Children's Free Play // Dr David Whitebread

Children's Free Play explored the role of play in pre-school and beyond, and the impact that overlooking this in education has seen over the last thirty years, with increased childhood mental health and obesity problems and poorer cognitive, emotional, and psychological capabilities.   

In 2008 the Children's Society reported that 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) had a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, yet 70% of them had still not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early stage. Heads Together tell us that more than 1 in 5 children are overweight or obese when they begin school and almost 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.

Dr David Whitebread from Cambridge University 'grew up in a very different era' where as a kid he was packed off to ‘play out’ for the day and wouldn’t return until teatime.  I relate to that as, similarly to most kids back in the 1950s and 1960s, after having been taken to infant school once or twice you then took yourself.  I had a friend who was waiting for heart surgery due to a birth defect and two of us would take it in turns to push her there and back in a trolley.

Dr Whitebread tells us about how experiments have demonstrated that adults who don’t know how to play with their kids are less successful parents. Hovering supervision over children gives little wriggle room for them to test their boundaries and take risks. He recommended that instead of telling kids not to do something because it's dangerous, like rolling down a hill, we positively encourage them and do it together. Whitebread mentions that some early learning classes have discarded play areas in schools, which bypasses an opportunity to harness a child's creative imagining. Task-based projects, by contrast, give a wider brief to incorporate multiple subjects, develop better reasoning skills, and a passion for enquiry.  

Dr Whitbread informs us that brain development regarding games and their rules starts as early as three.  He shares a video to demonstrate how some little kids of this age invent a game which incorporates an unspoken rule of lining up in an orderly fashion to walk through a puddle of water.  And that when slightly older, children will spend more time negotiating the rules than they will playing the game itself. Roughly 80% of brain development is completed by age three and 90% by age five. A study in Jamaica which taught mothers to play with their children and twenty years later the results showed that those children were comparatively better adjusted, committed less crime and were earning 25% more than children who didn't get the learning through play intervention. Dr Whitebread's talk shows the ripple-effect that not prioritising 'play' is having on society as a whole and why policy makers MUST take these hazardous indicators more seriously.

-      Jane Unsworth

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

All Work and No Play - The Atlantic

Unstructured Play is Critical for Kids - Mother.ly

Children's Play Advisory Service

Play is Vital for Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing - KidsMatter.edu

Lego Serious Play

Policy Resources - Young Minds

What the **** is Normal? // Francesca Martinez

Although this was the second time I’d seen Francesca Martinez, her show was still my highlight of Normal? 2018. Francesca’s experiences of school and life beyond mirrors my own. She describes how school ground the confidence out of her and how bullying, by both pupils and teachers, affected her mental and physical health, and then describes how she found a way out of the course that had seemingly been set for her.

Her description of her life draws empathy rather than sympathy. 

She doesn’t want to be patted on the head and told 'Poor little thing'. She totally rejects the description of herself as ‘disabled’, preferring instead to call herself 'wobbly'. The stories she tells are laugh-out-loud funny, but she is also a campaigner and educator, addressing school children to give them the confidence that she was robbed of. Martinez points out that society deliberately makes us feel inferior, or, as she puts it: 'Society breeds self-loathing'. Many of us can remember being told, during our teenage years, that ‘how we look is not important’. But, of course, at that stage of our lives, how we look can seem to be the most important thing in the world.

Martinez’s show emphasizes :

‘Don’t fear difference’

‘Being different is important’

‘Only care what you think of yourself’

‘Life is too short to be spent doing something that you hate’

- Keven Blake

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Francesca Martinez - Russell Howard's Good News (YouTube)

A Wobbly Girl's Battle Against the Last Taboo - The Independent

Martinez and the WOW Welfare Bill - Disability News Service

Francesca Martinez on Woman's Hour - BBC Radio 4

Street Wisdom // Phillip Cowell

At the core of Street Wisdom is the idea that every moment is extraordinary, and each street full of inspiration. With an open mind, comfy shoes and clothes fit for the weather, the streets can provide answers to a myriad of questions. All we have to do is ask.

And that’s what we did at Normal? Festival of the Brain, expertly guided by the genial Street Guide Phillip Cowell in a fun and practical mix of psychology, cognitive science and mindfulness. 

We began with some ten-minute exercises. One asked us to notice 'what you’re drawn to' (and what you’re not attracted to) whilst another, tailored to each person, asked us to look for 'the patterns and what connects them' or, in my case, 'sense the story'. Stories, it turned out, were everywhere.

After the warm up, we set off with our own questions in mind, open to whatever answers the streets provided. These, Phillip explained, could come in any form: street signs, passers-by, shop windows, doors, windows, graffiti or overheard conversations…

We live in sped-up, switched-on times. Street Wisdom gave us permission to slow down and focus on the signs and signals all around us. This method is useful for anyone struggling with day-to-day personal stuff, tackling a challenge at work or seeking a creative breakthrough. Philip advised us to keep our questions manageable – not too big nor too small. In forty-five minutes, walking slowly and with purpose, each participant found the answers they sought.

