Friday, November 05, 2004

After a month or so I am able to put up some really good A4 sized JPEGs of Greyhound on my study wall. They were taken in the garden on a great summer day . It has gone from a diffuse pain to a desire to remember and acknowledge my loss. I am able to look at the images without feeling a strong desire to look away, which I know I would have done in the first weeks.

Something suddenly made me decide to put the photos up. Part because I could bear to look at them, but it must also
be the brain now demanding to have more input. In biploar effective disorder, the down, depressive phase is characterised by refusal to accept new input. So too perhaps bereavement has "built in" components which we can't control. I haven't checked the literature to see what there is on this, but we have all experienced the bereaved and read enough about it to be able to make some generalisations. It is skewed towards nature not nurture. There are distinct cultural differences. But as I am going through the process myself I am curious about the commonalities between individuals and cultures.

When my father died 27 years ago, I wrote a lot of stuff down immediately. It was very painful but it felt important to do. I am glad I overcame my feelings to write it. It can be painful reading (2-3 times over the years so far) but it captured my state of mind then. In the intervening years I have written other things about him. It is interesting to compare the raw notes made right after he died with the later ones.

My other death was of my first dog, a whippet-Labrador cross, 7 years ago, who I happened to have a stronger bond with than recently departed Greyhound, delightful though she was. Immediately after her death I wrote several unstructured poems about how I remembered her. They both placed her in her elements: one on a beach, running parallel to me along the drift line as I walked at the waters edge.

I suppose what I am talking about is the "natural history" of bereavement. I wonder if anyone has done brain scan research on this. Does the brain immediately struggle to remember / reconstruct the dead. Do the memory traces for a dead person degenerate like all memories. I feel not, because though faces fade, the emotions, which seem to have so much to do with how we memorise important things and subequently recall them, are so easily evoked when it comes to loved ones. "Flash" memories come to mind. These are usually associated with shocking or traumatic experiences. Of all the flash meories are sudden recollections of the dead more common?

Equally fascinating is the subsequent moulding of the dead person and the myth making that then takes over either in the mind of the closest bereaved alone or within the group that is closest to him or her, or indeed by people who knew the dead person even less.

One way of getting close to dead strangers is the obituary. I find these intriguing, and think - bit off centre - that obits. should be used ore often as an educational resource. Obit writers, at least in this country, put in a good selection of the quirks and faults as well as the achievements. My favourite eccentricity is that of John Churchill, the military man of the Second World War, who when he had gone back to "civie Street" after the war, commuting back to the suburbs from the City where he worked, used to suddenly open the window of his train compartment to fling his brief case out, to the consternation of his fellow passengers. He had timed it to the nth degree. It always landed up in his back garden!

* A condensed version of:

Tor Norretrander reviewing Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious by Timothy D Watson, New Scientist (5 Oct 02) :

In the joke about the two behaviourists chatting after sexual intercourse, one says to the other: "That was fine for you, but how was it for me?"

This captures the core idea of behaviourism - that human beings should be seen as black boxes whose input and output, stimulus and response, are the only worthy objects of study. All internal states, experiences and hairy stuff like consciousness are best ignored.

Bahaviourism passed away half a century ago, but the joke is now in for a renaissance.

Ever since the ban on discussing conscious awareness and other subjective features of human existence was lifted a little more than a decade ago, it has become more and more clear that most of human mental functioning is non-conscious. We experience, feel and think many more things than we do not - and cannot - know of.

Timothy Wilson, a psychologist from the U. of Virginia, offers a charming, talkative and yet authoritative review of how it became clear that most of what happens inside us is not perceptible by us. In fact, other people often know more about events inside me than I do, because they can monitor my actions and body language better than I can.

That's sort of creepy, and Wilson's kins and gentle representation of psychological experiments and well-picked quotes from works of fiction doesn't make it any less so. The understanding just slowly creeps into your mind that, often, our conscious and unconscious interpretations and motives are in conflict. We don't know what we feel, what we express or what we want to do.

So what remedies does Wilson offer us non-transparent beings? Study the scientific knowledge of how you are - it will offer the possibility for some self-insight. Study your own behaviour to learn who you are. Do not trust the stories you tell yourself and others about yourself. Know that these stories are false - and then make up better ones to make you act in a better way.

** The scientist looks for order in the appearances of nature by exploring such likenesses. For order does not display itself of itself; if it can be said to be there at all, it is not there for the mere looking. There is no way of pointing a finger or camera at it; order must be discovered, and,in a deep sense, it must be created. What we see, as we see it, is mere disorder.

This point has been put trenchantly in a fable by Karl Popper. Suppose that someone wishes to give his whole life to science. Suppose he therefore sat down, pencil in hand, and for the next twenty, thirty, forty years recorded in notebook after notebook everything that he could observe. He may be supposed to leave out nothing: today's humidity, the racing results, the level of cosmic radiation, and ther stockmarket prices and the look of Mars, all would be there. He would have compiled the most careful record of nature that has ever been made; and, dying in the calm certainty of a life well spent, he would of course leave his notebooks to the Royal Society. Would the Royal Society thank him for the treasure of a lifetime of observation? It would not. The Royal Society would treat his notebooks exactly as the English bishops have treated Joanna Southcott's box. It would refuse to open them at all, because it would know without looking that the notebooks contain only a jumble of disorderly and meaningless items.

J Bronowski, Science and Human Values 1958

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