Within the Book and Volume of Thy Brain

Is it naive to mention that there is an almost magical bond between a mother and her baby? A bond that, while certainly not less in the father is, well, different? At first, I assumed it was probably related to the closeness of breast feeding –yes, the oxytocin and its effects on bonding, and the magic of skin-to-skin contact- but this seemed to be a very reductionist way of looking at it –a post hoc ergo propter hoc approach. No, the amount of head-swaying I would see, the purring of the sing-song words barely audible from across the room, the eye contact with the bundles in their arms… All this seemed more like the devotion of religious acolytes than could be reasonably reduced to simple biological cause and effect in the little carpeted area where my patients would sit, waiting for their postpartum checkups. I can’t help but think of Shakespeare: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, as Hamlet observed under admittedly different circumstances.

I mention this decidedly apostatic thinking because it occurred to me that some things are difficult to fit into a satisfyingly rational, or secular framework. Many years ago, I remember seeing a woman -Lorraine was her name, I think- who, my day-sheet informed me I had delivered 2 or 3 months previously. Anyway, she was coming in to discuss contraception and she had brought her little baby with her. I could see her sitting on the other side of the room talking and nodding rhythmically to the little tyke. Even from a distance, I could see they were locked in ocular embrace. Then, slowly, she reached into a bag at her feet and pulled out what seemed to be a large picture book. She nestled the baby in one arm and held the book open with the other hand so the baby could see it. From where I stood behind the front desk, I couldn’t really tell what pictures the baby saw, but she was naming what I suppose were animals, and whatever else came up from page to page.

Perhaps the baby was paying attention, but it seemed entirely too comfortable in her arms, and her voice far too much like a lullaby for it to keep its eyes open.

When her turn came to talk to me in the office, she told me that she’d noticed me watching her with the picture book.

“I’m a first grade teacher,” she said, showing me a collection of children’s drawings carefully pasted onto stiff pages and stapled into a folder. “And when the kids found out I was going to have a baby, they all decided to draw pictures for me to ‘read’ to it.” She drew little air quotes around the word. “And I thought, why not? It’s sort of like reading, isn’t it? The kids thought so, anyway…”

I have to confess that, although I always loved reading to my children, I enjoyed it more when they seemed to understand the words. When they reacted to my play-acting voice that attempted incarnation of the characters, painting the scene in words, pretending we could see the story. I enjoyed the immersion as much as they did, I suppose –we were the story, in a way. Each of us.

Now that I think of those times, I feel vaguely guilty that the experience was as much about me as it was about the child sitting beside me on the couch, or lying on her bed with saucered eyes in a room lit only by the lamp beside my chair. Each of us was as hungry as the other to discover what the words would tell us, our imaginations primed and insatiably curious as our minds watched the movie being played behind our eyes.

Sometimes, of course, I would read a book of their choosing, but both my son -and later my daughter- seemed to prefer it when I made up stories for them. No pictures –just verbal descriptions that neither of us could guess beforehand. Word riffs.

But Time moves on, and so does our knowledge of developing brains. It would seem that certain content, particular themes and even types of books, may be more helpful at different ages. I can’t say that it came as a surprise that infants, too, benefit from being bathed in words –it’s how vocabulary begins, after all. What I remain somewhat agnostic about, however, is that there might be a preferred order of progression. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine hoped to disavow me of this skepticism, however: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/babys-brain-benefit-read-right-books-right-time

For example,  the author, Lisa Scott, Associate Professor in Psychology, University of Florida: ‘[…] found that when parents showed babies books with faces or objects that were individually named, they learn more, generalize what they learn to new situations and show more specialized brain responses. This is in contrast to books with no labels or books with the same generic label under each image in the book. Early learning in infancy was also associated with benefits four years later in childhood. […]These findings suggest that very young infants are able to use labels to learn about the world around them and that shared book reading is an effective tool for supporting development in the first year of life.’

