The Abstract and the Concrete

Evening, Internet!

So what’s up this week? Well, I’m wrapping my head around prism therapy, getting my Irish on for Varsity, and trying to stop my dissertation from crumbling around my ears. I am also highly aware that the structure for this whole blog has gone a little out of the window. Bear with, I’m doing my best.

I’m also trying to get my head around philosophy, which is no mean feat. Fun fact about me – I don’t do abstract. Like, at all. And translating the abstract into the concrete is even worse. I remember having a huge row with my mum over the right approach to the theoretical foundations to clinical case formulation because I simply could not comprehend what she was on about.  And now I’ve decided to write an essay about epistemology (also known as the theory of knowledge) in qualitative research, and I’m wondering if I’ve officially lost it for good.

Though occasionally I manage to surprise even myself, ’cause I wound up with a merit for the formulation essay. Who’da thunk it?

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It’s a bit like a lot of academic stuff, I think – a little bit harder for me, because my brain simply doesn’t urn that way. Most of the time, though, trying to grasp philosophy is more like  putting diesel in a petrol engine – *cough cough* and it’s dead. And I genuinely not sure why. Way back in undergrad, I just kind of accepted it (and took Dutch instead of a philosophy module because f*ck you). Can’t get away from it now, though. I deal in the concrete, the stuff I can measure, and analyse and then apply to previous knowledge, never mind the theory.

It might be a global picture thing. It’s a fairly well known facet of autism that we focus on the details first and the big picture second. Or maybe it’s just the fact I think along ‘tramlines’ according to my mum, which I think is a bit unfair, but not untrue. Anyway the long and short of it is, I might have screwed myself over with this one. Oh well. Just make it sound good, mm?

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On the other side, my organisational, people/social and general ‘cool’ are in the process of being pushed to the limits by my dissertation project. It’s just me – big contrast to last time. Which is simultaneously better and worse, I think. Yes, it’s more stressful, but ultimately, my really independent and narcissistic side would far rather be solely in charge. And here’s where I think the dyspraxia kicks in again – or rather, my coping mechanisms do. I have my own way of organising and my own ways of doing things (also known as three calendars, a spreadsheet and a decent mobile data connection). I don’t know why, but letting someone else into that tightly-run ship just puts my back up. It was a big problem back in undergrad – my partner had all the ideas and I felt like I was being swept along for the ride, and I had no idea at all what I was doing. It’s all so different now. I don’t know what happened in the two years between undergrad and postgrad, but I grew a backbone, that’s for damn sure.

Not helped by the tech that record the data screwing me around royally the other day and not actually recording anything, so I now have virtually nothing to work with. Joy of all joys.  And I have to deal with people. Wow. It’s so awkward. But I do have a script. A literal script.

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Anyway, as I said, dear audience, please bear with me while I sort out the whirlwind that is currently my life. I want to expend a bit more on small details vs big picture vision, and I’ll keep you updated on the dissertation research (without going into too much detail, obviously). It’s just all a bit much to juggle.

Have a good week, and stay awesome

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Scan Initiated

Good evening, one and all!

First up, a couple of announcements. The first is due a change in schedule, I’ll be changing the update day of this from Thursday to Friday – reason being we’ve just been slammed with a compulsory three-hour stats lab on Thursday afternoons, which is fine, but leaves me mentally a bit wiped out. Therefore, happy Friday!

Might also mean I get it out a bit more regularly than I have been for the last couple of weeks! I’ll confess half of that is fatigue and half of that is my piece of crap laptop screwing me around again. The fix was, weirdly, removing my anti-virus software, so I’m feeling a bit virtually vulnerable right now. Is it going to stop me illegally streaming Yuri on Ice? Absolutely not.

But anyway, after the angst of a couple of weeks ago, and with blowing all your minds with cute on mindfulness, I want to talk about something cool that happened last week – namely, that I got to have a go in an fMRI scanner.

