Do you ever think about her?” she says, “The past? You know, what might have happened if we hadn’t got together?”

“The past?” I laugh thinly, “oh no, you know me.Seize the day, stay focussed, look to the future, live in the now…”

“Yes,” she nods with her arch smile, “I do know you.”

And, I suppose, the contents of my outbox.

diary1

The Daddy as Baddie

“I’m going to count to five and if you haven’t said sorry by then you’re going straight to your room.”

I stand pointing upstairs looking as furious as possible as I try to remember where I’ve heard the phrase I’ve just used before. Oh yes. It was my father.

“One”

With the possible exception of being behind the wheel of a very large truck, you don’t want to turn in to your parents. However, the chances of avoiding it, when they’re the only consistent guide to parenting you’ve had, are slim.

For me this isn’t helped when each morning I look in the mirror and all I can see is my father staring back. Not only that, he hasn’t even bothered to shave. When my wife wakes up she doesn’t just look like her mother, she proceeds to tell me how she was always too good for me, I should get a proper job and that there were a lot less darkies around during the blitz.

“Two”

My only consolation in my patermorphis is that I’m not turning into someone else’s father because, flawed as my one was, this week has proven there are far worse out there.

Take poor Ray Bond who failed to pick up the clues when he allowed Hannah, his 13 year old “emo” fixated, goth, daughter with a history of self harm, unmonitored internet access. Hannah “was always very protective of the screen whenever I came in to the room,” he told a Coroner after finding her lifeless body hanging from her bunk bed.

Of course he didn’t choke his daughter to death by stamping on her throat in an honour killing as Abdel-Quader Ali did after seeing her talking to a British soldier. “Death was the least she deserved,” he pronounced.

But even that pales when the kindly old father figure from Amstetten said, “It was a beautiful idea for me, to have a proper family also down in the cellar.”

“Three”

Suddenly I’m wondering if I’m not being a little too authoritarian. I mean dads have hardly had a good press this week. It’s like someone’s been running a campaign for Fathers For Injustice. And here I am looking stern and maybe it’s scarier then I think.

I do realise that, like nipples and Calpol, terror has a key role in the psyche of the young, it trains caution before they’re old enough to understand danger. An ugly witch in a fairy tale used to do the job but since Shrek came along they’re all cute and rehabilitated; ogres no longer seem to eat children.

When R’s school project on Zeus revealed that his father ate most of his siblings as babies and Zeus ate his first wife with his unborn child inside her it was greeted with the same indifference as if that was just another option on a Happy Meal.

So now we have the news to broadcast our ogres and the terror is distributed indiscriminate of age. Madeline McCann is a cautionary tale, but mostly for grown ups, and where story monsters were always marked by their differences, now what makes them scarier is that they’re just like us.

“I wanted to have many children. Not children that would have to grow up alone… but children that would always have someone to play with.” It’s a simple caring notion, what parent hasn’t let it idle through their brain at some point? But, oh my god, I’ve just shared a thought with the mind of Joseph Fritzl – and here I am about to imprison a defenceless child in her room. What kind of father am I?

“Four”

As I stand there praying I won’t have to mete out punishment, it dawns on me that I’m no longer one of the kids, I‘m not one of us, I’m one of them. I’m the brick wall my children will try to tear down. I’m the cause to be rebelled against. My love might be unconditional but any chance of friendship is overloaded with conditions. I’ll be your friend if you obey my rules: sit up, don’t slouch, speak up, get your feet off the chair, lean over your plate when you put food in your mouth, say sorry like you mean it…

“Four and a half”

She still hasn’t apologised. I look into J’s determined eyes, hero of her own adventure, facing down the punishment monster. I try to keep my angry dad face and not let on how much I admire her bravery. She’s only three and I know I’ve got to teach her how to respect people because it will keep her safe when she’s out in the big world. But I hate knowing that I’m reinforcing our differences and the memory of moments like this will eventually drive her away to the happier company of her un-judgemental, non-conditional, peers.

“Fi-i-i-i,” I say, menacingly, my arms reaching towards her, ready to snatch and whisk her screaming to her room.

“Sorry” she quickly whispers grabbing my hand and burying her face in my arms.

I kiss her tiny hot head, “No, I’m sorry,” I whisper back.

