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Volunteering for scientific research and Interviewing Professor Tony Judt

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Peter White Peter White | 12:33 PM, Monday, 19 July 2010

peterandtonyjudt.jpgJust how far should we presenters go when it comes to personal involvement in our own programmes? I must admit there were moments in one of my most recent projects when I wondered if I'd rather overdone it: volunteering to have my brain scanned, and then laid out in pictures for all to see on the In Touch website, in an attempt to discover what happens inside the brain when a blind person reads Braille. I had good reasons to do it: I'm an unusually fast Braille reader (a lot of blind children, very bright in other ways, find it difficult), and I wanted to know how the process worked. A blog's too short to go into the exact science, but the gist was that research done so far suggests in some mysterious way the brain knows that although a Braille reader is touching something with their fingers, they are in fact reading text, something normally done with the eyes, and therefore calls in the bit of the brain that normally deals with seeing. What I agreed to do was to submit myself to an MRI scan, where your brain is effectively photographed, and then to do a number of tests involving first ordinary touching, and then reading Braille, so that the scientists could watch my brain at work. Then, by a series of mild stimulations, they "interfered" with the bit of my brain which normally takes on the job of interpreting vision. Clever stuff, eh? The problem is, you volunteer for these things blithely when they are just at the ideas stage, and suddenly find yourself facing the reality of being wired up in a kind of tube in a Boston neuroscientist's lab subjecting yourself to a series of (admittedly) mild electric shocks!

But that's not the worst of it; what I hadn't allowed for was the litany of questions I would have to answer before I was allowed to expose myself to the experiments: family history, health, about medication, previous operations and the presence of any metal objects about my person, at which point the whole radio audience had to be told about my denture (until then an easy secret to guard on the radio), which had to be ceremonially removed. Enter one rather sibilant-sounding presenter! And serve me right, I hear many of you cry, for being a show-off in the first place! But the tests do seem to support the thesis that the brain can be very resourceful when it has to solve a problem in a different way, and the hope is that all this experimentation will lead to ways to help children read Braille more quickly and effectively. We'll be keeping tabs on that on In Touch.

Also while in the States I did an interview that seems to have caused a considerable stir. I love reading history in my spare time, and am a great admirer of Professor Tony Judt who's written a wonderfully perceptive book about Europe since the Second World War. But eighteen months ago he developed a virulent form of motor neurone disease, which has left him paralysed from the neck down, and in a situation where, as he put it himself, the only part of him which would do as it was told was his mind. He agreed to be interviewed and when I went to see him in his New York apartment, now adapted to cater for his needs, he was as deeply impressive, candid and unflinching as I'd expected him to be.

For him it was something of an endurance test. The mere act of talking is exhausting in itself as he is on a breathing machine, and yet he answered my questions fluently and unhesitatingly for over an hour. In other circumstances that rather breathless delivery might have caused us anxiety for the recording: in this case, it was absolutely intrinsic to understanding his situation as he spelled out how he copes, physically and intellectually. It was broadcast as a special edition of "No Triumph, No Tragedy" last month, and so many of you have asked to hear it again, or indeed for the first time, that for the next week it will be a podcast on the You and Yours website.

But obviously some people never learn, because I've also now somehow allowed myself to be persuaded to do a You and Yours version of the successful television series "Who Do you Think You Are?" I don't know what they're going to come up with, but my mum's told me enough in the past to be very much afraid. We're planning to do this on August 6th.

And also, as promised but not yet delivered, alternate blogs from me in future will contain specific information about the disability issues we're covering on You and Yours, In Touch and elsewhere on Radio Four, and will be sent to all those people who previously subscribed to the Disability Newsletter. That information will be available on the blog of course, but if you wish to be included amongst those who are emailed it automatically, contact us to get your name added to the list. Good Listening!

Click here to download the special podcast of Peter's interview with Professor Tony Judt

Peter White presents You and Yours and In Touch on BBC Radio 4


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