Monday, 13 December 2010

Stopping tobacco

'Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times.'
Mark Twain

About five weeks ago I stopped smoking tobacco. It was quite easy, involving no real suffering. I know, Mark Twain said 'giving up' was easy, but 'giving up' is doomed to fail, because you're depriving yourself of a source of pleasure. In my view, one of the purposes of being alive is to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. Generally, if something is pleasurable, I see no reason to deny it to myself on a dubious promise that I may live a little longer. So, my giving-up efforts with tobacco were short-lived, and marked by the misery of the internal civil war brought on by self-denial.

Of course, like Austin Spare, you can make magical use of the stress of giving up. Spare would cast a spell, then place his cigarettes on an 'altar', denying himself that pleasure until he got his result. So, if you're going to put yourself through the pain of self-denial, at least do it in the service of some really worthwhile goal!

This time I stopped, rather than gave up. I used the method of Allen Carr (no, not the toothy TV comic), in his book 'How to Stop Smoking the Easy Way'. ( In 40 years of smoking and 13 of attempting to stop, it's the only method I've found that makes sense to me. I didn't manage to sustain the internal civil war of willpower, for the reasons outlined above. Methods based on fear are also non-starters - you only have to stand outside a hospital for a short while to notice that not only visitors but also staff are unmoved enough by the imminence of grisly death to be smoking their lungs out between witnessing terminal sickness. Warnings simply don't work.

Carr's method starts where all the others leave off. He doesn't require you to give up anything. In stead, you stop doing something to yourself that isn't even pleasurable. If you can convince yourself you don't enjoy smoking, you're home and dry.

The first time, I managed it for four and a half years. Then, one night in New York City, it occurred to me that a cigar would go splendidly with my glass of Knob Creek bourbon. My gracious host indicated a temperature-controlled humidor, and before I had time to regret it, I had a perfectly-kept Havana in my hand. Three months later, I was still feeling deprived, and the habit crept back.

It took me three years to get back on top of the situation and stop again. Had I known how easy it would be, I wouldn't have waited so long.

The craving has died down now. The key for me was realising how little I enjoyed it and how short the addiction cycle is: there is virtually no physical addiction - as Carr points out, smokers abstain for 8, 9 or 10 hours every night, between the last fag and the first of the day. The cycle is: smoke, nicotine leaves body, desire resumes, is satisfied briefly, and so on. The entire physiology of nicotine 'addiction' is a cycle of less than an hour in length.

This was really apparent this last time: there really was no physical distress, even on the first day. In the weeks since I stopped, I've had a few moments of craving, especially after a couple of glasses of wine, but it's been easy to believe it when I tell myself I would get nothing but a very short-lived buzz of nausea, numbness and swooping hypoglycaemia, followed by a vague desire for some more.

What keeps the whole habit afloat is what we tell ourselves about what we're feeling in the time between smokes. There is no physiology standing in the way of quitting, which is why substitution with patches or gum or e-cigs is a poor strategy, merely prolonging the agony. And yet substitution is the current medical fashion, and what the NHS bases all advice for would-be quitters on. Medics and policy-makers, arise and read Allen Carr!!!

Friday, 10 December 2010

A O Spare on YouTube

For those who missed the wonderful S London exhibition, or who would like to glimpse bits of it again, here's a short video with interviews with Alan Moor, Robert Ansell, Phil Baker, Stephen Pochin and Geraldine Beskin.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Soul in the Flesh; or, Where's the rest of my nervous system?

You will likely know what I mean when I refer to 'gut feelings'. These are a species of what NLP-ers call congruence/incongruence signals. Kinaesthetic - or more precisely, enteroceptive - sensations that tell us, very quickly, if some situation is good or bad for us at that moment.

We all know them - the first impression that runs counter to conscious logic but turns out to be correct; the voice that, once heard, prophesies trouble, which only emerges years later.
I taught congruence techniques to various groups for years, and nearly everyone's congruence signals consist of feelings located between the heart and the lower abdomen; the phrase 'gut feeling' is indeed a fitting one.

What part of us is doing the feeling here? I always naively assumed that the brain was processing masses of fuzzy information about the situation below my conscious awareness, and then presenting me with a signal that, for some reason, was either a swelling or rising feeling around my diaphragm (good) or a sinking, shrinking or clenching feeling in my lower abdomen (bad). Maybe this unconscious processor, once it had completed its job, used my abdominal nerves as a signaling beacon.

But why the abdomen? Maybe these sensations are the way we perceive processing in the enteric nervous system. This is the vast neural system, sometimes considered as part of the autonomic NS, which controls the intestines and other abdominal organs, as well as chest cavity organs.

Do we experience this neural place in some way, like we experience the brain as the seat of conscious thought? Otherwise, the use of the guts to express the result of some pretty deep processing seems arbitrary, like grabbing the first thing to hand. Much less arbitrary would be the picture of the enteric NS actually doing the processing, and communicating its decision, yes, no or maybe, as a feeling in that part of the body.

A TV programme a while back on transplant memories invited us to take this idea a step further. When a heart is transplanted, it needs to get started in its new chest cavity. The transplanted heart contains a large number of nerves - the researcher on the show referred to a 'little brain' existing within the heart.
These nerves respond to emotions from elsewhere in the body - apparently, an electrocardiogram will register a strong emotion before brain electrodes detect it, indicating that it is to this 'unconscious' part of our NS that emotion arrives first. This is of a piece with the speed of processing of congruence/incongruence signals - these are mechanisms that exist to warn us quicker than conscious processing can manage.

The researchers in the TV programme had found evidence that the information needed to 'reboot' a heart when, for whatever reason, it has just stopped, is carried in this heart-nerve complex, so that when a heart is transplanted, its 'reboot' is controlled by itself, not by the host's organs. Taking things a step further, they speculated that some 'core memories' of the donor's life may be stored in the heart-nerves, to the extent that they can surface and overcome the personality of recipient. Examples from such cases involve food preferences, musical tastes and other qualities we tend to think of as personal.

In stead of just the wiring for a sack of offal, the enteric NS is revealed as another part of ourselves that we live with and through, another source of experience. And this kind of experience is of primary, unmediated knowing; the subjectivity of the enteric NS is what our ancestors would have called another soul.