Archive for May, 2012

Descriptions of Migraines

The Guardian published an interesting description of one person’s migraine attacks. She describes them as wrinkles in reality and after reading about them it seems clear why migraines are often linked to a kind of epileptic madness. For a fellow migraineur, a term she uses in the article, the descriptions of the episodes are fascinating, because they do make a great deal of sense of it all. The terms are hardly clinical, but it’s impossible to describe phenomena that stretch the ways reality presents itself to you with objective prose:

I’m writing now through day four of this month’s headache, one that began (as do many) with a flickering blind spot in the centre of my vision. It starts small, a spinning black penny in the middle of a page. I slump in my seat as it spreads darkly over my sight like jam, and I can’t see, or think, or entirely understand speech. It’s the film melting in my projector — it’s a bit like falling. Smells slay me. Noise, fine, but smells — Angel perfume in a lift, for instance, or that dirty spitting rain you get in cities, the kind that smells of apocalypse — will make me retch. And minutes later the headache comes.

She mentions the “Alice in Wonderland syndrome” that accompanies the attack. The body or parts of it seem oddly out of proportion. Figure-ground relations become blurred. Synaesthesia occurs. Some time before the pain sets in your surroundings are suddenly pregnant with meaning. Intense déjà vu makes the world familiar and strange at the same time. Semantic processing flickers on and off. In short, it’s like a trip on your favorite psychedelic, but with intense pain.

My own experiences are fairly similar. The headache I usually take care of with aspirin. I have tried other painkillers, but the aspirin seems to do the job. Nausea, madness and other symptoms can’t really be fixed anyway, so I simply take the edge off and spend the next few hours in a dark room. The senses remain heightened and most sounds, all distinct smells and bright light are unmanageable. The same goes for what I’ve come to call semantic garbage, unorganized loud sensations of any kind. These have in the past even triggered migraine attacks.

It sounds odd — as if madness should make sense — but I once found that listening to John Coltrane actually eased the pain merely because his playing floated somewhere beyond the rigid structures of musical harmony and rhythm. During another episode, the Spanish language was soothing. Both of these experiences, which I confess might have been given greater significance than they actually deserve due to the trippyness of it all, involved not just the perception of raw sounds, volume and timbre, but the way the information was structured. For some reason, it was this abstract beauty that gave me pleasure and relief. Perhaps it’s finally a matter of aesthetics — choppy information is as ugly as unorganized noise and both hurt the senses.

As the Guardian migraineur points out, the fact is that there is some pleasure to be had from migraine attacks if they are manageable. I know at least one person whose headaches are so bad that she would never agree to this, but I’m fairly sure those who can cope with theirs would. The way the brain goes nuts, for one thing, is a great thrill. The first migraine the Guardian writer describes made her forget how to read. That, however disconcerting, is a very strange experience that punctures a hole in your mundane existence and I would think any person who experiences something like that lives in a much more interesting world than those who don’t. There is also the pleasure that follows the attack, which for me is a pleasant fuzzy hangover. Having said all that, I don’t look forward to the next time.

Life in Europe Without a Future

While avoiding work yesterday, I wandered to El Pais’s website and found a link to a live feed of the 15-M anniversary demonstrations. Tens of thousands of people were in attendance singing and banging drums. The broadcast included a few inserts and in one of these a reporter asked a young man how he saw the future of the movement. He smiled and answered the silly question: “We don’t have a future.” I’ve been corresponding with a Greek friend of mine and although we have somehow assumed a fairly clinical tone in our discussions about politics, it’s pretty obvious he’s not very hopeful either. He has some plans for the future, but he also sees his country has been ravaged by austerity measures and that they will run out of money soon.

The thought of living without a future sounds melodramatic at first, but melodrama does not motivate tens of thousands of people to take to the streets, move billions of euros within the eurozone, or help elect neonazis into the Greek parliament. Most of us have some idea of what it is like to live with uncertainty, but it’s difficult to see what happens when there really is no future. For my parents the plan was to get married, make babies, work and buy a house. I can’t see myself doing any of these things right now. But there is something even more profound going on in the current crisis. Not many people believe that Europe’s problems can be solved with traditional politics. And the problems are many: the financial crisis, massive unemployment, growing unrest, you name it. We have grown used to the hopelessness brought on by the crisis and we are finding ways of living with it instead.

