Thursday, July 18, 2019

Me Too Hysteria: The Ultimate Loss of Femininity

A woman and a man with futuristic guns fighting in the desert
Could and should a young black female play James Bond? As Daniel Craig is planning to officially retire from impersonating the British spy James Bond, Lashana Lynch is potentially slated to take over and inherit the role of the famous secret agent 007. This suggestion has excited and enthused many, and it has been heralded as a watershed moment of diversity. In my point of view, this excitement is misguided and misdirected, and these kinds of choices are not a sign nor signal of liberation but rather one of desperation.

Before I get prematurely attacked or branded as being misogynistic or racist, or both, please hear me out and let me explain a few points and thoughts about the Me Too movement. I applaud and highly encourage gender equality and am against racial discrimination as well as discrimination based on sexual orientation or lifestyle. And as long as this movement is dealing with and focusing on these issues, I am in full agreement and in support of this movement.

In the initial stages of what is known as the Me Too movement, female actresses came out against rich and powerful men in the movie industry. One of the most notorious men in this case was Harvey Weinstein who had previously seemed untouchable; he wielded his position and influence and forced women to do his bidding; he humiliated them, took advantage of them and emotionally and sexually abused the women within his grasp and range.

Such injustices and criminal actions were often not reported or were disregarded and discarded by the authorities as well as the media. Men who preyed upon women and violated their rights often got away with their abuses because they had protection from higher-ups and because they benefited from a culture that kept turning a blind eye to such violations.

These actions went under-reported by women who felt threatened by the status quo, and these incidents were rarely reported in the news and media. This created an atmosphere that debilitated women. 

One of the most cringe-worthy and appalling arguments in sexual assault cases was that women provoked the abuses heaped upon them by either placing themselves in a dangerous location or by dressing provocatively. Rape is the ultimate form of violence against women in which the male dominates over and violates all that is feminine. (The rape of children of both sexes is even more revolting and disgusting, but that is not within the scope of my post here.)

Another fact was also the cultural white-only hegemony. Movie characters and superheroes were predominately white, whereas ethnic actors would be generally delegated to portraying villains or at best they were given minor roles as nonessential characters. There simply was not enough diversity on television or in cinema no matter where you looked.

The immensely popular show Friends may have equally sported both genders, but it was populated by well-to-do young and good-looking white characters only. This has been worrying throughout the history of the beloved small screen, while one of the notable exceptions to the rule The Cosby Show has in recent times lost its prestige and standing because its colored protagonist committed inexcusable acts against women.

As a growing positive trend in the film industry, we now have various movies that focus on a more diverse cast, whether they be Asians or people of color often in their own shows and programs. This ranges from the critically acclaimed Black Panther (2018) of the Marvel series to the more recent and highly successful Crazy Rich Asians (2018) to other shows that highlight ethnic groups from Dear White People to Atlanta and Black-ish. The argument that these programs would not be lucrative or popular have been proven wrong and illusory; in fact, the opposite has been shown to be true.

This trend of empowerment has spilled over into more movies that portray and show us strong female characters. Although again I applaud such movies, it has started to lead down a dangerous slope of decline, which I shall elaborate upon a little later. For now, having gender presented and represented in equal measure has been again a very positive and beneficial trend. I think that the world is better not worse off when it comes to positive and powerful female characters like Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019).

Then came the wave towards remaking traditionally male films with female reboots, and that was and has been a decisive step in the wrong direction. Although the all female cast of Ocean’s Eight (2018) and to an extent Netflix’s Wine Country (2019) were generally well done and not unpleasant, the Ghostbusters (2016) reboot clearly signaled what is most wrong with this new trend.

My problem is not due to having female instead of male characters, but that the Ghostbusters reboot was very sloppily written and at times deliberately insulting both to men and women. It was filled with propaganda that seemed to espouse highly stereotypical views of men. It was never all right for men to have stereotypical views of women, so why should women do so and get away with it even if it was supposedly made for laughs.

This trend has now extended to having - or proposing to have - a female Bond. Now James Bond is a fictional male character that is based on Ian Fleming’s novels. The previous movie adaptations may have supported and promoted stereotypical views on gender, but none of this changes the fact that the character is male. While in Ghostbusters, there could easily be female protagonists, and they could have gotten away with it with a better script, not to say better acting and filmmaking, in Bond’s case, this is simply not possible.

And if this trend is followed through, why not also have a female Sherlock Holmes as well as a female Rambo, Rocky, Shaft, and Terminator. And why not make an all female version of Lawrence of Arabia? The idea of having women play traditionally male roles is certainly not liberating but rather limiting if not downright ludicrous. It may be trying to undermine what is a male-dominated and oriented domain, but this unimaginative approach is one that is fueled by and filled with resentment against what are, for better or worse, considered traditionally male qualities.

What all of this shows us is that women do not want to be free, but they want to be exactly like men. They consciously or unconsciously copy male chauvinism in the forms of attitude, violence, and disregard for others. The tables have turned and now the women shall topple the patriarchy and start oppressing the male. Personally, I would not mind having women in power but do not warm to the idea of having women play men in power; it is merely the same thing only presented in a different wrapping and outfit.

Essentially, my idea of feminism is that men and women ought to have equality, yet they should not be the same. Put differently, they should have access to the same rights and opportunities but not be duplicates of one another. If and when both are identical, we all end up losing, and all the diversity in gender will be irrevocably lost.

Of course, gender is not binary. Regardless of what sex you are born in, you will have both female and male characteristics. Ideally, each of them, just like the yin and yang of the Tao, are and should be in equilibrium. That is either sex will contain and embrace elements of the other.

The problem is that traditional society does not see it that way. Boys are supposed to act tough, be independent and not cry, while girls are encouraged to freely express their emotions, but they need to be interdependent, passive, if not downright submissive. In that sense, each and both will feel hurt and stagnated as their other tendencies are not fully explored nor developed.

The problem with feminism is that it often has little to do with feminine values or femininity; it is often the exact opposite of what is considered feminine. This movement is for the most part women trying to be more like men, that is to become more aggressive and tough in their demeanor and actions.

I do not in any way support or subscribe to toxic masculinity, as it is blindly aggressive, bellicose and mean-spirited. But it is rather convenient for women to overlook their own flaws and assume that they are pure and innocent, i.e. a virgin, the symbol and embodiment that ironically enough the patriarchal groups created to attack and confine women.

