Monday, 27 April 2009

Hair: new toys do not have this problem

But it makes you think!


There was a time when the word ‘conductive’ held two rather different connotations for me from what it does today. One was with respect to conductive hearing loss, the so very common developmental ‘dislocator’ on which I elaborated for myself my understanding of the realities of systemic developmental disorder, and found just how easy it could often be to ‘reset’ a dislocated psychosocial system. The other involved electrically conductive gel.

That was in the early seventies, when I spent a little time with the marvelous Grahame Harding at the Neuropsychology Unit of the Department of Applied Psychology, University of Aston in Birmingham, learning to ‘do EEGs’. I had gone there to explore Soviet use of EEGs to differentiate between temporary delay in development and oligophrenia, but the underlying theory proved much more interesting and drew me from the neuropsychological end of the trade to the psychosocial-intervention list. Hardly his bag but he let me hang on and even did me the privilege of getting the late Neil O’Connor as External.

In case you don’t know, by the way, EEGs involved having to wire up subjects to a (colossal!) computer by means of little cup-shaped electrodes glued around the skull. Electrical conductivity was ensured by there being a small hole in the centre of the cup, through which one injected a drop of eclectically conductive gel by means of a blunted hypodermic syringe.. To make doubly sure of an electrical connection, with the needle still in place in the hole, we would then gently scrape away a small area of dead skin under the gel with its blunted point.

I don’t know how far this Heath Robinson arrangement has evolved over the intervening years (the computers will be much, much smaller, and the whole business is probably a little more infection-conscious for sure!). It was all very new and exciting but, in one respect, there couldn’t have been a worse time to do it than the early seventies.

In the early seventies, we had serious hair. Especially the blokes.

In those hirsute times we never envisaged a future when fashion would lead many, many men (all ages, all classes), and even a quite a few women, to shave their skulls. A hideous prospect in the Age of Aquarius, but an electroencephalographer’s dream of heaven!

There was a lot that one would not have envisaged then!

Now anyone can do something even more marvelous, with no Heath Robinson rig-up, no massive computer that fills a room, no tangles of wires like an Indian electrical substation, no mountains of paper print-out bearing with yards and yards and yards of squiggles, above all, no fiddling at the roots of people’s hair.

Just a small pad on the forehead and a ping-pong ball in a transparent tube. Magic.


Before you read on, click across to an article from yesterday morning’s Washington Post, and marvel.

Amazing science! Well, amazing technology, anyway

I know that I should love to have a go. Were I younger, no doubt, the spirit of competitiveness and self-regard (my mind) would probably drive me to see how far I could raise the pin-pong ball by means of my detected and amplified cerebral electrical activity (my brain). Nowadays, though, should any relevant normative data exist (which I doubt), I might be more concerned to see my relative level of performance, and consider, and worry, about how far this represents cerebral decline and how far it is a function of the psychological change of no longer wishing to bother.

At all those dollars a throw, however, I doubt that I shall be giving this a try. I would rather save my pension towards buying myself a folding bicycle to take on the buses and trains. All the same, it good to read about this and to be aware of such things.

Mind over matter?

Mind is an expression of matter. No problem there for most people. You might even be happy to regard mind as the highest expression of the motion of matter (who said that?). Either way, most people will be happy to recognise the human brain as a vital element in the material base of human learning, thinking, personality etc…

But not of course its only material base, that would be a sad reductionism.

These pricey toys seem to represent a level of utility and entertainment well below that early peak of technological achievement, the first Sinclair computers. They were a marvel they could do some simple tricks, but they did lead on the most amazing things. Joel Garreau’s splash in the Washington Post poses the question like this.

The question everyone has about these gizmos is whether they are parlour tricks like Magic 8 Balls or Ouija boards. Even Geoff Walker, a senior vice president at Mattel, acknowledges that users 'spend the first 20 minutes stunned that it actually works'.

Repeated thousands of times in the word’s media, with a lot less journalistic care, urged by the toy industry’s ever desperate desire to promote the next craze, these toys might yet gain wider recognition.

Along the way they might also engender a lot of confused talk, neuro-babble, and arrant nonsense, about the human mind and the human brain. You might even find yourself contributing some yourself. So might I!

Given the circumstances, the phrase ‘mind over matter’ is not a bad one to introduce the phenomenon and bring people to think about mind-body-dualism, body-mind dualism, even materialist monism. Not probably in such words, but such present-day toys and their next generation might direct people’s minds to some of the major questions about the nature of our humanity that Conductive Education so vividly exemplifies.


Notes and reference


Sinclair computers

Garreau, J. (2009) Brain wave of the future, Washington Post, 26 April

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