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


What is a Mirror Neuron? - American Psychological Association

The Strange World of Synesthaesia

Black Museum - Black Mirror

What Is the City but the People?

What is the city but the people? This was the question posed by the opening performance of the 2017 Manchester International Festival. Inspired by an idea from contemporary artist Jeremy Deller, it reflects his desire for artworks that are ephemeral whilst also living on as a kind of “folk memory”. This juxtaposition of the humble and the mythic is at the heart of What is the City but the People?

The show consists of a catwalk of people from the city, a fashion show that is more about the models than their clothes. While the participants strut their stuff, enormous screens tell their life stories through twitter-esque sentences. The result is a deeply moving presentation of the tribe of Manchester; a city that is egalitarian, diverse and defiant. In the words of one participant interviewed on Radio 4’s Front Row, “even though we are different, we are all the same”. In the wake of the attack at the Manchester Arena in May, this attempt to define the city cannot help but feel intentional, or at least, tragically appropriate.

Jeremy Deller says the term “ordinary people” “sticks in his throat” because “everyone is extraordinary and a bit mad”. Participants were chosen for having done “normal but amazing things.” They are “normal” people – bakers, florists, ministers for transport -  but most have overcome amazing circumstances. Participants included those who had been homeless, a Syrian refugee and a grieving mother and daughter. The second participant to appear is also a mother – pregnant in the photos on the tv screens, but entering with the baby in her arms. Then there were lovers - Shakar and Shabnam Hussain, whose romance spans decades. Two brothers, Shaneer and Shaquille, often mistaken for twins, who were the breakdancing Romulus and Remus of the evening.

The show passes no judgment on the participants, but its emphasis on survivors can’t help but cast its characters in a heroic mould. The participants become exemplars or archetypes of human experience. Manchester in turn becomes a city of heroes. Whilst deeply moving, this is not without its problems. The participants who had been homeless, now have rooves over their heads, the criminals are now repentant. They are “reformed” somehow, presented as different from those who are currently homeless, many of whom joined the crowd to watch the show. When we tell the folk-tale of Manchester, which Manchester will we sing about? What happens to sufferers of homelessness and grief when we idolise those who overcome these things? (CG)

- Ciaran Grace

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller on Front Row

The bee as the symbol of the ideal society - Virgil, Georgics, 4.453-527

Social Facilitation

Cultural Survival