The session closed with a chance for us to share our stories of what the street has taught us. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The walk had given us an opportunity to get out of the autopilot mode we live in for so much of our time. Answers had come to us in the form of a poster in the window, or down by the beach. We were excited at how fluid and magical the streets became when we tuned in to their hidden messages and unexpected discoveries.

Street Wisdom has grown into a global movement, and it’s not hard to see why. With free public events, these immersive walking workshops teach participants that answers are everywhere. Just remember your waterproofs, and bring an open mind.

- Charlotte Forfieh

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

10 Good Reasons to Go for A Walk Street Wisdom

Go for A Walk – You Could Discover the Meaning of Life - Guardian

MindfulnessMind UK

Have You Heard About Walk and Talk Therapy? - Counselling Directory

My Head Hurts

My Head Hurts explored grief beyond that which stems from the loss of a person. In this talk chaired by Michael Bassett, the speakers shared their experiences of grief:

Artist, Jim Lockey spoke of ‘feeling orphaned’in the seeming conflict of being both an artist and a Christian, through the suspicion of a liberal art world towards churchgoers. He accepted the feelings of loneliness and loss that ensue. The latter is reflected in his work Boat, also exhibited at Normal? There he comments on the ‘entropy of all things’ by constructing and setting sail in a cardboard boat which inevitably disintegrates. 

Occupational Therapist Rayya Ghul relayed the grief experienced by her refugee parents through geographical changes and cultural shock.  Her German mother’s way of coping was to enact an elaborate, traditional German Christmas every year, even changing the curtains. Ghul also expressed her grief in ageing and accepting ‘the loss of a past that cannot be had and the loss of hopes for a future that is no longer possible’.

Clinical Psychologist Reinhard Guss raised the notion of political grief in terms of the current US presidency and Brexit. His own grief, as a German who calls the UK home, stems from being in a place where he is no longer welcome.  He remarked that although there seemed to be a pressure to ‘work’ on grieving or to refer to stages or psychological models, in reality the ways of grieving are less structured.

The panel all pointed to acceptance as key in coping with grief.  Rituals, in their widest sense, such as Lockey’s creating Boat or through the performative aspect of Ghul’s mother’s German Christmas may act to assuage grief.  My sense is that although every grief has a shape of its own and cannot be easily boxed or wittingly healed, and certainly not to a convenient timeline, through acceptance and practices like these there lies a possibility for its eventual transmutation.  

- Lubna Gem Arielle

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Boat - Jim Lockey

Ephemeral Art, What a Beautiful Thing - That Creative Feeling

Why the Five Stages of Grief Are Wrong - Psychology Today

Pema Chodron / When Things Fall Apart - BrainPickings

Physical Effects of Grief - BBC News

Talking to Grief - Denise Levertov

Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Max Porter

The Beat of Our Drums // Kevin Richards

How and where do you feel the beat of drums? Ask people to give a word to describe their experience and the most common one is ‘visceral’. The response starts in the head, the heart, the hips, the toes…a different place for each person. Many will say the rhythm touches their souls and wakes their spirit. Watch those who have let themselves go with the drumbeat. They can seem to be in a dream, on drugs or disconnected from the world beyond the rhythm. The music of band leader Benny Goodman was banned for some time because the drum playing of Gene Krupa was thought to be encouraging sexual responses.

There are few people who can remain still when they hear drums. A very few reject it, maybe because they recognise that it is reaching inside to a part which they do not want exposed. 

In The Beat of Our Drums Kevin Richards, who has been running djembe drumming sessions throughout Kent for twenty years, took a roomful of adults and children through the basics of playing the djembe, a chalice-shaped drum from West Africa. 

Rather than just giving out instructions, Kevin used images and analogies to teach us, making the learning easier and more interesting. Instead of 'Hit the drum', he would say 'Lift the sound out of the drum' Instead of 'get quieter', 'fade as if you are walking out of the door'.

Kevin explained that the drums were often used to send messages so we played to simple phrases using just the bass (B) and the tom tom (T) tones:

‘To the pulse, to the pulse. Won’t you take me to the pulse.’ (TTB TTB TTBT TTB)

We practised these phrases for several minutes before Kevin told us to listen to his playing and add our own rhythms. Initially there was a cacophony but gradually we synchronised and varied volume and pace along with him. We could feel that our quieter playing was soothing, while our louder playing created urgency. We became confident and everybody seemed to be lost in the rhythms. This combined drumming continued for many minutes and, as many of us closed our eyes to let the rhythm take over, it was mesmerising.

Each participant responded differently…some moved nothing except for their hands; some moved their heads; others almost bounced. It was interesting to see some of the passers-by adapting their pace to the sound of our drums; some even started dancing. 

Eventually Kevin led us deliberately faster and louder until we finished with a liberating ‘boom’.

Learning a new musical instrument can be frustrating when you are unable to make the sounds, the notes, the tune. But with the djembe, we were clearly playing it to a level with which even a beginner can be satisfied.

One participant came out and said she had found it satisfying, inclusive, democratic and a session which had created a sense of community. Not bad for just 60 minutes!

- Joy Pascoe

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Rich Rhythms - Drum Workshops in Kent and the South East

Bruce Allen Drums

Mamapama Live at the Folkestone Harbour Arm

What Goes On In Your Head?

