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A Walk Through Robin's Brain

by Mary Douglas(more info)

listed in interviews, originally published in issue 18 - March 1997

This seems to me to be a natural point to maybe go into another area of discussion about how you discovered, in the human brain, or had a glimpse of these tremendous abilities that are not used. Do you want to give a little bit of background about the operation?

Well, we can start from the very beginning if you like. I'd been at work all day and hard at it and I was going to a B.P. Oil dinner in the evening with some friends in Brighton. So I rushed home, jumped in the bath, started to scrub, jumped out again and just started drying myself off. Then all of a sudden everything started to go red, especially over the left eye – like a red shadow was coming down quite quickly – and realising something was terribly wrong, called Judy, my wife, in the kitchen and said, "Please, you must get me to a doctor straight away" which she did and luckily, Dr Allen realised immediately there was something drastically wrong.

Can you describe your trip to the hospital? Were you conscious?

Oh, perfectly conscious; able to walk, talk and yes, I knew everything that was going on.

Were you able to see?

Only partially. But it frightened me because I knew as soon as the eyes went red completely then that would be it. All the systems were switching off. And that was very interesting because you knew that the systems were switching off, but, of course, there was nothing you could do about it. Anyway . . .

Luckily they got me to Hurstwood and thanks to those wonderful men there, were able to stop it. So I woke up, or became conscious if you like, not fully because bits and pieces were not working and, of course, the one thing that wasn't working was speech. For some stupid reason, I couldn't speak.

Could you say any words at all?

Well, I don't honestly remember that. But it was just so ridiculous and was terribly, terribly frustrating. It was also very funny because it was like being in an ocean with nothing to hold onto. Now, I say ocean but I don't necessarily mean an ocean of sea. I mean an ocean of space; an ocean of anything. But nothing to be able to hold onto, nothing that was real. You could feel the side of the bed which gave you a bit of stability, but otherwise, it was just like floating, like floating in space really, no contact. I didn't even know where I was, in fact.

Do you remember what others tell you of that time? How you were?

Well, not very well. To be in intensive care in Hurstwood is to be not very well. But I knew that somehow I had to beat it, because I will never give in. But this was something I'd never come across before. You know, something in the head that wasn't right.

What were your thinking processes like?

Well, thinking processes were quite good, this is why I couldn't understand why I couldn't talk. But I couldn't. I knew the words, if somebody said something to me I knew what they were saying.

Were you able to gesture "yes" or "no"?

I think, possibly, put my hand up. Whether I could say "yes" or "no", there is a possibility. But that's as much as I can remember. Anyway, the thing was, how was I going to come out of it? And I could hear them saying, "Well, some of the cells are damaged but other cells would, or could, take over the damaged ones and do their job" which, at that time, I thought was a complete and utter load of rubbish. I now know how very wrong that I was, because they do. So anybody in the same position and is listening to this and thinks the same way as I did – that they think there is no way that the other cells can take over the damaged ones, they can and do. But it does take time and it does take hard work, tremendously hard work. But yes, the capabilities are there and all you have to do is keep working at them, whether it's speech, movement or whatever. I can only speak in my particular case, of course, and only in the type of medical thing that I had, so I can only speak personally but I believe in some other cases, like stroke, then this would apply, or could apply. I'm not a medical man (and I wouldn't even gain a Boy Scout's First Aid badge!), but it could apply.

Maybe it would be helpful for the listeners to just know exactly what did happen to you. I believe it was an aneurysm (excessive enlargement of a blood vessel/artery – Editor) that you had and it had to be surgically clamped or repaired to prevent further bleeding?

That's as far as I know. And the funny thing is, of course, it affected my left eye and eyesight although it took some time for me to realise that it had.

I know you had some interesting experiences to do with your recovery from the aneurysm and I'm wondering if you could start to walk us through these, Robin. If you could actually put yourself back into that time and, if possible, speak in the present tense, as if you're right there now and walk us through the recesses of your brain.

Yes, I'd be delighted to and, of course, quite easily because that's the way I made, what I would have said, a remarkable recovery. Now, I might be being very boastful about this, but it's not me all. It's me thanking the skill of those wonderful surgeons who I'll always be tremendously indebted to, because their wonderful skill enabled me to get to where I am today which I consider is as good as before it happened.

Are you saying then, that you completely recovered from the brain haemorrhage, aside from the blind spot on your left eye?

Yes, absolutely and one hundred percent!

I'm interested to know before you walk us through if you received any regular speech therapy?

Yes, I think I did, but again it was very early days and, to me, I can't remember it ever being any help. In fact, if I did, I can remember nothing at all about it.

