Sunday, August 30, 2015
Making of a Child Psychiatrist: (17) Back to school...
I am not sure where Fred had obtained it, but the book he lent me was Freud’s ‘Psychopathology of Everyday Life’ in a Pelican paperback edition, slightly dog-eared suggesting it had been well used. He made it clear that I was to give it back ‘on pain of death’; and I did… eventually.
The book is not easy to get into. Despite my voracious reading habits and my by now extensive vocabulary, many of the words were difficult to pronounce in mind, the concepts difficult to grasp, and the context (Vienna and Europe at the turn of the century) was foreign (if you will excuse the pun). But the ideas were fascinating, mind-boggling, and thought provoking. My current personal version of the book (bought about 5 years later) is now yellowed with age, dog-eared with several pages turned down, and like many others of my books, it has travelled around the world.
The first important idea it left with this then 16 year old, was that the mind had layers; you could think you were in total charge of your thoughts, but there was this underground river of old memories that could emerge to interrupt (or swamp) your thoughts during the day or at night. It made some sort of sense even then; in two ways. Over the years, I had had some weird dreams that only half made sense, and had troubled me for days. I supposed that in the past I had eventually dismissed them, but this book (and Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ which I was to read about 6 years later) suggested you could discover meaning by allowing the mind to wander, and noting bits of the journey. I began to keep a scribbled diary, on waking from a dream, trying to make sense of myself.
One of the pages still turned down in my own copy of the book relates to how we remember things. I have always had vivid dreams, and Freud points out that this is how most dreams are remembered. But in a brief few sentences, he also noted that many people remember visually (ie in pictures), while some remember as if replaying conversations (so-called ‘auditifs), and yet others remember through feelings or the body (so-called ‘moteurs’). We need to set aside a wider discussion of this for the time being, and that it may well have presaged the ideas I gained from a much later treasured training in ‘Neurolinguistic Programming’ (NLP).
I have always remembered in detailed pictures, and whenever I mentioned this, I had always been looked at a bit strangely. The book helped me to think I was ‘sort of normal’. From memory, my reading the book was not long after a time I was in a Drama Club play for which maybe I had not studied my lines with due diligence. On stage, and in front of an adjudicator, I dried up. In sudden panic, I found myself visualising my copy of the play, ‘saw’ the right page, mentally scanned down the lines, found my place and the missing lines, and began to speak. I am sure it was obvious to the audience, but I felt I had managed to cover my tracks. It was mentioned in adjudication, but not severely marked down. When I told a few people later about my embarrassing experience, and the way I had recovered, I got some very weird looks, a marked lack of response, and a rapid change in the conversation direction. I was left perplexed - until I found this little gem in Freud’s book. So, I was OK; I was not as odd as I had come to believe. Nevertheless, I had the nouse to realise that my little report seemed to make people uncomfortable, so the episode was dropped.
My own thinking was that I wished I had been able to understand all this some years earlier. I recalled an embarrassing episode from when I was aged 11. I had entered a public singing competition at the Lido Theatre in Cliftonville. I had rehearsed a song (which one I have forgotten) with my mother playing the piano, and my parents came along to watch their choir boy with the golden voice, secure in their knowledge I might very well win the prize (I have also forgotten what that was). On stage, with a strange pianist, a jolly compere engaged in me in general chitchat to put me at my ease but, sadly, this had the opposite effect. When the music began, and I came to sing, I had forgotten half the words of a song I knew very well and had sung many times before. I was mortified, and even at that age, wished I could shrivel up and disappear through the stage. I suppose singing is somewhat more auditory than visual, and depends on practice to remember the sequence of words and how they fit with the music. I had not rehearsed enough, was a bit cocksure, and was thrown by the compere. Even to this day, while I can immerse myself in a wide range of music and songs, I have severe trouble remembering more than snatches of a song. Luckily, in general knowledge quizzes, I am usually surrounded by family members who remember every word of every song. Clearly, I was traumatised at age 11. Equally clearly, in retrospect, I could have written out the words on paper, and coloured them to help me remember. If only I had known some of the tricks. Another upshot, of course, was that I have avoided trying to sing competitively, or indeed in public, even though my treble voce matured into a rich tenor, and is now a strong (if elderly) baritone. The other result, was that in my father’s eyes (or perhaps in my perception of what I thought he could have thought), I had failed. The final (and longterm) implication has been that I work extremely hard at all of my public presentations to ensure I am clear, can remember what I am going to say, and have practised assiduously. I am also somewhat obsessive about ensuring that any equipment I am likely to use works well, or I am able fairly quickly to access a substitute bit of technology – all very ‘belt and braces’.
Now, I revel in being able to draw on this visual memory. In daily life when someone has lost an object, or can’t recall the origin of a picture or an object, I find it easy to get a context and pin it down. It pleases those close to me, but I know it irritates others. So be it. Professionally, I have been able to incorporate the visual into lectures, trying to literally ‘paint a picture’ for the audience of my understanding of an issue. More formally, I have actively used images in my Powerpoint presentations. A lot of my training program successes have come from using videotaped example. We will return to this later.
So Fred had begun this dialogue. We discussed the concepts in depth, and at some length, while playing bridge or just relaxing in the prefects’ room. The dialogue also went on in my mind with a heightened awareness of what I might be experiencing. I was hooked. Yes, I had this nebulous fantasy of becoming a doctor, but now it had subtly changed. My new direction was to become a neurosurgeon; someone who could understand the brain and how it functioned, and perhaps have the skills to help others when necessary.