Is Seeing Believing?

Isn’t it interesting that some of us can look at a forest and miss the wind riffling through the leaves, while others see the moon as a ‘ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas’? What determines what we see? Does it have to relate to something we’ve seen before -patterns that we recognize? Is our apprehension of reality an expectation? A sorting through the chaos and discarding what we don’t understand -the noise– until something more familiar emerges? Why do we not all see the same thing?

If patterns are what we are evolved to see, if they are what we use to make sense of the world, are there always patterns everywhere? These are things I wonder about, now that I have time to wonder. Now that I am retired, I suppose I can wade more thoughtfully into the turbulence I once found swirling about my days. Clarity is certainly not a common property of old age, but occasionally it descends as softly as a gossamer thread, and then as quickly drifts away leaving only traces of its presence. Doubts about its visit.

Are these mere hints of what the gifted see? Is peering beyond the horizon just a gift, or is it fleeting and unstable unless learned? There was an interesting essay in Aeon, an online offering that touched on the subject of insightful examination, by Gene Tracy, the founding director of the Center for the Liberal Arts at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia:

‘When Galileo looked at the Moon through his new telescope in early 1610, he immediately grasped that the shifting patterns of light and dark were caused by the changing angle of the Sun’s rays on a rough surface. He described mountain ranges ‘ablaze with the splendour of his beams’, and deep craters in shadow as ‘the hollows of the Earth’. […] Six months before, the English astronomer Thomas Harriot had also turned the viewfinder of his telescope towards the Moon. But where Galileo saw a new world to explore, Harriot’s sketch from July 1609 suggests that he saw a dimpled cow pie.’ And so, the question must be asked, ‘Why was Galileo’s mind so receptive to what lay before his eyes, while Harriot’s vision deserves its mere footnote in history?’ But, as the author notes, ‘Learning to see is not an innate gift; it is an iterative process, always in flux and constituted by the culture in which we find ourselves and the tools we have to hand. […] the historian Samuel Y Edgerton has argued that Harriot’s initial (and literal) lack of vision had more to do with his ignorance of chiaroscuro – a technique from the visual arts first brought to full development by Italian artists in the late 15th century. By Galileo’s time, the Florentines were masters of perspective, using shapes and shadings on a two-dimensional canvas to evoke three-dimensional bodies in space. […] Harriot, on the other hand, lived in England, where general knowledge of these representational techniques hadn’t yet arrived. The first book on the mathematics of perspective in English – The Art of Shadows by John Wells – appeared only in 1635.’

But is it really as fortuitous as that? As temporally serendipitous? Tracy makes the point that, at least in the case of Science, observations are ‘often complex, contingent and distributed.’ And, ‘By exploring vision as a metaphor for scientific observation, and scientific observation as a kind of seeing, we might ask: how does prior knowledge about the world affect what we observe? If prior patterns are essential for making sense of things, how can we avoid falling into well-worn channels of perception? And most importantly, how can we learn to see in genuinely new ways?

‘Scientific objectivity is the achievement of a shared perspective. It requires what the historian of science Lorraine Daston and her colleagues call ‘idealisation’: the creation of some simplified essence or model of what is to be seen, such as the dendrite in neuroscience, the leaf of a species of plant in botany, or the tuning-fork diagram of galaxies in astronomy. Even today, scientific textbooks often use drawings rather than photographs to illustrate categories for students, because individual examples are almost always idiosyncratic; too large, or too small, or not of a typical colouration. The world is profligate in its variability, and the development of stable scientific categories requires much of that visual richness to be simplified and tamed. […] So, crucially, some understanding of the expected signal usually exists prior to its detection: to be able to see, we must know what it is we’re looking for, and predict its appearance, which in turn influences the visual experience itself.’

‘If the brain is a taxonomising engine, anxious to map the things and people we experience into familiar categories, then true learning must always be disorienting. […]Because of the complexity of both visual experience and scientific observation, it is clear that while seeing might be believing, it is also true that believing affects our understanding of what we see. The filter we bring to sensory experience is commonly known as cognitive bias, but in the context of a scientific observation it is called prior knowledge. […] If we make no prior assumptions, then we have no ground to stand on.’

In his opinion, there is a thrust and parry between learning to see, and seeing to learn. I have no trouble with that, but I have to say that Science is only one Magisterium in a world of several. Science is neither omniscient, nor omnispective.

I happened across a friend standing transfixed in the middle of a trail in the woods the other day. A gentle breeze was coaxing her hair across her face, but her eyes were closed and she was smiling as if she had just been awarded an epiphany.