I’m certainly not disputing the findings, nor offering any alternatives –I’m merely wondering whether or not it has that much of an effect on subsequent development of the child as it matures. As she points out earlier in the article, ‘Researchers see clear benefits of shared book reading for child development. Shared book reading with young children is good for language and cognitive development, increasing vocabulary and pre-reading skills and honing conceptual development. Shared book reading also likely enhances the quality of the parent-infant relationship by encouraging reciprocal interactions – the back-and-forth dance between parents and infants. Certainly not least of all, it gives infants and parents a consistent daily time to cuddle.

‘Recent research has found that both the quality and quantity of shared book reading in infancy predicted later childhood vocabulary, reading skills and name writing ability. In other words, the more books parents read, and the more time they’d spent reading, the greater the developmental benefits in their 4-year-old children.’

I suppose what I’m getting at is that perhaps the best message to get across to parents is the importance of reading to their child –interacting with the child- rather than getting them concerned that they’re not doing it the right way. That they’re using the wrong materials, or in the wrong order. Raising a child is hard enough at the best of times. Indeed, the author acknowledges this at the end of her piece: ‘It’s possible that books that include named characters simply increase the amount of parent talking. We know that talking to babies is important for their development. So parents of infants: Add shared book reading to your daily routines and name the characters in the books you read.’

But, then again, maybe this is just preaching to the converted. Mothers already know most of this –Lorraine did, at any rate.



The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley

Two steps forward and one step back –isn’t that  always the way with progress? Reward coupled with unintended consequences? The Industrial Revolution with worker exploitation? Nuclear power with the Bomb. Nothing, it seems, comes without a price. Even religion, the great leveller, once established brooks no rivals. Life itself, is a succession of survivors outcompeting the other contenders.

But simply to focus on the successes is to miss the important lessons to be learned from the failures. In biology the difference between winning and losing might hinge on a single change in a single gene, or more instructively, on an adaptation of an existing organ for another, more useful function in a different environment –an exaptation. Arms and hands for wings, in the case of bats, or for fins, in the cases of aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins.

In the early days after the discovery of X-rays, their ability to see through things was thought to be miraculous, and many possible uses were suggested. It was not until much later, after countless reports of cancers, burns, hair loss and worse, that the dangers of its careless use were acknowledged. Then, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of its many unwanted side-effects, grew carefully investigated treatments like irradiation for tumours, CT scans for internal visualizations, or fluoroscopy for placement of medical kit like stents, anti-embolism balloons, etc.

Unfortunately, even nowadays, the sundry complications of progress are often inadequately predicted in advance, probably because most things are multifaceted and changing one parameter has a knock-on effect on the others. Clearing forests for agriculture changes the animals that can survive in the changed ecosystem; monoculture to maximize demand for a particular variety of crop, say, increases the likelihood that the plants –previously diverse- may not be able to withstand the onslaught of a disease or infestation that would otherwise have only affected a small portion of their number. Evolution would normally have winnowed out the susceptibles, leaving only the resistant plants to reproduce. But all of this is Grade 9 biology, isn’t it?

What led me to think about this was an article in the Smithsonian Magazine discussing the effects of making friction matches on the women and children involved in their manufacture: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/friction-matches-were-boon-those-lighting-firesnot-so-much-matchmakers-180967318/ – 6ZQ6WshMH2Ghpoys.03

‘Like many other poorly paid and tedious factory jobs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, match makers were predominantly women and children, writes Killgrove [in an article for Mental Floss]. “Half the employees in this industry were kids who hadn’t even reached their teens. While working long hours indoors in a cramped, dark factory put these children at risk of contracting tuberculosis and getting rickets, matchstick making held a specific risk: phossy jaw.” This gruesome and debilitating condition was caused by inhaling white phosphorus fumes during those long hours at the factory. “Approximately 11 percent of those exposed to phosphorus fumes developed ‘phossy jaw’ about five years after initial exposure, on average”. The condition causes the bone in the jaw to die and teeth to decay, resulting in extreme suffering and sometimes the loss of the jaw. Although phossy jaw was far from the only side-effect of prolonged white phosphorus exposure, it became a visible symbol of the suffering caused by industrial chemicals in match plants.’
So much so, that by 1892, newspapers were investigating the problem. ‘“Historical records often compare sufferers of phossy jaw to people with leprosy because of their obvious physical disfigurement and the condition’s social stigma,” Killgrove writes. Eventually match makers stopped using white phosphorus in matches, and it was outlawed in the United States in 1910.’