So to go back to your own therapy and the technique you developed . . .

Well, it wasn't a technique I developed. It was just something that suited me and I was able to do, and which I'm sure everybody else has the capability. But, of course, the problem is the terrible frustration of one minute you're up, you're working or whatever and the next minute – BANG! – you're on your back and not thinking properly and not being able to move properly as, of course, with the majority of stroke patients. So this must be one thing we all had in common. The frustration is terrible.

Do you remember how it happened when you started to take your journey?

Exactly. Because somehow I had to learn to think properly. Basically I had to learn how to talk, which sounds ridiculous and you can imagine the frustration . . . one minute you can talk and the next minute you can't. The frustration for every stroke patient is enormous. Now, again, I repeat that I can only tell you from my own experience, which was slightly different, so this is from my own personal feelings but I'm sure applies to a great number of other people with different problems.

I'm wondering if now when you go into the description whether you can actually take us through in the present tense as you went through yourself rather than speaking about it in the past.

Yep. Quite easily. Well, I know I'm in a hell of a muddle and I know I'm in big trouble because I can't talk, but somewhere there's the mechanism – or there used to be the mechanism – that enabled me to talk. It was ridiculous; absolutely ridiculous.

Could you make sounds?

That again, I've no idea but the vocal cords were okay, so it would have been possible to moan, groan which is always a good sign. So what I had to do was to find the cells, or whatever, that contained the words which I couldn't find. So, I went on my search. Well, the process I used was quite easy. I say easy but, in fact, it was very, very difficult and required tremendous power because the frustration was trying to override just about everything. I knew I could do it. But I couldn't do it! But, why couldn't I do it? And the reason I couldn't do it is because I couldn't find the words. So, off I went in search of the cells.

Well, what I did . . . and it was like standing . . . well, it was to me, like standing in a darkened quad surrounded by a very high, grey building. It is as though I'm standing in the middle of the brain looking up. It's just a grey mass above me, but a very integrated, complicated mass and it's very daunting. It's huge. But somewhere in there, there's the bits that make it possible for me to do or not do things and some of which is damaged. I mean, THIS, I know.

Is this your brain or is it every man's brain?

No, no. This is mine. Somewhere in that huge grey mass are the bits that make it work or not. If you can imagine that you are looking up at an empty office block with no lights and somehow you have to gain entrance to it. This was one of the most difficult things to do. Somehow I've got to get in there, and up there, and search. Anyway, in my mind I was able to do this.

How did you get in?

Well, this again was through tremendous searching. I was systematically walking upwards through this complex, if you like, and looking in the doors in the corridors because I didn't know what was behind the doors. To me, they were cells, brain cells that were either . . . well, I just didn't know.

Can you take us into one of those doors?

Quite easily. If you can imagine walking along the corridor with lots of doors on either side and then opening a door to see what was behind it and, of course, I was searching for the room that held the words, the words that I couldn't find. Anyway, after tremendous effort – and like I say, the power needed was enormous – I found a room which contained words, hundreds of thousands of words! So, I'd found the room that contained the file of words.

Can you describe this room?

Well, it was like any office room but it was an utter shambles. It was completely wrecked and, of course, the file of words was scattered everywhere and that's why I couldn't find them. The floor was covered in words. Written out words on pieces of paper. All the words I knew! Every word I ever learnt or knew. It was like a huge filing cabinet that had been turned upside down and shaken.

So, of course, the first thing I had to do was to clean it up. You have to get it into some kind of order. I just swept the whole of the words down an imaginary hole. I just pushed the whole lot, every word I knew, down this imaginary hole. Right . . . then I could start again to rebuild the file.

So the room is now completely swept?

Right. It's just a clean four square walls. I built some imaginary shelves in this office and on the shelf I put the words that I knew, which, of course, were plenty. I could still remember the words and I put them on the shelf so I knew exactly where to find them.

How did you file them?

Well, just on an open shelf so I could visually see them. No alphabetical order or anything, just words that I picked up or heard again.

So this was just one exercise, one afternoon, but as time went on, every time you heard a word you went back to that room?

Right, and put the word on the shelf. And this took a long time to do and, of course, I was, apparently, coming out with a load of rubbish, initially, in fact, with a complete load of rubbish because I had access to the words again but what I hadn't the skill to do was to fit the words together. To find the two or more words to make the sentence was extremely difficult indeed and required immense will-power to do. But, I did know exactly where to find the words and that was number one.

Did you know the difference between a noun and a verb? Or action and a descriptive word?