Many say toxic femininity is not a thing and does not exist, but the reality is women attack in different both subtle and not so subtle ways: They will often resort to passive-aggressive violence. I have been a recipient of such abuse at work, and in fact in a previous job interview led by three women I felt under attack for simply being from the male species (the job position went to a female evidently).

Once in my early college years, I witnessed two women fighting, and it was a rather horrendous scene that left me in shock. When guys fight, there are certain unspoken rules, but when these girls were scrapping, it was complete chaos as there was scratching, screaming and hair-pulling accentuated by constant shrieking.

In fact, radical feminists (whom my wife ingeniously calls femi-Nazis) would negate and fight against the softer and gentler qualities of the feminine and instead incorporate traditionally male characteristics; not only are such feminists denying and rejecting their own femininity, but they also turn their indiscriminate attacks on men as well as all the women who do not espouse their rigid and one-sided conception of womanhood.

When women fought for equality, their right to vote, for instance, feminism used to be a veritable movement in the formidable and noble sense of equality, but when women started feeling ashamed of wearing skirts or of putting on make-up, then something started going awry. It seems that everything that was previously deemed natural shall be turned on its head and that being married and having a family means one has fallen prey to the patriarchal system or establishment.

Some of the changes may have been tied to economic necessity. In the 50s, traditions reigned supreme: the woman demonstrated her innate maternal instincts but was also delegated to the house and kitchen, while the husband went to work. Evolutionary speaking, this was the typical script in which men went to hunt for livelihood (to earn money for the purchase of food and goods), while women stayed home to look after the offspring by also taking care of the rest of the family and preparing or cooking meals for all.

This type of behavior has been ingrained and practiced since the beginning of humankind, and it has been passed on from one generation to the other. Yet right after the 60s, the sexual revolution turned things around. Ideologically, this is for the best, but with it came also a time of economic instability. Thereafter, women could not stay home even if they wanted to; especially after the 80s, it was much more common to see both husband and wife work full-time to make ends meet.

Children were not taken care of by either party; they were sent to daycare facilities. This was an essential loss for the children since they would lack essential contact and bonding with their caregivers and would be instead raised by complete strangers. This was said to foster independence but instead caused lack of connection and a general air and climate of confusion within the child’s psyche.

After this time, women enjoyed their new-found independence and decided to further explore the workforce. Since they gained more economic opportunities, they also gained power both within the household as well as within society. But in some ways, the same women were still unconsciously wanting to hold onto the maternal aspects of caring for the household; as a result, they would often run themselves down by putting too much on their own plates. This is the woman who looks after her child while also working full-time. By trying to control both worlds, she completely exhausts herself and becomes confused regarding her own identity.

Hence, men are often called in to do a task they are not naturally suited or equipped for as it is evolutionary speaking not their domain. They can try hard and learn, but it is not and does not form part of their instincts. Mothers have a symbiotic relationship with their infants as they have been carrying and feeding them in their womb for almost a year, a vital experience that men do not and cannot have and that the males are essentially deprived of.

Similarly, men as ex-hunters tend to relish or thrive under competitive and aggressive situations or at least those scenarios may come to them more naturally, whereas women will necessarily struggle in such situations; they would lack the aggressive touch and impulse. Both respective genders end up being out of place and feeling void and unsatisfied in their new chosen roles.

Again, this is not based on individual differences, but it rather points to general trends. It is a fantasy if not a downright lie that you are born with a blank slate and that you can be who you want to be. In terms of bodies, including the brain and hormones, there is a distinct gender divide, and we are not equal. 

Our bodies are not the same, so how and why should our minds be? This is not a bad thing but something that has ensured that we complement and complete each other in terms of character, ability and even personality, not unlike the androgynous myth of Aristophanes as accounted in Plato’s Symposium.

This does not mean that men cannot excel in traditionally feminine careers like nursing and teaching, nor that women cannot become engineers or scientists, but that there is a still a visible gender gap between these professions, which is due to the innate abilities for each specific gender. Men may have a greater capacity to focus and follow through with tasks, while women tend to be better with social connections as well as being able to multi-task or handle and deal with different tasks and assignments at the same time.

Oddly enough, one of the most accurate but equally disconcerting representations of gender equality is Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997). In this futuristic sci-fi flick, both men and women were the same; there were women that had higher military positions and both men and women showered together as they had lost their differences. 

Both were in the same locker room naked in front of the other while acting and interacting naturally and without shame, modesty or embarrassment; their bodies elicited neither lust nor curiosity, the same way, it was not surprising nor odd to have male or female superiors among their ranks.

In that scenario, gender was easily replaced and interchangeable since they had lost what it meant to be men descended from the sun or Mars and women descended from the earth or Venus. They were merely genderless almost shapeless humans that were living and breathing amongst each other, or rather they were like Adam and Eve before they were tempted and prompted to notice their differences and forge their own separate gender identity.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Mozart's Don Giovanni as the Tragicomic Symbol of Unbridled Capitalism

Commendatore on stage receives applause from audience
“Hurray for women,
hurray for wine!
The substance and glory of humanity!”

My first taste and experience of Mozart’s famous (and equally infamous) opera Don Giovanni was Joseph Losey’s adaptation on the small screen. I was certainly impressed by the music but somewhat shocked, baffled and initially appalled by the behaviour of its famed eponymous protagonist also known as Don Juan. The plot was confusing due to his many conquests of the past, present and future, while all the while, my wife and I were hoping he would eventually come to his senses and see the light. Yet the light he sees at the end ended up being of a very different kind.

For the most part, I was hoping for any shreds of regret or redemption, yet that did not occur. But what bothered me most upon my first viewing was the general lack of feeling and empathy by this sex-crazed and obsessed womanizer. I myself tend to have a certain affinity with such characters (in fact, I have written a novel in which the protagonist is a skirt-chasing poet) and I had re-imagined this Casanova-type character as more sensual and life-affirming and imbued with poetic sensibilities, but none of that was on display here.

Instead Don Giovanni was portrayed as a vain, narcissistic sociopath who collected and bragged about his innumerable female conquests as if they were medals and trophies. As Leporello, his servant, at one point attests, his master had slept with over a thousand damsels, a number that may seem physically dubious (if not impossible), but that may be achieved if Don Giovanni indeed had several sexual exploits on each given day of the year over the span of various years.

