Sunday, 24 May 2015

Inflating the Hippo

LONDON CABS ALWAYS ATTRACT attention: their odd shape and their wide turning circle. "Don't just look at the cab," I tell visitors. "Look at the drivers. They are very interesting fellows."

Some years ago, when a London cab driver by the name of Fred Housego won the prestigious Mastermind contest on television, people started to look at London cab drivers as more than just non-stop blabberers who took you on journeys back and forth when all you wanted was just a period of quiet travel.

"I had that famous pianist in the back of my cab once Guv, " they'd start as you sink into your padded chair. And then they'd go on blah blah blah. This was the gist of a cartoon series that ran for a long time in the satirical magazine Private Eye. London cabbies are a deep mineshaft of unsolicited tales of intrepid travel.

Under brain imaging it was found that London cab drivers have bigger hippocampi than the average person. This came from their two or more years spent cramming up the entire map and knowledge of London locations into their brains, 25,000 streets and famous buildings and the whereabouts of theatres in the road that leads to Trafalgar Square. The hippocampus, that brain area associated with long term memory and spatial navigation grows and grows. It is proof, if anything, of our brain's plasticity and ability to develop, no matter at what age, when we learn skills.

There are debates raging about the benefits of it all. London cab drivers know London from the top of their heads but they perform poorly at recalling complex visual information compared to those who failed the cabbies' test or those who did not do it at all, so Professor Eleanor Maguire of the University College London found in her research. But that may be the red herring in the trail: for me it shows that the brain can be taught to become cleverer or to grow more muscle, to put it in the vernacular.

There is nothing we do that does not affect our brains directly, and the follow-up to that may bring other benefits in the way we think, or the way we move or the way we relate to other people. Other research in neuroscience for instance have shown that the brains of a person from a collectivist community  reacts differently to external stimuli compared to the brain of a person from an individualistic society. So can charity, empathy, generosity and so on rise by osmotic process to become part of your hard-wired nature if you give enough stimulation to the parts that give them muscle?

Take poetry. I cannot think of a society on this earth that is not moved or swayed by the power of sounds, good words recited in a soothing, euphonious scheme of rhymes and metres. Shamans recite their incantations in powerful, poetic sweeps of images and spells. It is difficult not to be moved by poetic prose, hard to hold back tears when you your heart is tugged by poetry.

Music does the same to people: familiar music wakes up areas that can move us to tears. I myself cannot hear our Negaraku in foreign lands without feeling the true sense of nostalgia, and that is the feeling of longing for one's homeland. When men of the Royal Malay Regiment were invited to do guard duty at Buckingham Palace some years ago many Malaysians were moved top tears when they heard them play tunes from the songs of P. Ramlee under that famous balcony. It is not surprising therefore to learn that music moves you along the same channel in your brain that also makes your spine tingle when Richard Burton reads Under Milk Wood in the half light of the gloaming.

These are the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, unpoetic as they are, your brain regions that become active when your are just sitting and relaxing. They also wake up the autobiographical memory, your mood for introspection and self-examination too. So is poetry important then? It is because it wakes up the inner you that cares about how you relate to yourself and things and others. It soothes and smoothes the rough inner self and makes us aware about who we are.

So there are places where poetry is eschewed, prose-writing pooh-poohed as sidelines in our mainstream interest of everyday living and wealth-accumulation skills. We can do that of course and lose more than just a little.

ILLUSTRATION: The Knowledge Area for London Cabbies.

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