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For anyone who’s not familiar with MRI (or Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology, what a normal MRI scan does is take a picture of your brain or body in the state it’s in at a given moment, by aligning all the water cells in your body to a strong magnetic field and measuring the time it takes for them to realign themselves back into their natural state. Different tissues have different amounts of water in them, hence the multi-layered image. An fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) takes it one step further and, as the name would suggest, scans the brain as it functions, using the level of oxygen in the blood – the BOLD signal. Not in real-time, unfortunately, we’re not that good yet, but with enough spatial accuracy that we can pinpoint the areas which are active when performing a cognitive task. It’s not something many people will get to do outside of research or a clinical procedure – and even then it’s so expensive to run that even within research it’s not something which gets used a lot – and I consider myself quite lucky that I got to take part.

The scanner itself is, in its purest form, a huge spinning magnet, so before entering the scanner I had to take my hoodie off (metal eyelets), all my piercings out (for obvious reasons) and answer a bunch of questions about my dental history (though it turns out normal fillings are just fine). Getting stuck to the inside of this thing is, I imagine, not fun. There are some really funny videos somewhere of a bunch of research scientists mucking around with the magnetic field (because we’re serious academics doing serious academic things), and this thing is seriously strong. Like, 30,000 times the magnetic field of Earth kind of strong.

Not that I was worried about this, or anything.

Nah, that was fine. I was more worried about the fact that the hole my body was being inserted into was no more than a couple of feet across, if that. Which makes sense if you’re trying to take an image through someone’s skull. It’s the same principle as X-Rays – you have to get up close and personal before they can get a decent image. And two sets of ear plugs. Think of a pneumatic drill being used right outside your window and then turn the volume up a bit – that was what it would have sounded like without them. It was still loud as hell even with them in. So as I’m sitting on the ‘bed,’ if you like, the researcher makes me plug my ears with those soft foam plugs you get in nightclubs and on shooting ranges, and then put a pair of ear defenders over my ears as well. I had to yell “What?” a few times before I could hear whatever else he was trying to say; which was a good thing. Then I lay back into the headrest, which was like a scoop with a cushion inside, had my knees propped up by a triangular cushion, and was handed a button box and told, ‘Just relax.’

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And then the scary part. So the hole through the scanner is a bit like a classic doughnut – it goes all the way through and out the other side. The screen where the task I’ll be doing is on the other side, but to see it, they had to fit a kind of mask or clamp over my head which had a mirror attached to it. It wasn’t flush with my head but it was close enough to be weird. It took a couple of tries to get it right – for some reason the attachment wouldn’t fit on the headrest – but a few minutes later it was fixed and I had a front seat view of the approaching back of the scanner as they rolled me into the tube. Remember how I said it was only a couple of feet across? I moved my arm to try and get comfortable and instantly whacked the side of it. Big incentive to keep still. (And you need to keep deathly still or the images come out fuzzy). I’m actually okay in confined spaces – at least, I prefer them over wide expanses, definitely – so once I was in there it wasn’t a big deal. The big deal comes next.

As with basically anyone who has autism or autistic traits, I have an absolute horror of sudden loud noises. If there’s one thing guaranteed about fMRI scanners, it’s sudden, loud noises. So the starting of the scanner was the most terrifying part. The headphones muffled the worst of it but there was a series of dull clicks and then a sudden, huge mechanical whirr, and I felt the thing shudder to life. But then, once that was over, I started to relax. It made a rhythmic series of loud clicks – and rhythmic is the key word here. I like rhythmic. It’s predictable and I can deal with it. That was the initial anatomical scan. The researcher can talk to you by intercom, so he comes over the airwaves and he says, “Okay, we’re gonna start the real scan now.”

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I was expecting more of the same. Oh no. Louder and bleep-ier. But still rhythmic, so once I’d gotten used to it, it was easy to tune out. But this point was when I started to feel the magnet. Like weird sort of pulling pressure that started on my right and moved around me slowly as the scan kicked into life. Suddenly I was glad they made me take my piercings out.