Not really. It was just separate, individual words that I was now trying to build up. It took an awful lot of practice and will-power and time. In other words time for the cells to take over the work of the damaged cells.

Was it easy to walk into the word room?

At the beginning, once I'd found the room it was not difficult and in the end extremely easy. It took time and practice. You could get side-tracked because there were so many doors. And, of course, in this process there are two very, very fine lines, you know there are, the lines between sanity and insanity; the line between imagination and fact. This exercise could be equally damaging if you couldn't or didn't have the will-power to be able to stay the right side of these doors. It was also frightening because in some of these corridors there were doors that you didn't want to open.

Once the word was found in your mind – whatever the meaning of that is, finding a word – was there some kind of connection you'd made with the word, that wouldn't be lost again and you would actually be able to speak it?

Yes. And that, of course, was the exciting bit. It was a wonderful sign that you were able to store the words and recall them, whatever they were and whatever order they were. It didn't matter at that time. It was just through sheer practice that you were able to fit them together in the right order where another person would understand them.

Can you remember what you appreciated most by the people around you?

Yes, just sitting and talking . . . and I'm sorry, that's why I'm being perhaps a little emotional because returning to that time is still so real. Just to sit and make normal conversation and to talk to that person as he or she would have been talked to before. In other words, giving them reassurance that they are not insane. Their frustration will go a little if they're actually listening to somebody who is talking to them properly in a normal way. It gives them confidence.

Can you also remember what was horrible in the way some people were? What was absolutely the worst way to be?

Well, treating me in a different manner. Saying, perhaps three times: "Would you like something to eat? Would you like something to eat? Would you like something to eat?" You heard them the first time! It was just that you couldn't reply. So, when somebody says to you something like that three times your thoughts are: "They think I'm dippy!" and, of course, that adds to the frustration to have somebody talking to you and you're thinking that they're thinking you're dippy!

So, yes, a great help is to talk to the person absolutely normally. It might only be a one-way conversation with that person because that's the way we learn how to fit the words together. And that is most important.

Right, let's go on because there was another thing that interested me very much. There was the medical thing . . . watching the modern day doctor prescribe the medicines, to me, what was vast amounts and that, in some ways, was frightening because everything that goes into the body is either accepted or rejected. And this is a job of what I would call the "inner brain". Now this is, like I said, getting a little technical because once you have this vast office block which you've gone through, somewhere along the line there has to be a central control. Fact.

So I went in search of what I would call "Central Control". This was extremely hard. Imagination? No, most definitely not! And after many, I don't know how many; days, hours, weeks of searching, I managed to find it and gain access to it.

Well, the first thing in entering it was like going into the control room. Again, this is imagination, perhaps, mixed with a little fact, so you will be able to understand. So, if you could imagine finding this central control, if you like . . . a power station monitoring everything that is going on within the body and selecting what it needs from the intake, the food. This is the most visual way I can explain it. Well, to me, the inner brain controls everything. When you're sleeping, it controls your breathing and it controls your temperature. In other words it keeps everything as stable as it possibly can. So there you are, having access to the inner brain.

Well, one of its main functions is pain, or discomfort which it feeds onto the main workings which tells you to move your leg, your arm or whatever or that the pain comes from . . . and exact and so precise that literally, within a very tiny area, it can tell you instantly where a bee has stung you or whatever. And that's the part that does it.

So, in my case, I was looking for pain and, sure enough, there was pain . . . four big red lights, as you would visualise on a computer read-out board . . . four big, glowing red lights, indicating pain. Well, what in the hell could I do about it? Well, again being a practical man, all I could do was find, and follow the wire to that light, to its source.

Was your body feeling pain at the time you saw these four red lights?

Oh yes.

That's what led to the investigation?

Right. So . . . (I'll refer to it as a wire because it's more interesting, more easy to understand) . . . I followed the wire down to its source, the source of the pain. And I thought, well, if I can disconnect it, then it should help. But instead of touching wire, I wasn't touching wire. I wasn't really touching, um . . . well, how can I describe it? Something like a soft fibre which I could break quite easily with my hands. And that's what I did. I went around the area of the pain and I pulled out as many of the fibres as I could and went back to the control place. And, sure enough, the red light had gone out. I then tried it with the next one and . . . not so much success, which meant that I had not disconnected some of the points. So, I repeated the process until, when I went back, it was green and the pain had stopped.

Now that led me to the conclusion that you can, in fact, separate nerve ends; mentally, I think it's possible that the nerves – or nerve ends or whatever they are – leading from the pain to the brain can be separated. As far as I'm concerned it is possible, and seeing that I've lain here all these weeks without taking any pain killers, I hope there's been some little proof that it is possible.

