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Short Polemics Part II

The First Time

My first sexual experience had nothing to do with sex. Well, I was only ten. Give me a chance. For six weeks I had lain in bed with heavy bandaging on my right leg to protect the twenty-five stitches that had been used to knit together the two halves of my thigh. They had been parted by a broken milk bottle that got in my way during a game of commandos in the woods near my house.

I was under strict instructions from the doctor not to move my leg and, above all, not to scratch my thigh no matter how itchy it became. Well, how itchy could it get? I wondered. Six weeks later, I knew exactly. People with broken legs often push knitting needles down the inside of their plaster casts to get at an itch. No such option was open to me. During those six weeks my right hand was permanently glued to my thigh as I attempted some kind of gentle rotating rubbing motion directly over the six-inch-long line of stitches, hoping the movement would somehow seep through the bandages that were providing impenetrable defences for the itch. I had begun to assign human qualities to it – it was Red Itch, a nasty little creature that stuck to my thigh like a limpet and wore a permanent smirk. ‘Come and get me,’ it taunted, knowing I could never get near. I was terrified of doing anything that might cause the stitches to burst. I couldn’t bear to think of the wound reopening and blood gushing out. It might never heal.

A keen footballer, I dreaded the thought of not being able to kick a ball again. I wondered if I’d be a cripple. Maybe my right leg would grow more slowly than the left. Maybe it wouldn’t grow at all. How would the muscles repair themselves? How would all the blood vessels get in working order again? It was hard to imagine that I’d ever again be able to run around freely. Perhaps I would become a scary Long John Silver character, feared and loathed by all of my (former) schoolfriends, hobbling along school corridors while everyone fled before me.

I still wasn’t convinced my leg had been saved. I had seen wounded soldiers in TV movies having their legs amputated because of gangrene. What was gangrene? I didn’t want to ask in case my worst fears were confirmed. All I knew was that I had a wounded leg and I had been playing commandos. I imagined opening my eyes one morning and finding myself surrounded by people holding me down and wielding shining saws, ready to hack through my leg. ‘It’s to save your life,’ they would say. ‘It’s all for the best.’ Yeah, right. What good is a one-legged footballer? I was the school captain, player of the year. Was there any fate worse than not being able to play football again?

I had already become a freak show. A small box-room behind the sitting room had been converted into a bedroom for me. Grudging older brothers and sisters took it in turns to supply me with food and drink, never missing an opportunity to mercilessly tease me. Never mind the gangrene, the amputation, the never playing football again, they said. I had missed so much school I was sure to be backward. I’d have no friends, I’d never go to university and never get a job. I would be locked away in some special home for hopeless cases. Cheers, guys. I appreciate the support.

I was never able to see TV because we only had one and that was in the living room for the rest of the family. I could hear it, of course, and that was a particularly cruel and unusual torture, especially when a war movie was on or a big football match. I was always missing the big event, always being left behind.

Then there was the issue of, er, waste disposal. I couldn’t walk and had to remain immobile in my bed, so there was no prospect of making a trip to the toilet. What goes in must come out, so what to do? My parents recruited my siblings for a task which so infinitely horrified them that I think it took them days, and huge bribes of Cadbury’s chocolate, to finally agree. When nature called, I would knock three times on the wall and minutes later a grumbling brother or sister would appear with the appropriate containers. They would leave the room and reluctantly return an eternity later to collect the results.

A huge chorus of distressed and appalled screams invariably greeted the sight of my waste products as they were ferried through the living room en route for the toilet. So, I had been gradually stripped of all dignity and had no prospects whatever of leading a happy and normal life. Yet one thing made all other considerations irrelevant. The itch.

When you have a really bad toothache it sometimes seems that all the suffering on earth could not match the pain you are enduring. I remember with one toothache episode that after taking pain killers and realising they’d made absolutely no difference, I actually wished I would die. The itch was ten times worse.

Then the day of salvation came. My mum told me that a district nurse was coming round the following morning to clean the wound and change the bandage.

I didn’t get a moment’s sleep that night. I was more excited than at any Christmas. I was counting the hours, the minutes, the seconds when the infernal itch would be banished.

