The Human Mind... boggles.

Last night I watched, or at least attempted to watch, an episode of The Human Mind (subtitled "And How To Make The Most Of It"; this debut episode is reviewed here by someone less annoyed than me).

The Human Mind managed the remarkable feat of being staggeringly dumbed down, yet also, frequently, incomprehensible.

Robert Winston's made some great documentaries, but this sure as hell wasn't one.

For me, the high point was a guy who can flawlessly remember ten consecutive shuffled packs of cards. We were told that he did so by walking around London, looking at landmarks, associating mental images of things like teddy bears and cakes with suits and numbers, and then associating, say, a teddy bear eating a cake with Tower Bridge in order to be able to remember that this point in his walk was the Jack of Diamonds.

Just do that 519 more times, and you've got it!

It's just that simple!

Yes, that really was all the explanation we got. Perhaps something that'd make sense of it got left on the cutting-room floor.

As it stood, though, I found this part of the show very much like watching Look Around You, but without the humour.

The episode also featured a fireman, whose story was told over about three hours of brightly coloured stock footage of fire and explosions and men with big hoses, without which the audience was presumably expected to go and watch the football instead, or just drool until we all died of dehydration.

This fireman once saved a bunch of other firemen by ordering them to leave a burning building where, a mysterious intuition told him, something awful was about to happen. Which it did.

After eight or nine more hours of stock footage - and interview footage of the fireman, who was interviewed in a slightly smoky room, to make sure we didn't absent-mindedly start thinking he was a pastrychef - we were told that he'd actually seen very clear evidence that a backdraft situation was developing. And then he just got a bit of a hunch before he added it all up consciously.

This doesn't sound like a very big deal to me.

But apparently it was worth a third of the episode, all by itself.

Oh, and the beginning of the episode sang the praises of the Durham fish oil trial, in which omega-3 oils apparently made kids smarter.

Except that study is complete bollocks [latest update here!]. There is no reason whatsoever to suppose that fish oil supplementation does anything for brain development in otherwise well-nourished children.

I suppose Winston's just phoning this one in from the voice-over booth and trousering the proceeds.

You wouldn't think he'd need the money, but I don't know why else anyone'd want to put their name on crap like this.

9 Responses to “The Human Mind... boggles.”

  1. DBT Says:

    Thanks for hosing this one down. I was spewing that I missed this supposedly credible piece, as recommended by Robyn Williams. Funny, he doesn't often fall for such shammery...

  2. Glaurung_quena Says:

    Was this documentary by any chance made in the US, or for US TV? As a Canadian, I can see a huge difference between the utter crap that passes for documentaries on most of the US documentary-themed channels (the discovery channel, the war channel, the history channel, etc) and Canadian-made documentaries.

    I think the producers of the American documentaries think that their audience has an IQ of around 40, and an attention span of around 40 seconds. So they need to deliver facts in very, very, very tiny bites, each factlet having to be introduced, explained, explained again in slightly different wording, and then recapped after the advertising break before moving on to the next factlet. Result: a 40 minute documentary (with 20 minutes of commercials, naturally) feels like it actually contains maybe 5-10 minutes worth of information, and 30 minutes of filler giving that nasty information a hugely thick candy coating.

  3. MichaelWright Says:

    Didn't see the doco, and I'm sure it was crap, but the memory technique described is, literally, ancient. As described in rhetorical manuals in ancient Rome, used in the Middle Ages, and elaborated in the Renaissance, you develop your memory by first making up for yourself a mental image of something, preferably a building or set of buildings with lots of niches, and then mentally "placing" each memory item, in a habitual order, on one of these niches. You can associate items with something striking to help you remember it. I've never tried it myself, and it all sounded a bit, well, strange, so I was well stoked when I saw a snip on TV of someone who must have been this bloke, explaining the same system, whilst doing a walk along the Thames to refresh his memory of his own memory theatre, as it was called in the trade. Frances Yates, _The Art of Memory_, is the standard work. A very great pity the Beeb blew it, along with puffing the Moller flying car.

  4. Daniel Rutter Says:

    I think the producers of the American documentaries think that their audience has an IQ of around 40

    I cannot imagine what features of American politics, religion or consumer preferences would give them that idea.

    Yes, this doco may have been made primarily for export. But it was all British people with Winston's English voice-over, and it's got a page on the BBC site, so I'm sure it's been broadcast in the UK and other bits of the Commonwealth, including here in Australia, as well.

  5. Daniel Rutter Says:

    the memory technique described is, literally, ancient

    I've heard about it before - I didn't know it dated back that far.

    But five hundred and twenty items?! For it to work at that level of granularity, your walk around London would have to include something like "the London Eye, the hot-dog stand next to the London Eye, the spot where they put the camera during the 23rd second of the London Eye stunt in that crummy second Fantastic Four movie, the usual end of the queue for the hot-dog stand, an unusually large bird turd..."

  6. MichaelWright Says:

    You have a mental image of fine granularity, too. I saw a shot of him by the Houses of P.: in a building like that, you'd use distinctive individual features, like statues on the roof, window niches that stand out, that kind of thing. One of the original frameworks was the interior of a classical theatre, with lots of handy memory hooks. Originally it was used for memorising speeches, to be delivered without notes. As for five hundred and twenty items -- well, I guess that's how you get to be a champ.

    Oh, and I don't think you could use bird turds, even of albatross size, because it has to be a permanent feature, so you can constantly refresh your memory framework.

  7. Stark Says:

    I can easily explain the crummy state of most documentaries in the US. It stems from how these folks were taught to write... or rather not taught. If you watch one of these turds for documentarties you will see that they do the following:

    1: Tell the audience what you are planning on telling them.
    2: Tell it to them.
    3: Tell them what you told told them.
    4: Re-summarize what you told them again.

    I actually had teachers in grade school and high school who told me this is how you should write an essay, a report, and even short stories. I'm certain this is where the makers of the documentaries learned to do this.

    Sad, 'innit?

  8. Chris L Says:

    Thank you for the fish oil link. I knew there was a good chance it was bunk when TV "health specialist" Laura DiBattista reported it. Every night she reports on the latest "study" without questioning anything.

  9. unfunk Says:

    As a musician, I was deeply offended by tonight's instalment; any orchestra worth its salt can play perfectly well without a conductor, and having some random kid up front waving their arms about in a rhythmic fashion isn't going to change that - as evidenced by the good Baron demonstrating that he can conduct an orchestra by doing just the same thing as the little girl.

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