Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Brain That Changes Itself

My father-in-law showed me this book when we visited recently. Within a few minutes I had decided it looked interesting, and possibly also useful for me as a teacher. I suggested to Laetitia that she could buy it for me for Christmas.

She did.

And I've just finished reading it. It's fantastic! A big book (280pp text + 130pp end-matter), but easy to read, it's full of amazing, inspiring personal stories along with fascinating insights into how the human brain works. Complex scientific theories and discoveries are explained in a straightforward and lucid manner, making the implications clear while avoiding excessive use of difficult terminology or grammar. (In other words, the writing is better than mine in that last sentence!)

My father-in-law recommended it to me because, he said, it spoke directly to how he felt as a stroke survivor. Strokes and brain damage are a significant part of the book's subject matter. Other topics include the links between sense, perception and action, learning difficulties, bad habits and obsessions, pain, and of course a fair depth of neurological anatomy and physiology. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on imagination and the appendix about culture.

One chapter I did have to skim through quickly. The author, Norman Doidge, goes into more explicit detail about a few sexual perversions than I personally care for. Respectfully and without hype, but it's just not something I want to read.

The author does write from an evolutionary point of view (in spite of the magnificent evidence presented for the glorious design of the human brain and nervous system), but this generally does not affect the material presented in the main body of the text. The appendix on culture is based heavily on evolutionary ideas—yet I still found it a good read (note my comment above).

The insights I've gained just from a first reading of this book will, I am already sure, help me in my day job as a high school teacher. And I will now be able to speak with more certainty to help some of my students with their own learning—habits of mind, study, etc.

And of course, I now want to go get my CaT scan of my brain from 2001, to see whether I can detect anything unusual. For instance, apparently musicians have stronger links between hemispheres, and a strong spatial awareness correlates with a large hippocampus. Anyone know any radiographers or neurologists who can help me know what I'm looking at?

Recommendation: Read this book. (Just beware chapter 4 if, like me, you prefer to stay with G or PG.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Letter 2008

Our Christmas letter is (once again) written up as a blog. You can read it at your leisure at

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 12, 2008

My wife has a dodgy heart valve

This week we have been in Brisbane for some medical tests. It turns out that Laetitia has a dodgy heart: mitral valve prolapse with regurgitation. Her cardiologist has suggested that the severity of her situation is on the severe side of moderate, and that he “would be surprised” if she didn't need surgery sooner rather than later (in 5 years rather than 20). For the moment she will need annual checkups to keep track of her condition.

If I knew what to write next, I would write it. If I understood how I felt about it, I'd write about that. But I don't. Watch, wait and see, I guess. And trust God to provide what we need.

He has certainly provided well for us so far. Not only do we have access to a great cardiologist (he was Laetitia's father's cardio too, for the same condition), we also know three people who have recently (i.e. in the last two years) had open heart surgery, two of them for mitral valve issues. So we have some idea now of what to expect.

Burn After Reading

A confusing movie. Funny in parts, but I completely lost track of who was who. And I could really have done without the swearing (cusswords and misuse of God's name). I know it was supposed to be a farce (and it was, in that respect the movie was quite well made) but… well, it just wasn't what I was expecting.

Recommendation: Only if you like the F word. (I don't.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lemon Tree

A lovely movie about a Palestinian woman whose lemon grove becomes a threat to (Israel's) national security when the Israeli Defence Minister moves in across the road. She finds a lawyer to help her to take her appeal against the trees' destruction to the Supreme Court.

A little understanding of Israel-Palestine geography helps, as the movie moves around bit. I'm glad my mother suggested I get that straight in my head before I went to see Lemon Tree. Personally I could have done without the love interest, but nobody asks for my opinion.

Recommendation: A beautiful movie without a Hollywood happy ending. Worth seeing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Platypus in the wild!

Laetitia's staff Christmas party (for her 3-days-a-week job as a civil engineer) was at Broken River Resort up at Eungella. It was a pleasant cool break from the sticky heat of Mackay. We drove up late Saturday afternoon, and stayed the night there. Early in the morning (like, quarter to five!) Laetitia says, “Wanna go see a platypus?” (Or words to that effect, anyway; I was half asleep at the time, so I don't recall exactly!)

So up we got, and went for a short walk to the river. And indeed, we saw several of them. First time I've seen one in the wild!

We also saw and heard some cormorants. They were amazingly noisy! I've never heard them make a sound before (except for the splashes and flaps as they dart away from me when I approach). But this morning they were gobbling and nattering at each other, and chasing each other in a mad flying course along the river and amongst trees along the bank. Looked like some kind of territorial thing. Maybe it's mating season?