This is what I have decided that the programme I have been working on this week should be called. It is about brain plasticity; in particular the mysterious phenomenon of adult human neurogenesis. For obvious reasons, this is easier to study in rats, marmosets, and other creatures which can be killed when you want to find out what has been going on in their brains. By a rough count — and all my mental operations are rough right now — my producer1 and I have been travelling a thousand miles a day for the last seven days in search of enlightenment.
It turns out of course that we were completely wrong in the idea we started with, which is normal, natural, and the sign of a worthwhile story, except when one of you has sold it on the basis of the the story you first thought of. Still, that’s showbiz.
One answer would be to go ahead and make the programme we first thought of. I suspect something like that is what led to the story which two people have drawn to my attention already, about hamsters getting their jetlag cured by viagra. OK, so I have the following symptoms right now: an intermittent migraine, an upset stomach, sudden nosebleeds, and an inability either to sleep or to wake up properly. How, exactly, would my life be improved by an attack of priapism? Especially if it came on while I was queueing at immigration?
Besides, I can’t help wondering what would happen to a priapic hamster who got himself caught in the exercise wheel …
Anyway, the serious point is that you really can’t and shouldn’t extrapolate from rodents too much. As Liz Gould, at Princeton, said, the normal environment for a laboratory rat is so profoundly dull and unstimulating that we have no idea whether it is the exercise that perks them up, or simply the pleasure of a new activity. Besides — not that anyone could say this on the campus at Princeton — the thought occurs that if exercise makes you smart, how come there are athletic scholarships?
But to give an idea of the kind of thing underlying these results, if you want to measure how depressed a rat is, one standard test is simply to throw it into a basin of water and time how long it struggles for. This is not really an entirely convincing analogue of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ fathomless deeps.
1 Louise, sometime of these comment pages.