It was on my second viewing of the same opera, this time performed live on stage with the UBC Opera ensemble that I got to re-evaluate my feelings about the character and the opera as a whole. Where in my first viewing every character seemed devoid of love and care, on this second and more intimate encounter, I noted various moments of true feeling and passion, but again none of it emanated from its protagonist. In a way, I saw him less as despicable, but more as a suffering and wanting individual who simply could not come to grips with his own directionless desires and that is when the metaphor of unbridled capitalism crossed my mind.

In fact, Don Giovanni and the unscrupulous capitalist share the trait of having a voracious appetite, the former for women and the latter for money. In Giovanni’s case, women are fully objectified; they are stripped of feeling and sensibility; he merely notes the superficial skin-deep differences, such as height, hair color, nationality and standing. Oddly enough, not only are his interests exceptionally wide and all-inclusive, he fancies all types of women, the short, the tall, the young, the old, the beautiful and the ugly alike, but he also has an overall disregard for social standing.

He pursues noble women with the same vigor than a country wench and this makes him surprisingly democratic in his choice. But that is also disconcerting. By having no specific types and by setting himself no preferences, he is after Woman in all shapes and disguises. It is a lust that knows no bounds and has no aim whatsoever as he desires every woman and every possible aspect of her. In Kierkegaard’s mind, this quest serves to enhance every woman’s beauty, but in my view, in Don Giovanni’s obsessive, reckless and egomaniacal search, he ends up both denigrating and humiliating femininity.

In fact, he is the glutton that relishes in all types of dishes that he can get his hands on, and yet, he is never satisfied; he never relinquishes his desire nor does he alleviate his itch and since he does not fulfill his need, he is on a constant quest. The combination of his unscrupulous and relentless desire to conquer and by extension shame and dishonor women everywhere is akin to an amok serial killer on the loose who targets and endangers all and every woman everywhere; as a result, anything remotely feminine becomes his immediate prey.

In his appetite for money and possessions, the money-hungry and greedy capitalist is essentially not that different from this cruel womanizer. Those types of capitalists also can never find satisfaction since there is no set point at which their needs are fully met. In this vicious cycle, the more money he has, the more he wants, and it is certainly not a case of the more, the merrier; in Don Giovanni’s situation, his lust for women entangles his soul, and like quicksand this plunges him deeper and deeper into the dark abyss below.

The avid consumer is a pale reflection of either one of them, but she also is consumed by her desire of buying and consuming stuff, only to replace a given item with another object along the way. As none of these people know what they exactly want and have no limits in their voracious but never fulfilling or satisfying appetites, they are not unlike the hungry ghosts who are destined and cursed to forever roam the earth.

Yet Don Giovanni’s appetite is not limited to women. The final scene of the opera combines three of his carnal passions: food, wine, and women. On their own and in adequate scoops and measures, each and every one of those passions are perfectly palpable and acceptable, but it is in their unlimited consumption that they become damaging to one’s physical, emotional and psychological health and well-being.

What Don Giovanni furthermore lacks is conscience. He recklessly engages in endeavors that endanger people’s relationships, social regard as well as their lives. For instance, he abuses everyone, including his servant Leporello whom he beats and then pays off with money and who is nearly killed; for Don Giovanni’s single-minded amusement, they switch clothes, and the servant is mistakenly taken for the master and barely escapes with life.  

Don Giovanni is continuously and consistently heartless and unrelenting; he kills the Commendatore without remorse, he seduces the country woman on her wedding day literally in front of the jealous eyes of the groom and later promises to marry her, which is a blatant lie. Although he previously jilted Dona Elvira, he continues to play around with her feelings, giving her hope where he has no intention whatsoever to follow it up with deeds. Every person is like a puppet that he twitches, turns and humiliates to his liking and desire, and he has no perception of consequences or the damage and hurt that he inflicts on them. Life is a series of games made to entertain him and destined for his personal pleasure only.

It is with adamant conviction that this narcissist sticks to his ideas of absolute entitlement and he never repents for his misdeeds. There may be something heroic about the fixed stance of never betraying his so-called ideals, by not wavering nor succumbing to others, not even when he is about to be dragged to hell by the Commendatore, but since his ideals are so devoid of feeling and happiness and cause nothing but pain and suffering to others, this posture becomes tragicomic in itself. Like an avid gambler, he puts all his money on one single number and that one always comes up empty, but he does not seem to realize or care about that.

And yet, there is so much potential and so many opportunities that cross his path. He could put his wealth, standing and charm to good use and find a person to love, but all his sexual experiences are so mechanical and devoid of any genuine feeling that he can never find pleasure. He simply uses his exploits for bragging rights; he shows off his many conquests to gain esteem both within himself as well as from others. This is not unlike the super-wealthy who fight for the Forbes’ list of the wealthiest person on the planet by sporting inordinate sums of money in their bank accounts. They use their possessions to impress others, and this is of little benefit for anyone involved, including themselves.

As such, they have no fidelity, but they are all steadfast in their steadfastlessness; tirelessly and listlessly they try to conquer the world for their own pleasure and benefit. Along the way, they take advantage of others and they prize what has little intrinsic value; it could be money, which is merely a symbol of wealth but not wealth itself, possessions which are merely lifeless objects, or even sexual exploits, which are experiences that do not and cannot on their own provide lasting happiness but only temporarily fulfill a void. Such sexual experiences do not consider nor take into account the other person’s feeling or pleasure, and as a result, they leave both parties empty and without joy.

But women do not come off lightly here and in Mozart’s opera they are not merely victims. The husbands are protective, often jealous and even ready to avenge the wrongdoing to their loved ones, but the women appear to relish the attention and praises heaped on them by the charming and sweet-talking Don Giovanni. 

For instance, the country wench has a choice of rejecting him and keep in mind this is on her wedding day with her husband-to-be right next to her, but then she eventually falls for Don Giovanni because of his looks, of his mastery of the art of seduction but perhaps more so because of his promises of wealth and social status his loose tongue heaps upon her. She is naïve in believing and hanging onto his words since she takes them as genuine and respectable emanations out of a mouth of a true and noble gentleman; in this way, Mozart also slyly makes fun of the dishonest upper classes of his times.

