Monday, January 28, 2008

Brains and mirrors

Last week I caught the tail end of a programme screened on BBC Prime about the function of the brain. This is a subject which has interested me for the past few years, so I made sure to arrange my schedule such that I could watch the programme last night. Three main points were introduced during the episode:
  1. Babies upto the age of six months are able to recognise and differentiate between the faces of primates (lemurs were the animal used) as opposed to babies over the age of nine months
  2. First impressions are very important
  3. Humans learn to read people's expressions and so try and understand what other people are thinking. In so doing, we mirror their body language
The moral of the first point is "use it or lose it". According to the brain, a baby has 1.5 times the amount of synapse connections that an adult does, because it has to learn so much. One of the things which it doesn't need to use is the ability to differentiate between primates, and so this ability withers over time.

The second two points are very important and are known collectively as "mirroring". This information was very familiar as I had been reading about it over the past two months in a book called "Social intelligence". The book goes into far greater depth than the programme did, of course, but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

I found this book very interesting for a few reasons. Whilst reading a book by Martin Seligman, I became aware of the fact that my social skills aren't particularly well developed and that this is an area in which I could improve. I looked for something in this subject on the Internet and found "SI"; as it happened, the same evening I was in a book shop and found the exact same book on the shelves (maybe slightly more expensive than via Amazon, although once the shipping is figured in, maybe not) so I bought it. Reading it made me aware how much difficulty I have at times in reading people's expressions, and how my body language is frequently different from my companions (in other words, I don't mirror very well).

When taken to a more extreme level, such problems are one of the features of Asperger's syndrome, and if one continues on the same continuum, one eventually gets to autism. Whilst there is no possibility that anyone could ever consider that I have Asperger's, I do recognise the inability. Knowing about this allows me to do something about it.

The other reason why the book was interesting was that intellectual types like myself need these things spelt out, whereas other, more visceral, people know these things automatically. I also need the intellectual explanation, about mirror neurons and spindle cells, rather than the simplistic explanation as offered by the television programme.

As the programme wasn't subtitled into Hebrew, my wife had difficulty in following it, but I was able to explain the content to her. I was also glad that I was able to talk to her about such subjects as most people aren't particularly interested in an off the cuff chat about mirror neurons et al (Asperger's flag flying).

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Sleep, part five

Whilst there are other things happening in my life (like our offices moving from where they were to a new site 5km away), most of them are day to day things which most people know about and have experienced. This seemingly narcisstic obsession with my health - and especially with my sleep problems - is designed to help other people who may find themselves suddenly confronted with these problems and would like to hear from someone who has already experienced them.

I've been back and forth to the sleep lab several times. Even though the technicians there are actually employees of companies that sell CPAP machines, they are more interested in finding the right machine and the correct settings to match each person individually rather than simply selling the most expensive machine that they can find.

The original test showed a horrifying 65 breathing episodes per hour; my first week of CPAP reduced that figure to 10, a huge increase. Even so, the technician was not impressed, and noticed that the data showed that air was leaking from the mask, thus causing the pressure to be higher than necessary. He adjusted the mask, and after another week, the data showed only 3.5 apnea an hour, an eighteen fold decrease.

The next session involved changing the CPAP mode: instead of automatically adjusting its pressure, it now works at a constant (and fairly low) pressure. I was waking at least twice a night, and the hours when I awoke corresponded with the highest pressures. Since that change, I have been able to sleep with the mask on all night! I do wake, but I can fall asleep again without too much difficulty. The next problem to be solved is the effect of the mask on my face - the nightly pressure leaves me feeling its imprint throughout the day.

I am pleased to say that I am no longer tired during the day, a sign that the treatment is working properly.

On another subject, I had another dental appointment yesterday. The result of my previous examination was that the crown needs to be replaced (yet again) in order to fit the new shape of the tooth, following the root extraction. So yesterday I had the crown removed (via drilling and demolishing - it doesn't come out easily) and now I have a new temporary crown. In another few weeks the tooth will be examined again and then we go once more through the sickening process of preparing a new crown. I jokingly asked whether I can use the casts of my teeth from the previous time, at least for the lower jaw - anything to avoid the making of casts again.