Bridging East and West: Katekatharina needs your help

Last weekend, LSB and I got the DART to Dalkey. We stumbled across a charming independent bookstore and I found just the title to assist me in my continuing quest to familiarise myself with the Arab world and its beautiful language. It’s called Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News challenged the World and is written by Hugh Miles, a young award-winning journalist who was born in Saudi Arabia and studied English Literature at Trinity College (there’s hope for us all!) and Arabic at Oxford.

I first mentioned Al-Jazeera in a column for Teen Times in The Irish Times five years ago. Then as of now, I knew very little about the network, but since we used to pick it up on our makeshift Satellite dish from Aldi, it became something I’d watch when in a curious mood. Part of the reason I want to learn Arabic so badly may be because I associate its sounds with Irish, or because learning it poses much more of a challenge than acquiring a European language. But I know a big part of it is my wanting to be able to understand more about the Middle East and to find out how ideology, the human brain and culture interact.

The first Arab person I got to know was a Syrian asylum seeker, whom I met when I was volunteering at Hatch Hall . His English was quite good and he was very kind. The differences between my worldview and his began to emerge over time though and the nature of these fundamental oppositions fascinated me. He once gave me some sweets, which he had bought with a large part of the €19 a week to which he was entitled. I accepted them gratefully but was perturbed to find later that my mere acceptance may have been an unintended indication of my special regard for him. Since then, I have come into daily contact with students from the Middle East, particularly from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. I have had some fascinating discussions with them and invariably these talks have left with the desire to find out more about this large area and its people.

I wish I had the time to devote myself to study but I feel these days that what tiny, little precious time I have left over from work and writing, I am inclined to spend with friends and with LSB rather than over a book or in front of a screen. I’m determined to fit it in though, and over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some of my attempts at learning more about the Middle East and the Arabic language. I need your help though. Would you prefer to join me in learning some basic Arabic or in learning more about the politics and geography of the region? What do you know about Islam? If you played Sporcle, could you name every country in the Middle East? What assumptions do you make about the Arab world and do you have any Arab friends? What about the Uprisings? Suggestions on a postcard, please or – alternatively – if I’m not worth the stamp, do post them below.

Why Plastic is Fantastic

Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself is already inspiring me to get off farcebook and engage in mental gymnastics, and I am only on page 92. In his book, Doidge documents cases in which people have benefited from the plasticity (the ability to change) of the brain.

Let’s take the example of Cheryl Shiltz, because hers is a nice-sounding name. Because of damage to the area of her brain dealing with balance (or the vestibular apparatus), Cheryl constantly feels as if she is falling. So great is the sensation that she is unable to sustain a career or maintain a conventional daily routine. Along comes the researcher Paul Bach-y-Rita and gives her a hat, as well as a thin strip to wear on her tongue. Attached to the strip are small electrodes and inside the hat is a device called an accelerometer. The accelerometer sends signals to the electrodes and both are connected to a computer.

Most of us keep our balance because tiny hairs in our cochlea, or inner ear respond to movement in the fluid canals that surround them and communicate this movement successfully with a clump of neurons, whicn in turn tell our muscles which way to move in order to maintain balance. Since the tiny hairs in Cheryl’s cochlea are not working properly, the accelerometer in the hat detects movement instead and conveys this information to her tongue, which then sends the signals to the specialised clump of neurons in her brain which then advise her muscles which way to move. The journey simply changes from the conventional Hair – Neuron clump – Muscles to become Hat -Tongue- Neuron clump – Muscles. In other words, the hat and the electrodes attached to her tongue allow her to stay balanced.
Nobody wants to hang out in a construction hat and attached to electrodes though. The marvelous, wonderous thing is that with repeated wearing of the hat, Cheryl’s brain developed a residual effect of increasing time periods, until eventually she learned to balance herself without wearing the hat. What this means is that her brain managed to change itself to find new pathways to that clump of neurons. Nice one.

Cheryl’s case illustrates what every road-tripper knows: if you miss your turn, you can take a roundtrip and still reach your destination.

The idea of brain plasticity was long contested among neuroscientists because of their success in assigning areas of the brain to specific functions. This idea, known as localisation assumed that the areas of the brain associated with specific tasks were fixed and that once certain critical periods were passed, if certain cognitive feats had not yet been mastered, they would never be.

Now that I’m curled up, hanging out with Cheryl and many others with inspiring stories, I am thinking about the possibilities of the human mind and that maybe some day, I really will master Arabic. As soon as I get my hands on that €13 teach -yourself set my boyfriend found but did not hold on to while he was stacking books into a pyramid at work, I’m on it. I may be unemployed and not up to much, but that is no excuse not to learn to turn mental somersaults in the middle east. Never before have nerds been so plastic.