All things considered, although Don Giovanni has everything any man would want, money, standing, good looks and women, he is not brimming with life and joy; his face is pale and troubled, and yet, he is always wearing a mask. Deep inside, he is as dead as the Commendatore that comes to fetch him. And in his stubborn blindness and refusal to look truth and himself in the face, Don Giovanni does not recant, his time is up, and he is forever doomed.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Margaret Trudeau: Perpetual Teenager and Advocate for Mental Health Awareness

People awaiting Margaret Trudeau in Hotel Room
Last week I had the pleasure to attend a talk given by Margaret Trudeau at the Fairmont Hotel in Vancouver. Margaret Trudeau is in a unique position when it comes to Canadian politics (the closest to her would be Barbara Bush south of the border): she was not only wife to the ex-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, but she is also the mother of the current one, namely Justin Trudeau (she gloated that the latter won by a much wider vote margin than her ex-husband).

But Margaret had not come to talk about her relationships and position within Canadian politics, she was here to talk about her personal struggles and experiences with bipolar disorder as well as to shed some light upon the dark and negative stigma surrounding mental health. Her talk was entitled “Changing My Mind” – also the title of her third published book. The event was sold out, and we all eagerly awaited Margaret to take the stage.

However, there were a few presenters before the main talk. The most impressive introduction was given by the President of UBC Santa Ono wearing his trademark colored bow tie. I was impressed that he was not only advocating for mental health but also making it a priority at the university. He confided to us that he himself had suffered from clinical depression as a young adult and that he was about to take his life at one point. This was not only very brave and courageous on his part, but at the same time it felt uplifting since he demonstrated to us that despite it all (or perhaps because of it all), he had achieved an impressive position and status in life as the president of a renowned university.

Margaret was then formally introduced, and we got our first glimpse of this woman who occupied such an enviable as well as difficult position in life. She told us that because of her disorder, she was like a “perpetual teenager” - a term I very much appreciated and that sat well with her as she was bubbly, energetic, engaging and funny throughout the evening.

However, she was talking very rapidly, and there were times the abundance and overflow of words and information made my head spin. Ten minutes in, I was not sure I would be able to sit through it all, but her sense of humor helped tremendously, and right before us all, without any notes and apparent plan or structure, this perpetual teenager spoke to us without a pause, breath or blink, but she had an important story to tell.

First off, she said that we do not scold, look down or frown upon people whose body does not function as it should; people whose organs, limbs, ears and eyes are not working properly tend to have our sympathy and understanding, but when we say that our brains are not working as they should, it becomes a different situation all together. We recoil, stigmatize, trivialize or even blame them for their shortcoming. Well, she said, in her case, it was that her brain was dysfunctional, and she had to suffer a lot before she was given the treatment and understanding she so desperately needed.

Her first symptoms emerged during adolescence, but they were immediately dismissed and shrugged off as the upheavals and ups and downs of being a teenager. Like many young adults, she would experiment with alcohol and drugs, but the problem is that people with mental illness may fall into the vicious grasp and cycles of substance abuse. In her case, during her manic phase, she would already be high, and then it would be confounded and intensified to a much higher degree when combined with alcohol and drugs.

There are various changes in body chemistry that affect people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. On one side, during the depressive phase, her serotonin levels would be too low. Serotonin, a chemical and neurotransmitter that regulates mood, is responsible for feelings of calm, peace, love, and joy, and in larger amounts for excitement and euphoria. Serotonin is a connector, so certain stimuli would elicit corresponding feelings; for instance, watching a beautiful sunset, walking in a forest or listening to beautiful music would trigger a feeling of calm or bliss.

In people who have lower levels, there would be a disconnect. Like us, they would see the amazing sunset, but it would not invoke any strong feelings or in some cases, no feelings whatsoever. This is the reason why depressive people rarely respond to beauty or happiness that we tend to perceive; it leaves them untouched and cold due to a lack of this neurotransmitter. Add to that a lack of sleep, and the situation worsens because a good night sleep replenishes the levels of serotonin in one’s body. So does food like seeds and nuts as well as raw oysters; the latter is often labeled as an aphrodisiac, but it is essentially a feel-good food, she grinned.

Dopamine, on the other hand, is what creates all kinds of energy and emotions ranging from insights, spiritual experiences, artistic endeavors to fear and anxiety. Most artists tend to have higher levels of dopamine as it makes them feel situations and experiences more profoundly, and it comes as no surprise then that many great artists are and have been bipolar. This condition may help them to dig deep; in their restless manner, they would be able to achieve great insights and results. Give me an empty canvas in my manic phase, and I will fill it up within a short amount of time, Margaret told us with a smile.

However, there were also various scary and uncanny moments. She told us of an incident where she was supposed to go shopping in Montreal and ended up in Crete. At the time, as she was the wife of the Prime Minister, she did not need a passport and was able to travel as a diplomat. On a whim, she then decided to go to Paris instead of Montreal because she had never been there before; still not impressed, she ventured onto Crete. 

All this time, she had not communicated nor told her husband where she was or where she was heading, and he was only able to find out when she had consulted the Canadian embassy to help her get to Greece. Back then, they did not have cellphones evidently, but it had not crossed her mind to call and tell her husband about her whereabouts.

Being the Prime Minister’s wife also hindered her from getting the help and treatment she needed. After having her second child, she suffered from postpartum depression, a condition that was not as known or studied as extensively as it is today. When she saw a psychologist, he told her that it was the “baby blues” and that she would grow out of it. She said that the psychologist did not really see her as a patient but was more interested in the fact that she was the wife of the prime minister, and he told her husband to take care of her and spend more time with her.

It was after her divorce when things got much worse for Margaret, and she was admitted to the psychiatric ward. That is when she knew that there was something seriously amiss with her brain and that she would have to suffer for and because of it. Yet the advent of antidepressants combined with psychotherapy, mainly cognitive-behavioral and positive psychology helped her overcome these difficult conditions. The medication helped her balance her chemistry, while the positive self talk helped her choose the road to happiness versus the downtrodden path of misery.

As she continued talking about the importance of psychotherapy, about turning over one’s power to therapists and about choosing happiness, I could not help noticing that all things considered, the woman speaking in front of us was not quite well. She exhibited a manic state as she made it through the talk with various tangents and asides, and she even ended it all with a joke. I think that despite the many good intentions of positive psychology, it does not get to the root of the psychological issues and problems at hand; it tends to replace negative with positive self-talk, but unlike psychoanalysis, the problems and conflicts are not fully addressed nor resolved.

