Communicating from the other side

Sleeping, but still listening:  Panorama

A mother with children in my boys’ classes recenty told me recently that the edition of Panorama that she has been working on for a long time will be airing soon.

‘Oh great, when?’

On Tuesday evening at 10.35

‘Good, I’ll watch it!  Bit late though’.

‘I know’.

Her nose slightly crumpled,…  I could see that she would have preferred an earlier slot.  It wasn’t that it was too late for me – I’m quite the owl, but airing at 22.35 would halve the audience it would have attracted at 8pm.

So, what’s this programme about?

It covers the recent discovery that a proportion of patients in long-term comas, perhaps a fifth, who were previously thought to be in a vegetative state and gave no outward sign of consciousness, were suddenly able to communicate.  How did they do this?  By thinking in such a way that we could observe their brain activity with an fMRI scanner.  Scientists had discovered that when patients think about specific things, it triggered activity in a particular part of the brain.  So, when one patient thinks about tennis, a particular part of his brain becomes active.  He was then asked to think about tennis every time he wanted to say ‘yes’ to a question’.  From the way he ‘answered’ questions, it became clear that inside his vegetative body is a functioning brain.

It may seem a little frivolous to connect this break-through, fascinating science with the world of television scheduling.  But consider two things.  First, I hear people ALL THE TIME claiming that they don’t watch TV programmes live. It is the most made-up popular claim since the ‘I’m too busy to read books’ craze of the 1990s, and the ‘I’m big-boned’ porkie from the 1970s.  If that were true, then it wouldn’t matter when this Panorama airs.  But it does.

When my friend said

On Tuesday evening at 10.35

A rush of thoughts came into my head.  Tuesday – OK, that’s different from when Panorama used to air wasn’t that Monday it clashes with Newsnight will they still be banging on about the BBC perhaps I can give it a miss and that really is quite late but then again the children will be asleep, and that’s often an issue at 8pm and between 10 and 11 I can give the thing my full attention because I’m chilled and my head if clear and it’s not too late but then again I’d been hoping for an early night as I’m flying to Monte Carlo in the morning (I know, right?!) and I need to see the programme because I’ll want to talk about it with my friend who has worked hard on it and if I save it for later will that ever happen, I mean when I return from Monaco, I’ll have four episodes of Pointless to catch up on as well as this week’s Hunted and goodness knows what else.

Times of day and days of week really matter. We may not always think about them directly, but they are hard-wired and often subconscious.  We not only have behaviour patterns that relate to time of day, we have opinions and emotions that connect.  And bodily functions too (our libido is high after 10pm, and so are our liver function and allergic reactions).  There are a whole mass of rhythms at work.  And between 10 and 11pm are when the different chronotypes bifurcate, that is, the morning people (larks) go to bed, and the evening types (owls) stay up because they are still going strong.

And the other thought was that it’s somewhat ironic that the BBC would choose to air a programme about sentient patients in a vegetative state precisely at the time when a large swathe of the population is going to sleep.

Still, you know.  For people in the UK, it’s available on Iplayer.

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