At first I wondered if I should try to pass her unannounced, but I suppose she heard my approach and glanced at me before I had made up my mind. Her eyes fluttered briefly over my face for a moment, like birds investigating a place to perch, then landed as softly as a whisper on my cheek.

“I… I’m sorry, Mira,” I stammered, as surprised by her eyes as her expression. “You looked so peaceful, I didn’t want to disturb you…”

Her smile remained almost beatific, rapturous, but she recalled her eyes to brief them for a moment before returning them to me. “I was just listening to that bird,” she said and glanced into the thick green spaces between the trees to show me where, “when I felt the breeze…” I have to say, I hadn’t noticed anything -I hadn’t even heard the bird. “…And it touched my forehead like a kiss,” she said, and blushed for describing it like that. She closed her eyes and thought about it for a moment. “I can’t think of another word,” she added, and slowly walked away from me with a wink, onto a nearby path.

I don’t think that what she was saying was Science, or even meant to require a proof, and yet I felt far better knowing there are people like her in my world. I think I even felt a brief nuzzle by the wind as I watched her disappear into the waiting, excited fondle of the leaves.





Nobody in Particular

Why do we believe something? How do we know that we are right? When I was a child, I was certain that the Fleetwood television set my parents had just purchased, was the best. So was the make of our car -and our vacuum cleaner too, come to think of it. But why? Was it simply because authority figures in my young life had told me, or was there an objective reality to their assertions? For that matter, how did they know, anyway? Other parents had different opinions, so who was right?

I was too young to question these things then, but gradually, I came to seek other sources of knowledge. And yet, even these sometimes differed. It’s difficult to know in what direction to face when confronted with disparate opinions. Different ‘truths’. Everybody can’t be right. Usually, in fact, the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle of it all, and it becomes a matter of knowing which truths to discard -choosing the ‘correct’ truth.

Despite the fact that most of us rely on some method like this, it sounds completely counterintuitive. How many truths can there be? Is each a truth, or merely an opinion? And what’s wrong with having a particular opinion? Again, how would we know? How could we know?

Nowadays, with social media algorithms selecting which particular news they report on the basis of our past choices, it’s difficult to know if we are in an echo chamber unless we purposely and critically examine whatever truths we hold dear -step back to burst the bubble. Canvas different people, and sample different opinions. But, even then, without resorting to mythology, or a presumed ‘revealed’ truth that substantiates a particular religious dogma, is there an objective truth that somehow transcends all the others? Conversely is all truth relative -situationally contextualized, temporally dependent, and ultimately socially endorsed?

Should we, in fact, rely on a random sample of opinions to arrive at an answer to some questions that are only a matter of values, but not about realistically verifiable facts -such as the height of a building, say, or maybe the type of bacterium that causes a particular disease? Would that bring us closer to the truth, or simply yet another truth?

Well, it turns out that the average of a large group of diverse and even contrary opinions has some statistical merit:  ‘[T]here is some truth underpinning the idea that the masses can make more accurate collective judgements than expert individuals.’ The Wisdom of Crowds ‘is generally traced back to an observation by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1907. Galton pointed out that the average of all the entries in a ‘guess the weight of the ox’ competition at a country fair was amazingly accurate – beating not only most of the individual guesses but also those of alleged cattle experts. This is the essence of the wisdom of crowds: their average judgement converges on the right solution.’

But the problem is in the sampling -the diversity of the members of that crowd. ‘If everyone let themselves be influenced by each other’s guesses, there’s more chance that the guesses will drift towards a misplaced bias.’ Of course ‘This finding challenges a common view in management and politics that it is best to seek consensus in group decision making. What you can end up with instead is herding towards a relatively arbitrary position. Just how arbitrary depends on what kind of pool of opinions you start off with. […] copycat behaviour has been widely regarded as one of the major contributing factors to the financial crisis, and indeed to all financial crises of the past. [And] this detrimental herding effect is likely to be even greater for deciding problems for which no objectively correct answer exists. […] All of these findings suggest that knowing who is in the crowd, and how diverse they are, is vital before you attribute to them any real wisdom.’

This might imply that ‘you should add random individuals whose decisions are unrelated to those of existing group members. That would be good, but it’s better still to add individuals who aren’t simply independent thinkers but whose views are ‘negatively correlated’ – as different as possible – from the existing members. In other words, diversity trumps independence. If you want accuracy, then, add those who might disagree strongly with your group.’