Let’s start with some questions. R+ + you = what? What would you do for dopamine? What goes on in your head? What goes on in your teenager’s head? The last question was focus of workshops run by artist Jim Lockey, and the culmination was What Goes on in Your Head?, an installation and talk on behaviour and the brain.

The installation presented a range of answers to this question from the teenagers that took part. The art and words they created ranged from the direct and light-hearted to the profound. The installation aimed to show that when we ask a teenager this directly, or in the form of an exasperated rhetorical monologue, the answer is more complicated than you might think.

Tracy Mapp, an expert in the field of behaviour management, built on this with research about the growing teenage brain, paying particular attention to several areas. The first was the relationship between a person’s behaviour and the behaviour of those around them. The second was on dopamine and a teenager’s high senstivitity to it, as well as its implications for behaviour. What Goes on in Your Head?also looked at the changing structure of a teenagers’ brain, at the process of synaptic pruning in operation that takes the brain from a child to an adult. Moving on to consider ways of changing behaviour, Mapp challenged the view of punishment as an effective technique and explored instead the power of positive reinforcement - otherwise known as R+.  What Goes on in Your Head? explored behaviour; it’s origins, it’s influences and techniques to change it using science and experience.

-       Dave Horn

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Why Is Synaptic Pruning Important for the Developing Brain?Scientific American

Swedish Speed-Camera Pays Drivers To Slow DownWired

Wild teenage behaviour linked to rapid cognitive change in the brainGuardian

Kevin Becomes a Teenager Harry Enfield and Chums (1994)

Love and Other Devices

Love and Other Devices

To what extent should we medicate a lack of love?

Is a chemical attraction better than a digital distraction?

Or should we just be left to our own devices?

Google Trends report a surge in searches for ‘mobile phone addiction’, closely followed by ‘social media addiction’. Mine is on my lap. It’s not off. It’s never off. Because this is Normal? 2018, and we are living in an always-on culture. The conversation is ‘Love and Other Devices’. We are here to talk about love, and how the rise of mobile phone addiction might be the death of romance.

Love is critical to our survival. Babies are literally helpless without it. Without attachment, they die. They need us to be responsive to their cries, attending to their needs. Love carries us through life. Arguably, it is all we seek.

Yet in our relationships, we are choosing to be elsewhere. Sat with our phones never more than a reach away, we scroll through a never-ending sea of content. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we respond to each ring, ping and notification with a panting, slavering hunger. Leaving our partners starving for our attention. Our screens are the new seductress. What is left of love, if we are so easily drawn away into our mobile phones? And should we be chemically resuscitated to our desire once we have lost our passion?

I admit, the discussion wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Anticipating a chat about addiction to scrolling, the conversation swiftly segued into love and medication of love. It’s a difficult conversation. I confess to not knowing the voices of everyone who has a stake in it. Medicating those with depression, children with ADHD, prescribing pills, can sometimes problematise more than it solves. But it did beg the question. Should we ever be ‘prescribing’ love? Or, more fascinatingly, suppressing love?

A relationship expert, an addiction expert and a man with a PhD in Love walk into a bar…  

The conversation drifts from phone addiction, towards the ‘answer’ of medication. Why is medication the solution? Why should we not be left to our own devices? Have gone so far over the line that we no longer discuss the cause of the addiction, but head straight for medication?

The research is exciting. That we can track the brain's signals and chemicals and reproduce them as a cure, is a positive advance in science. I think. But.

What is love?

Baby don't hurt me

Don't hurt me

No more

- Bex Bell

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Love and Other Drugs - Philosophy Now

America's Love Affair with Prescription Medication - Consumer Reports 

Chemical Attraction - Observer

Phone Addiction is Real - Forbes

Unthinkable // Helen Thomson

Life is stranger than fiction. On the same day that I watch an episode of Black Mirror and consider the brutal potential consequences of living with extreme empathy, I join the audience for a talk by Helen Thomson. We listen to Joel’s life story. He is also a doctor in a hospital and, by dint of an extremely rare neurological condition, is also able to feel another’s pain as his own. His condition is the result of a faulty mirror neuron response. If he witnesses an event that causes an emotional or physical response in another person, he feels it as though it is happening to him. 

His is one of ten stories contained in Thomson’s book Unthinkable. As an audience, we inhale in simultaneously sympathy as we hear that if he sees a patient die, he feels his own breathing falter and his body begins to shut down. Even though he’s developed techniques to override these powerful sensations, his mirror touch synaesthesia impacts every waking hour of his life.

Thomson: scientist, writer and consultant for New Scientist, is fascinated by the infinite ways human beings see the world. She is an explorer, satisfying her obsession with learning more about those brains that don’t look like everyone else’s by travelling to meet people with rare conditions across the planet. What is it like when you live your life thinking you are a tiger or wake up dead?

The talk feels a bit close when I realise that I most likely have a mild form of synaesthesia based on her descriptors of the condition. I wonder, does everyone else in the room feel prompted to consider their own unique brain chemistry and connections?

