Breathing

David Servan-Schreiber wrote about the power of breathing in his book ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’. Basically if you can breathe at 6 breaths a minute you automatically convince your body and mind that all is well. Your ‘limbic system’ selects neutral and goes into a state of relaxation – and quietly puts into gear your immune system to do routine maintenance. Your head convinces itself that all is in good order too.

So steady breathing is clearly a good thing to do. It fixes your limbic, tunes up your endocrine and settles your cognitive systems. But what’s interesting about breathing 6 times a minute, is that it’s very hard to do. If you are agitatated, active or at all anxious you can’t do it.

I was reminded how hard it is watching ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The film is slow, often majestic but but frequently claustrophobic and disquieting. And nowhere is it more claustrophobic then when you are virtually ‘in’ the spacesuit with Dr. David Bowman, breathing steadily, but strenuously as he prepares for and makes his lonely space walk in the sequence I’ve just watched.

The astronauts set out to fix a malfunction set up by the rogue on-board computer HAL. They surreptitiously discuss the potential need to disconnect HAL’s higher ‘brain’ functions to enable them to use his basic systems to run the space ship. Bowman wonders momentarily what HAL might ‘think’ of that – HAL’s single red ‘eye’ compulsively scans their mouths to lipread. We conclude HAL might not like that.

The combination of Kubrick’s perfectionism and Arthur C Clarke’s imagination is still a powerful one. I challenge anyone to watch this sequence and calmly breathe at 6 breaths a minute. Breathing both signals and drives the state of our nervous system. Even if the head says it’s fiction, finding yourself alone with HAL 9000 listening to the strenuous breathing of Dr Bowman makes the nervous system very nervous indeed.

Newspad

With remarkable prescience Arthur C Clarke gave his character Dr. Heywood R. Floyd a Newspad in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It collected a constantly refreshing stream of all the world’s news. But he also noticed (with even more impressive prescience) that one could live entirely immersed in that stream of information and never exhaust it – or have time for anything else. 

A study I saw a few years back said the combined broadcast news output in the UK created four hours of rolling news for every hour of real time elapsed. Who is watching? I guess only the advertisers know.

Last night I watched a documentary on the comic and gameshow host Bob Monkhouse. Undoubtedly a funny man, but publicly too ‘slick’ and as a ‘stand-up’ a little cruel I felt. There was more to him than that though. He struck me as a rather brilliant polymath trapped in a sharp suit and perma-tan. He was a talented illustrator, wit and observational comic as well as a consummate professional. He didn’t strike me as very happy. 

It transpires Monkhouse was also an avid, perhaps manic, collector. He collected films. I’m sure 2001 was one. He collected so many that he was dragged through the courts for sharing them with the odd celebrity friend, causing allegations of fraud and copyright abuse. At one time he had the world’s 3rd largest collection of films in private hands. In the end the courts didn’t take his precious films from him, but substantially drove his collecting underground. Come the advent of the VCR his obsessive collecting found a new outlet in simultaneously taping multiple channels worth of TV. His collection is now a unique archive – a veritable Noah’s ark – of British TV from the 1970s and 80s before the advent of ubiquitous digital recording.

Back to Clarke. I myself live in a constant stream of news collected by RSS and delivered to my 3 connected devices – my own ‘Newspads’. On holiday in France this year, the lack of mobile coverage meant I was pulled unwillingly from the flow of news and forced to adapt to the stiller waters of the swimming pool and the lapping waves of the Mediterranean. I suffered withdrawal for several days before escaping my addiction.

Three thoughts strike me from this. First the prescience or ‘pre-the-science’ of Arthur C Clarke is remarkable. Second, that the hundreds of hours of Bob Monkhouse performing as a mid-market game show host, might, just be transcended by the thousands he collected, to become his more remembered legacy to human-kind. But that he enjoyed but a small fraction of the hours of either during his life. 

And finally, that I should take care to avoid the danger of the Newspad which Clarke predicted in the year of my birth: “Even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever changing flow of information from the news satellites.” Surfing means just that, riding the crest of the information wave, not swimming or drowning in it.