Archives: June 2018

The Neuroscience of Pain

Nicola Twilley for the New Yorker
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Nicola Twilley looks at current research into the neural patterns behind pain in the New Yorker:

On a foggy February morning in Oxford, England, I arrived at the John Radcliffe Hospital, a shiplike nineteen-seventies complex moored on a hill east of the city center, for the express purpose of being hurt. I had an appointment with a scientist named Irene Tracey, a brisk woman in her early fifties who directs Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences and has become known as the Queen of Pain. “We might have a problem with you being a ginger,” she warned when we met. Redheads typically perceive pain differently from those with other hair colors; many also flinch at the use of the G-word. “I’m sorry, a lovely auburn,” she quickly said, while a doctoral student used a ruler and a purple Sharpie to draw the outline of a one-inch square on my right shin.

Wearing thick rubber gloves, the student squeezed a dollop of pale-orange cream into the center of the square and delicately spread it to the edges, as if frosting a cake. The cream contained capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the burn of chili peppers. “We love capsaicin,” Tracey said. “It does two really nice things: it ramps up gradually to become quite intense, and it activates receptors in your skin that we know a lot about.” Thus anointed, I signed my disclaimer forms and was strapped into the scanning bed of a magnetic-resonance-imaging (MRI) machine.

The machine was a 7-Tesla MRI, of which there are fewer than a hundred in the world. The magnetic field it generates (teslas are a unit of magnetic strength) is more than four times as powerful as that of the average hospital MRI machine, resulting in images of much greater detail. As the cryogenic units responsible for cooling the machine’s superconducting magnet clicked on and off in a syncopated rhythm, the imaging technician warned me that, once he slid me inside, I might feel dizzy, see flashing lights, or experience a metallic taste in my mouth. “I always feel like I’m turning a corner,” Tracey said. She explained that the magnetic field would instantly pull the proton in each of the octillions of hydrogen atoms in my body into alignment. Then she vanished into a control room, where a bank of screens would allow her to watch my brain as it experienced pain.

During the next couple of hours, I had needles repeatedly stuck into my ankle and the fleshy part of my calf. A hot-water bottle applied to my capsaicin patch inflicted the perceptual equivalent of a third-degree burn, after which a cooling pack placed on the same spot brought tear-inducing relief. Each time Tracey and her team prepared to observe a new slice of my brain, the machine beeped, and a small screen in front of my face flashed the word “Ready” in white lettering on a black background. After each assault, I was asked to rate my pain on a scale of 0 to 10.

Initially, I was concerned that I was letting the team down. The capsaicin patch hardly tingled, and I scored the first round of pinpricks as a 3, more out of hope than conviction. I needn’t have worried. The patch began to itch, then burn. By the time the hot-water bottle was placed on it, about an hour in, I was surely at an 8. The next set of pinpricks felt as if I were being run through with a hot metal skewer.

“You’re a good responder,” Tracey told me, rubbing her hands together, when I emerged, dazed. “And you’ve got a lovely plump brain—all my postdocs want to sign you up.” As my data were sent off for analysis, she pressed a large cappuccino into my hands and gently removed the capsaicin with an alcohol wipe.

Tracey didn’t need to ask me how it had gone. The imaging-analysis software, designed in her department and now used around the world, employs a color scale that shades from cool to hot, with three-dimensional pixels coded from blue through red to yellow, depending on the level of neural activity in a region. Tracey has analyzed thousands of these “blob maps,” as she calls them—scans produced using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Watching a succession of fiery-orange jellyfish flaring up in my skull, she had seen my pain wax and wane, its outlines shifting as mild discomfort became nearly unbearable agony.

For scientists, pain has long presented an intractable problem: it is a physiological process, just like breathing or digestion, and yet it is inherently, stubbornly subjective—only you feel your pain. It is also a notoriously hard experience to convey accurately to others. Virginia Woolf bemoaned the fact that “the merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” Elaine Scarry, in the 1985 book “The Body in Pain,” wrote, “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”

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Why Did I Teach My Son to Speak Russian?

Keith Gessen for the New Yorker
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In the New Yorker, A Terrible Country author Keith Gessen writes on bilingualism and his decision to teach his son Russian:

I no longer remember when I started speaking to Raffi in Russian. I didn’t speak to him in Russian when he was in his mother’s womb, though I’ve since learned that this is when babies first start recognizing sound patterns. And I didn’t speak to him in Russian in the first few weeks of his life; it felt ridiculous to do so. All he could do was sleep and scream and breast-feed, and really the person I was talking to when I talked to him was his mother, Emily, who was sleep-deprived and on edge and needed company. She does not know Russian.

But then, at some point, when things stabilized a little, I started. I liked the feeling, when I carried him through the neighborhood or pushed him in his stroller, of having our own private language. And I liked the number of endearments that Russian gave me access to. Mushkin, mazkin, glazkin, moy horoshy, moy lyubimy, moy malen’ky mal’chik. It is a language surprisingly rich in endearments, given its history.

When we started reading books to Raffi, I included some Russian ones. A friend had handed down a beautiful book of Daniil Kharms poems for children; they were not nonsense verse, but they were pretty close, and Raffi enjoyed them. One was a song about a man who went into the forest with a club and a bag, and never returned. Kharms himself was arrested in Leningrad, in 1941, for expressing “seditious” sentiments, and died, of starvation, in a psychiatric hospital the following year; the great Soviet bard Alexander Galich would eventually call the song about the man in the forest “prophetic” and write his own song, embedding the forest lyrics into a story of the Gulag. Raffi really liked the Kharms song; when he got a little older, he would request it and then dance.