I recall nothing about the nurse other than that she was bossy and utterly unsympathetic. But who cared about that? As far as I was concerned her only purpose in life was to relieve my itch. She carefully unwound the bandage as if it were attached to some ancient Mummy. At last my wound was revealed and what a sight it was – all sorts of disgusting gunge had seeped out of my torn flesh and formed a yellow, suppurating crust. Here and there the top row of stitches peeked through. Efficiently, the nurse took out a bottle of purple liquid from her medical bag, poured it onto some cotton wool and got ready to clean the wound.

Her hand hovered as I silently begged her to get on with it.

‘This might sting a bit,’ she warned. A sting was nothing compared with the itch. Why was she torturing me by taking so long? If I’d known any swear words I would definitely have used them.

At last, her hand plunged downwards and the antiseptic on the cotton wool made first contact with the wound. Did I say sting? The pain was unbelievable and yet through it all I was aware of the most delicious, indescribably gorgeous sensation. My itch was being scratched. My friends and I had been furtively speculating about sex for what seemed like years. What did it feel like? Now, without any doubt, I knew. This was sex. After all, nothing could possibly be better than what was happening to me right now.

The nurse expertly moved along the length of the wound, teasing the crust away from the flesh, rubbing and scrubbing as I simultaneously winced and grinned. At last, all twelve upper stitches were clearly visible and the wound looked fresh, clean and not bad at all. A new bandage was applied and, miracle of miracles, I was utterly itch free.

Two weeks later, the stitches were removed. Three months later, I was captain of the football team again, playing better than ever. I was top of my class and the envy of everyone for having a really cool scar on my thigh. ‘What does not kill me makes me stronger,’ Nietzsche said. If I’d heard of him when I was a ten-year old I would certainly have agreed. But, best of all, I had enjoyed my first sexual experience and I was able to cast a smug look over my friends, knowing I was so much more mature.

The Human Aura

(Based on ‘Colourful spin-offs of cross wiring’: The Guardian, October 21, 2004.)

When I met Jamie Ward, a psychologist at University College London, I didn’t notice anything unusual about him. Certainly there were no strange colours mysteriously surrounding his body suggesting that he might be about to kill himself in the next few days.

Ward laughed when I told him this. He’s well qualified to comment on the popular myth that there are people out there with psychic powers who can see colourful auras around others, giving them direct access to our ‘hidden emotions’. These powers have supposedly extended to allowing psychics to know when people have been suffering from suicidal depressions and to predict the day of their death.

After reassuring me once again that he was hale and hearty, Ward said he’d been fascinated for several years about the idea that we might have auras that others could interpret. He wanted to know if there was any scientific basis for this seemingly outlandish idea. Now he says that the allegedly psychic phenomenon may be nothing more than a rare condition known as emotion–colour synaesthesia. His study of a woman known as GW who suffers from this condition is published in this month’s Cognitive Neuropsychology.

Ward’s research indicates that some people may indeed see colourful auras around others, but nothing paranormal is going on. ‘These colours do not reflect hidden energies being given off by other people,’ Ward says, ‘rather they are created entirely in the brain of the beholder.’

If that seems even more implausible than the psychic theory then welcome to the bizarre world of synaesthesia, a condition found in approximately one in every two thousand people. In sufferers, stimulation of one sense produces a response in one or more of the other senses. So, for example, when a sufferer sees a certain breed of dog, they might hear a certain piece of classical music. When they see a different breed, they might hear an Elvis Presley song. Others may experience shapes with tastes or smells with colours. The range of unexpected combinations is effectively infinite. Scientists increasingly believe that the cause of these surprising associations is cross-wiring in the brain.

In a normal person, visual signals are processed exclusively in the visual cortex. But what if inappropriate neural wiring caused the auditory cortex to be triggered too? Then a sound would be experienced even though no sound was made.

In Ward’s study, GW could see colours such as purple and blue in response to people she knew or when their names were read to her. For example, James triggered pink, Thomas black and Hannah blue. These colours spread across her whole field of vision.

Ward commented, ‘The ability of some people to see coloured auras of others has held an important place in folklore and mythology throughout the ages. Although many people claiming to have such talents could be charlatans, it is also conceivable that others are born with a gift of synaesthesia.’