After listening to her for a good and rather entertaining hour, it was apparent that Margaret had gone through a lot of personal and emotional suffering, including the untimely loss of one of her sons due to a skiing accident. Yet at the same time, there was no denying her resiliency, courage and determination, and her ability to make it through life’s pain and suffering by coming out with her head held up high and by firmly standing up for others.

When Pierre Elliott Trudeau first met her, she was 18; he was much older than her and had more in common with her parents than herself, she joked, but he was immediately smitten with her. She said she did not know or understand why, but for us it was not hard to see how her wit, charm and determination would have melted the heart of the Prime Minister to be and how she would give him a son who would be the current Prime Minister of Canada.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Big Pharma, Innovation and Cancer Care

Image of white and blue pills that spell out the word cancer
I have the deepest respect and admiration for medicine. It is through arduous and painstaking research and experiments that medicine has reached a pinnacle in our lives: The field of medicine is not only making our lives more livable by improving quality of life and helping deal with numerous chronic and debilitating conditions, but, more importantly, it is also capable of saving lives.

How many innumerable lives have been saved through penicillin, anesthesia, and vaccinations, and how many more with emergency procedures and surgeries. In many ways, medicine has moved from the dark ages of superstition, prayer and wishful thinking into an age where many diseases have come under its domain and control.

There is something essentially noble and beautiful in the fact that medicine can save lives. This is the child suffering from high grade fever who is saved by antibiotics or another one suffering from cancer who has been miraculously cured. The gratitude from all those who have been afflicted with these pangs of pain and suffering is boundless. We hug the surgeons, doctors, and, in our heart, we silently thank the researchers who made all this possible through continuous work and effort.

Furthermore, medicine helps keep us safe. In human history, we have had and continue to have epidemics that have the inherent potential to wipe out strands of humanity. This has ranged from the threat and outbreak of Ebola that has been dealt with, at least for now, through quick emergency actions and measures, and, to some extent, the AIDS epidemic, with the latter being now much more in control thanks to advances in modern medicine. Nonetheless, the next silently but steadily growing epidemic is going to be associated with obesity and cancer.

During the Public Engagement sessions that I had the pleasure to attend some weeks ago, I was privy to important information alongside facts about cancer. First off, we are living in a time of crisis in relation to cancer. In his talk, Dr. Malcolm Moore, the president of BC Cancer, gave us two definitions of the word crisis and both strongly imply the importance and necessity of immediate action: Crisis is both a “time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger” as well as a “time when a difficult or important decision must be made.”

As I discussed in a previous post, 1 in 2 people in my province will develop cancer, while 5 % of the population are already living with a diagnosis of cancer. However, the most astounding and frightening piece of information was in relation to the Cancer / Silver “tsunami” that is heading our way: The number of cancer cases will increase by 50 % in 2035. 

The projected cancer burden in British Columbia will increase by 39 % from about 28,000 cases in 2017 to around 39,000 incidences of cancer by 2030. Most of this change, in fact more than half, will be due to the aging population of people over 65; in other words, people living longer will significantly drive up the diagnosis of cancer.

In fact, in the US only, 3.6 million people of 85 years and older were diagnosed with cancer in 1975, but in 2016, there were 15.5 million people, while it is projected that in the year 2040 that number would increase to 26.1 million people among that age group. Better health care and longevity have driven up the cases of cancer, and this would represent a growing burden on health care and society as more and more younger people would have to support the health costs of the elderly. 

This is also evident in the lack of cancer care and facility; in Vancouver, there are currently barely enough chemotherapy chairs available, and since cases of cancer will steadily increase, we would need an additional 400 chemotherapy chairs by around 2040 to keep up with those rates.

Fortunately, there are different solutions available for this crisis. One of them is to promote and increase prevention. As more and more people can be potentially saved from being diagnosed of cancer, the incidents would then decrease by a significant amount. This would also mean that there would be more availability of resources for those who shall need treatment.  

Secondly, there could be more advances in treatment. More efficient and cost-effective treatment could then ensure that people will receive the care they need. The current methods of treatment are mostly effective, but they are far from perfect. About thirty years ago, very few people survived cancers like breast cancer, but today about 60 % of patients can survive over five years, while over 80% of children can survive. 

However, that also indicates that 40 % of adult patients and 20 % of children will NOT survive. At the same time, some of them who end up surviving must deal with significant side and after-effects and their quality of life will be dramatically decreased over that time period.

Thirdly, there could be advances in research that would not only focus on treatment but rather on the actual cure of cancer. Since cancer is a complicated disease, and in fact represents up to thousand variations of the same disease, there is no single silver bullet capable of curing all the strands of this disease. Yet through person-centered and targeted cancer care, we should be able to successfully eradicate at least certain cancers.

What are the obstacles then? In the first one, i.e. prevention, there is a mix of either lack of information, misinformation, or plain complacency. Many people underplay, ignore or deny the active role they have when it comes to their own health. They often blame their genes, environment, personal circumstances etc. 

Although these could be valid reasons, at least to some extent, we all have more control over them than we tend to acknowledge or realize. For instance, obesity may contain genetic components, but we could keep symptoms and potential complications under much better control with a healthier lifestyle and a more balanced nutrition.

There are various innovative treatments that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (note that approval by the FDA only means that they are safe for human consumption and does not imply effectiveness); these treatments, such as gene therapy, then undergo clinical trials, which are mostly funded by pharmaceutical companies.

These new approaches are using modern technology to treat cancer in a more effective, targeted and less painful manner. The quality of life of patients can substantially increase, while there can also be potentially higher success rates. Finally, if our aim is not so much alleviation of symptoms but rather eradication of the root cause of the disease, we would have the chance to cure significantly more patients.  

Yet the biggest stumbling block comes in the way of Big Pharma, the conglomeration and monopoly of a handful of pharmaceutical companies. Although I had heard and was somewhat acquainted with the issue of corporate greed in relation to drugs and medicine, the problem is much deeper and much more systemic than initially assumed or even feared.

In my opening paragraphs, I praised the potential healing power of medicine. But this same power can also be exploited by money-driven and power-hungry and greedy corporations. Big Pharma is situated firmly and squarely in the US as well as certain parts of Europe. It is indeed this monopoly of pharmaceutical companies that sets the drug price in the US and decides and weaves control over the global market.

Since medical drugs are of such vital importance for patients, the latter become vulnerable to an abusive system that prefers on one hand to drive up prices for medication, and on the other hand to restrict research for a cure of the same disease. If a given disease can be cured, then there would be no need for further medication, hence the profit margin of the pharmaceutical company could essentially decrease.