The therapy in the relief of pain of which they're practising now (and I've made my comments known) especially the relaxation hour (which I'll get slated about!). You lie there and you're told to relax, and then "think of your foot, let your toes relax, your feet relax" etcetera, is virtually, not only impossible, well, I wouldn't say impossible but difficult because if that person is in pain, let's say in her foot, or her leg or tummy, as soon as you emphasise "feel your foot, let it relax, feel the wave of relaxation going over your body" . . . you can't. Because the overriding thing of the pain won't let you do it. Yes, marvellous and marvelously relaxing but somebody with pain would only emphasise how strong that pain is and it would, in fact, register with the patient much stronger. Now, how you overcome this I don't know, something like meditation would, I think, be far more beneficial. But I'm not a medical man and I'm not into these things. I can only say my personal thoughts.

You had mentioned to me one time about people who are in pain and doing exercises . . . that you thought music was helpful and also something about tapping the fingers and toes. Could you go into that a bit?

Yes. Well, when I was coming out of this, I think it was one of the ops, and opposite me in one of the beds was a gentleman twice my age. He was lying there, fully compos mentis, to a degree, and he was tapping his fingers. I said, "Why are you tapping your fingers?" And he said, "Well, this is the third stroke that I've had and I've found that to try and get over them, tapping my fingers helps because not only the sound of my fingers hitting the table but also having the feeling at the same time coming up to the brain registers that my fingers are moving."

I wonder, Robin, if we could recap a little bit now because I think this is very important – about the ability you developed to, as you said, cut the nerves. How you discovered this computer-like box with the four lights; how you walked through there. I'm not sure if that was in the office building, as in your initial analogy, and that you just came upon this in one of the doors . . .

No, no. It's something I searched for and was so difficult and required so much energy to find.

It was a search for what?

For the centre, because every block must have a centre, a control room . . . the practical side of me coming out again. I was intrigued to find the system that controlled everything. And, like I said, once finding it, was the most interesting thing, work, that I've ever done. I refer to it as work. Anyway, not only did the inner brain have complete charge of everything that we do but it had the ability to stop pain and also, it activated antibodies that protected the body. So, if you wanted an army of antibodies or whatever, it was the inner brain that controlled that.

Could you call up certain functions in this inner brain consciously, actively, yourself, or were you acting as an observer at this point?

No, no. You had a say in what went on. In fact, like I've said all along, the will-power needed is tremendous and, the drain of power . . . if you can visualise a very high-powered computer on top of a U2 battery – that's the only way I can visualise and explain to you my feelings – that the body at that time, of course, has limited amounts of power. This can be absorbed by brain work, manual work, but also it controls temperature, so if you're dumped into a hot bath all of a sudden, this inner brain says, "Whoa! The temperature is wrong. It's too high. We must try and correct it." So, this takes an awful lot of power and would make the patient quite weary afterwards. So, although you think you're doing a favour to the patient by giving him or her a scrub, you're also absorbing a lot of power. My own personal feeling.

Another function of this inner brain is to control the intake of nutrients, which includes medicines. What astounds me is the amounts that the modern medics or docs feed into the body of all different sorts. Well, their researchers have done their research, of course, and know how much to administer. But really, the amounts they administer can be absolutely minute because the body will sort it out to its own advantage or disadvantage. But if it's swamped by an overwhelming amount of drugs, medicines, whatever, then the inner brain is saying, "Hey, wait a minute, I can't counteract all of this. I'm going to give in." Which it does, especially with painkillers.

So the patient loses concentration and gradually loses his or her thought pattern, which he would do if he died naturally. But what I'm saying in some cases, or, in my thoughts, that it could also accelerate the death of the patient. But, that is my own personal feeling and for somebody who has no medical knowledge at all, it's a very bold statement and, perhaps, a very wrong statement to make. But I can only relay it as I see it.

Are you aware of the practice of homeopathy that does administer its medications in minute amounts?

Well, you see, I've heard of the name but I've no idea what it means. So, all I can really concentrate on are the things that I know – therapy and aromatherapy are super because when you're lying here in pain and all that is being registered, if you like, is pain . . . . In my case I'm lucky; if it hits me from one place I can switch it off. If it hits me from three different places then I can't block it because the process to do that would require too much energy and I wouldn't have the energy to do it. So, yes, it's possible with one source of pain, I believe, to disconnect the nerves mentally. But going back to therapy, if the brain is bombarded with pain, to all of a sudden have another feeling come from your foot or your hand is wonderful.

