rain

Listening with your eyes shut

I am in the London Underground onboard a train on my way to a conference on ‘New Approaches to Higher Education’ organised by the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Engineering Professors’ Council.  The lady opposite has her eyes closed but she is not asleep because she opens them periodically as we come into stations to check whether it’s her stop.  I wonder if she is trying to reproduce John Hull’s experience of the depth of sounds as a blind person [see my post entitled ‘Rain brings out the contours in everything‘ on February 22, 2017].  For the second time in recent weeks, I close my eyes and try it for myself.  It is surprising how in a crowded train, I can’t hear anyone, just the noise made by the train.  It’s like a wobble board that’s joined by a whole percussion section of an orchestra when we go around a bend or over points.  The first time I closed my eyes was at a concert at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool.  My view of the orchestra was obstructed by the person in front of me so, rather than stare at the back of their head, I closed my eyes and allowed the music to dominate my mind.  Switching off the stream of images seemed to release more of my brain cells to register the depth and richness of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 5.  I was classified as tone deaf at school when I was kicked out of the choir and I learned no musical instruments, so the additional texture and dimensionality in the music was a revelation to me.

Back to the London Underground – many of my fellow passengers were plugged into their phones or tablets via their ears and eyes.  I wondered if any were following the MOOC on Understanding Super Structures that we launched recently.  Unlikely I know, but it’s a bit different, because it is mainly audio clips and not videos.  We’re trying to tap into some of the time many people spend with earbuds plugged into their ears but also make the MOOC more accessible in countries where internet access is mainly via mobile phones.  My recent experiences of listening with my eyes closed, make me realize that perhaps we should ask people to close their eyes when listening to our audio clips so that they can fully appreciate them.  If they are sitting on the train then that’s fine but not recommended if you are walking across campus or in town!

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Gone walking

Background and lock-screen pictures have become a feature of modern life.  Your computer and mobile device were probably delivered with some pre-loaded scenes from nature and some of us personalize our devices by up-loading photographs taken on holiday or a recent excursion into the countryside.  Perhaps, we do this intuitively, because recent research has shown that immersion in nature, even at the superficial level of viewing a picture can improve brain function.  Brisk walking stimulates the production of new neurons and, when you do it in an environment enriched with natural stimuli, the connectivity and stability of connectivity between neurons is increased.  For those us whose biological systems are in terminal decline, the opportunity to retard this decline by walking in the wild is too good to miss.  I have gone to the English Lake District to produce and connect some more neurons.  I’ll be back next week – feeling hopefully creative and empowered, as well as, probably rather damp but what else can be expected from northern England in April!

For those of you who want to immerse themselves vicariously in the damp natural environment of England in the rain could read ‘Rain: Four Walks in English Weather‘ by Melissa Harrison.

Sources:

Susan Greenfield, A Day in the Life of the Brain, London: Allen Lane, 2016.

Atchley RA, Strayer DL & Atchley, Creativity in the wild: improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings, PloS One, 7:e51474, 2012.

Yao S et al, Physical exercise-induced adult neurogenesis: a good strategy to prevent cognitive decline in neurodegenerative diseases? Biomedical Research Intl., 2014, 403120.

Olson KA et al, Environmental enrichment and voluntary exercise massively increase neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus via dissociable pathways, Hippocampus, 16:250-260, 2006.

‘Rain bringing out the contours in everything’

16blindness9-custom1Last October I cited John Hull’s audio diary in which he said ‘Cognition is beautiful.  It is beautiful to know.’ [See my post entitled ‘Cognition is beautiful‘ on October 19th, 2016]  Last week, I watched the film ‘Notes on Blindness‘ based on his book ‘Touching the Rock‘.  We found it a moving and life-enriching experience. At one point, John Hull, after he has lost all of his sight, opens his front door during a rain storm and describes the beauty of the rain.  “Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience.”  You can read more of this extract at www.johnmhull.biz/Touching the Rock.html in which John wishes that rain could fall inside a room to give him a sense of the things in the room.  This seemed particularly poignant to me, a sighted person, who benefits from photons raining down on everything around us during daylight or when the light is switched on.  The photons cause light waves to radiate from every surface in a similar way that the rain drops cause sound waves to radiate from everything as John experienced. Our eyes are amazing with 137 million separate ‘seeing’ elements on the retina, or in digital camera terms, that’s 137 megapixels.  But to quote the Roman poet, Lucretius who in his poem ‘De Rerum Natura’ wrote “Nothing in the body is made that we may use it.  What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”  In other words, we do not have eyes so that we can see but we see because we have eyes.  John Hull discovered new ways to experience the world using what was available to him although he struggled with what he had lost.  It is difficult to imagine losing one’s sight but his diary and the film bring us considerably closer to an appreciation of the loss.

Yes, I know I switched from a particle to wave description of light but I wanted to emphasize that the photons don’t just bounce off surfaces, otherwise all surfaces would look the colour of the illuminating light.

 

Sources:

John M. Hull, Touching the Rock: an experience of blindness, London: SPCK, 2016

Lucretius (author), Alicia Stallings (translator), The Nature of Things, London: Penguin Classics, 2007.

Charles Sherrington, Making of the eye, in The Faber Book of Science, John Carey (ed), London: Faber & Faber, 1995.

Picture: A production still from the film, Notes on Blindness, from NY Times on January 16th, 2016.