When I queried his use of the word gift, Ward admonished me for describing those with the condition as suffering from it. Synaesthesia rarely has any debilitating effects. In fact, arguably those with it can have deeper, more stimulating experiences than the rest of us.  Indeed some scientists have speculated that neural cross-wiring of this kind may lie at the root of creativity, and may exist in all of us to some degree, allowing us to make connections that would never otherwise be apparent.

As I take my leave of Dr Ward, I can’t help think I’m missing something. Maybe there was a time long ago when human beings could routinely see each other’s aura. A useless ability perhaps, but there’s no doubt it would make life a lot more colourful.

Autism and Theory of Mind

(Based on Mind Reading by Sanjida O’Connell, Arrow)

Here’s a test for you. A woman says to a man, ‘I’m leaving you.’ His reply is, ‘Who is he?’

So, what’s going on?

Most people have no trouble in analysing this situation. The man and women are probably in a relationship. The man believes that the woman is seeing someone else and now that she’s announced she’s leaving, he’s assuming she’s going to live with the other man. He wants to know the identity of his rival.

Straightforward, huh? Well, not for everyone. There are people who would look at these two quotes and have no idea of how they related to each other. They would think that my analysis amounted to some kind of magical mind reading. After all, how could I possibly know all these things? All we’re actually told is that a man and a woman are speaking and they have said two sentences that, on the face of it, have no obvious link. To fill in all the other details, to make the unstated connections, it is necessary to possess something called Theory of Mind. This is the name given to our ability to understand the intentions and beliefs of others. In effect, it’s mindreading.

Some people do not possess Theory of Mind and, as a result, their ability to understand others can range from limited to non-existent. Even for those of us with Theory of Mind, there was a time when we did not possess it. That was when we were infants.

A simple test can be applied to young children to see if they have developed Theory of Mind. You hold up a tube of Smarties and ask a child what they think is inside. Naturally, they say Smarties. You then remove the lid and reveal that the tube is in fact full of chocolate raisins. You replace the lid and ask the child what their best friend, who is waiting in the next room, would say was in the tube, dutifully pointing out that the other child has not seen you removing the lid and showing the true contents of the tube. Up to the age of about four or five the child will give ‘Chocolate raisins’ as the answer.

Remarkably, if you ask the original child what they thought the tube of Smarties contained when you first showed it to them they will now say, ‘Chocolate raisins.’ It’s as if they’ve completely forgotten their original answer. The child cannot yet grasp the concept of false beliefs. Because they now know that the Smarties tube is full of chocolate raisins they think everyone else must know that and that they themselves must have known it all along too.

It might be argued that the child told a lie by saying that the Smarties tube always contained chocolate raisins. In fact, a young child can’t comprehend a lie. Because they have no idea of false beliefs it’s impossible for them to deliberately plant false beliefs in the minds of others. In other words, a Theory of Mind is essential for lying.

People with severe autism have no Theory of Mind. A mother with three sons, the oldest two of whom were autistic, realised that the youngest was normal because he dragged her outside to show her the tree in which his football had become stuck. Her other two sons would have been certain that she knew exactly where the ball was without having to be told because, just like the kid with the Smarties tube, they could not understand the concept of someone not possessing the same knowledge that they had.

Nothing is stranger than autism. It’s still not clearly understood, but promising theories are emerging. One of the favourites is that the autistic brain is wired slightly wrongly. All normal human beings have a special part of the brain dedicated to working out what other people’s faces are telling us i.e. reading all the tiny movements of facial muscles that can reveal whether someone is bored, enthralled, in love, angry, sad, hateful, impatient, anxious, nervous, sexually attracted to us etc. MRI scans show clearly where in the brain this face-processing activity is taking place. In autistics, an adjacent area is activated. This adjacent area is the one that is active when normal people are looking at inanimate objects such as tables or chairs. In other words, when an autistic is looking at your face, he’s seeing something that it no more significant to him than a hat or a cardboard box. This may be the prime reason why autistics have such poor social skills and show little interest in others. In fact, severe autistics can’t even recognise their own face if they see it in a mirror or on video. One autistic person was shown a video of himself taken twenty years earlier. In the video, he was wearing a bright yellow shirt and sitting in the front of a bus. As he watched, the autistic showed no flicker of recognition of his younger self and the only thing that seemed to interest him was the yellow shirt, which he mentioned repeatedly. Interestingly, if autistics can’t read faces at all, there may be some people who have the opposite issue to deal with and may have a kind of super-sensitivity to facial signals. Successful illusionists such as Derren Brown may enjoy this kind of advantage.