Susan is constantly lost in familiar surroundings due to deficits in her ability to form a consistent mental map. Thus, even finding her way from the bedroom to the bathroom is a daily challenge. What is more extraordinary than this unusual perception of the world is her resourcefulness. She has developed remarkable strategies to combat her condition. She spins like Wonder Woman to reset her brain and flip her map into some semblance of familiarity. Every day she behaves like a superhero.

The talk prompts us to ask questions of ourselves. What are our own powers in the face of adversity? How might we overcome life’s considerable challenges? Most importantly Unthinkable encourages us to become more curious about who we are and which of our myriad perceived flaws make us unique and powerful.

- Melissa Jacob

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Helen Thomson

Synethaesia

What is a Mirror Neuron? - American Psychological Association

The Strange World of Synesthaesia

Black Museum - Black Mirror

Patterns of Trauma

It is an age-old question: where does the best art come from, happiness or melancholy? It is a hard question to answer, and Patterns of Trauma explored the role of trauma in an artist’s work from the perspective of three artists, covering a range of disciplines. 

Patterns of Trauma was an informative and candid talk drawing on experiences of neurological disorders, racism and mental health related traumas. Multidisciplinary artist Nwando Ebizie, musician and poet Arike Grant and poet Byron Vincent guided the audience openly and honestly through their experiences. Chaired by clinical psychiatrist and meditation teacher Gemma Beckley, they explored the differences and the similarities in their practice and experiences. All participants brought their own insights but found common ground in the way they use empathy. Empathy becomes an incredible vehicle for sharing the true impact of trauma and connecting to people, whether audiences have similar experiences or not. Vincent showed the power of connection and the change it can create when he mentioned the work of the violence reduction unit in Scotland. Interestingly, the talk examined areas of traumas in art not often considered, such as the impact of revisiting the trauma on the artist. Patterns of Trauma highlighted how personal trauma and the responses to it are. It also looked at the impact this might have on any performer revisiting this in their work, and offered ways they could stay emotionally safe. 

Patterns of Trauma was a different take on trauma and what it means in the production and performance of art. What do you say? What do you leave out? How do you take care of yourself? It is important to consider.

- Dave Horn

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Your Reality is Broken (Wellcome Collection) - Nwando Ebizie

Violence Reduction Unit

Emotional rescue: how personal trauma has been turned into art - Guardian

Art Can Heal PTSD’s Invisible Wounds – Melissa Walker (TED Talk)

Art and Trauma: Creativity As a Resiliency Factor - goodtherapy.org

Sleep Over // Geraldine Pilgrim

Sleep, that final frontier. We can put man on the moon, split the atom and prove that water has memory, and yet we still do not really know why we sleep. What scientists do know is that without proper sleep our cognitive ability is impaired and the middle part of the frontal lobe in our brains is affected as a build-up of proteins occurs.

To believe the media hype we are in the midst of a sleep-loss epidemic, putting us at heightened risk of cancer, dementia, heart disease and weight gain. So as part of Normal? 2018, a sleep-over was held in the auditorium of the Quaterhouse. Not for scientific analysis, just purely to emphasise and highlight the importance of sleep to our mental wellbeing.

Geraldine Pilgrim designed the installation, which looked like a cross between a field hospital and a supersized hostel/hotel room. One of the sleepers disclosed that she dreamt that the pillows came from Premier Inn and the mattresses from Dunelm - strange that we dream of such mundane things! Fourteen sleepers and one male matron hankered down for cocoa or Horlicks, bedtime stories and a recording of the old and soporific version of the shipping news, followed by seven and a half hours of undisturbed rest in comfy beds with Egyptian cotton sheets and super soft pillows. For the insomniacs a room was kitted out with food, drinks and a video diary.

At 8am, piped birdsong filled the auditorium and bodies started to move and then rise from their cotton comfort. Why though, did those who normally wake to sunrise still manage to do so despite the darkened room? At breakfast, Tim Rittman, the in-house neurologist answered questions on sleep matters whilst a delicious breakfast was served. Everyone seemed curious to know if we had slept well but I was more interested to hear how our matron Gary felt, given he had endured the whole night in a darkened room. Coincidentally he spent the night reading about the Normandy Landings as he watched over us in our dystopian hangar style bedroom.

Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep tells me that prolonged sleep deprivation can be fatal. In our 24hr society individuals are torn between the necessity to work and battling against their circadian rhythms. What risk is this posing for tomorrow’s generations?

‘To sleep perchance to dream’

If only!

-       Sandra Elkins

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Why We Sleep - Matthew Walker

The Sleep School

How to Cope with Sleep Problems - Mind

Sleep Tips - BBC News

A New Theory Linking Sleep and Creativity - The Atlantic

Swearing Is Good For You // Emma Byrne

Dr Emma Byrne works as a robotics scientist whilst extending her fascination with profanity. Today she posed and answered questions, giving descriptions of her research.

Does swearing help us?

It can reduce stress, encourage teamwork and better friendships, and deal with pain. It can also deflect rather than act as a proxy for physical violence.

Why do we swear when in pain? 