It might be a philosophical question, but I don’t know what kind of philosopher would philosophize when he can’t see beyond the present. Living fully in the present goes against human nature as well. Dr Johnson famously said that he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man. Easier said than done. The beautiful Spaniards shown in the broadcast talked of revolution with very human and infectious smiles on their faces. Humorists might make light of the fact that futures were the thing that got us into this mess to begin with, but it’s grotesque to laugh where a smile will suffice. Besides, my Greek friend isn’t amused and I would hate to joke at his expense. Neither of us can afford it.

Assuming either an optimistic or a pessimistic attitude to living without a future is impossible, because there is nothing toward which one should assume the attitude. The answers are not forthcoming and it’s understandable, because the problem is that the answers have disappeared from the horizon. The stalemate has begun to grow into the new norm. Perhaps fairly soon we can feel genuine nostalgia for days gone by, when everything actually was better. That is, if we can forget the mess that became of that better life. Getting used to the crisis is different from accepting it as the norm and this should be pointed out from time to time. The Spaniards have reminded us all how important it sometimes is to raise your voice in protest just for the sake of protesting. Let’s hope they have the courage to continue.

Language Learning: It’s Good For You

My German studies have been advancing at a steady pace and recently I’ve noticed improvements in my reading. It’s actually been exhilarating to read stuff and watch films now that the language is starting to make more sense. I had a small revelation when I watched a German documentary I had had on my hard drive for ages, something like what Moses McCormick speaks about in one of his videos. I’m not doing composition yet and other work-related stuff does not really allow that right now, but I’ll begin soon enough.

To distract myself from work even further, I picked up the Innovative Language Learning Japanese set. (This is partly the fault of Mr. McCormick whose “Level Up” videos make Asian languages look like great fun.) In it, the authors list reasons for learning Japanese and the top reason they cite is that learning a second language is good for your brain. This is good news, because I have no serious reason to learn Japanese. In short, they say that it protects you from Alzheimer’s and makes you smarter. The memory gets a workout and your attention span grows. They go on to say that it also aids critical thinking and creativity.

As luck would have it, an article giving these claims scientific backing appeared recently. The BBC picked it up today and I dug up the original as well. It has the fetching title “Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages.” It has to do with how the brain deals with complex visual motion and sound. I won’t pretend to be a brain expert, so let me quote the article:

We found that adolescent bilinguals, listening to the speech syllable [da], encoded the stimulus more robustly than age-matched monolinguals. Specifically, bilinguals showed enhanced encoding of the fundamental frequency, a feature known to underlie pitch perception and grouping of auditory objects. This enhancement was associated with executive function advantages. Thus, through experience-related tuning of attention, the bilingual auditory system becomes highly efficient in automatically processing sound. This study provides biological evidence for system-wide neural plasticity in auditory experts that facilitates a tight coupling of sensory and cognitive functions.

The scientists relate this to musicians and note that something similar goes on in their auditory processing. The executive function advantages, to put this into language I can understand, seem to be related to the way in which bilinguals and musicians are able to put some of the processes used to discern relevant information from the bombardment of noise on autopilot, having conditioned themselves to do so, and thus they have a greater facility for focusing their attention on, for want of a better word, thinking. Or perhaps one could say that they have refined their sensory filters — a term I just made up — to the point where they can concentrate on the relevant information more efficiently. In short, they are smarter information processors. I wonder if reversing the process and creating speech synthesizers adapted to language learning would be possible?

This also relates to something I’ve often thought about while studying languages. When one is engaged in study, it often seems like one is not studying in any strict sense of the word, but rather trying to get used to the language. “Conditioning” might be close to the term I’m looking for, but the English word escapes me. The Finnish word that comes to mind is “totuttautua.” There is a slight nuance in the Finnish which tells me that the very process of getting used to something involves not being completely in control of the process or perhaps being in control of the situation only vicariously. In terms of language learning, it might be viewed as a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, systematic desensitization or graduated exposure therapy. And once we go there and begin to look at what the article calls “sensory enrichment” involving languages or music, we are back in that ancient medical paradigm that saw music and poetry as forms of medical intervention.

As I said, I’m not a brain scientist or qualified to draw conclusions from such speculations. That unfortunate fact aside, it’s nevertheless nice to hear the good news. I’ve put my brain through a lot, but based on these findings I’ve apparently also been taking care of it. This also means that there is now no reason not to study languages and if anyone ever tells you otherwise you can point to this article. It’s science.