It’s not brain science

The stupidity of clever people never ceases to amaze me. Homo sapiens comes in all shapes and sizes, and so does intelligence. It’s just that some of us are more sapient than others. Being clever has little to do with your brain capacity. We generally have loads of brain space to spare. No, it’s the connections we make that make us smart. Connections between different parts of our brain and between lots of different bits of information.

I have been lucky enough to have worked with some of the leading experts on intelligence, even if my role was little more than the idiot dog that fetched the newspaper. But at least I managed not to slobber all over their academic articles. Now, even that I can’t guarantee to do drool-free. Which is in itself academic, as my own brain has long since turned to porridge.

Still, I am hopeful that some of it has rubbed off on me – knowledge on intelligence that is. Not porridge. Or saliva.

My latest theory is a good example of the “no visible support” model. It comes from the University of Life and the College of Crap. The theory divides everyone who has a healthy and undamaged brain into five categories of intelligence. I have given them unhelpful acronyms in the vain hope that it will make them sound more reputable. They are, in no particular order:

NBD (Narrow But Deep): Most musical virtuosi fall into this category, although they may have been shoved by pushy parents. The same applies to Nobel laureates, elite athletes and more. The fast pace of progress in every field of human endeavour has led to the increase in super-specialists. Like the tennis player in his twenties whose response to the adulation following his first Grand Slam title was to say that he had ”devoted his whole life” to winning these matches. As if that was a good thing. As if fame and money somehow compensated for missing out on your childhood. Nice to see that Dr Faustus is still here, at least in spirit. It is hard to tell if these oversharpened pencils would have been good at other things, like growing up. They will never find out. Like the advert says, when it’s gone, it’s gone. And no amount of wealth or fame can bring it back. Ask Michael Jackson.

Another example of departed NBDs is the Revd Dr Spooner, the archetypal absent-minded professor: head in the clouds, feet in the dogshit. Most of the sayings attributed to him are bogus, products of his students’ wicked imaginations. But I like to think this one is true. At a college sherry party, Spooner espies a student who looks familiar. “Tell me” he says “was it you or your brother who died in the War?”.

If you think that example of the narrowness of Academe is exaggerated or a thing of the past, you would be wrong. The year after diagnosis, I was looking for a research project which used virtual reality technology to benefit people “locked in” by diseases such as MND. The plan was that I would help in a private capacity by writing bids for funding and the academics would do the research. What could possibly go wrong?

I was invited by a Midlands university to a meeting and we were happily discussing collaboration when the door burst open and a most peculiar woman hustled in. She was dishevelled in appearance, as if she’d dressed in the dark several days ago and her daily commute had taken her through a number of hedges. Backwards.

She steadfastly avoided eye contact with anyone as she read out a technical summary of a piece of research started several years earlier which was now clearly her life’s work. It slowly emerged that they were looking for funding to continue her magnum opus. I was being ambushed! Ok, I thought, let’s hear her out. Not that there was much choice. When she suddenly stopped, there was a discussion, led by the eminently bearded professor, of the impeccable methodology of the project. I cautiously added my praise and then said “If I were to help you find funding for…”. “If!,” shrieked Ms Hedgebackwards, before storming out, closely followed by the hirsute prof, who returned briefly for an icy farewell. And the reason for my caution? The research can be summed up as follows:

1 Finding a pair of identical twins whose synchronicity bordered on the psychic. This had already been done: brothers living in a village in Croatia, not twenty miles from the researcher’s home town.

2 Spending the four summer months every year observing the telepathic twins learning how to communicate by using two virtual reality headsets by drawing the shapes of letters of the alphabet with their eyes and transmitting the image to their twin. You may want to revisit that sentence, to make sure it doesn’t make the sort of sense you thought it didn’t. Over three years, the research had yielded remarkable results in two letters of the alphabet. I’ll leave you to do the maths.

3 Testing the hypothesis against results from other “monozygotic research subjects” who use different alphabets.

4 Publishing papers in peer reviewed journals to advance knowledge and form the basis of future research.

We could all pick holes in the plan, but the obvious question is: how the hell could anyone actually use the research? You would need thousands of pounds worth of kit and an inexhaustible supply of identical twins. And you’d still be none the wiser. Now that’s what I call Narrow But Deep. Continue reading “It’s not brain science”