The same can be said about alternative forms of medicine as they often do not depend on pharmaceutics and are beyond the reach and control of Big Pharma. Hence, alternative medicine is, regardless of its effectiveness, generally discouraged and discredited in consumer societies. Although one should keep in mind that some companies indeed do the opposite and attempt to exploit certain people by offering fraudulent products that are ineffective, counterproductive, and even dangerous.

Nevertheless, one of the main problems here is that pharmaceutical companies are given free reign and have little to no regulation in their practices. There were various cases where vital drugs had undergone significant and unreasonable (not to mention highly unethical) increases only to ensure higher profit margins for those companies. The fact that the US government does not (chooses not to?) interfere due to their powerful lobbies and their economic weight and impact has made matters only worse over the recent decades.

The main problem is that lives are at stake and that they could be potentially saved. Unfortunately, Big Pharma has taken a noble endeavor and profession and turned that into a money-making scheme. Although a certain margin of profit is more than acceptable, the current amounts are inordinate and unreasonable. It should not cost a patient almost half a million dollars to have effective treatment for their life-threatening disease, which is the current charge for gene therapy. In BC alone, 300 to 400 million dollars of a $1.7 billion budget are spent annually on cancer drugs with drug costs ranging from $50,000 to $150,000 per patient.  

Furthermore, any advances and breakthroughs in research by universities have either been funded via Big Pharma or are taken up, appropriated and managed by them in forms of patents. The pharmaceutical companies would then use the research of hard-working scientists (in this, the University of Pittsburgh has led the way over the past decade or so) to fund their own clinical trials, which would then lead to production of drugs and treatments. In the end, most, if not all the major decisions end up falling squarely into the hands of the powerful few. And in times of crisis like ours, making the right and ethical decision is of the utmost importance!

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Public Engagement on Making Cancer Care Funding Fair and Sustainable: Day One

BC Research Institutes providing Funding for Cancer

About three months ago, after having read a book on innovative ways of approaching and dealing with cancer, I had just posted my book review when I got to know on the very same evening that my father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. A few days later, I received an invitation in the mail regarding a public deliberation on fair and sustainable cancer funding in my province.

This event was funded by various health agencies, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and the Canadian Centre for Applied Research in Cancer Control of the Canadian Cancer Society. 

The idea of a deliberative public engagement was to invite a certain amount of people across the region to share their views and experiences so that cancer care and treatment could better reflect and realign with the consensus of the people. In other words, our voices mattered, and they would be distilled into a group of written recommendations that were then sent out to the government for possible consideration, if not downright implementation.

When I received the invitation in the mail, I did not hesitate, but immediately emailed the organizers of the event telling them how much I would appreciate to participate in this undertaking. In fact, since I do not necessarily believe in coincidences - I think the world works in synchronicity - I saw the triple connection with cancer as a kind of sign or omen. Things may come in random pairs, but when it happens three times within a very short time, a matter of two or three days, then it must be significant. And it certainly was.

After I filled out the online form, I was told to wait as they would select about two dozen people from the given candidates. Later I would be given the exact numbers, but at that time I simply had to wait. The days passed and no response materialized. I was told that we would hear back from them at a certain date, and I at times expected them to decline. Yet one night, I had a dream that they were working on a pamphlet that was to be sent out and it came with a letter of acceptance stating my inclusion in the upcoming public engagement.

Dreams can be at times prophetic, so that raised my hopes. I told my wife, and lo and behold, less than a week later, I received an email in which I was told that I had been selected. And yes, it came with a pamphlet that was attached to the email, a physical copy of which we would receive on the first day of the event.

Since it came attached with a confidentiality agreement, I was very careful about divulging any information about the event and shared it with only a few close people. I was not sure how much we could give away until we were given the heads up on the first day and were told that we could share our views and experiences on social media. This was a relief for me since before that, I had been very vague about my whereabouts regarding that given weekend.

The main issue was that due to the personal and sensitive nature of the topic at hand, some of the participants might not feel comfortable about being mentioned, but the experts, researchers, organizers and speakers were fair game, that is, we could freely quote from all of them as they were basically, due to the nature of their occupation and the situation, part of the public domain so-to-speak. I immediately warned them that they would show up on my blog, so here they are!

The first day I was impressed with how well it was all organized. There was a clear schedule and an established pattern on how things would work. We picked up our honorarium, which was a boon considering that each of us was willing to forgo two complete weekends for the event, and then we were given individual folders that included a name tag that would go in front of our seat at the table.

We were told that all our conversations and discussions would be recorded but not videotaped and that we should identify ourselves before speaking, so that they could trace back comments and opinions to the person who made them. This information would then be depersonalized and compiled to help understand the motivations and reasoning behind one’s comments and decisions. 

In fact, the discussion part was as important - if not more so - than the final recommendations as it gave insight into the thought processes, feelings as well as potential reservations that were associated with our votes and decisions.

As to the selection process, they had sent out 10,000 letters to people across the province. They used postal codes provided by Canada Post to select regions and tried to ensure to have a fair, balanced, and reasonable selection across the board of different criteria, such as ethnicity, education, income, gender, rural and urban living space and geography as well as age. By doing so, they would have access to views and values that were not specialized or relevant for a given section of the population but rather a more global snapshot of public opinion.

From those 10,000 invitations, there were 220 people who fully completed the online survey, and then slightly more than two dozen people were selected. In fact, the organizers insisted that we were specifically selected to come because they were interested in knowing more about our views and values. They encouraged us to participate as much as we can, and I immediately thought, oh boy, soon enough they would come to regret telling me that. Not that it mattered since I would have participated anyhow as these issues were lodged quite close to my heart.

Stuart Peacock sitting in front of his computer

One of the researchers who can be named and quoted because he is essentially part of the public was Stuart Peacock (pictured above in his trademark pensive mode). He is a Distinguished Scientist and is involved with BC Cancer, with the ARCC and Simon Fraser University, and he was available throughout the sessions for background information and expert advice regarding cancer care and treatment. He told us that there are 200,000 people diagnosed yearly in Canada and about 60 % of them will survive, while the rate of survival is higher among children, namely around 80 %. Traditional treatment included radiation, often a combination of chemotherapy and radiation as well as surgery.