Byrne invited a volunteer to leave his hand in ice water for as long as possible, firstly saying only ‘straight’. He later repeated the exercise but was allowed to say ‘shit’. ‘Straight’ resulted 19 seconds whereas ‘shit’ gave 45 seconds. So, had the swearing eased his pain or given him the courage to withstand it?

Why is swearing good for us? 

Apart from anything else, we gain information. For example, we can assess which team is winning by listening. Football fans tend to use ‘shit’ when things are going badly and ‘fuck’ while they are going well.

What are swear words?

Swearing has been used as a diagnostic tool for over 150 years, yet there is still no definition. There are recognised topics but most gradually lose their potency. Blasphemy has little impact now; sexual terms are becoming less shocking as they are incorporated into more normal language and used as a kind of verbal seasoning. Words used against the individual, as in sexism, racism and homophobia are the most taboo now.

Why do we resist it?

We all have the right to swear but some people are offended and assume others will be too.  When we hear swearing we consider our feelings rather than think what it is doing for the speaker or what s/he is trying to do.

Do men swear more than women?

Some suggest that swearing by women is odious to God and women are too innocent to even understand the words. Huh! Whilst Byrne suggested it is true that, in public, women are milder in swearing than men, when together we say whatever the fuck we want. 

Emily Bronte wrote swear words when they were appropriate for her characters, and that word ‘appropriate’ is crucial to any consideration of swearing. We could have spent longer exploring questions about appropriacy; different languages; animals and swearing; judging or accepting those who swear; physiological effects; etcetera, but we had no time.

Did we expect Byrne to swear her way through the presentation? Probably. But her use was entirely appropriate and showed how much swearing can enrich what is being said.

- Joy Pascoe

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Swearing is Good For You - Dr. Emma Byrne

Swearing is Good For You (Article) - RSA Journal Issue 1

Dr. Emma Byrne: The Sweary Scientist

Why We Swear (Four Thought) - BBC Radio 4 

Why Swearing Makes You Stronger - Alan Burdick, The New Yorker

Autism Roundtable // Imagining Autism

Finding Your Own Group Of Weird

Prior to the Living with Autism roundtable I had my own pre-conceived ideas about what it meant to be autistic. I bought into the Rain Man ideology and believed that autism was predominantly a male domain, with the notion that to be autistic meant living in an isolated bubble. I thought that certainly within those constraints public speaking would be impossible.

Two women on the panel, Annette and Chloe, were diagnosed as being autistic in their mid and late thirties, but were articulate, confident and gave a clear and coherent insight into their world of autism. They explained how society expected them to conform to a neurotypical model of what it is to be human, and how this leads to a myriad of mental health issues: obsessive behaviour; anxiety and sensory overload. Being female better equipped them to act out the neurotypical role publically but in their private lives they had frequent ‘melt-down’ moments. Listening to their testaments it was apparent that the reason for their late diagnosis was that as women they were able to mask things better than their male counterparts. This theme of ‘masking’ was also explored in a short film by Sharif Persaud, The Mask

Chloe showed a list of all the words that have been used by others to represent her, all derogatory and representative of the expectations of a neurotypical ideal. She now has found her ‘own group of weird’ and acknowledges that she is autistic and that is a intrinsic part of her personality. It cannot be removed. The overriding message of the roundtable was one of acceptance and inclusivity. Autism has its own set of rules. As one of the parents on the panel learnt, great minds don’t always think alike and sometimes we just have to learn to play differently and allow everyone to find their own group of weird.

-       Sandra Elkins

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Imagining Autism - University of Kent

National Autistic Society

Live It Well - Kent County Council

Mental Health Matters

Autism Research Centre

Touch Laboratory 'Weight' // Aistė Jančiūtė

A blindfold applied before the start of any performance somewhat hampers the critical gaze. One minute you’re a potential audience member, the next you’re in Guantanamo. But it’s by the seaside. And gentle hands are touching yours, guiding you across a pebble and sand landscape as your own weight makes you stumble and slide. The noise comes at you from all sides and there’s a woman’s voice checking off body parts and their weights: brain 100 grams, upper lip 20 grams. Then blindfold off, headphones on, lie down, look up …there’s light above … blindfold on and you’re stumbling again and as you sit, the cold weight of the world on your shoulders.

Touch Laboratory 'Weight' is an immersive piece of work resulting from the artist's month-long residency at the Folkestone seaside. She offers participants the 'experience [of] the concept of weight from physical, artistic, psychological and philosophical perspectives'. The reality of this intense hour in a room is an immersion in the world of the senses and sense deprivation, that at times can be hard to take. 

With immersive theatre under scrutiny this experiment-installation-performance at one point made me feel like the coyote in Joseph Beuys' I Love America and America Loves Me. Was I performer, participant, part of the installation, or just an unwitting subject of an experiment I didn’t quite understand?

A previous day at the Normal? Festival was given over to discussing autism, a condition that is often accompanied by hypersensitivity. Weight‘s assault on the senses was introduction to the feelings of overload that unexpected touch can bring. Cold heavy objects were tied to our bodies whilst all the time we are being watched. With new research suggesting that there could be a relationship between a lack of a normal sense of touch and more complex behaviours resulting in anxiety, Weight created numerous opportunities for participants to experience how each of the five human senses can be overloaded.

