Scorsese: doesn't rhyme with "foresees". Photo: Getty
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“Don’t say anything nasty,” my son pleads, as we head for a university open day

A couple of years ago, I’d gone with his big sister to another university, where a lecturer had mispronounced one of the most prominent authorities in her discipline and I had got into a fight with him.

To Manchester, with the eldest boy, for the open day at the university. Such English roots as I have are from the west of the Pennines; for that reason, I had asked his mother to take him to Leeds for its open day. Besides, that was where she had gone, so she was better placed to make comments along the lines of: “This used to be really nice,” “There used to be a great pub here but I see they’ve pulled it down,” “I was sick here once,” and so on.

My memories of Manchester were patchy and dim. The last time I had been there was years and years ago, taking a train up with Mr Self so that we could drop in on Mark Radcliffe’s BBC Radio 1 programme, on which Will had a slot talking about books. “Welcome to Manchester,” I muttered, as we left the station. “Twinned with Mordor.” For it was dark and drizzly and cold and we were at the end of our tethers: the man sitting next to us had spent two hours swearing at an Action Man-sized doll of Michael Schumacher; indeed, he’d encouraged us to join in. (This sounds unlikely but is quite true; Will gave me a “Sorry, this kind of thing always happens to me” look.)

Manchester was much nicer this time round. For one thing it was, if not exactly sunny, at least unseasonably warm and we’d had a quiet journey up, without anyone abusing homunculi in the shape of German Formula One racing drivers. But because of a misreading of the rudimentary map handed out by the university, we walked the wrong way down Fairfield Street for a few minutes and it didn’t take us long before we were in one of those urban landscapes that seem beyond redemption. I hate making stupid, basic mistakes like this – I hate it only a little bit less when a child of mine reads the map on his phone better than I read my paper one – so we turned back, almost running into, as we did so, a couple of bedraggled, near-toothless women in conversation. Something about their attire seemed wrong and as we passed them I realised, from the embonpoint of the one and the short skirt/boots combo of the other, as well as the lipstick that served only to bring the barrenness of their surrounding features into sharp relief, that these were prostitutes. It was about noon.

I didn’t fancy explaining to the boy, should he have asked, what these ancient women were doing got up like that and, while he has spent much of his young life playing the Grand Theft Auto games, in which I gather prostitutes feature more than they do in real life, I doubt any of them look like that. But everyone was civil, the encounter passed without incident and we proceeded along to the campus.

The boy had anxieties of his own, I knew that. A couple of years ago, I’d gone with his big sister to — University, where a lecturer had mispronounced one of the most prominent authorities in her discipline and I had got into a fight with him; the boy wanted no repetition of anything like that. But he wants to study and make films and I was quietly confident that no film-maker was ever going to – to give a comparable solecism – pronounce Scorsese as if it rhymed with “foresees”.

“Also,” said the boy, “don’t say anything nasty about Manchester.”

As if – even if the author of a horrible letter about me last week, in this very magazine, came from the city. I pointed out the grandiosity and permanence of the Victorian civic architecture, although, for instance, the Fire Station on Whitworth Street had long since been separated from its original purpose. Both of us marvelled at the way that it had black cabs and I said that Manchester had produced an inordinate number of great bands and that if the boy did not form or play in one for at least a couple of weeks while
he was here, I’d disown him.

Later, after I had had a pleasant nap in the lecture theatre while the relevant prof introduced us to the outlines of the film course, we sat eating our lunch on the campus green.

The boy, who was still discombobulated to think that you could have black taxis and double-decker buses and yet be in a city that was not London, reflected that he had hardly been to any other city in Britain; whenever he left London, it was either to go abroad or to go to the country.

This struck me as a very true and useful observation and one that should make Londoners a little bit abashed and a little less cocky.

“Leeds was really nice, though,” he added. To which I had nothing to say at all. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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Tetris and sleep deprivation: how we can help emergency workers cope with trauma

First responders are at serious risk of developing PTSD during events like the Paris attacks. 

Some people seem able to deal with anything. They save a stranger from bleeding out in a bombed restaurant, protect passers-by from heavily armed gunmen, pull dead and dying people out of collapsed buildings, and they keep going because it is their job. These people are first responders.

When trauma goes on for days, as it has recently in Paris, however, the odds of them bouncing back from the violence, death and injury they are witnessing rapidly diminishes. They are at greater risk of developing a severe stress reaction known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One study found that the worldwide rate of PTSD among first responders is 10 per cent, much higher than the 3.5 per cent rate among those not involved in rescue work.

Tetris to the rescue

So how best to address the problem? Research is in its infancy, but there are some promising studies. Emily Holmes’ group at the University of Cambridge has been looking at the benefits of playing Tetris, a video game, after a traumatic experience. The idea is that this could block the consolidation of traumatic memories so they don’t “flash back” later on.

For the study, her team first traumatised people by showing them distressing footage from public safety videos. The next day they invited them back into the lab to reactivate the memories with still images taken from the videos. One group then played Tetris for 12 minutes while the other sat quietly. Over the following week, the group who played Tetris had about 50 per cent fewer unwanted memories from the films compared to the group who didn’t.

The team concluded that playing Tetris helped individuals because it soaks up their visual processing capacity, making it harder for the brain to consolidate the visual parts of a traumatic memory.

Since it takes about six hours for the brain to cement a memory, the key is to play the game soon after trauma or within six hours of re-activating the traumatic memory. How long the helpful effects of playing Tetris will last and whether it will translate into helping people after real-life trauma is still unknown.

Talking it through

Other techniques, such as “updating”, taken from a highly-effective talking treatment for PTSD, may be more practical and easier to implement.

Like a detective, updating is a technique that focuses on finding new information and linking it to the case, the past memory. This is necessary because when the brain and body are in survival mode during trauma, the mind finds it difficult to encode all the relevant facts. Often key pieces of information that could make the memory less traumatic are lost. Updating links new information to someone’s memory of their trauma to make it less upsetting.

But can updating help to reduce unwanted memories after trauma?

We carried out a study, published in PLOS ONE, in which we traumatised people by showing them terrifying films of humans and animals in distress. We then divided our participants into three groups. One group watched the films again but were given new information about how long people suffered and whether or not they lived or died – essentially, they were updated. The second group watched the same films again but without the new information. And the third group watched films of humans and animals who were not in distress. The updated group had fewer traumatic memories and PTSD symptoms than the other two groups.

Updating is now being used by some UK emergency services. First responders will gather after critical incidents and update their memories of what happened before they go home.

Sleep deprivation

There are other techniques that may be helpful. One study found that depriving people of sleep may be useful in the aftermath of trauma.

But the same study found that a week after the trauma, people who had been deprived of sleep had the same number of unwanted memories as people who had slept well afterwards. Consequently, it remains unclear whether there would be any long-lasting benefits using this method. There are, however, certainly health risks linked to lack of sleep.

Still looking for a solution

To develop preventative interventions, we need to study newly-recruited emergency workers who haven’t yet suffered on-the-job trauma and follow them over time, spotting which “coping styles”, present before trauma, may predict their reactions afterwards.

For example, some people naturally react to stressful life events by dwelling on them, thinking about why they happened for hours on end. This strategy, called rumination, has been linked to PTSD in people who survived car crashes.

If rumination predicts PTSD in first responders, then preventative interventions could train people to spot when they are dwelling on an event and refocus their attention to the task at hand.

When we have identified which factors heighten emergency workers’ risk of developing PTSD, programmes can be developed to target those vulnerabilities. Only then can an intervention, directed at first responders most at risk of developing PTSD, properly protect them in their line of work.

The Conversation

Jennifer Wild is a Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.