Do you see where I’m going with all this? We should try to be open enough to consider all sides of an argument before making a considered decision. Let’s face it, you have to know what it is that you’re up against before you can arrive at a compromise. And perhaps, the thing you thought you were opposing is not so different from your own view after all.

Even our values fluctuate. Unless we are willing to be historical revisionists, it’s obvious that people in the past often assigned values differently to how we do today -sexual orientation, for example, or racial characteristic and stereotyping. And who nowadays would dare argue that women are not the equal of men, and deserve the same rights?

There are some things about which we will continue to disagree, no doubt. And yet, even a willingness to listen to an opposing opinion instead of shutting it down without a fair acknowledgment of whatever merits it might have hidden within it, or commonalities it might share with ours, is a step in the right direction.

I’m not at all sure that it’s healthy to agree about everything, anyway, nor to assume we possess the truth. It’s our truth. I think that without some dissenting input, we’d be bored, condemned to float in the increasingly stagnant backwater we chose, while just beyond our banks, a creek runs merrily past, excited to discover another view that lies beyond and behind the next hill.

After all, remember what happened to Caesar after Shakespeare had him boast: “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.”

Just saying…


Full o’ th’ Milk of Human Kindness?

I used to drink a lot of milk when I was a child. It was 1950ies Winnipeg and milk was still delivered to the house in those clear glass bottles with the little bulge on top to hold the supernatant cream. I never much cared for the cream, but my mother always found a use for it. Anyway, most of my fascination was with the delivery system. If I stretch my memory to the earliest days, I can still hear the clip-clop of the horses hooves, and the tinkling of the bottles as the milk wagon rolled slowly down the street, stopping every few hundred feet to make a delivery and carry away the empties we each left on the front steps.

Looking back, it seems a magical time. A time when parents were told that milk was needed for healthy bones, and felt obliged to insist on its consumption at every meal if they could afford it. I didn’t know there was any controversy then. I had no idea that not everybody felt that way -and there really wasn’t any reason to think otherwise, I suppose. Not then, at any rate…

But more recent advances in historical techniques, and evolutionary genetic studies able to find and interpret DNA from far away civilizations in varying times, are allowing us to understand the cultural differences I could never have suspected in my halcyon years.

I happened across an article in an NPR section called ‘the Salt’ which delved into the issue:

‘Most babies can digest milk without getting an upset stomach thanks to an enzyme called lactase. Up until several thousand years ago, that enzyme turned off once a person grew into adulthood — meaning most adults were lactose intolerant (or “lactase nonpersistent,” as scientists call it).’ And, it would seem that ancient European farmers ‘[…] lacked a genetic mutation that would have allowed them to digest raw milk’s dominant sugar, lactose, after childhood. Today, however, 35 percent of the global population — mostly people with European ancestry — can digest lactose in adulthood without a hitch.’

Those groups who became lactose tolerant (over the last 20,000 years) seem to be mainly people of Northern and Central European descent and from certain African and Middle Eastern populations. Also, many other societies were able to tolerate at least some milk by processing it into cheese, butter, or yogurt which removes some of the lactose.

And as I discovered in another article discussing a new book Milk, by Mark Kurlansky (see below) ‘[…] milk was a vital symbol in the mythology of the Sumerians, Greeks and Egyptians. The Fulani of West Africa believed that the world started with a single drop of milk, and in Norse legend, a cow made from thawing frost sustained the world in its earliest days.’

There were some differences between cultures, however, perhaps related to much earlier experiences with lactose intolerance. ‘[…] even with these deep cultural connections, milk held a peculiar status among early civilizations. The Greeks castigated barbarians for their gluttonous desire for dairy, and in Rome, milk was widely regarded as low-status food because it was something only farmers drank. Northern Europeans would earn similar ridicule for their love of reindeer milk, and Japanese Buddhists later rebuked Europeans as “butter stinkers.”’

Much has been written about milk over the years, but perhaps the most worrisome recent chapter in its history concerned the fact that it ‘spoiled’ easily and rapidly. Reliable refrigeration was not available in the early days, nor -at least in the cities- were the cows often kept in hygienic conditions. Milk is an ideal medium for the growth of many types of bacteria, and so it was a huge risk for the population to whom it was fed -largely children.

In France, in the 1860ies, Louis Pasteur pioneered the heating of milk to high temperatures to kill pathogenic bacteria, but ‘pasteurization proved a tough sell in the United States […]. There was little doubt that the process improved milk safety by eliminating the diseases that led to so many deaths, but consumers complained that pasteurized milk was flavorless. Some officials, including Harvey Wiley, then the director of the U.S. Bureau of Chemicals also argued that pasteurized milk lost its nutritional qualities.’

