Sunday, January 8, 2012

The perils of neural adaptation

In neurobiology, adaptation commonly refers to a property of nerve cells which makes them less responsive to repeated exposure to the same stimulus at the same intensity. A cell responding well to, say, red light, will become less and less responsive if it is repeatedly stimulated with red light. On the other hand, if not stimulated for a while, it will recover its excitability and will then become as responsive as when first stimulated.

I presume that a basically similar operation takes place over longer periods in other systems, when we become less responsive, for example, to a song which we once liked very much.

There are no doubt many good biological reasons for having adaptation; getting adapted to a new way of doing things may be beneficial in some circumstances. But I fear it perhaps also works often to our disadvantage. Through adaptation, we begin to accept situations that we once might have thought intolerable. Through such a process, we begin to accept, for example, the prying eyes and ever increasing encroachment of the state into our affairs, something that almost no country in the world seems to be immune to. Ultimately, this works to our disadvantage but, through adaptation, we accept it with a shrug of the shoulder.

There are, however, situations where one just does not get adapted, and the neurobiology of the non-adaptive system is interesting to study, especially when applied to the linguistic system.

I recognize that the English language, like any other language, changes with usage. But I can never get adapted to the use of “that” instead of “who” when referring to people.

The most memorable thing I can remember about an ex-British prime minister is that he joined in the contemporary massacre of the English language by speaking of “people that do such things” instead of “people who do such things”.

I cannot get adapted to the vulgarity of the use of “like” – “do you, like, have, any bread, like”.

I cannot get adapted to the hopeless use of the word “inform”, which has become so common as to become a constant irritant - “the report has been informed by the design of buildings”, when I always thought that only people can inform.

I cannot get adapted to the clichés of “cutting-edge” science or “state of the art” technology, commonly used as substitutes for thinking.

I cannot even get adapted to terms that I myself am guilty of using constantly, for example saying “you know” or “I mean” constantly in a conversation – when in fact people don’t know, which is why I am telling them, and what “I mean” becomes clear only after I have told them.

In a strange way, I wish I could get adapted to these irritants, because then they will cease to be irritants.

I suppose that there is a part of our nervous systems that is resistant to adaptation. In my case, this certainly is a feature of my linguistic brain but it is not restricted to it; there are many other things that I just do not seem to be able to get adapted to.

Whether our nervous system becomes less plastic and therefore less adaptable with age, or whether adaptation is not equally potent in regulating all nervous activity, or whether it is a combination of the two plus other factors, a study of the diverse nature of adaptation would be interesting.

Thursday, January 5, 2012 & cheese experts

About thirty years ago, some wine experts in France decreed that red wines should be chilled before being served. I was idiotic enough then to believe them and so chilled my red wine …but only once or twice. I rapidly came to the conclusion that I prefer my clarets at room temperature and have never been tempted back since.

Now, in an article published last week in The Daily Telegraph, another group of experts are reported to have patronizingly told us that we have all been fooled for years, that we must really accompany cheese with white wine, not red wine since the reds dominate all but the most robust cheeses, according to them. And of course, we must continue to serve white, never red, with fish.

All this is of course stuff and nonsense. The combination of wine and cheese that go best together are the wines and the cheeses which you like, ones which give you pleasure. I have always preferred my fish with a good claret and will continue to do so. I have always preferred my cheese with a good claret and will continue to do so. I agree more with Dr. Johnson, no wine expert he, when he said that “a fish must swim three times, once in the sea, once in butter, and once in a good bottle of claret”!

No doubt, as with the silly ideas about chilling red wine that the experts pushed some thirty years ago, they will sooner or later be pushing the idea that cheeses are best accompanied by red wine after all. And recall all this fuss about nouvelle cuisine some years ago, much of it extremely dreary. In fact there is a hilarious accompanying article in the same issue of The Daily Telegraph which pokes good fun at a seemingly new brand of nouvelle cuisine restaurant, which has opened in London.

Experts can peddle their silly views only when we lack confidence in our own tastes and in our own judgment. Why we do so is itself a very interesting psychological and neurobiological problem, as is the problem of why some combinations are judged better than others and why, in spite of our better judgments, we defer to the dubious authority of experts.

Which brings me to an interesting puzzle: why is it that, in England, we have the somewhat barbaric habit of serving cheese after dessert (have any experts commented on this?). Well, I have found out the reason, or one reason. I don’t know how true it is, but it is not implausible. The French have cheese pour faire chanter le vin [to make the wine sing], before moving on to the dessert accompanied by dessert wines, which ends the formal dinner. Apparently, in England quite some time ago, there was an anxiety on the part of men to end the formal dinner as quickly as possible so that the women could retire [or be made to retire] to a separate room, and the men could continue with refined binge drinking and men talk. And since dessert ends the formal dinner in both cultures, all they had to do was swap the cheese and the dessert around. And the habit has lingered on.