There were also more innovative treatments on trial, such as gene therapy, but one of the main issues was that there was still not sufficient data regarding its effectiveness but more importantly, they were extremely expensive costing about $400,000 per patient. I immediately felt compelled to ask whether the prices were high because it cost that much to undertake such treatments or whether it was because pharmaceutical companies simply charged an inordinately high amount. 

He carefully phrased his answer that implied it was more a case of the latter than the former. In fact, cancer drug prices approved by the Food and Drug Administration were increasing rapidly making it more difficult for many countries and health care systems to afford them.

Mike Burgess standing

The other researcher among our group who called himself “Mike” was Michael Burgess (pictured above in his moderating pose), Professor and Chair in Biomedical Ethics at the University of British Columbia, and he was another expert moderating our discussions. Public engagement or deliberation was a rather new concept in current politics, and there were initiatives to experiment with possible ongoing citizen advisory boards and committees. 

In a debate, the goal was to win by questioning and challenging the other person’s point of view, such as presidential election debates, but deliberations had a somewhat different mindset, namely one of being inclusive, civic-minded and respectful of other points of view. I was reminded of the ancient Greek councils where philosophical and political discussions were held, except that they were not inclusive since the ancient Greeks purposely barred women, slaves, and foreigners from their councils.

On the first day of the public engagement and before any deliberation took place, we were treated to three different speakers. Two of them were cancer survivors, one of them, a young female, had survived colorectal cancer, while the other, a male, had survived prostate cancer and was now the chair of a prostate cancer support group. 

The latter strongly promoted PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) tests to be covered by BC health care because that test essentially saved his life leading to an early detection of his cancer. PSA screening is often not undertaken; although it may spell out diagnosis, it can also lead to misdiagnosis, and hence cause unnecessary stress and anxiety in the tested individual.

Yet when prostate cancer is detected in time, it can have a nearly 100 % survival rate among patients. In his case, it was a fortunate array of circumstances that led to the early detection of prostate cancer. In fact, his general practitioner had been reluctant to do the test, but accidentally ticked it off on an unrelated blood test as it was supposed to measure his cholesterol.

When the speaker was asked (I believe it was me who did the asking, but that could be easily verified by those who have access to the audio recordings) how much it cost to do the screening test, we were rather shocked to find out that it was only $30 per patient. And equally shocking was the fact that the tests were covered everywhere in Canada except in BC and Ontario. In fact, prevention and screening were themes that were important for all of us participants throughout the deliberations.

The final speaker of the first day was Malcolm Moore, a Medical Oncologist and current President of BC Cancer. One would think that as a president he would wield significant powers, but the impression we got were that his hands were tied in various matters, including decision-making, especially when pertaining to budgets and funding. In the end, it was bureaucracy that would have the final word and make the ultimate decision.

Dr Moore started off by giving us various statistics regarding cancer. In terms of deaths in Canada, 30.2% of deaths are attributed to Cancer, in comparison 19.7 % die of Heart disease, 2.8% of Diabetes, and 4.6% of accidents. In British Columbia, 1 in 2 people will develop cancer at some point in their lives, and 1 in 5 will die from it. In 2017, there were 27,000 people diagnosed with cancer and 10,500 died from it. Currently, 5% of our population is living with a diagnosis of cancer.

The cancer treatment system started with radiation and was then combined with chemotherapy. In fact, our province of British Columbia has lower incidents compared to other parts of Canada as well as other countries in the world, which he assumed was mainly due to our healthy lifestyle.

The budget that BC Cancer receives from the government is 700 million dollars per year. Most of the funds are spent on treatment, such as radiation and chemotherapy, which are completely covered by BC Cancer. In total 400 million dollars, more than half, is spent on cancer drugs, and only 4 % of the budget is spent on prevention and screening, and a mere and meager 1% on Research. BC Cancer, however, is not the only institute spending money on prevention as it contributes less than 20% of the overall budget on prevention; some prevention programs are covered through different agencies.

As a matter of fact, about 50 to 60 % of cancers are preventable. One can effectively and significantly reduce the risk of cancer by not smoking since cigarettes are directly related to incidents of lung cancer (90% of lung cancers are due to smoking), by maintaining a normal body weight, which can protect you against various types of cancer, and by regularly screening for cancer since early detection can increase your likelihood of survivorship. It was indeed most interesting to be given statistics about cancer care and funding and to be given details not only about the budget but also about certain obstacles and hindrances, including pharmaceutical companies, also known as Big Pharma.

But more about the latter in my upcoming posts. Since there is much more information I would like and in fact even feel the need to share with you, I shall break it all down into three parts – again the number three being my symbolic guide throughout. 

The second part of my experience of the Public Engagement series will be about Big Pharma, Innovation and Prevention, whereas the final concluding part would be my own personal reflections and opinions on and about the event and the topic of cancer. So please stay tuned, subscribe to my blog or merely come back for Parts Two and / or Three!

Monday, April 22, 2019

Language Learning and Prediction in Infants: UBC Quinn Memorial by Richard Aslin

Photo of Dr Richard Aslin
Every year there is at least one lecture I eagerly await and look forward to, namely the Quinn Memorial Lecture Series. It has been my fifth attendance over the last six years, with my first one being Michael Gazzaniga’s exquisite lecture entitled Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Unfortunately, I had to miss last year’s lecture by Dr Robert T. Knight because the date and time interfered with my work schedule, but I had been luckier this time around.

Although it certainly did not look like it at first. The scheduled talk Learning and Attention in Infants: The Importance of Prediction in Development by Distinguished Scientist Richard Aslin was suddenly canceled and postponed to a later indefinite date. No reason nor future date were given at the time. Could it be that my brain would have to go two years in a row without the much needed and much desired annual adrenaline shot of knowledge?

Thank goodness, my worries were unfounded, and there I was seated upfront with my smartphone in hand to take notes in preparation for this blog post. I did not know what to expect and on paper, at least for me, the topic at hand about how infants learn language and make predictions about their surroundings did not have the similar emotional impact on me as did previous topics and titles of this wonderful series.

There was certainly nothing wrong with the subject, but for me personally, it came about a decade too late as my son has already taken his first steps into the preteen period. More importantly, I did not wish to hear in retrospect how I may have potentially failed him as a parent in terms of language learning and / or behavior.

Yet again for a second time, my worries were entirely unfounded. The talk itself was much more interesting and engaging than I had imagined. First, Dr. Aslin told us how infants learn through auditory statistical learning. This means that they break streams of words, which are for them initially nothing but random sounds, into auditory chunks, hence creating word boundaries.