The show’s link to the town around it was explicit, and the performers’ careful engagement with each of us was evident. It was an intense and moving experience. But the acute sensory assault of participating in Weight could be overwhelming for anyone unprepared for the vulnerability of the human condition that this work exposes.

- Audrey Green Oakes

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Autism and Touch - Spectrum News

Immersive Theatre Growing Big Quickly - The Stage

I Love America and America Loves Me - Joseph Beuys

Senses Working Overtime - XTC

The Weight - The Band

Touch Laboratory 'Weight' by Aistė Jančiūtė


Bake Tell Tarts

What if you could use the nation’s love of cakes and the universal language of baking to open up conversations about dementia? This was the innovative, fun approach taken by Emma Harding in Bake Tell Tarts, a workshop at Normal? Festival of the Brain. 

Dementia - an umbrella term used to describe a range of conditions that affect the brain – is experienced by more than 850,000 people in the UK. And there are more than 200 types of dementia. These figures may seem surprising, and that’s because the condition’s impact on those living with, or caring for, those affected is still relatively unknown. 

Harding combines her love of baking and her position as a researcher at UCL’s Dementia Research Centre to push the conversation forward. After a brief roundtable, workshop participants brainstormed ideas as to who could benefit from learning more about dementia. Imagine the difference it might make if shopkeepers were more aware of the challenges a seemingly everyday task – shopping – presents to someone with dementia. Or if politicians kept this demographic in mind when allocating resources to health budgets and support services. For this to happen, we need to talk about the condition. 

And this is where the cakes come in. 

Through the practice of creating icing stamped with dementia-related phrases, I participated in conversations about the experience of living with the condition. These phrases: still the same old melife is not overemphasised the idea that those with dementia do not want to be defined by it; that it is a part of their identity rather than the whole. 

Once complete, the cakes could be used outside of the workshop environment to continue the conversation, spreading awareness of the condition and, perhaps increasing empathy. 

Bake Tell Tarts’cake-led engagement is a delicious way of exploring, challenging and shaping understanding of dementias through the creative arts. It is especially relevant as cooking and baking is an activity that stimulates the senses, and for some with dementia, can trigger memories related to food – a powerful and positive experience. 

Cakes bring people together. How wonderful would it be if, alongside eating them, we could have a fuller, more realistic conversation about the experience and impact of dementia on society. 

- Charlotte Forfieh

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

BakeTell Tarts

Activities for People with Dementia Based Around FoodSocial Care Institute for Excellence

Her Memory Fading, Paula Wolfert Fights Back With FoodNew York Times

Dementia UK

5 Things You Should Know About Dementia - Alzheimers Society

University College London Dementia Research Centre

Created Out of Mind

Pint of Science

Two-thirds of the way through Pint of Science: Beautiful Mind, talk turns to Socrates and the pursuit of happiness. Familiar conversational territory for a regular night out. 

Jim Lockey invites us to join him on a journey of creation and loss. He recently built, then captained and sank a paper boat in local shallow waters. We are asked whether grief is merely a by-product of human evolution, whilst considering themes explored in Ode to A Nightingale by Keats.

Thou we’re not born for death immortal bird

No immortal generations tread thee down

Tim Rittman condenses years of his work analysing footage of task-free brains and the rigidity that develops in those with neurological degeneration into ten minutes. He likens the brightly lit areas on the scans to conversations at a cocktail party and introduces us to the experiments of William Lennox, a scientist who stuck pins into the jugular veins and carotid arteries of his volunteers.

Within her Weight installation, Aiste Janciute encourages participants to use all five senses as they explore words or concepts that weigh them down or lift them up.

Without gravity, the cosmos is everywhere

 

Dr. Shabhana Khan returns us to the laboratory and to work being undertaken there to increase efficacy in the treatment of anxiety disorders by balancing three key -amines. She works in the field of optigenetics. Endeavours include the use of light to control cells and tickling mice.

Charlie Murphy, resident artist with the Created Out of Mind project, firstly outlines the complex science behind attempts by the team to grow brains from the skin cells of anonymous volunteers then explains how she transformed this process into a series of dance moves and created her Neuronal Disco.

Work it harder

Make it better

Do it faster

Makes us stronger

Two pints of science and three shots of art. I’m left with thoughts around the poetry of the former and the rigor of the latter and how the two push and pull the other into new spaces. The next morning, I feel a slight sense of disorientation as I work to recall, unpack and re-order conversations from the night before. Perhaps only fitting when themes of life, death and the transition between these states are explored, whether this is done through the medium of science or art or over a drink with friends in the pub.

- Melissa Jacob

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Pint of Science

Pint of Science on The One Show - 18 April 2018

Byron Vincent - Live Before You Die

The Love Affair Between Poetry and Science – New Statesman

The Neuronal Disco

What is the Common Ground between Art and Science?Guardian

Dementia Friends

Before the Session:

Me: Nah! I really don’t think I should go to any of the dementia sessions.

Brave Me: Why not?

Me: I have my issues and I’m afraid I’ll freak out.

Brave Me: Wimp! Given everything you’ve been through, you should be able to deal with anything these days. Go! Keep quiet when you’re there and then find a corner afterwards to blub in.