These arguments persisted despite the invention of homogenization of milk in 1899 by Auguste Gaulin. It was a way of breaking down the fat molecules in milk so they wouldn’t separate out -so you didn’t need that little glass bulge on the top of the milk bottles in other words. It is an entirely separate and different procedure than pasteurization, of course -and added yet another cost.

Then, in 1908, the U.S. Surgeon General under president Theodore Roosevelt, ‘released a 600-page report that attributed most childhood deaths to impure milk and argued that pasteurization was the best way to address the ongoing public health crisis.’ But, in the face of continuing public suspicions about cost, flavour, and even attributions of other maladies such as rickets and scurvy to the process, a more or less universal adoption of pasteurization in the U.S.A. was slow. And, ‘The discussion around how to best prepare milk even continues today, evinced in the growth of the GMO-free products and the resurgence of artisanal industries and local dairies.’

Me? I miss the horses most. And the sound of the gently clinking bottles, as distinctive then as the melody of those little ice cream trucks that still drive around some neighbourhoods even now. It’s a shame that none of this exists in the memory banks of most people nowadays. Like the language of many of our indigenous predecessors, or the receding northern glaciers, it should be enshrined somewhere. Saved. Celebrated.

Yes, I know things keep moving forward -I suppose it’s what happens with Time- and yet am I alone in wishing that it could move sideways for a bit? Not forever, mind you -that’s a long, long time- but perhaps it could just slow down a little. Linger in a quieter space, when it was still possible to hear the snuffling of the horse’s breath, and the quiet hiss of the milkman’s curse as he tripped over the bike I’d left beside the sidewalk in my rush to wash my hands in time for breakfast…












Make not your thoughts your prison


What can we do with those who flout the laws of the land or openly disrespect the prevailing mores? The usual answer is to punish -to retribute, either by restricting the offender’s rights, or their freedom. And sometimes, depending on the crime, even ending their lives.

Prisons have traditionally been the means to rid ourselves of the problem -out of sight, out of mind. Until they’re not, that is -because unless we intend to keep convicted offenders incarcerated and off the streets forever, there will come a time when we will have to deal with them again.

Of course, this uncomfortable inevitability was not lost on everybody, and through the ages there have been sporadic attempts at rehabilitating people once justice had been seen to be done and they were scheduled for release -more recently, things like parole in which the prisoner could be conditionally released into the community before the sentence had been fully served; or even indeterminate sentencing where the duration of incarceration lies somewhere between a minimum and a maximum time, depending upon the behaviour and signs of presumed rehabilitation exhibited by the prisoner.

Unfortunately, recidivism rates have been high and this has frustrated continuing reformation in various countries. So many things are not as they seem, not as we would hope. Even in this age of algorithms and Wikipedia, the reasons are not always forthcoming -at least, not the ones we expect. Maybe that should not be a surprise, though: we are not omniscient, nor, more importantly, are we prescient.

An article in BBC Future series on criminal myths addressed an aspect of the problem that had not occurred to me.  As the author, Christian Jarrett, put it, ‘Day after day, year after year, imagine having no space to call your own, no choice over who to be with, what to eat, or where to go. There is threat and suspicion everywhere. Love or even a gentle human touch can be difficult to find. You are separated from family and friends. If they are to cope, then prisoners confined to this kind of environment have no option but to change and adapt. This is especially true for those facing long-term sentences.’

‘In the field of personality psychology, it used to be believed that our personalities remain largely fixed in adulthood. But recent research has found that, in fact, despite relative stability our habits of thought, behaviour and emotion do change in significant and consequential ways – especially in response to the different roles that we adopt as we go through life. […] Particularly for anyone concerned about prisoner welfare and how to rehabilitate former convicts, the worry is that these personality changes, while they may help the prisoner survive their jail time, are counter-productive for their lives upon release.

‘Key features of the prison environment that are likely to lead to personality change include the chronic loss of free choice, lack of privacy, daily stigma, frequent fear, need to wear a constant mask of invulnerability and emotional flatness (to avoid exploitation by others), and the requirement, day after day, to follow externally imposed stringent rules and routines. […] [T]here is widespread recognition among psychologists and criminologists that prisoners adapt to their environment, which they call “prisonisation”. This contributes towards a kind of “post-incarceration syndrome” when they are released. […] The personality change that most dominated their accounts was an inability to trust others.’