Eye-tracking studies have shown that when autistics are confronted by faces they rarely look at the eyes. Most of their attention is directed at the mouth. If they are shown a scene from a movie where one person is talking and another person is sitting silently but exhibiting strong emotion, the autistic will ignore the silent person and focus on the mouth of the speaker. Movement appears to be of much more interest to them than static displays of powerful emotion.

Hearing is also a problem for autistics. Research indicates that they find it difficult to filter what’s important from what isn’t. Thus the voice of someone speaking to them is treated with no more importance than background noise. They hear a kind of bedlam and they usually choose to tune out the discordant noises and behave as if they’re not listening at all. This would explain why autistics don’t seem to enjoy talking to people and often actively try to avoid conversations. Noise can be terrifying for them. One autistic described raindrops as sounding like machine-gun fire. Waves at the seaside were more like tidal waves. Trains scared him half to death.

Recently, some autistics have benefited from a piece of equipment that filters out background noise and can be worn like headphones. By allowing them to focus on the sounds closest, such as human voices, their conversations become much more productive. Huge improvements in their communication skills have been observed.

Another recent theory suggests that autism may be caused by the loss of so-called mirror neurons. When we use our hands to pull, push, pick up etc. certain neurons are activated in our brains. These same neurons are seen to fire when we watch others pulling, pushing etc, as if we are mentally mirroring their actions. It is now being speculated that whenever we watch someone else doing something, the appropriate mirror neurons fire in our brains, allowing us to read and understand another’s intentions. This, in fact, may be the physical basis of the Theory of Mind. A person in whom these mirror neurons were defective or missing would be predicted not to possess Theory of Mind. Perhaps this is the elusive cause of autism.

Mindreading is usually associated with the paranormal but the fact is that every normal person mindreads with great success every day. Quite simply, we are astonishingly good at knowing what others are thinking. The downside is that this allows us to be astonishingly good liars and frauds. So, while we’ve evolved all of these great techniques for mindreading, we’ve evolved just as good techniques for misdirection. It’s usually when you think you understand someone perfectly that you discover you don’t understand them at all.

The Difference between Empathy and Sympathy

‘The Nazis empathised with the Jews but certainly didn’t sympathise with them.’

Many people find this a perplexing sentence since they’re uncertain of the difference between empathy and sympathy. Many consider the words interchangeable. Some think of empathy as a kind of souped-up sympathy.

Sympathy means to feel with another person: whatever they feel you feel too. In contrast, empathy is about imagining what you would feel if you were in the other person’s position. Dr Lauren Wispe has given the following definition:

‘In empathy one substitutes oneself for the other person; in sympathy one substitutes others for oneself. To know what something would be like for the other person is empathy. To know what it would be like to be that person is sympathy. In empathy one acts as if one were the other person. The object of empathy is understanding. The object of sympathy is the other person’s well-being.’

In other words, sympathy is altruistic while empathy may or may not be motivated by good intentions. Going back to the Nazis, it was critical for them to be able to control the Jews arriving in huge numbers every day at the death camps, so they put considerable thought into imagining how Jews would feel as they stepped off a train at a strange place. At Treblinka they made the train station resemble a reassuring, picturesque station that you might find anywhere in rural Germany. As the Jews disembarked, they were told that they could now have a nice shower to refresh them after their long journey. What could be more natural? The Nazis had understood exactly how the Jews would be feeling. So, plenty of empathy from the Nazis, but not a shred of sympathy.