The session was led by Dementia Friends, and they began by asking for words which come to mind when we hear the word ‘Dementia’. Failed memory, confusion, paranoia, losing things and personality changes came out. I thought it strange that nobody mentioned loss and fear.

The leaders gave us the five main messages which Dementia Friends want to get across:

  1. Dementia is not a natural part of old age. One in fourteen of over 65s have dementia but some are much younger.
  2. Dementia is a disease of the brain. It affects everyone differently. There are over 100 different types of dementia.
  3. Dementia is not just about losing memory. It also affects motor skills, sequencing, loss of inhibition, judging distance, perception.
  4. It is possible to live well with it.
  5. There is more to the person than the dementia.

As a description of dementia, Carole gave us the analogy of a person as a bookcase holding books from every memory of her life, with the most recent memories on the top shelf and her childhood ones at the bottom. As the bookcase begins to rock and topple, the books begin to fall off, those from the top shelf (recent events) dropping first. Imagine that most of the books have disappeared while the person could be living on the shelf containing the 50s.  What would she not know about? Not just microwaves, smart phones and videos. Would she know what a teabag is, or what it’s for? How would she make a cup of tea? Should you make it for her, or does this undermine her sense of independence? Perhaps the real way to help her is to buy tea rather than teabags.

One of the most heartening pieces of information for me, as a great believer in the power of language, was that it is no longer acceptable to refer to ‘dementia sufferers’. They are ‘people with dementia’. This reflects the way in which changing the term ‘rape victims’ to ‘rape survivors’ enlightens the public and gives strength to those who have been raped. It is entirely positive, as was this session. The exercises illustrated how perceptions of dementia vary as widely as the people who have these perceptions.

After the Session:

Other People: Are you ok?

Me: (sniff) Sure. 

Other People: No, you’re not. What happened? Was it bad? 

Me: No, it was bloody good. But I should have listened to myself. There were too many connections. Too many contacts. Too many familiar moments. I shouldn’t have gone. I was right. It was scary. I’ll get some wine and forget about it.

Other People: Not a good idea! 

Me: Tough!

- Joy Pascoe

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Dementia Friends

Symptoms of Dementia - Alzheimers Disease International

Support - Dementia UK

Ugly Chief // Victoria Melody

Framed as a living funeral, Ugly Chief mines what is at stake when we numbly follow mainstream social norms or accept glib representations of the truth.

The entire show is founded on the misdiagnosis of Victoria Melody’s father with a terminal illness. Although he notices his health fails to plummet, he does not confer with his doctor, as is all too typical in relationships with professionals where technical prowess subsumes empathy. In the space of ignorance, Melody plans her father’s funeral, as requested, and trains as a funeral director. When the doctor’s error comes to light, the Melodys collaborate on ‘Ugly Chief’- a title that emerges from an inaccurate meaning ascribed to their surname picked up from online ancestral research.  There are frequent prods at our tendency to infer truth from unsubstantiated sources, like her father’s apparent familiarity and connection with the culture of New Orleans. As revealed by her research trip, it turns out it's limited to the opening sequence of Live & Let Die.

Melody confronts the conventional taboo of talking about death, luridly describing funeral practices such as sewing mouths closed in an attempt to make corpses parody the living and for death to appear less distressing. She shows us a product range of coffins rising to one at £19,000 with no value to the end-user.  These shiny veneers may offer more comfort than openly discussing death when alive, but in doing so they sidestep environmental factors and we relinquish our freedom of choice. We succumb to limited and often more costly options driven by corporate agendas. 

Rather than experience emotions, we choose what psychotherapist M Scott Peck describes as 'dinner party conversations', prevalent in what he describes as pseudo community: a shallow existence. Melody moves beyond her explorations of death and goes on to break a second taboo, the public airing of familial dirty laundry as she and her father explore their fractured relationship. Experts in truth and conciliation identify this willingness to talk as a precursor to forgiveness. At the end of the show, the Melodys read eulogies for one another that are raw and touching. Although this is a performative work and we have no way knowing what is real, Melody has attuned us to this dilemma earlier by describing her dim experiences at Chelsea College of Art, which include a tutor berating her for a poor understanding of Baudrillard’s Simulacra. In the end, perhaps it is only the willingness to experience emotions, to allow discomfort and speak the unspeakable that sets us free and enables us to be real. 

- Lubna Gem Arielle

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Doctor Patient Relationship - Huffington Post

A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics - Daniel Levitin

Live and Let Die (1973) - New Orleans Funeral Scene

Death Cafe

Death Doulas - Huffington Post

The Different Drum - M Scott Peck

Funerals - Ethical Consumer

The Forgiveness Project

Baudrillard's Simulacra

Intimacy/Tingle/Sound // Nwando Ebizie

Intimacy / Tingle / Sound is tranquil and easy to adapt to.  Cushions were dotted around the wooden floor, the lighting neither light nor dark and the rooms pillars providing a natural division for people to 'find their own space'. Audience are encouraged to sit and have hands massaged, which is pleasant though unusual for a meditative setting. It gives the uninitiated a passage into stillness. This sensory experience is hosted by three women dressed in ethereal floating costumes and exuding personal calm and charisma.

