This Flesh We Wear – Thoughts on a weekend at Words by the Water 7-8 March 2015

One of the best reasons for going to Words by the Water is that it gives work to the mind.  Indeed, I typed – accidentally – ‘Worlds by the Water. As I have blogged before, Words by the Water is a ‘festival of words and ideas’.  The pen is mightier than the sword, or the scalpel, the axe or even the laser… My choice of metaphor will reveal itself.

I have been much thoughtful after a science weekend  on the 7th/8th of MarchI was fortunate to chair three fascinating  events in the studio, and listen to another. There was a lot of other wonderful stuff going on, too. (See the link to the brochure below). This blog post is later than I had intended, partly because I have been thinking, and partly because I have been attending other things. On Tuesday 10th, I had a great day in both the studio and main house dealing with the ordinary, the history, the arts, the language and the global. A real workout for the mind.

The science weekend was highlighted  summarised in a previous blog – ‘Intriguing Offerings’, accessible from the side-bar. Saturday in the studio was given over to Science of the Mind . I listened to anthropologist and historian Frances Larson talking about her book – Severed –  Heads Lost and Found before chairing psychologist Christian Jarrett on Saturday, with What Do We Really Know About The Brain? On Sunday, it was time for Science of the Body. I chaired  David Bainbridge, a biologist, and medical historian Richard Barnett , with sessions on The Shape of Women  and No Prettiness, Much Beauty, which dealt with disease and the art of medical illustration.


Heads Lost and Found.  This was always going to be a risky choice of subject for a literature festival, but trusting the judgement of the organisers, I was brave enough to attend a session on the human fascination with the severed heads of their fellows and enemies. Frances Larson is an anthropologist and historian who worked at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University where they have a popular collection of shrunken heads. Frances explained that the initial revulsion at the exhibit was soon replaced by fascination. Who were those people? How did their heads get shrunk? There is a dark history of the human head as a trophy and totem. In SeveredFrances explores our obsession with the head, attached and otherwise. In her talk she explored how the white man’s demand for the ‘shrunken head’ fuelled the grim trade in this commodity. She took us through the history of the execution grounds (a popular entertainment) of the ‘civilised West’ and how philosophers waiting beneath the guillotine in France attempted to determine the duration of consciousness within the severed heads of the unfortunate victims. We finished with a modern insight into the fashion for ‘head freezing’. There are those who wish to have their heads cryogenically preserved against the day when a technologically-advanced future generation might revive them to live again. (If you are minded to explore the option on freezing your head, I can recommend as a starting point a book by Ed Regis from 1991, The Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. )

There is no way I can write about this topic without the intrusion of sensibilities of some sort. I’d like to think that human decency trumps other feelings, but by including the words ‘severed heads’ in my blog, I will get hits from those whose fascination is deeply morbid and unhealthy.  Severed has had  some wonderful reviews, not least because Frances Larson has avoided writing about this gruesome subject in a morbid and gloomy way. She allows us to hold human nature up to the light.

What Do We Really Know About The Brain? 

SavedPicture-201539175348.jpgChristian Jarrett  has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, and is author and co-author of several books on psychology and neuroscience.  I read his neuroscience blog for WIRED and enjoy his punchy, uncluttered style. His latest book Great Myths of the Brain is a comprehensive guide to the way we think, often wrongly, about the function of the brain. He de-bunks the wayward and wilful psuedo-science that rides on the back of the proper discipline of neuroscience.

Like quantum mechanics, neuroscience has grabbed the public imagination and neuro-myths speak has slipped into the  modern paradigm, sometimes in ways that are more than a little fuzzy round the edges.  Sometimes they are plain wrong, or have been pressed into service to promote the personal agenda of those who want to sell us something, be it ‘neuro-drinks’, neuro-based educational programmes, or neuro-management skills. He has a lot to say about the ubiquitous ‘neuro’ babble in his book. Even scientists and educators are not immune from it. The book is a solid and wide-ranging reference for the specialist and non-specialist alike. For openers, it deals with general mythology about brains, including those right brain/left brain arguments that pervade media and literature, and ideas about creativity and gender differences that are not really backed up by science. These are seductive, not least, perhaps, because they make good fodder for journalists and pundits.