Civilization is the steady accumulation of successes over failures. Trials and errors –mistakes which perhaps seem to have been largely anticipatable in retrospect- summate to useable compromises. It’s how a child learns; it’s how evolution learns.

But the point of this essay is not so much to highlight the exploitation of workers in the past as to suggest that there can be sociological as well as biological evolution. After all, the etymological root of the word is the Latin evolvere –to unfold.

Occupational Safety and Health -as a distinct discipline, at least- is a relatively recent development stemming from labour movements and their concern about worker safety in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. As Wikipedia explains it: ‘The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system.’

Although this provided jobs and undoubtedly improved many aspects of living standards, the driving force was production, and in its early stages, had little regard for worker safety or health. Enter the labour movements in the early 19th century, along with great resistance to their demands. In many instances they were seen as antithetical to progress –antithetical to Capitalism, for that matter. And yet, in the fullness of time, the benefits of a healthy workforce to economic success evolved from an initial, grudging pretense of acceptance in some countries to a legal framework of protection in others.

There is certainly a long way to go along this path to be sure, and exploitation still seems a default that is all too easy to overlook. Especially since it is the poor and vulnerable who are usually the victims –people with little voice of their own, and even less power to resist.

But are things actually changing? Does knowledge of exploitation make a difference? We know slavery is still practiced; we know that refugees are still being brutalized and abused in places like Libya; women are still being kidnapped and sold into prostitution despite the best intentions of agencies like the World Health Organization.

So, do the gains experienced in some areas, offset the tragedies in others? We cannot appreciate the broad sweep of History in the few years we are allotted, and evolution –even social evolution- can be deceptive and disheartening. But remember the words of Khalil Gibran:

You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps.
Yet you are not evil when you go thither limping.
Even those who limp go not backward.

I have to hope he saw something that I missed along the way…

We will build a wall…

It’s humbling to realize that, despite my age, there are still some things I’ve never heard of. Or, is it because of my age…?

I suppose I could be forgiven for being unaware –I almost said uninterested– in things that trend nowadays, the inference being that, lacking in statistical significance, those things which appeal to a segment of the population to which I am not credentialed have been assigned a new category. But what about issues that have been bubbling about for almost a century, albeit far enough away that I am seldom directly affected? And yet, distance excuses nothing. I hear of hurricanes, and distant floods. I am all too aware of the melting of Greenland’s glaciers, not to mention similar changes in Antarctica, so why would Africa be any different? News of terrorism, political coups, and natural disasters there abound in everyday news, so how could anything as filled with potential as a decades long project to arrest the steady creep of desertification into sub-Saharan Africa have crept past me?

The Sahara is the second largest desert in the world, after Antarctica and throughout the history of the region, it has undergone millennial climatic oscillations. From about 11,000 to 5,000 years ago (during the early Holocene epoch), trees, lakes, grasslands once covered the arid Sahara. ‘The Green Sahara was the most recent of a succession of wet phases paced by orbital precession that extends back to the late Miocene. When the precessional cycle approaches perihelion during boreal summer, the increase in insolation drives a strong land-sea temperature gradient over North Africa that strengthens the African monsoon, bringing rainfall deep into the Sahara,’ according to a paper authored by geologist Jessica Tierney of the University of Arizona and published in Science Advances http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/1/e1601503.full

The last few millennia, however, have been dominated by aridity and a fear that the desert is slowly creeping southward. And while, apart from the Nile arriving from much further south, little was felt to be able to reclaim the desert itself. So, the idea of preventing further encroachment along its southern borders –the Sahel- was proposed.