The article reports on a large number of interviews on prisoners done in the UK by Susie Hulley and her colleagues at the Institute of Criminology. The prisoners described a ‘process of “emotional numbing”. […]  “As the long-term prisoner becomes ‘adapted’ – in the true sense of the term – to the imperatives of a sustained period of confinement, he or she becomes more emotionally detached, more self-isolating, more socially withdrawn, and perhaps less well suited to life after release,” they warned.’

In another paper, led by Jesse Meijers at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, it was felt that ‘the changes they observed are likely due to the impoverished environment of the prison, including the lack of cognitive challenges and lost autonomy.’

So, what are we to do with those individuals who have broken the law and for whom society demands retribution? Does the loss of freedom and privacy necessarily engender adaptive personality changes? ‘The current evidence suggests that the longer and harsher the prison sentence – in terms of less freedom, choice and opportunity for safe, meaningful relationships – the more likely that prisoners’ personalities will be changed in ways that make their reintegration difficult and that increase their risk for re-offending.’

Well, from a distance at least, it seems to me that prisons should be the solution of last resort -merely getting offenders off the street has consequences. Some, no doubt, would be a continuing threat to public safety if they were to remain at large, but some -maybe most- would not, and they are the ones on whom changes in our idea of retributive justice should perhaps be focussed.

The very idea of ‘punishment’ needs to be revisited for many crimes, I believe. But the strange need for vengeance is so thoroughly stamped in our minds, that even the idea of anything other than the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ code of Hammurabi, seems unthinkable. Unjust. Of course there should be consequences for actions -but commensurate ones. Prisons and jails have too long been places where troublemakers could be warehoused and essentially forgotten. But, as we are realizing to our dismay, the problems do not go away -they often merely fester, albeit out of sight. For a while…

I don’t have any truly heuristic solutions to crime, or the wages of evil that seem to follow us through the ages. I was not granted an epiphany in my long journey amongst the ever thinning years, but I do suspect that the answer does not lie in punishment alone. We are missing something that perhaps our genetic atavism will simply not allow us to see.

And yet, perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of it, however opaquely, those many years ago: The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues.

Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye?

Isn’t it interesting how differently we look at things? How the same bridge crossed by ten people becomes ten bridges? How beauty is so subjective? So ephemeral? Just think of how Shakespeare opened his second sonnet: When forty winters shall besiege thy brow and dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field, thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now, will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.

And yet to some, beauty -however evanescent- seems a prize worth having, no matter the sacrifice. It seems unfair that it should have been doled out to some, but not to others. There are cultures where the inequity of this disparity is taken seriously; there are countries where beauty is felt to be a right to which all should be entitled no matter their social strata.

So accustomed am I to my own cultural mask, I have to admit that I had not realized that Brazil was such a place until I came across an article in the Conversation that addressed the issue. It was written by Alvaro Jarrin, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. ‘Brazil considers health to be a basic human right and provides free health care to all its citizens. […] In Brazil […] patients are thought of as having the “right to beauty.” In public hospitals, plastic surgeries are free or low-cost.’ But, ‘public hospitals remain severely underfunded, and most middle-class and upper-class Brazilians prefer to use private medical services.’

Jarrin feels there is a darker side to this medical largesse however, in that the surgeries are frequently performed by more junior surgeons, just learning their techniques (albeit likely under the supervision of more experienced surgeons as is frequently the case even in the USA).

He goes on to say, ‘Yet these patients, most of whom were women, also told me that living without beauty in Brazil was to take an even bigger risk. Beauty is perceived as being so central for the job market, so crucial for finding a spouse and so essential for any chances at upward mobility that many can’t say no to these surgeries.’

‘Plastic surgery is considered an essential service largely due to the efforts of a surgeon named Ivo Pitanguy. In the late 1950s, Pitanguy […] convinced President Juscelino Kubitschek that the “right to beauty” was as basic as any other health need. Pitanguy made the case that ugliness caused so much psychological suffering in Brazil that the medical class could not turn its back on this humanitarian issue. In 1960, he opened the first institute that offered plastic surgery to the poor, one that doubled as a medical school to train new surgeons. It was so successful that it became the educational model followed by most other plastic surgery residencies around the country. In return for free or low-cost surgeries, working-class patients would help surgeons learn and practice their trade.’