Another thing I never expected was the warmth. It’s a huge piece of electrical equipment, not to mention the magnet inside is spinning at stupid-RPM and kicking off a vast amount of heat. Never heard the air-con come on though, even though it must have because I never broke a sweat. The task itself wasn’t all that interesting – just looking for duplicates of pictures and whacking a button on the button box – so between the two of them I almost dozed off. Four blocks of that separated by another anatomical scan – by which point the cushion on the headrest had developed a ridge that was digging into the back of my skull. Never moved my head though – ‘remarkably still,’ he said afterwards, so score one for my pain tolerance!

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Just goes to show, I suppose – there are some situations where you just gotta relax and let it all happen. This does not ring true for 95% of my life, but for the moments it does, I do cherish them.

Though maybe not so much when I got out of the scanner and my head refused to stop spinning, from being lying down for so long. You win some, you lose some. At least I didn’t actually faint.

So, yes, an experience. One I would recommend to anyone who is neither claustrophobic nor scared of loud noises. But they all do their best to make sure you’re comfortable, and the panic button is always there if you need it.

And I get a cool picture of my brain to yell at whenever it starts messing me around.

Stay awesome, everybody.

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Examine This!

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Happy New Year! So Rafferty and I have finally quit country-hopping and are safely back at Uni. And that means we’re gearing up for exam season. Again.

The one thing I didn’t miss during two years in work was university exams. Before anyone starts jumping down my throat, I am deeply aware it is one of the biggest cliches in education – the age old student of adage of ‘F*ck My Exams.’

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Thing is, it never used to be like that. Up until the age of around 17 I was completely neutral about exams, to the point where I would just not study and still come top of the class. I only revised for my GCSEs because my mum would have strung me up otherwise.

Then I failed a couple of A-Levels because Holy Hell, I was not expecting that jump. And After that very rude wake-up call, I joined the ranks of the other students, filing into the exam hall with the sharp tang of terror in my mouth.

Hands up who out there was considered ‘Gifted and Talented’ at school? Hands up who then also failed to make that big jump/a similar big jump and ever since then has been struggling with academic self-esteem issues? Yeah.

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It’s not a knowledge thing; I could spit out any amount of facts for these exams just off the top of my head. It’s a technique thing. I know that I know it, it’s just proving that I know it. Whether that’s a dyspraxia thing or just a me thing, I don’t know, I just know that even when I plan an answer out, what comes out onto the paper bears no resemblance to the answer in my head. I recently did a 48-hour take-home exam (which was awesome by the way) but I took one look at the first draft of my answer and just went, ‘Well, sh*t. Is that how all my exam answers read? Now I understand why I nearly failed my second year…’

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The thing about uni is, most of the support systems that eventually pulled my grades up and got me in the door in the first place got pulled away. I couldn’t get my lecturers to look at my practice exam questions (trust me, I asked, the answer was an unequivocal no). Even with an official diagnosis of a learning disability, I found it really difficult to access the support I needed. All I got was extra time in exams, and general help with the rest of my coursework, which I really felt I didn’t need. Fortunately I have a much better idea of what is supposed to be happening in exam answers now (I read a book about Critical Thinking and constructing arguments and a lightbulb came on), but for a while I was absolutely lost at sea. At 23 I’ve had to learn how to revise, because I never bothered all the way through school.

A word to the wise – bother. Don’t get complacent, sat on your intelligence, because A-Level and undergraduate level truly screwed with me, is still truly screwing with me, and it will truly screw with you as well. I’d love to know if I could have come top of the year every year if I’d put a bit of effort in, or at least felt like I needed to.

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I can’t change the past, and I can’t stop it screwing up my future, but I think that a lesson learned late is still a lesson learned. And with any luck, I can used this degree as a springboard to get into my chosen field. It might take me a bit more time, but I’ll get there.

Stay awesome, everyone.

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The picture of Rafferty is mine, please don’t reuse without permission.