Monthly Archives: March 2015

DEFEATED, CONQUERED, TROUNCED AND THOROUGHLY OVERWHELMED

In the town of Sendai, the largest city in the Tōhoku region in Japan, there are a million people going about their daily lives. I have no idea what all but one of them is doing. One lady, called Ms Endo Tokiko, who won’t mind me revealing that she is in her 80s, is almost certainly telling everyone around her, how she defeated, conquered, trounced and thoroughly overwhelmed an English man almost half her age. What’s more she will no doubt explain how she did it with ease, while the short bald Englishman from the BBC, sweated with effort. More of which later.

I was in Sandai to meet Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. He is a Japanese neuroscientists whose work has involved mapping the regions of the brain which control emotion, language, memorisation, and cognition.

He is well known in academic circles for his research. However more unusually he is also known to millions of ordinary adults and children as the animated figure in the Nintendo DS Brain Game.

Unlike his fellow neuroscientists he has a fan club of millions. In 2003, Kawashima wrote a book called ‘Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain’. It was not only a success in Japan. It sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide. That not only lead to the publication of a whole series of other books, it also peaked the interest of the Japanese gaming company Nintendo who turned his brain training programme into a game which itself sold 19 million copies.

At Tohoku University he helped found the Smart Ageing International Research Centre and the Department of Advanced Brain Science. At the centre he is working with groups of elderly people to see how to keep their brains active for longer. As part of his experiments he runs regular mental work outs or gyms for local people who are largely in their 80s or older.

His belief is that through some fairly basic exercises, repeated often, we can enlarge the functionality of the brain and to stop and indeed reverse the ageing process of some brain functions.

Indeed one of his concerns is that as we increasingly rely on computers and because technology to process and integrate various kinds of information we humans do not have to handle so much data by our own brain. He believes therefore that the today’s technological environment might actually accelerate the decline of cognitive function. The modern world, in other words, is making our brains duller.

Kawashima believes that in exercising one function of the brain we can improve its other functions. This could be very important because it implies that if we regularly do some simple maths exercises, such as easy addition and subtraction, we may not only get better at remembering names and where we put our car keys but our brain will become generally more expert a everything we ask it to do.

Three times a week a group of the older Sendai residents make their way to Dr Kawashima’s brain gym to give their mental facilities a tightly monitored work out. This week I joined them.

Wearing a brain monitor that linked to an app on Dr. Kawashima’s smart phone, I was to go up against their star pupil. Ms Endo Tokiko sat next to me. She was composed, self-possessed, unruffled, unmoved and unemotional. She stared ahead unsmiling and uncommunicative.

I on the other hand was a little nervous but fairly confident that whilst I was no maths genius –I could do some easy additions and should be able to do them faster than an 80 year old.

Dr Kawashima then said “You may turn over your paper and begin.” A phrase I had not heard for many years. I rushed through the first 10 questions – quietly confident that this was so much faster than I expected to do, I was going to be an easy winner.

I almost missed Ms Tokiko turning her second page – I didn’t want to look across at her as it would slow me down but I couldn’t imagine she had finished one page already. I finished the first section and glanced across at my opponent who was now rushing towards the end as I had barely finished the first half.

With an almost imperceptible smile she placed her pencil down and looked at Dr Kawashima – no words were needed but Dr Kawashima shouted them anyway. Ms Tokiko had won.

I genuinely could not believe I had been so roundly trounced.

What’s more, an analysis of our brain patterns during the exercise revealed something even more shocking. Whilst I had used all my mental guns, lighting up the brain monitor like Piccadilly Circus, Tokiko’s brain monitor showed how she was only using a very small part of her faculties. In other words, Dr Kawashima explained to me – not only had I been beaten badly but my opponent had done it with one arm tied behind her back – she had used only a fraction of her brain power whilst I had brought everything I had to the game.

This fantastic performance, he said was the result of 15 minutes a day brain training. The fact that I had to look up the name of my opponent whilst she no doubt remembers mine to this very day – may also be a sign of which one of us is regularly doing our little brain training exercises.

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My Night With Sparkles and Kevo – Homeless in Chicago

It was so cold that I sent out a Tweet asking if I must have misunderstood. Could it really be -23 degrees centigrade? It was early evening in Chicago and I was on the streets with two homeless locals called Kevo and his girlfriend Sparkles.

