All about the brain
Last Chance Saloon is the story of Neil ‘Twink’ Tinning, a troubled, magnificent man living with bipolar disorder, and his unique attempt to understand the science behind his, and many other, mental health conditions – all while getting ready to play the biggest gig of his life.
In part 2, The Tinstones’ album, Last Chance Saloon, gradually takes shape, thanks to the connectivity of the internet. We learn how a job in sales helped Twink discover he had bipolar, and he travels to Cardiff University to chat to Professor Michael Owen all about the brain. Michael, the Director of the Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences, guides Twink through the basic ideas of what a brain is, how we came to understand it and what the future holds for understanding mental illness.
Previous episode: Part 1 - Twink, the band and bipolar
Next episode: Part 3 - Hope, meds and schizophrenia
[Previously on Last Chance Saloon…]
Neil ‘Twink’ Tinning: I didn’t realise at the time that that sort of high and low was going to be for the rest of my life. Unbeknownst to me, I think I’ve been bipolar all my life.
Alan Harrison: I look at you, is that the best way?
Interviewer: Just look at me.
Alan: Right, look at you, not look at the window, not look up. Basically me focus is you because you’re asking the questions…
Brian Girdlestone: I’ve got two ambitions in life; one’s to get on the Jools Holland Show and the other one’s a walk-on part in Coronation Street, and then you can happily box me up.
Twink: The thing is, it’s not a band.
Interviewer: Well, what is it then?
Twink: To be honest with you, it’s probably more to do with the fact that it’s rehabilitation for me, and I’m using music as some type of therapy.
Interviewer: Now, you’ve just told me a little bit of good news, Twink; what was that?
Twink: In the last month, I’ve lost half a stone – because I’ve got the motivation to try and do something about my visual image, because we’re doing the gig, it’s given us the motivation to try and do something about losing weight. My ambition at the moment is to get myself a pair of Levi 501s, because they only go up to a 44 waist, and I’m currently in a 46. If I can get down 2 inches off me belly, I can buy myself a nice pair of new jeans.
So, off we go to see Mike Owen.
Twink: Make sure your tuning’s spot on for the first verse. The last time you did it, the first time you did it for me, it was like from the second verse onwards your tuning was fine. It was the first verse that, again, you hit the wrong note to start singing on.
Twink: No, no, no, that’s the chorus, Brian.
Brian: No, but the hook is …
Twink: I know what the hook is, I can understand what the hook is, I picked up on the hook straight away, because it sounds sort of banal, the da, da, da, but when you develop it into dig, it has a twist. As if you’re a day at the buskers, just do it.
Twink: After starting as a trainee sales guy, knocking doors, I got to a point where I’d started as a trainee and ended up a manager of managers, and of course, in those days if you hit your targets and succeeded, they’d put more pressure on you to get more and more out of you, and I would have these ups and downs with the sales cycle. If we had a particularly good month my mood would be high, and if we had a bad month I’d be very down. I actually took a massive overdose in 1995 and ended up in intensive care.
We need to find out about these complex issues because we lose too many sufferers to any form of mental health. We’re talking life and death issues here, we’re not talking about some namby-pamby, can’t get out of bed because he doesn’t want to get out of bed or whatever it might be. It’s a little bit more serious than that.
Michael Owen: Yes, absolutely.
One is struck endlessly by the sort of people who are out there, heroically living with these severe illnesses, living lives that are in parallel with the rest of humanity, but experiencing -– some people experiencing the world in very, very different ways from the mass of us.
Twink: My psychiatrist never told me I was bipolar. The only reason I knew I was bipolar was because I learnt to read upside down in sales…
[Sound of camera clicking]
Twink: Just over your shoulder.
Twink: … And I actually asked him; I said, “What’s bipolar?” My psychiatrist didn’t even tell me what the diagnosis was.
Michael: Here’s one I made earlier …
Twink: … and it’s made out of a cereal box.
Twink: What is the brain?
Michael: What is the brain?
Twink: Yes. If you can try and give me – as if you’re talking to a child for instance, because that’s the way my brain works. You’ve got to talk to me as if I’m a child.