Empathy is perhaps easier to understand than sympathy. We simply need to ask ourselves, ‘How do I imagine I would I feel if I were that person?’ But, regarding sympathy, how can anyone actually feel what someone else is feeling? How can you truly substitute another for yourself, as Lauren Wispe’s definition requires? And why, as in the Nazi case, is it easy to resist sympathy?

A research team at University College London took pairs of lovers and gave them mild electric shocks. Using brain-imaging techniques, the scientists were able to see which parts of the brain were activated when the shocks were administered. Some of the activated areas were associated with the physical feeling of pain and other areas with the emotional feeling of pain.

The scientists then told one partner that they were about to give the shock to the other partner. Again, they took brain scans and this time something very revealing occurred. For the partner not receiving the shock, the scans showed no activity in the areas associated with the sensory experience of physical pain, but all the areas associated with the emotional feeling linked to the electric shock were triggered.

Dr Tania Singer, the head of the UCL research team, was asked what she thought would happen if, instead of happy couples, she had used pairs of people who hated each other. Would the results be identical? She agreed that this was likely to be the outcome.

The significance of this is that whether you love or hate someone, if you know they are about to suffer pain that you have previously experienced yourself, the parts of your brain linked with the emotional experience of that pain will be automatically activated. Whether you are then sympathetic or not is a higher order intellectual process, relating to your beliefs system. SS guards were trained to regard Jews as sub-human, so that’s exactly how they treated them.

I always feel uncomfortable when I encounter people who sell The Big Issue. I’m sure the reason for that is that I immediately empathise with them on the basis of tough times I’ve had or could imagine myself having, and then I immediately say to myself that there’s no need for them to live like this given that we have a welfare state. Moreover they are in this position probably because of alcohol or drug abuse. So, no sympathy from me. Irritation, in fact. Yet underneath it all, parts of my brain have been activated by the person’s plight.

So, I’m in full-scale cognitive dissonance mode. I feel one thing and I’m thinking another, contradictory, thing.

Are we entitled to draw the following conclusions?

1) With empathy, we are dealing with the emotional feeling of pain, reflecting what we imagine another is experiencing.

2) With sympathy, we should also be able to feel the actual physical pain of the other. Except there is no mechanism for this to take place. A physical feeling of pain quite simply cannot be transmitted from one person to another. If someone slaps my face, there is no way for you to feel the physical pain I have experienced.

3)   Sympathy is probably best considered as empathy accompanied by strong identification with the other person. With the Nazis, their empathy towards the Jews was accompanied by extreme non-identification, leading to no manifestation of sympathy.


All sorts of things are involved in intelligence. Aldous Huxley thought body shape was important. He believed that most intelligent people were of the tall, skinny type – ectomorphs. Athletic, medium builds – the mesomorphs – were too busy pursuing physical pleasure to spend much time thinking. The fatter types – the endomorphs – were too lazy and too attached to the comfort zone.

What about personality type? There’s a theory that extroverts suffer from low ‘cortical arousal’, hence their need for other people. They’re incapable of sitting quietly and doing the hard, isolated work of the intelligentsia.

Many of the greatest thinkers and artists have been known to suffer from depression. Is this one of the keys to intelligence?

Nietzsche pointed out that very few of the world’s greatest philosophers were married. Is domestic bliss fatal to intelligence?

Bertrand Russell believed that St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas could not be ranked amongst the greatest philosophers because their thinking was too constrained by the need not to contradict their Catholic faith. Oddly enough, Russell himself is probably excluded from the ranks of the greatest thinkers by his need to endorse a liberal view of the world. His hostile comments concerning Nietzsche, the most illiberal of thinkers, are simply embarrassing.

Unlike Russell, Nietzsche was unafraid to reach the harshest conclusions about the human condition. He saw no reason why ‘the truth’ should be favourable to human beings. Every religion offers hope to humanity but why should there be hope rather than despair? Nietzsche asked the astonishing question about whether lies are much more conducive to survival than the truth. Are we programmed to delude ourselves?

Nietzsche believed that many people were alive purely because they were able to cling to the lifebelt thrown to them by religion. But what if that lifebelt were taken away?

Nietzsche also thought religion had committed a fatal error in promoting the search for the truth as the greatest good since, he believed, that search would invariably expose the lies and delusions of religion.