Before I knew it, I was speaking to Raffi in Russian all the time, even in front of his mother. And while at first it seemed silly, because he didn’t understand anything we said, in any language, there came a point when I saw that he did. We started with animal sounds. “What does a cow”—korova—“say?” I would ask. “Moo!” Raffi would answer. “What does a cat”—koshka—“say?” “Meow.” “And what does an owl”—sova—“say?” Raffi would make his eyes big and raise his arms and pronounce, “Hoo, hoo.” He didn’t understand much else, though, at a certain point, around the age of one and a half, he seemed to learn that nyet meant “no”—I said it a lot. He didn’t understand me as well as he understood his mother, and he didn’t understand either of us all that much, but still it felt like a minor miracle. I had given my son some Russian! After that, I felt I should extend the experiment. It helped that people were so supportive and impressed. “It’s wonderful that you’re teaching him Russian,” they said.

But I had doubts, and still do.

Bilingualism used to have an undeservedly bad reputation; then it got an undeservedly exalted one. The first came from early twentieth-century American psychologists, who, countering nativists, proposed that something other than heredity was causing Eastern and Southern European immigrants to score lower than Northern Europeans on newly invented I.Q. tests. They proposed that the attempt to learn two languages might be at fault. As Kenji Hakuta points out, in his 1986 book, “The Mirror of Language,” neither the psychologists nor the nativists considered that I.Q. tests might themselves be useless.

In the early nineteen-sixties, this pseudo-science was debunked by Canadian researchers in the midst of debates over Quebecois nationalism. A study by two McGill University researchers, which used French-English bilingual schoolchildren in Montreal, found that they actually outperformed monolingual children on tests that required mental manipulation and reorganization of visual patterns. Thus was born the “bilingual advantage.” It remains the conventional wisdom, as I have recently learned from people telling me about it over and over.

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On the Farm

Daisy Hildyard for the London Review of Books
Daisy Hildyard credit Barney Jones

For the LRB, Daisy Hildyard’s essay ‘On the Farm’ examines animal behaviour and animal rights in the UK:

In November, the government voted to let go of a European law which declares that animals are sentient beings. At that time of year the cattle on my father’s beef farm in Yorkshire come inside for the winter, and we had recently separated a group of young bullocks from the rest of the herd. The bullocks went into a barn and the others were supposed to stay out for a few more days, but they didn’t like it, and expressed their dislike loudly. We had to move the bullocks’ mothers to a distant field far from the barn. Where we left them, there were several hedges, fences and closed gates between the cows and their offspring.

The following morning the mothers were standing outside the barn, bellowing. During the night they had jumped or broken through every hedge, fence and closed gate to get there. My father hadn’t thought this possible: the same barriers had, for years, kept all the animals in. The escape seemed to reveal that the cattle were able to get out at any time, if only they wanted to badly enough.

There is an argument that domestication is a regime men have imposed on other species to project a human idea of power onto a more-than-human relationship. But what if we thought of farming as an innovation of opportunistic animals? From that point of view, it is people who dedicate themselves to the propagation of cows. Leaving aside the compromises that cattle would be making in the circumstances, the argument isn’t easily disproved. The actions of other living things are cryptic. The farm gates look different to the farmer and to the animals. If a mother cow does not run through the hedge every day, it is not that she lacks the ability to do so, but that she has no cause to do it.

Because of this, the breakout didn’t make me feel that I understood these cows any better – in fact, the opposite. It was something like the experience, during the days following a birth or a bereavement, of looking out of the window and being surprised to see the neighbours going to work as usual: there is a sense that normal life is supported by a set of assumptions which are necessary, but not necessarily right. Derrida felt ashamed when he was caught naked in his cat’s gaze, and embarrassed, in turn, by this feeling of shame. My father repaired the gates.

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Art Across Borders: The White Review Panel Discussion

Hotsted by The White Review and Hauser & Wirth
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In the first of three talks as part of a new collaboration between Hauser & Wirth and The White Review, Tom McCarthy and Kate Briggs discuss internationalist perspectives on art and culture, the exchange of ideas between disciplines and across borders, and the nature of translation. In a conversation moderated by Founding Editor of The White Review, Ben Eastham, the two authors will consider how, even and especially in a global political climate of reactionary nativism, no art is ever ‘pure’ but rather informed by currents of intellectual thought that flow across national, economic and even linguistic boundaries.

The panel will take place on Tuesday 19 June from 6.30-8pm at Hauser & Wirth, 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET. Tickets are free and can be booked here.

Tom McCarthy is among the most celebrated writers working in the English language today. He is the author of four novels, two of which – Satin Island and C – were shortlisted for the Booker Prize and works of nonfiction including Tintin and the Secret of Literature. He is also known in the art world for the reports, manifestos, and media interventions he has made as general secretary of the International Necronautical Society, a semifictitious avant-garde network. He is a judge of the 2018 Turner Prize.

Kate Briggs is a translator and the author of This Little Art, a genre-bending, book-length essay celebrating the practice of literary translation. Stemming from her experience of translating Roland Barthes’s lecture notes, This Little Art threads different stories together in a portrait of translation as a means of understanding the inner lives of other people. In additional to her work as a writer and translator, she teaches at the American University of Paris and the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam.

 

Photo credit: Stephen Spender

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