Hearty Musings 2: From Zombie to Phoenix – Thoughts on the Self following cardiac arrest

I was treated to this on my Facebook timeline from Brainpickings. It’s an OK read, but a cracking video in which Josh Knobe discusses some ideas about the Self in his work on experimental philosophy. Knobe poses some thought experiments which are designed to get us thinking about whether the Self that we become in the future can really be described as the same person as the Self now. Imagine a time when 30 years from now there are people doing their day-to-day things and one of them might be a person who you could describe as being you. But, that version of you may well have entirely different beliefs, ambitions and goals to those you possess currently. Is it really the same person as you are now? He goes further, and refers to some work which reveals that if we are given a strong sense of future self, we may even become competitive with that Self. If you begin saving money now, you won’t feel the benefit – it will be a future Self that does. 

Watching this coincided with some existential angst I’ve been having following my cardiac arrest in February. So it goes. You may have had the pleasure of watching the rather superb French television series The Returned. I had begun to see myself as a character in that show – brought back from the dead, to the joy of some but to the disgust or fear of others. Somehow I felt slightly out of place, a re-animated version of Me that I couldn’t quite recognise. This was confounded by the effects on my short-term memory and my speech – something no-one else noticed but that made me feel like Frankenstein’s creature trying so desperately to learn how to articulate. 

But more recently I have begun to wonder if this is an opportunity. Imagine you are given a blank sheet and given the chance to design a new Self for you to be. What would it be like? Which bits of your former or current Self would you choose to keep? Which new bits would you like to try out? If you could design a Self, how similar to or different from your existing Self would it be? 

When the Eighth Doctor is given the choice of what kind of man to become, in the context of the Time War, he chooses “warrior”. But he also realises that this will mean he can’t be called the Doctor anymore. His future selves choose to bury this version away deep in his subconscious, as he chooses to be the Doctor again.

We don’t really need dramatic events such as Time Wars or dicky tickers to be given this opportunity, of course. Each day is a rebirth with the endless potential for change and renewal. We may be able to reinvent ourselves each morning: “Today I choose to be …” 

Or is this an illusion? Perhaps Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians are right:

If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” (Slaughterhouse Five)

 Is it possible to re-carve the Self, or are we destined to inhabit a Self beyond our own control? “That’s the problem with regeneration. You never know what you’re going to get” (The Fifth Doctor). In either case, what am I going to be now? A zombie or a phoenix? Am I going to try and carry on being the former Me, but not quite getting it right? Or am I going to rise above all that and soar above the flames of my old Self? And what would that even look like?


And if I find this difficult – facing a choice about who I might want to be – how do children feel? What concept of Self do they have? How do they perceive their future Self? Perhaps they don’t, and perhaps this is why teaching them is so difficult. For younger children this might not be an issue. I doubt they let concepts of Self worry them too much. 

I asked my daughter yesterday: “What’s it like being four?” 

She thought about this for a short while and replied, “Hurting yourself”. I think she means from falling over, or jumping into things. But it sounded deeply profound to me. Perhaps she was demonstrating a fundamental awareness that what we do as a child has huge implications for the Self we become as adults. 

But I suspect this becomes a problem for teenagers. We constantly expect them to develop a sense of future Self, and to invest time and effort into making life comfortable for that future Self. But the current Self doesn’t get the reward. Perhaps we need to shift attention way from knowing stuff to pass exams in order to get a good job. These ideas are future-locked and for many young people the future is as alien as the surface of Venus.

Perhaps we need to encourage a love of knowledge that will serve the present Self. Knowledge in and of itself is rewarding, and yet we so rarely say this in schools.

Hearty Musings

So, for Valentine’s Day this year, I gave myself a cardiac arrest. I was broken hearted.

In this post I contemplate the story of my cardiac arrest, my earlier heart attack, and the life saving treatment I received from strangers. How does this relate to the debate over “knowledge transmission” vs “discovery learning”?

This story begins in my kidneys, apparently. It turns out mine aren’t great – one is very small. I never knew this. The medical people discovered it during the investigations following my myocardial infarction (MI), or heart attack. And the thinking is that, over the years, this caused my blood pressure to rise leading to heart disease. I thought my asthma was getting worse, which is what the GP told me too.

