Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Science, hope and a long, connected life

Last night there was the first of a new BBC series examining alternative medicine. The first programme was about acupuncture and was a model of intelligent programme making; not only was the presenter attractive (always a plus), she was intelligent and informed: Kathy Sykes, a professor of physics, no less. The programme had drama, e.g. open-heart surgery with the patient conscious and anaesthetised by acupuncture. It was also a very good demonstration of the scientific method and the importance of keeping an open mind, but also examining things critically.

"There’s magic, mystery and the healing power of hope. Then there’s science. And never the twain shall meet, unless you’re Professor Kathy Sykes, whose odyssey through the controversial world of complementary medicine has converted her to the cause at a crucial point in her life.

Sykes is best known as the glamorous face of physics on BBC Two’s Rough Science, performing scratch experiments in far-off rugged zones such as Death Valley, Arizona. But she has ventured on to rockier ground for her new BBC television series Alternative Medicine: The Evidence, which explores the scientific no-man’s land between mainstream medicine and three popular but oft-derided therapies: spiritual healing, acupuncture and herbalism."

The programme on acupuncture brought together this 2,000 year old therapy, and the very latest scanner, which showed that the with genuine acupuncture the pain area of the brain is "deactivated."

"more space in my life, to be and breathe, rather than just to do"

The Paris connection - for me - comes from what she had to say about the effect of making the programmes on her own life; a Chinese doctor had told her that she thinks to much - i.e. is a bit of a workaholic, which she admits. Thus it connects with why I want to live in France, in a more sybaritic way, probably Paris for a while at least:

'... her most recent encounter with mainstream medicine, witnessing her father’s progress through the system, reinforced her conviction about the crucial role that hope plays in health. “Early on, one doctor said to him: ‘Three things could happen: you can stay the same, you can get better or you can get worse.’ My heart sank. Researching the series changed the way that I approached his illness.

“Before Dad started chemotherapy, we thought he was going to die. He didn’t have any hope. Then finally there was a diagnosis and the chemo began. Gradually, over weeks, he has got stronger. It was like a miracle that he had come back to us. He has his hope back, he’s in a wheelchair and he can write.”

Sykes is careful to leaven her enthusiasm with a spot of objectivity, adding: “It’s possible that he would have recovered like that anyway, but having the programme side-by-side with the value of hope has had a real influence on me.”

That influence extends to convincing her to change her own approach to life. She’s a slinky 39 but also a classic, quivering over-achiever. "I’m a sickly thing. I eat loads of fruit and veg and I love good food, but I work my socks off and then I get ill. I’ve known for years that I was not living in a sustainable way but recently I have tried to do something about it. I decided to spend half an hour doing nothing every day, just letting my thoughts drift. It’s where the creativity is. So this series has come at a good time. I’m going to carry on trying to make more space in my life, to be and breathe, rather than just to do." ',,8125-2000371,00.html

So often it takes something like the loss or near loss of someone close to remind us to look up from the daily grind and ask ourselves what is really important to us. I was lucky (as she is) to have work which I loved doing and know was worthwhile; but it did get a bit obsessive. Fortunately I was able to take advantage of the long holidays, which is harder for academics to do these days.

Paris showed me that in the right place I could have a much fuller, more satisfying life, where days did not slip by as one watched TV. Of course it was partly because it was novel, but it was so much easier to make new social connections there, which scientific research shows is likely to lead not just to a better life, but also a longer one:

Connected People Live Longer

"A massive study of 4,725 randomly selected residents of Alameda County in California found that those with the fewest close friends, relatives and social connections had mortality rates that were two to three times higher than those with high levels of social connectedness. Also, life expectancy tables show a difference of nine years between people with very poor social connections and those with very good ones."


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