Do you mean, for example, with massage?

Massage, therapy, whatever. You're feeling a different feeling other than pain; whether it's being rubbed, massaged and together with oils or scents it's extremely good.

The other thing I've found with pressure points – I've only just discovered acupuncture – but with pressure points which I explored with an Australian lady, who did more good in an hour than, quite honestly, the physio or docs did in a month, was amazing. Because by just purely working on my hand, on the pressure points, gave me such relief on the pain in my arm and shoulder. I just couldn't believe it! It was impossible, but it wasn't. It was possible and it did work.

Was this at the time of getting recovery in your arm after the aneurysm?


Robin, if you don't mind going back to the issue of the pain box and the ability to cut off the pain when it's one pain. Could you describe a bit more in detail that process?

Well, as I've said, and I hope I'm not boring, you have to find the inner brain. It's not controlled by the general brain. Pain is controlled by the inner brain and you have to find that. But, once you have access to it, then it can be done. Without having access to it, it would not be possible, I don't think. But I'm only one individual telling one side of a story.

How does the inner brain differ from what you call the general brain?

Well, because it's the inner brain that controls the outer brain. To me, the mind is a steering wheel. The mind tells the brain which direction its thoughts, or whatever, want to go. So there's the mind, the general brain – which is the storer and gatherer of information – and then there's the inner brain that controls your bodily functions when you're unconscious, when you're asleep. It registers the pain that activates the main system.

I know it may all sound a little daft, but to me, it is fact. And the less strain we use on the inner brain, the less power we absorb and, like I've said, power is the most important thing because we generate power by movement and food.

When you were able to disconnect the pain, how long could that last for? Or would you continually have to go back to the control box?

No. Twenty-four hours. Every morning I would check and if there was a red light showing I'd follow it down and pull the plug. Now, whether it's possible, and I think it is, to, in fact, not follow it down but to pull the plug, if you like, where it's connected to the brain is, of course, a much easier process and requires far less energy than to follow it down to its source. And it is possible to disconnect the nerve endings mentally in the brain; to be able to do it without all that work . . . without having to go right down to the source.

All of that may sound a little theatrical, but I can assure you, it is true and that's why I've gone so long without painkillers. Because, believe me, I'm the biggest coward out and anything to stop pain I would scream for. But when I lie here – all right, my arm is a nuisance – there is no real pain. As far as I'm concerned, it's disconnected, so I'm not in any pain. By refusing any painkiller I'm not being brave at all, I'm being perfectly normal. And I should be crying out for painkillers.

So, I'm hoping in some way that I can stay off until the end, but being a practical man, it can't be until the end because at some point, the other pains, the pressure on the lungs, etcetera would reach such a point that I will have to cry out for help.

That's why I came into St Catherine's for help. The thing I wanted to do the most was to make a tape in the vague hope that it may just help somebody – patient or teacher – in some very tiny way. And, of course, to the memory of my friends. And that's why I've used all this energy to try and do this tape.

I suppose end of story really. But there are far more facets which I found during my expedition, if you like. But seeing that I'm not on medication means that my mind is still clear and still very, very sharp and one of the things that we're all finding now – I say all – I mean the four of us that are here with cancer, is that our ability to concentrate is slowly going. This is nature's way of slowing everything down.

So. Yep. Death; bodily for me is not too far away but I hope spiritually for me will go on.

Anyway, I do hope that this hasn't been boring and, if it has, and is of no interest to anybody, then please scrap it. But, if it could be, in some minor way, especially with patients that can't speak . . . I mean my few minutes with Maurice was terrible. (Maurice was a stroke patient at St Catherine's Hospice in the summer of 1992. Robin tried, in vain, to teach Maurice to speak again using the techniques described in this story – Editor) Terrible, yet exciting to me, but the frustration it caused him was not helpful but damaging because he was still conscious. He had such an intelligent mind and yet he was lost . . . and, as I said to Mary . . . I knew the feeling. The only noises he could make were the noises of nothing, but they were, in fact, cries of help. He wanted to make contact, but he couldn't speak so he wasn't able to. And yet, mentally, although some of his brain was damaged, some parts weren't. And what he was going through was the most terrible, terrible thing. Nobody can imagine, even in their wildest dreams or thoughts.

So, thank you, Maurice and, like I said, we didn't talk to each other, but you taught me an awful lot.

God be with you all.

And thank you for listening. Thank you, Mary, for listening too, and operating the machine.

Robin died 7 weeks later. Although he was offered pain medication routinely he accepted only the smallest dosages and then only at his own request during the last 4 weeks of his life.


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