Jarrett also deals with myths about the physical structure of the brain – the hype and misinformation. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, and the idea that mirror neurons are what make us human. We find technology myths, such as the belief that brain scans can ‘read’ your mind, and that the internet will make you stupid. There are food myths that encourage you to eat certain (often expensive) foodstuffs and myths about the way our brains actually work. The book concludes with a fascinating section on brain disorder and illness, with references to disorders including autism, epilepsy, dementia and depression.

However, Jarrett stresses that we have a need for humility.  The book was compiled from authoritative sources, and in consultation with experts. He gives us a comprehensive list of reference material. He says that ‘many of today’s myths were yesterday’s facts.’ Things will change. It is a dynamic science. We take away the message that we need to keep asking questions – especially of those who have a desire to co-opt us into their way of thinking.

Photo – Christian Jarrett in discussion with Dr Jennifer Garrett


The Shape of Women. 

David Bainbridge describes humans as ‘the weirdest and most fascinating species on earth, and says that only by understanding that weirdness can we understand why humans do the things we do, and why being human feels like it does.’ This is what he has attempted with Curvology . Applying biological and evolutionary science to women’s bodies and extending this to modern female psychology was asking for trouble, and the book had stirred up reactions before being discussed at Words by the Water. I admit that I was prickled by some of his observations, particularly about the evolutionary origins of eating disorders in women, but own that I have no background in evolutionary science. For instance, is there an evolutionary basis in women eating less to allow males the ‘lion’s share’ of the table? Dr David Bainbridge is a reproductive biologist and clinical veterinary anatomist at Cambridge University. He trained as a veterinary surgeon and has carried out research into pregnancy in humans and animals. Bainbridge has written books on the brain, the X-chromosome, babies, teenagers and middle age. Curvology explores why it is that humans are the only animals with females that have evolved curves, and discusses, from the perspectives of zoological science, the origins and power of female body shape. He has some surprising, and sometimes controversial, observations that have provoked a lively response in the media. However, he stated that he was glad about this as it had made people think about it.

Humans have had to ‘re-invent’ the female for the challenges of pregnancy and birth of our large-brained offspring, and this itself is a driver for human evolution.  He suggests that this was an important factor in the evolution of modern humans.  Females have more ‘modern’ skull characteristics than males – high domed heads, minimal brow ridges and small jaws and teeth. Female skeletons have some extraordinary adaptations – particularly in the shape of the pelvis – to allow the passage of the baby’s head. Human females also have more ‘femaleness’ in the form of exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics than seems reasonable from the point of view of practicality – narrow waists, wide hips, big bums and breasts. Bainbridge proposes that these overt signs of femaleness are down to selection by men in choosing a top-class mate.

The female body appears as some clever compromise between the survival of the woman, and her baby. These padded areas are due to the deposition of extra body fat at puberty. Females have about twice as much body fat than males as a percentage of body mass. The fat is used in gestation and lactation, particularly the latter. So the idea that women may give up food for calorie hungry males is because they can cope better than the men. It goes without saying, that in a modern world obsessed with thinness, particularly in females, fat is a cause for contradiction and unhappiness.

He applies a zoological perspective  to the observation that women obsess more over their appearance than men, and dress to impress – not their men – but other women. In his book, he says: ‘women criticise other women’s bodies much more often than men do and women have less forgiving ideas about what constitutes an ideal female body.’ He notes that  competition among females is found throughout the animal kingdom. But perhaps now, others have observed, women are policing ‘society’s body-chauvinism’. Here, he talks about the cult of thinness and other extreme ideals. But, throughout history, women’s shape is a key driver in social status of women.

He concludes with the observation that ‘our species is changing at an unprecedented rate’ and asks if ‘we will wish to drag our ancient urges and chauvinisms along with us’. I wonder how much choice we have.

 Curvology was a great choice for International Women’s Day.