So, one June day I was eating my lunch in the school canteen when I started to suffer what I thought was indigestion. And a very mild panic, which I tried to ignore. Like when I haven’t done something important.

I returned to my room, where I tried to dismiss the weird sensation in my left arm. There was a voice in my head which was telling me that I was imagining that. Google said it was a key symptom, but I was just 36 years old at the time and I was obviously not going to have a heart attack at my age.

So, I went about my afternoon as normal, teaching my year 9 class. That evening was the year 11 prom, so I went home and got ready. My wife could tell that something was not quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on what I was feeling.

I drove to the prom, enjoyed it, and drove home again. Had a cup of tea. Went to bed. BAM! An elephant was sitting on my chest whilst someone was wrapping me in the hottest ice in the universe. I went into the bathroom where I found a cool patch on the floor to roll about on. Then I needed the toilet and the entirety of the cosmos left my body, whilst all of Hades came out of my mouth simultaneously into the sink next to me.

My wife called an ambulance. The paramedics worked quickly to treat me with something in my mouth and morphine in my arm. They took me to New Cross Hospital where I received swift treatment – an angiogram and angioplasty; I was fitted with two stents. Later, I was discharged from hospital with a bag full of tablets which signalled a lifetime of medical dependency. I was also put on a rehab programme of exercise, which was run by the British Heart Foundation (BHF). I began to look into the work of the BHF and was amazed at the amount of work they do, from CPR training, to research, to providing nurses.

Life returned to normal. Then super-normal, as we welcomed our second daughter into the world. Things were great. Then, in February this year I was attending an interview at the UCB in Birmingham when, during my presentation, I died. My heart went into VF and then stopped. This was a cardiac arrest. Luckily I received swift CPR from a security guard at the college, and was responded to by paramedics very quickly. Several people saved my life that day thanks to their calm and swift response – obviously the paramedics, but also the staff at the UCB and, of course, the man who pumped my chest.

I was taken to a local hospital, but I’m afraid I don’t recall or understand the details of the treatment I received there. Two weeks later I had an ICD fitted, which serves of a very physical reminder of what has happened as the device sits proudly under the skin of my moob. This clever bit of kit constantly monitors my heart’s rhythm and should it go into VF again, the machine will give me a quick zap. I understand it can give a shock of up to 8000 volts.

I had the great honour and privilege of being invited back to the college to meet this man and tour the building, as I had no memories of the place at all. This visit happened last week and it was quite an experience – what do you say to the man who saved your life? Not only that, but he saved my quality of life with his quick response and good CPR technique. This saved my brain – the biggest danger for survivors of cardiac arrests is loss of oxygen to the brain.

I think I may have suffered a very little as my short term memory is FUBAR and I struggle to organise speech in my head before it comes out of my mouth. And I have a fear of going anywhere by myself. But that will probably pass.

So, what has any of that got to do with learning, and the debate around knowledge transmission vs discovery learning?

Well, in the first instance I’m rather glad that those who have treated my following both of these events were able to call upon a body of learned knowledge in order to give me the best treatment, rather than having to look it up on Google before giving me the morphine, or inserting the stents, or giving me CPR or fitting an ICD.

This is knowledge that these people will have had to rehearse somehow I order for it to remain in their long-term memory. The CPR-hero told me that has trained in CPR for 15 years. I was the first time he had to actually use it.

But, medical science is not static. Rather it is fluid, and new guidelines are released frequently. Medical staff are required to keep up-to-date with recent research findings, and the advice given on CPR has changed over the years. These changes are based on new discoveries – ongoing research which is, by definition, a process of discovery learning. This is built upon, and intertwined with established medical knowledge. But that established knowledge was, in turn, learnt through discovery – right back with the men who began dissecting stolen corpses.

I guess I’m concluding that this debate is one of those dichotomies that we teachers and educationalists love to splash around in. And yes, I’m afraid I’m heading towards the suggestion that this dichotomy is one of those falsies.