The author seems to feel that the reconstructive aspects of plastic surgery -techniques for the treatment of burn victims and those with congenital deformities, etc.- have taken a back seat to techniques geared to aesthetic enhancement, however. ‘Since most of the surgeries in public hospitals are carried out by medical residents who are still training to be plastic surgeons, they have a vested interest in learning aesthetic procedures – skills that they’ll be able to later market as they open private practices. But they have very little interest in learning the reconstructive procedures that actually improve a bodily function or reduce physical pain. Additionally, most of Brazil’s surgical innovations are first tested by plastic surgeons in public hospitals, exposing those patients to more risks than wealthier patients.’

As a retired (gynaecological) surgeon myself, I have to say that I take issue with the naive view Jarrin seems to have about the training of the resident surgeons he reports. After all, clearly it would be better for the young surgeon to learn techniques under the careful guidance of an experienced mentor, than to suddenly be expected to possess the required expertise once she has passed her exams. Indeed, a selection bias is perhaps equally applicable to the anecdotes Jarrin quotes to demonstrate his contention. But, in fairness, I may be guilty of an insidiously perverted form of cultural relativism myself: I see my own world even when it’s not…

Cultural relativism, first popularized in the early twentieth century, attempts to understand and judge other cultures not by our own standards, but by theirs. It is a contextually rooted approach that can be devilishly difficult to achieve. We are all inherently cultural solipsists; we learn customs from the cradle and mistrust or actively disavow any deviations from those to which we have become habituated.

Even beauty itself is fraught. What is beautiful? Surely it is an ill-defined shadow on a rather large spectrum, its position tentative and arbitrary, depending as it must, on time and measurement. Shakespeare knew that. We all know that… Or do we? Are there unequivocal, objective criteria that must be met, or are they entirely subjectively defined? Culturally allotted? Surgically assigned?

No one has defined beauty more bewitchingly, in my opinion, than the poet, Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American writer and artist in The Prophet. When the prophet is asked about beauty, he replies:

… beauty is not a need but an ecstasy.
It is not a mouth thirsting nor an empty hand stretched forth,
But rather a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted.

It is not the image you would see nor the song you would hear,
But rather an image you see though you close your eyes and a song you hear though you shut your ears.
It is not the sap within the furrowed bark, nor a wing attached to a claw,
But rather a garden for ever in bloom and a flock of angels for ever in flight.

… beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.
But you are life and you are the veil.
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror.

I cannot criticize the cultural ethos of Brazil, or its need for beauty; I can only wonder whether they will ever find what they are so desperately seeking. Who can touch a rainbow just by reaching?



This Thing of Darkness

We all walk the earth in egg-shell armour at the whim of Nature. There is little of any of us that will not break if chaos strikes, or heal without a scar. You’d think that, given our fragility, we would opt for conciliation or compromise, and yet more often we challenge those who are not us, and seek to conquer those we cannot otherwise convince to join. It has become a point of honour not to yield, and so we glorify those who suffer grievous injury for causes dear to us, and our stories magnify their deeds, and exploit their hardships. We call them heroes…

But not all who suffer are our heroes, even though they may also have demonstrated equal courage for their positions, or found themselves inadvertently damaged in the crossfire of our wrath. We call them victims -if we notice them at all -and often deny guilt, even if we do.

Despite Steven Pinker’s contention in his The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence has been diminishing ‘over long stretches of time’ and that ‘today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence’, I am still troubled by the violence that continues around us. Of course he may be correct in pointing out a lack of current, or at least, local internecine wars that would affect our daily lives, and suggesting that our improved communication systems highlight and magnify our knowledge of more distant conflicts without our having to experience the trauma ourselves. So, is it our arguably decreasing experience of violence that makes something like domestic cruelty stand out? At any rate, when this form of abuse seems all too apparent around us, it is impossible to ignore. Immoral to accept.

And often hidden beneath the more obvious traumatic injuries are the long-term effects. Of course we have all read about the ramifications of continuing abuse, and about how difficult it is to know whether the injuries are purposefully inflicted or the accidents they are often claimed to be, but what about the often more subtle and cumulative effects of traumatic brain injury?

Two articles caught my eye when I was trying to learn more about the subject. The first was an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times of a few years ago: ‘In recent years, medical science has uncovered the high risk and devastating effects of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, among U.S. combat soldiers and athletes, especially football and hockey players. What if a vastly greater population were also suffering these effects: women and children living with the consequences of domestic violence?’

