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Inwardly digesting

29 November 2013


"PIECE out our imperfections with your thoughts." Thus Shakespeare apologised for the lack of battlefields, armies, and palaces on the modest stage of the Globe. In fact, as we heard in Frontiers: The power of the unconscious (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), our brains need no prompting to do this. Our consciousness is constantly making a précis of the world: a summary of the vast amount of information contained in our environment.

Meanwhile, the unconscious is actually doing stuff that, were we conscious of it, would be simply impossible. Playing the cello, for instance. A lady who studies performance psychology told us how technical exercises and scales move from the conscious to the unconscious mind as they become more familiar - a journey that is often interrupted when the player gets bored and gives up.

More alarmingly, there are cases such as that of Hayley, whose arm started having spasms after a blood donation. The problem was that her brain was not allowing the unconscious to take back possession of the arm's functioning, and the conscious was making a botch of it.

Most of Geoff Watts's documentary came across as sensible stuff. But, in all sensible science shows, you have to devote at least five minutes to the mad, sci-fi stuff. In this instance, the opportunity was afforded to a psychologist who claimed that the unconscious could be harnessed to enable humans to analyse, at high speed, thousands of pictures for discrepancies.

This is something that the unconscious does swiftly and instinctively, seeking out patterns and pattern-breakers. Inevitably, the MoD are interested; although if they want speed-readers, I suggest employing an army of teachers, experienced in processing hundreds of pages at a glance.

It is the unconscious also that enables sportspeople to react at speed: tennis players to return that 100mph serve, or batsmen to duck the bouncer. Cricketers from China are not yet at that level, but Batting for the Middle Kingdom (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), there is every possibility that they will be competing in the cricket world cup in the near future.

A match between China and India might have a third of the world's population as a potential audience. But there are some basics to sort out first, such as how to translate the rich and eccentric terminology of cricket: how, for instance, to express "silly mid-off" in Mandarin; what is a "googly"; not to mention that left-arm spin delivery know as "the Chinaman". It represents a lexicographal treasure-trove; but one that the Chinese are sure to conquer.

The anniversaries have been coming thick and fast recently: C. S. Lewis died 50 years ago; and his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien 40 years ago. In the Radio 4 Afternoon Drama Lewis and Tolkien: The lost road (Friday), Robin Brooks told the story of their friendship, and their falling out.

The scene of Lewis's Christian conversion was played out in Magdalen Chapel, to the background of Tudor polyphony by Shepherd. With music and singing that beautiful, I could be converted to anything - Elvish, if need be.

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