Michael: Right, okay. So it’s made pretty much out of nerve cells. So nerve cells send electrical messages down their processes, and communicate via synapses with other nerve cells. Those electrical processes are the messages and the synapses, the connections between them, are believed to be where the kind of computing takes place, the changing strengths of the synapses – in these billions … ten to the whatever it is, fourteen or something, synapses in the brain.
Twink: I want a picture of your brain.
Michael: The other way of dividing the brain up is into grey matter and white matter, and then it’s organised in a way, it’s not just a sort of homogeneous kind of soup, it’s organised into sort of different lobes and structures.
[Sound of camera clicking]
Twink: Can you just…? Yeah, that’s nice.
Twink: The way I look at it is, my bipolar brain has glitches, and it’s also mixed in with behavioural sort of triggers. And a trigger can be anything stressful: a separation, it could be exams, it could be childbirth; it could be many, many different things that actually pushes you into either a depressive phase or a manic phase. So what I try to do is, I try to control my environmental factors, such as trying to get enough sleep, trying to keep myself grounded. But in order to do that, I tend to have to cut myself off from normal living; normal things like going to the shops or go for a walk.
Twink: Mike, what is neuroscience?
Michael: Well, neuroscience is the – it’s the scientific study of the nervous system, the central nervous system, which is the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which is all the sensory and motor nerves and a few other things that sort of hang off the outside of that lot.
Michael: It’s studying higher mental functions.
Twink: What do you mean by higher?
Michael: Higher mental functions are things like thought, cognition, emotion, memory, these sorts of things.
Michael: Starting to put the brain and particular functions together, and to try and work out what different bits of the brain did, really came from people looking at the effects of localised damage, starting with observing brain lesions – the effects of natural damage.
Twink: Excuse me, is lesion damage?
Michael: Lesion is damage, yes.
Michael: And more recently, the great advances in brain scanning have allowed people to look at how the brain works without looking at the effects of damage; you know, looking at normal function in a scanner.
Twink: Whenever you wake up, whether it’s morning or afternoon, I normally know if it’s going to be a good day or a bad day. A good day can be as simple as getting through the day, because you can get these real bad days, and a bad day might be thinking, well, should I go on the internet to find out how to tie a hangman’s noose.
Twink: How much more do we need to understand the brain?
Michael: I suppose what I’m interested in, and maybe this is what you’re more interested in, is how much do we need to understand about the brain before we can treat brain disorders? I think it’s about raising the profile of psychiatry research generally, and trying to get across to people the sense of optimism that we have; that these disorders are tractable to modern scientific approaches, that we can begin to understand them in this way.
Twink: What’s the most amazing thing about the brain?
Michael: Gosh, there’s so much, I think. I suppose the most amazing thing about it, though, is something so complicated is built by a biological process every time someone’s born. And actually, it’s surprising it doesn’t go wrong more often. How has evolution, and biology, created an organism which can grow a new brain like this every time a person…
Twink: It’s fantastic.
Michael: Mind-blowing, isn’t it?
Twink: Just fantastic. Professor Michael, thank you very much.
Michael: Thank you Twink, I enjoyed that.
Interviewer: You have been Twinked.
Michael: I’ve been Twinked. [Laughs] Do I get a badge?
Twink: And hopefully I’ve found some type of stability, and I’m starting to think, well, I’ve got this band going, and I’ve got some hope for the future. To have the thought that I want to be around until at least next year when all the films are done; I’ve never had the luxury of thinking about being around for another year.
Twink: Bit of polish, Bri?
Brian: Top of the Popolis for you?
Twink: Oh, definitely Top of the Popolis. Another swimming pool.
Brian: I think I’m drowned in the first one, you know?
[Coming up in part 3]
Scientist: It is very misunderstood. It’s probably the most stigmatised-against disorder. In some sense because it’s about cognition, it’s about perception, it’s about belief, it’s almost one of the most human disorders that exists. It’s kind of at the core of being a human being.
Twink: I’ve been working very hard over the weekend on this idea that I had. I got motivated to do something after Amy Winehouse’s death, which I found to be really tragic.
Twink: I’m actually on 17 tablets a day. Noel Gallagher, this is drug taking!
[Music to fade]