These boundaries are often signaled in fluent speech with pauses, such as taking breath. These word chunks then are basically processed and analyzed by the infant brain to make predictions. In order to be able to better understand and predict their surroundings, babies have the tendency to listen and pay more attention to novel and infrequent words and tones.

Why? Because by knowing and establishing certain patterns, they can better understand the rules. This is not a case of merely memorizing words but also looking past them for meaning (vocabulary as a symbol of a designated thing / event in the world) and learning about the inherent rules (grammar, sentence structure and appropriate word choices). 

In a way then, it is memorization plus generalization, respectively known as model-free and model-based learning; the latter of which is generally designated as smart, abstract and flexible ways of comprehension, while the former is rather unfairly treated as the opposite of all those epithets.

Certainly, there is also incidental learning. This means that we absorb knowledge and information without particularly focusing on the given stimuli. This type of learning would occur when one is performing a task by also taking in background noise or information in an almost automatic or subconscious manner. 

Evidently, paying attention is much better suited for learning, but even when we do not notice stimuli implicitly, we are still aware of and capable of remembering strands of information around us without having to specifically focus on them.

The manner they tested all of this was very interesting. The researchers inundated infants with random sounds and stimuli, both in terms of nonsense words, i.e. random syllable sounds as well as tones. Babies tended to be interested in new stimuli, but whenever they managed to discern a clear and repeated pattern, they would lose interest.

This occurred because infants were able to predict the next sound, so the sequence did not provide any novel information for them. Once a pattern was established, the baby moved on to something else … unless there was an unexpected result. That is, if they were expecting a given sound to follow, but either it did not, or the pattern was changed, then the element of surprise would warrant and elicit their attention again.

This happens mainly due to the structure of our brain. To clarify this tendency of the brain to create, establish and predict patterns, they conducted an interesting experiment with pairs of tones. The researchers would play the sound of two honking horns beep beep. After repeated exposure, the baby expected them to come in pairs, yet when the researchers omitted the second beep, the brain nonetheless supplied it.

This was discovered by hooking up wires on babies (no worries, this is harmless and painless standard procedure), thereby noting the infant’s brain activity. In other words, when the brain registered the first honk, the second one was immediately supplied by the brain, regardless if it was or was not there!

Since our brains are wired to make sense of our environment in terms of words or tones, we would use top-down processing once a pattern has been established, meaning that the higher structures of the brain would override the lower ones. In the previous experiment, the higher brain regions literally expected the double tone.

Once inferences were made, babies would then allocate attention to new information. This was observed by their behavior and reactions, such as looking longer at unexpected stimuli or looking away from expected, hence “boring” and unstimulating stimuli. 

In that sense, the brain works tandem with behavior, we are able to see connections and patterns and then start looking for them, hence it is the brain structure that is grounded and established first before the behavior sets in and manifests itself.

About 9 months of age, infants start searching for hidden objects because their brain - and with it their imagination - has developed to a state where the infants are capable of doing and perceiving such a thing; by around 18 months, they can produce two-word sentences. This seems to be universal and is caused by brain development growth and changes.

Yet some of the startling, if not downright shocking, finding was in relation to premature babies. It turns out that they can be at a significant disadvantage when it comes to their brain development although this may not be immediately visible or discernible in their behavior.

Put differently, premature babies may act and behave the same way as other infants, but their brain is less developed than their full-term counterparts. That sent shock-waves down my spine as my son was born prematurely! However, if you have premature children, or if by chance, you are one yourself, keep in mind that this is not always the case.

First off, each case or person is different, and it is not necessarily a disadvantage to begin with. In fact, the premature baby may make up for brain development at a later stage. Due to the plasticity of this magnificent and complex organ of ours, the brain can compensate for parts that have not fully developed, even more so at a younger and developing age. We should also note that the studies were conducted with babies that were significantly premature by about a handful of months and not by a mere month as it was in the case of my son.

Moreover, there are two other general factors that are significant and essential for learning as well. One of them is the fact that salience and prior knowledge tend to drive attention. Anything that is surprising and simply, or maybe ostentatiously, stands out will draw the attention of infants, an observation that is probably equally true for the adult age. The commonplace, however, is generally not worth a second look.

The other factor of importance is what is generally known and referred to as the Goldilocks effect. This simply means that if the information or stimuli presented is too simple or too complex for the baby, he or she will simply look away and lose interest. 

The Goldilocks effect plays also a significant role when it comes to stress and anxiety of children at school; optimal attention and learning is usually achieved when the material and / or environment is neither too comfortable and relaxing nor too stressful and exacting. The middle ground, i.e. the Goldilocks effect, is usually optimal for learning. 

But another question that arose was why was it that we as adults lose that infant ability to make sense of our environment? For instance, this type of processing information would be most useful when learning a second or additional language. Why was the same process not supplied to us at a later stage since it would make our language learning – and life - so much easier?

Part of the problem stems from the fact that as adults we have already established preconceived and set ways of learning and of reacting to our environment, commonly known as entrenched learning. Since we can make more and better sense of our surrounding, and we already have a plethora of prior information and knowledge to select from, we can predict it much better. As a result, and for better or worse, we are not so much drawn to new stimuli and information, but, in a sense, we lose some of our capacity for curiosity and wonder. 

But this is perhaps not the only reason we become somewhat jaded as adults. The other driving force, an issue that came up during my personal conversation with Dr. Aslin afterwards, was anxiety. When we are young, we are generally driven by our anxiety to make sense of everything that is around us, as it could spell potential threat and danger to our health and wellbeing. Once we have sorted out the information, we somewhat lose or at least soften that anxious edge.

With less anxiety, there is also less need to fear or worry about new stimuli. Dr. Aslin called this the dichotomy of an exploring baby versus an exploiting adult brain. While as infants, we strive to look for clues and knowledge to make predictions, as somewhat “jaded” adults, we want to use whatever new knowledge we get our hands on to better serve our benefit and purposes. Most of these developments may origin in the brain and are hence automatic and not necessarily within our control.

This has repercussions in terms of language learning as well. Our life does not so much depend upon making sense of the world since we have already more or less successfully passed through that stage in our younger years. However to finish on a more positive note, we can (and I would say should), despite our brain and age, preserve a sense of wonder by occasionally feeding the child within us and hence ensuring that this worldview or way of interpreting the world is still kept alive and well.