Friday, 17 August 2012


I was in a cafe today in Bath. It is Cafe Retro which is one of my favourite places to get a coffee or lunch when I am about town. I find it cheerful and unpretentious and the coffee is excellent. Coffee has been a great help to me these recent months. It helps me focus and clears away the confusion for a bit.
However, what struck me today was the hum of conversation in the place. Now, I have had some trouble with my brain of late, as you probably know. Some bits subsequently weren't working very well, causing me to feel a bit thick on occasion and to have trouble concentrating when there was a lot going on. A crowded place, with a lot of conversation has been a challenge to me, causing me to sometimes have to go and sit outside somewhere quiet whilst my brain cools down.

As an aside, I have had the last two weeks off as annual holiday.
Van in the mountains
We piled up the van with all manner of stuff and headed to a friend's farm in North Wales, where every year for the past, oh, maybe seven, he has cleaned out the barn and used it to host a private mini-festival. Everyone present is selected from friends and aquaintances and amongst those are a number of members of most excellent bands.  During the days, living was communal and if I picked up my guitar or banjo to play, often someone with a guitar would wander across to join in and ere long, a small session would be taking place.

Tents and vans appear in a freshly mowed field and we stayed from Thursday to Monday, helping where we could with preparations, clearing up and most importantly, haymaking. After all, it is a farm.
Children of the Revolution
So, the festivities and outdoor living carried on over the weekend and there was much singing, dancing and consuming of beer. 
Soundcheck in the now-clean barn.
Dogs roamed around with stolen sausages, children chased them laughing and not a care in the world was entertained for the whole time. It was a bohemian dream for a few days where pleasure, music and company dominated everyones' consciousness. I am chilled in a way I find hard to describe.

Party in the barn: Somewhere in this night, I got my brain back
And somewhere in that weekend, a switch seems to have been flicked in my brain. Something came back which I have previously lamented the  loss of. I feel complete again. More than complete in fact, if I articulate a feeling that is hard to explain. The experiences of the ghastly happening and subsequent recovery have left a mark which will stay with me forever. From the rudimentary consciousness of those first few weeks through the headaches and regaining of physical coordination and mental faculties, I have learned a tremendous amount which provides an almost endless supply of inspiration for curiosity. And gratitude. I met recently, before my malaise occurred, a survivor of a much more serious SAH and he was significantly different from his former self. I realise how much I have to be grateful for and shall never ever take my life, or my brain, for granted. It could do easily have been otherwise.

And so, as I was sitting in the cafe today, i remarked to myself how the hubbub of voices would have caused me a major "moment" a few weeks ago as my brain tried to make sense of it all at the same time.
But now, I find I can "float" on top of it all and "tune in" to individual conversations or voices. This is an improvement I welcome. But also, it gives me cause for thought.

Normally, where we direct our attention is not consciously under our control. Ok, we may sit writing an email in the office, or watching television, thinking we are concentrating, but if a man cam in wielding a knife or even wearing a silly hat, our attention would be drawn to him and away from the task in hand. This makes sense and is to be expected. However, it becomes clear that some process in our unconscious constantly monitors our surroundings and takes note of what to ascribe significance to and the relative weightings of pieces of information in our environment. And this is not visible to us, or even a process we are aware of.
Well, this has not been working in my brain for some months. All information is equally significant and my brain has been trying to process the whole lot simultaneously. This is obviously impossible and the attempts have caused me some distress. However, today, I sat in the cafe and realised that not only can I focus now and allow this repaired process to do its job, but that I am actually aware of its exixtence and of its operation. Where it was "below the waterline" before, now its workings are apparent to me.
And it is utterly fascinating!

Sitting listening to the hum of discussion, I note some voices demand attention more than others. Speech which is emphatic is more difficult to ignore. Emotional emphasis is flagged as more highly significant and more worthy of attention.
Some male voices are quite compelling. I cannot work out why, but a certain resonance or tone causes the attention to be drawn to it. Also, some bossy women seem more evident in the surroundings than before. I note that with the compelling or emotional voices, I am drawn to examine the content of the speech: With nagging voices, I am afraid the initial response is somewhat more visceral and less civilised.

To observe this process in action is utterly captivating. From a maelstrom of noise that would paralyse my consciousness for a period of time, now information is emerging and the process of extracting it and ascribing significance to it is becoming less of an effort and more unconscious. Unconscious and yet now transparent.

So, now there is another set of questions to occupy the curiosity: What are the criteria upon which our minds base their decisions of where to direct the spotlight of attention to?

These are questions I probably won't find answers to but out of a near-catastrophe, I have had the opportunity to examine some of the intricate functions of the human brain at first hand, as an observer. As a self-regarding mechanism, the brain does give us some wonderfully interesting insights into our own humanity.

So, next time you are in a pub, a restaurant, anywhere with a lot of enthusiastically interacting people, I urge you to just pause a moment to listen in to the whole, and then individual components of the verbal melee. And become aware of the incredible amount of work your brain is doing without you having to worry about it. It really is very impressive.

I am back! :-)
As a postscript, I would like to say thank you to those who have encouraged me to see the positive in all of my recent experiences. Your insistence that I be patient and that I was still compos mentis has been appreciated greatly. Thank you all.


Kay G. said...

Oh, I am pleased to read this and to see that last photo of your smiling face!
So glad that you looked up the info about Roald Dahl and that it might have even helped you. Good!


I'm so relieved to read that you're feeling 'fighting fit' once again.
Your behaviour in Cafe Retro mirrors how I have always been, since a very young girl. I do not know what compels me to eavesdrop. I can be in the most stimulating company, with someone I've not seen for a long time, yet be far more interested in what the group of ladies are saying on the next table.
I prefer to go out alone during the day with the children, I find the company of other adults very tiring, as I have to listen to them AND eavesdrop. I don't think it is something I can help. Perhaps I should though?

PerlNumquist said...

Kay: There are things in Roald Dahl's life to emulate and things not to :-) In this aspect, the achievements of his wife subsequent to her massive strokes was pretty inspirational. The behaviour of neural machinery is nothing short of astonishing and i keep that in mind as I challenge myself to regain what was there (which I think i pretty much have) and to use the same ideas to go beyond into quite exciting territory.
Lucy: I had no choice but to eavesdrop for a few months now. It all came in through the filters. But rebuilding the filters has been interesting in itself. I am now able to selectively eavesdrop, which is actually and improvement on "before". Though sometimes, somet conversations are just TOO interesting to tear your attention away from, even if you are nodding adn smiling at the person immediately in front of you.