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Radio review: Heart and Soul, and Comedy Showcase

04 May 2018

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IF THERE was ever a case for the health benefits of playing the pipe organ, then Sister Lois, of Notre Dame, Minnesota, provides it. Sharp as a trumpet stop until the end of her 101 years, she was happy, intellectually engaged, and, crucially, could do that thing with her hands and feet separately that makes organists the envy of their lowlier counterparts.

She was also the longest-lived in a remarkable cohort of nuns whose cognitive abilities are being studied at the University of Minnesota. The Nun Study — the subject of last week’s Heart and Soul (World Service, Friday) — was launched in 1986 by two neurologists to observe the progress of dementia on a group of subjects whose lifestyles and environment were institutionally regulated. Each year, the nuns were given cognitive tests. Some developed Alzheimer’s; some did not. What was the difference between them?

The answer comes via the scalpel. In a laboratory at the university there are jars containing the brains of more than 600 nuns, all of them voluntarily signed over for scientific research. The crucial insight came through the forensic examination of autobiographical material provided by the nuns before taking their vows.

It transpired that qualities of language and literary expression when young provided a useful predictor of mental acuity in old age. This, in turn, led to the hypothesis that exercises in mental gymnastics, such as playing the pipe organ, could stave off the symptoms of dementia, even in those subjects whose brains were displaying some degradation.

The beauty of Marie-Louise Muir’s documentary, however, lay not just in the clear presentation of this absorbing project, but also in the account of scientific research that did what the best research should strive to do: involve, empower, and educate its subject-participants rather than use them merely to harvest data.

It is a testament to the skills of the project co-ordinator, Dr David Snowden, that the nuns should regard the exercise as part of their own educative remit; and to have them feel what their own routine of spiritual exercise and engagement with the Divine might contribute not just to their posthumous destiny, but to their well-being in this world.

Radio 2 has been hosting, over the past two weeks, a Comedy Showcase: Funny Fortnight — a way, perhaps, of identifying suitable shows for commission and feeding the BBC’s necessarily large appetite for the new. If that were the case, then the samplings your reviewer took were distinctly unpromising.

Fresh neither in ideas or faces, shows such as Censored (Monday of last week) and Jeremy Vine: Agony uncle (Tuesday of last week) man­aged only feeble rehashes of the phone-in spoof and the comedy panel game respectively. When the best laugh you can get from your studio audience comes when some­body declares that Mary Whitehouse is dead, then you are in trouble.

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