At that time, ‘There [were] few empirical studies on the prevalence of TBI among women and children affected by domestic violence. But evidence so far strongly indicates a silent epidemic, with major public health ramifications. A 2001 study found that 67% of women seeking emergency medical support for injuries stemming from domestic violence had symptoms related to TBI, and 30% reported loss of consciousness.’

A more recent article, with links to this op-ed was in the online Conversation: ‘The statistics are terrifying: In Canada, one woman is killed every week by her partner, globally, one third of women will suffer violence at the hands of someone they love in their lifetime.’

The article was written by Paul van Donkelaar, a professor in the Faculty of Health and Social Development and a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia. He goes on to ask, ‘But what if survivors […] are also dealing with the effects of a traumatic brain injury along with the fear and trauma of finally having escaped a long-term abusive relationship? […] the impacts of this injury can be devastating — ranging from headaches, double vision and nausea to difficulty concentrating, remembering things and completing simple tasks. It’s also clear the effects tend to be worse when the trauma occurs repeatedly over time, with symptoms lasting for months to years.’

And, ‘Unlike athletes who have suffered a sport-related concussion, survivors of intimate partner violence also quite often experience emotional difficulties such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.’

‘[…]the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports each year, 2.3 per cent of women over the age of 18 experience severe physical violence including “being slammed against something” or “being hit with a fist or something hard.” Furthermore, up to 90 percent of survivors of intimate partner violence report head, neck and face injuries at least once and typically on multiple occasions.’

Although I’d like to hope that we live in somewhat different conditions from our neighbours to the south, ‘Assuming similar percentages in Canada, this translates into approximately 276,000 women per year who will suffer a traumatic brain injury as a result of intimate partner violence.’

One of the many disturbing things about this trauma is the possibility of subsequent cognitive deficits -some of which may be severe, and because they may have occurred years before, difficult to remedy, let alone reliably assign attribution. As the author of that op-ed in the L. A. Times, Maria Garay-Serratos, wrote of her mother: ‘For as long as I can remember, my mother took aspirin every day, complaining of unbearable headaches. Sometimes she locked herself in the bedroom with the lights off, asking me to take my siblings outside because she couldn’t tolerate the noise. As she got older, her naps grew longer and her sensitivity to light and noise intensified. By her 50s, her memory had begun to fail.

‘On the day she finally asked me to take her away from my father, I found her in a worse state than I had ever seen her. She could barely stand. She was crawling from room to room while my father ignored her. […] When all the tests were finished, the neurologist told us my mother was suffering from moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. The head trauma had been so great and so consistent that there was little they could do.’

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to focus on simply treating the physical symptoms -and, of course, rescuing the victim from further harm. This is obviously important, and yet woefully insufficient; there is also a need to be alert to problems that seem temporally unrelated. The link to head trauma may be more evident with events like automobile and athletic or combat injuries, but less so in a woman who escaped from an abusive relationship years ago.

Maybe Pinker really has spotted an inexorable trend towards less violence in our society. In the meantime, however, I think ongoing surveillance and counselling for the effects of head trauma might help the abused victims to live a better life while we await an actual treatment for what we now call CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Oh, and an effective prevention strategy, too -in case those better angels lose their jobs…











Life would not yield to Age

There are times I think I’ve missed out on a lot. It seems to me that in my day, if a man re-chose a woman, he would almost always go for someone younger than himself. The reasons were obvious even then: overweening hubris, and expectations beyond capability. Indeed, dating sites online still seem to confirm my impression, and often -if not usually- the man’s eyes prove bigger than his stomach and the meal seldom lasts.

But retrospection is a stew of disappointments often sprinkled with only the barest soupçon of hope. Age is, well, age after all, and things happen as we get older. So, especially if one partner is significantly younger when they meet, the inevitable will occur -and worsen- in the older, and so you can guess who will become the default caretaker. Despite the best and most honourable intentions, this strikes me as unfair, albeit easily predictable by anyone watching from the sidelines.

And yet, although I concede that I am a creature of my era, I am still willing to be a witness to the triumph of hope over experience, so I was drawn to an article written by Gary Karantzas, an associate professor in Social Psychology/Relationship Science, at Deakin University (Australia) in the Conversation online magazine:

‘Across Western countries, about 8% of all heterosexual married couples can be classified as having a large age gap (ten years or more). These generally involve older men partnered with younger women. About 1% of age-gap couples involve an older woman partnered with a younger man. About 25% of male-male unions and 15% of female-female unions demonstrate a large age gap.