I must apologise that there is no picture of David – he was in deep conversation with a member of the audience following his event.

(A recommended classic fiction read on womens’ eating (and other) behaviour in male company – Margaret Attwood’s – The Edible Woman)


No Prettiness – Much Beauty

SavedPicture-201539175810.jpgDr Richard Barnett is one of the first recipients of a Wellcome Trust Fellowship. He was commissioned to write four books to showcase the Trust’s extensive collection of medical illustrations now being uploaded to the internet under a Creative Commons licence.  The Sick Rose – Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, is the first in this series, which was described by Will Self in the Guardian as ‘superbly erudite and lucid’. It also won Book of the Year from the British Book Design and Production Awards in 2014.

It is easy for us in an age of modern medicine and technology, with an expectation of cure, of detailed understanding on the part of our doctors of the flesh we wear, to forget how a deeper understanding of the processes of disease was gained. We take for granted our cameras, microscopes, X-Rays and scans. Richard Barnett, in The Sick Rose, lets us see into the past of Western medicine and consider the real human beings that were the subject of the study of their diseased flesh, and the illustrators of their pathology. We are shown perspectives on the approach to medicine that seem at odds with our modern way of thinking, and gain insights into how feelings were negotiated and intentions refined. The Sick Rose deals with the evolving art of medical illustration and how it aided the advancement of the treatment of disease.

Another challenging book selection for the festival, The Sick Rose is lavishly illustrated with plates from the Wellcome Trust collection, featuring aspects of disease  in extraordinary detail.  Yes, it is gruesome, but it is a true reflection of the meaning of disease. We cannot avoid being shocked and repelled.  In the West, we think of some of the infections and afflictions as near-mythologies, things that happened to people in a bygone age. Antibiotics, vaccines and other modern treatments have taken them from our everyday experience. Barnett, in his elegant style, steers us through the scientific advancement of medicine with delicacy and concision. Many of the illustrations are very detailed and must have taken many hours. He explained to us that he pondered the relationship between the artist and the sufferer. We see men, women and children with all manner of affliction – smallpox, tuberculosis, syphillis, gangrene. The cover illustration shows a pretty young woman with cholera – she died within hours of the painting. We know she was pretty, clear-skinned and full of life because the artist has done a ‘before’ picture of her that accompanies it side-by-side in the book, so we are aware that the artist has used some licence to convey a truth that would not be evident from a picture of her corpse. The title is apt in more ways than one. It is taken from a poem of William Blake (see below) and the illustration forms a frontispiece. Often, the anatomical subjects are given real faces, but not necessarily those of the body opened up for us to see. Barnett considers these illustrations as human remains, to be treated with respect. What seems, at first glance, a prurient catalogue is a history of the suffering and the potential for loss. Imagine a world where we had no effective antibiotics.

Medical illustration evolved from other artistic traditions, it required new ways of looking and thinking on the part of the artist. It is impossible for a feeling, thinking man to look objectively at the suffering he illustrates.

Barnett has divided this book into ten chapters – Skin Diseases, Leprosy, Smallpox, Tuberculosis, Cholera, Cancer, Heart Disease, Venereal DIseases, Parasites, and Gout. His introduction could be  a monograph in itself, taking the reader  on a philosophical and historical journey from the beginnings of the scientific revolution and the political revolution in France, and the secular ‘Paris Medicine’ of pathological anatomy.  He opens with remarks upon Hazlitt’s essay ‘On Imitation’  concerning truth in representation of anatomy, and asks – should we attempt to resolve the conflict of the ‘beauty of the coats of the stomach’ and ‘the sight of a dead and mangled body’ with the negative capability ‘in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’? Barnett states ‘This book is about the ways that Western medical practitioners have seen the human body, and the ways in which they have known disease.’

Richard Barnett has written other non-fiction, including Medical London: City of Diseases, City of Cures, and a book about gin. From his writing, it is no surprise that he is also a talented poet, and his first collection, Seahouses, was recently published by Valley Press.





 Photo – Richard Barnett in discussion with Steve Matthews of Bookcase, Carlisle.

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