A giant screen shows a seascape and gently crashing waves, providing another anchor for calm. The repeating cycle of sensory experience includes a whispered story-telling that clashes with the calm environment as a dark tale unfolds. After the massage you're encouraged to make your way to lay on the ground using a cushion for your head. I sat up against a wall, cross-legged. As I'm familiar with dropping into deeper brainwave activity I rarely heard the words.  

There were people who were seemingly unfamiliar with the processes of meditation who looked uncomfortable at the idea of trusting the process leaning on cushions with their body's twisted on their sides to accommodate it. It was perhaps a mixture of resistance and a need to know more of what was expected of them, which of course is nothing, but trusting in that is part of the waking-up (to ourselves) process. 

The soundtrack reminded me of Centerpointe's Holosync Brain Sounds, which I found challenging for reasons I found out when I attended training in Anna Wise's Awaking the Mind system. The training measured your brainwaves during guided meditation and revealed your VAK system, your individual sensory modalities - visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. They told some very interesting stories about monks they'd tested who'd meditated for decades and never moved out of beta brainwaves to obtain the proven health benefits of stillness.

Nwando Ebizie was telling the tale when I arrived and someone else was continuing as I left.  It was a modern take on the meditative brain state, and a short introduction for the uninitiated.

-    Jane Unsworth

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Brainwaves and Meditation - Science Daily

Centrepointe Holosync Meditation

Anna Wise - Awakening the Mind 

Mindfulness vs Meditation - Medical Daily

Pete Blackaby - Humanistic Yoga

She's A Good Boy // Elise Heaven

Are you a girl or a boy?

No.

Gender is a spectrum, and the acknowledgement of that is the bare minimum 2018 should expect. Not everyone wants to wear the same shirt or underwear, or to be called a man or a woman. The signs and signifiers of what makes a man or a woman are constructed through language and symbols, and so are as up for deconstruction as anything else. You can be one, or the other, both or neither, and if nothing else it’s simply polite to accept how others choose to define themselves. Absolutes are incorrect, and definitive claims made in the name of science inaccurate. What it means to be male or female changes across societies and cultures and across history. There is no medical gender binary, no chromosome test that accurately dictates the gender of every person in the world. XX and XY do not neatly correspond to men or women, and ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are just ideas.

Elise Heaven uses their own experience of this articulation of gender to create their show out of humour, anecdote, silly props and homemade costume. The ridiculousness of someone telling someone else how they feel is rightly lampooned, and any mystery around being non-binary subverted through mime and monologue. Like many other shows which engage with the experience of non-binary or trans performers, familiar difficulties are staged and explained – the expectation to wear gendered clothing for a wedding or a job, the awkwardness of parents when kids simply ask, and the unease sometimes felt in everyday interaction. Accompanied by ukulele songs and debates with themselves, Heaven engineers an easy interaction with a supportive audience. The debate around gender continues both within people and about them. Connection and education is the first step.

-       Lewis Church

 

links relevant to this diagnosis:

Elise Heaven - She's A Good Boy

Gender Beyond the Binary (Video) - Guardian

What Is Non Binary? - refinery29

9 Things People Get Wrong About Being Non-Binary - Teen Vogue

Gender Doesn't Come Down to Chromosomes - The Globe and Mail

Agender and Non-Binary - Our Queer Stories

Joan // Milk Presents

Joan filters historical qualities of gender through a fourteenth century legend and a classic cabaret vibe. It’s centred around an almost music-hall central figure in the person of champion drag king Lucy Jane Parkinson, who takes on roles and costumes to reframe Joan of Arc through intimate connection and historical reflection. It says valuable things about ideas of gender and society’s relationship to the changing dynamics of its representation - Joan of Arc not just as a legend or symbol, but a real woman who put on armour at a time it was unheard of. Joan with short hair. Joan as a canvas for drawn-on moustaches and someone whose clothes change their movement. Joan as a peasant girl and as a saint, as a soldier and as a leader. 

Four corner mirrors form a cross in the centre of the performance space, with the audience positioned between them. They look across to each other throughout. It’s delivered in the round to facilitate this easy interaction, alongside the participation required at several key points. Two men are invited up to interact with Joan, teaching her their walk, or standing in for an imagined partner. There’s an implicit questioning of their behaviour in their laughter and conversation. The presence on stage of audience members encourages this examination and perhaps reveals some assumptions about gender that might otherwise never be actively considered. The audience laugh with them in their unsure stance and their self-consciousness as they are asked to perform their maleness. 

As funny as the show is, as good natured and enjoyable, there are also moments of loss and hope stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the easy monologue. Parkinson looks to heaven with the same wide-eyed hope as Renée Falconetti. Another Joan, represented in another form, but one as serious as any other, meditating on loss, identity and the burden of history. 

-    Lewis Church

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Joan - Milk Presents

Joan of Arc - Biography.com

Gender Identity - Young Stonewall

Gender Variance Around the World Over Time - Teen Vogue

Le Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Extract) - Starring Renée Falconetti, directed by Theodor Dreyer (1928)