Got the MABS

I used to think that until I settled down and had a family I’d be incomplete. Of course as soon as I did, I realised I wasn’t complete, I was finished.

It’s something I’d rather forget, but every other week, another “life’s crap for the middle aged family man” ‘finding’ seems to come out forcing me, once again, to stare into the abyss.

Which is, partly, why I find myself sharing a table in a busy pub at lunchtime. The sun is hot and bright, making the darkness inside all the more black. A viscous smattering of partially dehydrated beer glistens on the table.

“You going to get that down you?” says the bloke next to me, nodding at the glass I’ve been staring at for the last half hour. It’s the very question I’ve been asking myself as I grip, the tiny pill in my hand: my first anti-depressant.

It’s Superman in reverse; there you are faster than a locomotive, more powerful than a tall building and so unfamiliar with your own underpants you’re not sure which way to put them on, then you pop into the phone booth of life to give someone a ring and when you come out you’re bespectacled, bumbling, mild mannered, Clark Kent, whose closest encounter with a speeding bullet is being stuck in traffic.

You spend the rest of your life looking for the damn phone booth, or somewhere to just change again, but it’s gone.

I look at the little pill with the big promise and try to remind myself that the disappointment of lost youth is so old as to be a cliché, prosaic rather than cause for Prozac, a trite of passage. But then why is everyone trying to remind me how miserable I’m supposed to be?

Hoards of academics, probably suffering from the Mabs (Middle Aged Bleakness Syndrome) themselves, seem determined to justify their misery.

Why am I not surprised that Professor Oswald, stuck in a midlands university with acres of research, describes life as a U-bend, “bottoming out in middle age”? What middle aged man doesn’t know he’s stuck between the first flush of youth and the blocked waste pipes of old age?

Last week, Relate counsellors revealed the shocking truth that middle aged men lose their libidos – as if the Bonapartes hadn’t already stuck that psychological post-it note on the pages of history – and if cancelling your bedroom activity wasn’t enough, Professor King of the Royal Free was quick to remind us “Men are most likely to suffer depression between the ages of 30 and 50”.

And now, when it’s far too late to do anything about my family, (short of the Austrian fine wine solution of laying them in the cellar for 24 years), Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert declared the happiest people were those married but without children.

But what do you know? All these weighty academics, leaders in their fields, top of their game; if they’re not between 30 and 50 then stick my hat in the oven and season to taste.

Perhaps then, it’s not that middle aged man’s melancholy is any more prevalent, but that he’s more likely to indulge this navel gazing with the time, resources, position and self absorption to explore it.

I just pity the poor research assistants and want to take them by the hand: yes middle aged men, just when then they should be feeling top of the pile, often feel shitty for a number of rather worn reasons. There, now they can use the time I saved them to get back to their all-lego re-make of Star Wars for YouTube.

Maybe depressed men seem more of a story because, unlike women, they’re less likely to admit it or go to a doctor for anti-depressants. The mid-life bloke stumbles through not daring, or conveniently forgetting, to tell his doctor or anybody else, that he no longer feels master of the universe.

I pick up my drink, “There we go”, I think, “bucked the trend and, like Moses, got my answer in a tablet.” I place the pill on my tongue, and lift my head, but looking up I get distracted.

She catches my eye for a hundredth of a second, a fraction of a girl, half my age, and an eighth my BMI. She sweeps past in a skirt which, from table height, appears to have risen above the bottom of a pair of piston driven impossibly firm, tanned, buttocks. I sit there staring and realise I have forgotten why I had put my head up in the first place.

So pity not the sad middle aged man, don’t tell him he’s repressing something, don’t advise him to “let the feelings out”. We come equipped with our very own inbuilt survival mechanism, a natural bad news cut out; the one that allows bills to lie unopened for a week, as if they had never arrived. Death, tax demands and an excess of nasal hair: all inevitable and all totally ignorable. We like to call it things like, “focus” but our one-track, multitasking-resistant, minds are also hard at work defending us from the credit crunch, the spreading gut and the interminable research: our all-natural anti-depressant.

Clutching my glass, I stare at the receding figure and realise I’m as happily capable of forgetting I’m never going back to Krypton as I am anniversaries, the names of in-law and children on buses.

I let out a low whistle and something I’d forgotten plops into my glass.