‘But what these trends tell us is that the majority of the population is likely to partner with someone of similar age. This largely has to do with having social circles that generally include peers of similar ages and being attracted to others who are similar. Similarity entails many things, including personality, interests and values, life goals and stage of life, and physical traits (age being a marker of physical appearance).’

If the article had stopped there I imagine I would have learned nothing new, and I might have remained an insufferable avocat du diable at dinner parties. But, fortunately for both me and my friends, I read further. ‘Many people assume that age-gap couples fare poorly when it comes to relationship outcomes. But some studies find the relationship satisfaction reported by age-gap couples is higher. These couples also seem to report greater trust and commitment and lower jealousy than similar-age couples. Over three-quarters of couples where younger women are partnered with older men report satisfying romantic relationships.

‘A factor that does impact on the relationship outcomes of age-gap couples is their perceptions of social disapproval. That is, if people in age-gap couples believe their family, friends and wider community disapprove of their union, then relationship commitment decreases and the risk of break-up increases. These effects appear to apply to heterosexual and same-sex couples.’

‘Another factor at play may have to do with the stage of life each partner is experiencing. For instance, a ten-year gap between a 20-year-old and a 30-year-old may bring up different challenges and issues than for a ten-year gap where one partner is 53 and the other is 63. This is because our lives are made up of different stages, and each stage consists of particular life tasks we need to master. And we give priority to the mastery of different tasks during these distinct stages of our lives.’

And he concludes that ‘The success of a relationship depends on the extent to which partners share similar values, beliefs and goals about their relationship; support each other in achieving personal goals; foster relationship commitment, trust and intimacy; and resolve problems in constructive ways. These factors have little do with age.’

I think I witnessed something like that once. I don’t normally sit on benches, especially occupied ones, even though they’re usually long enough to support a small family. Of course, maybe that’s the idea, because they often have little plaques commemorating someone who has died but used to sit there. So I feel a little uncomfortable sitting beside people who might be related to the deceased. And anyway, the act of sitting on a bench at my age makes me think I should be finding an unplaqued one so my own family can have one printed up.

But, I was tired and the bench that overlooked Vancouver’s English Bay was seductive, even though two people had already discovered it for a rather snuggly chat. They were both gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes and speaking softly to each other. I sat at the far end of the seat so I wouldn’t disturb them. I don’t think it bothered either of them particularly, although one of them, an attractive woman, probably in her early sixties, leaned even closer to her friend to whisper something when I sat down. I have trouble judging ages, but I would think he was  ten or fifteen years her junior, and yet equally enthralled. Anyway, both of their eyes were so entangled I might as well have been a bird sitting on a branch nearby for all they seemed to care.

And then, perhaps thinking they were being rude, they both sat back and stared at the waves breaking on the nearby rocks for a moment. Finally, the woman turned to me and smiled. “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” she asked, as if she suddenly felt a need to welcome me to their bench.

I nodded pleasantly, and we all sat in silence for a while, listening to the cry of a group of seagulls that had landed on the rocks. “I hope I didn’t disturb you,” I suddenly blurted out, embarrassed at choosing an already occupied bench, I suppose, although perhaps more concerned about admitting to myself that I had needed to rest.

The man leaned forward and his eyes circled around my cheeks like butterflies about to settle. “Not at all. We were just reminiscing about how we met on this very bench fifteen years ago -fifteen years ago today, in fact.”

“I’d just finished running around the seawall, and I think it was a bit too far for me, so I needed to sit down… And I happened to see this bench,” the woman said, squeezing his hand as she spoke. She glanced at her friend. “Jeff was…”

“I was sitting at the far end of the bench reading a book when Alice arrived, and…”

“And that was the beginning of a wonderful life,” she finished for him.

It was sweet the way they both finished sentences for each other -like they were completely comfortable being inside the other’s head.

“It’s our fourteenth wedding anniversary today,” he added, and kissed her gently on the cheek.

“We come to this bench each year to remember,” she said snuggling closer to him and sighing contentedly.

“Welcome to our bench, eh?” he chuckled, and winked at her as they both stood up and stretched.

“I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t…” I started to say, but she reached out and clasped my hand, her eyes twinkling in the sunlight for a moment.

“It’s the meeting bench,” Jeff said, hugging her as he spoke, then grasping her free hand he stood quietly with her for a moment, the wind tussling their hair like another hand.

And as they started to walk away, Alice turned towards me and her eyes softened as they rested on my face. “I hope someone sits…”

But just then some friends further down the seawall waved and yelled at them, and her smile caressed me briefly before she shrugged and walked away with Jeff to grace some other lives.