Homeless in ChicagoMichael, Kevo, Sparkles and Adam

Sparkles was an effervescent woman in her early 20s and Kevo was a quiet man who looked older – although it was difficult to tell. He was wary of us and we were wary of him. He looked rough and none-too friendly. Though so would I, if I was about to sleep on the streets in weather that was already so cold, I couldn’t feel my fingers, my throat was aching, my ears were throbbing and I long since stopped worrying about whether I looked good on camera or not and had wrapped my scarf over my hat – so my head looked like a badly wrapped present.

We were walking through the unlit alleyways of Chicago looking for the ventilation shafts of office blocks, as Kevo and Sparkles said you could get some heat form them if you stood close enough.

We had also come to meet Michael Rakowitz, a local artist that had been working on a scheme to provide some warmth and much needed safe shelter for many of the city’s homeless.

Chicago’s Homeless Alliance claims that there were over 139,000 homeless people in the city – a rise of 19% from the year before. Their figures don’t mean that many are living on the streets as many stay with friends or families doubling up in the homes of others. I was suspicious of the claim as you don’t see hundreds or thousands of people on the streets, but even if they were a small fraction of that claim – it would be a major problem for many many people.

Michael has been working on a project to provide some relief to those who can’t find a place indoors to sleep. It’s called the Parasite. It is a makeshift shelter made of plastic bags that uses the hot air from a building’s ventilation system.

Basically it’s a network of tubes that’s created by cutting the bottoms off rubbish bags. You tape the bags together to form a network of plastic tubes that fill with the hot air from the ventilation shaft of a building. It’s like the small bags of air that are sometimes used to pack expensive electronic products in boxes.

The inlet tube is hooked to the ventilation shaft of a building by some twisted metal coat hangers.

A person can slide themselves in between the sealed bags of air, so that they are never coming into direct contact with the warm air that’s leaving the exhaust system.

In weather that would bring London to a halt, we were looking for a decent hot air outlet to get the parasite working for Sparkles and Kevo. Because the building owners don’t give, indeed are never asked for permission, no one was entirely sure of whether we would get in trouble – so there was an air of furtiveness about our trip. Not least because we were heading down what looked like very dodgy alleyways.

Although US cities seem to be full of vents billowing clouds of condensation into the air, now we needed one, we couldn’t find any. Finally we tried to hook the system to a ventilation shaft where we thought the air was a little warmer – although I thought it barely perceptible.

Michael’s plastic bag tube system slowly filled up and eventually Sparkles not so much slipped in, but wedged herself in the small space between the filling air bags.

It wasn’t much but it was certainly better than laying in the street and perhaps even a very real lifesaver for those who have nowhere else to go.

Kevo and Sparkles told us they leave their belongings in various bags around the City in dark corners and hope they are not stolen. There are few shelters – in one they were robbed in another they got bed bugs. So despite the hardship, they prefer the streets. Sparkles has family and keeps in touch with her sister on Facebook and Kevo seemed to have been in the armed forces.

Like many people, I suspect, I would never have got into conversation with them had it not been for the filming. But they seemed a nice, quiet and thoughtful couple. Nicer then many more privileged people I have had to spend the evening with.

Nonetheless I was cautious when Michael invited them back to our hotel for a hot chocolate after we had filmed. It was a good gesture but what would our rather trendy hotel think of us brining two homeless people into their bar. What’s more, it was bad enough having to leave them on the street but what were we going to do after our drinks – send them out onto the street as we headed upstairs to our room?

In the end Kevo and Sparkles looked no different to any other grunge like artist that may have been staying at the hotel and Michael bought them a room for the night. It was a lovely thing to do. Kevo told us he and sparkles make money by painting and I asked if he would paint me something, which we did as we sat in the bar drinking hot chocolate. I bought it for the office.

The night in the hotel was a kind offer. The plastic bag tent is a great idea. Neither unfortunately will solve the problem of homelessness, which Kevo and Sparkles and thousands of others are suffering from. But on that night in temperatures I didn’t believe – they provided a warm and welcome respite for two very nice people.

You can see more about Michael Rakowitz’s Parasite designs at http://michaelrakowitz.com/projects/parasite/

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