As the Smithsonian Magazine reports, ‘The Sahel spans 3,360 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, a belt stretching across the southern edge of the Sahara. Rainfall is low, from four to 24 inches per year, and droughts are frequent. Climate change means greater extremes of rainfall as the population skyrockets in the region, one of the poorest in the world. Food security is an urgent concern. By 2050, the population could leap to 340 million, up from 30 million in 1950 and 135 million today.

‘In 1952 the English forester Richard St. Barbe Baker suggested that a ”green front” in the form of a 50km wide barrier of trees be erected to contain the spreading desert. Droughts in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel from the 1970s onwards gave wings to the idea, and in 2007 the African Union approved the Great Green Wall Initiative.’ https://qz.com/1014396/the-plan-for-a-great-green-wall-to-beat-back-the-sahara-needs-a-rethink/

The idea was that a green ‘wall’ from from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east would not only halt further desertification, but the people in this area would benefit with jobs, increased arability of the land, and maybe even tourists.

As it was originally conceived, however, it seems retrospectively naïve. Perhaps the Smithsonian magazine summarizes it best: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/great-green-wall-stop-desertification-not-so-much-180960171/ ‘”If all the trees that had been planted in the Sahara since the early 1980s had survived, it would look like Amazonia,” adds Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute who has been working in Africa since 1978. “Essentially 80 percent or more of planted trees have died.” Reij, Garrity and other scientists working on the ground knew […] that farmers in Niger and Burkina Faso, in particular, had discovered a cheap, effective way to regreen the Sahel. They did so by using simple water harvesting techniques and protecting trees that emerged naturally on their farms. Slowly, the idea of a Great Green Wall has changed into a program centered around indigenous land use techniques, not planting a forest on the edge of a desert.

‘The African Union and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization now refer to it as “Africa’s flagship initiative to combat land degradation, desertification and drought.” Incredibly, the Great Green Wall—or some form of it—appears to be working. “We moved the vision of the Great Green Wall from one that was impractical to one that was practical,” says Mohamed Bakaar, the lead environmental specialist for Global Environmental Facility the organization that examines the environmental benefit of World Bank projects. “It is not necessarily a physical wall, but rather a mosaic of land use practices that ultimately will meet the expectations of a wall. It has been transformed into a metaphorical thing.”’

I like metaphors, especially wall metaphors… Edge metaphors in particular. There is something intriguing about what happens at boundaries when things alien to each other, let alone inimical, meet. There is usually a testing of one another, a probing for similarities, weaknesses, and then often as not, attempts at breach. And if both sides absorb the assaults, the wall then becomes a compromise –not maintaining a separate identity, but melding, as it were, into a new entity. A new creature.

So, although it may be true that what lies far away on either side stays true to itself, the wall is a relationship -a neither-nor that exists as a bridge to each. Walls, are like skin: it separates us from the world beyond, but it also joins us to it. The Green ‘Wall’, in a way, highlights this. Rather than artificially planting trees, the farmers allowed the tree roots still in the ground to regenerate –these, presumably, were already adapted to the local conditions. ‘Tony Rinaudo, an Australian with Serving in Mission, a religious nonprofit, working with local farmers, had helped the farmers identify useful species of trees in the stumps in their fields, protect them, and then prune them to promote growth. Farmers grew other crops around the trees.’
For example, ‘One tree, Faidherbia albida, goes dormant during the wet season when most trees grow. When the rains begin, the trees defoliate, dropping leaves that fertilize the soil. Because they have dropped their leaves, the trees do not shade crops during the growing season. Their value had long been recognized by farmers […] but they were never encouraged to use them.’

So, far from being a wall, the Sahel is more of a chain, with different parts linked together, however tentatively. However unlikely.

You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link.
This is but half the truth.
You are also as strong as your strongest link.
To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean
by the frailty of its foam. Kahlil Gibran…

Metaphors are powerful things.