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Are scientists ‘unemotional’ or ‘on the spectrum’? Or why we love doctors who are in touch with their feelings. With help from The Piano Guys, Shirley & Co, Queen and George Michael!

Date posted: Tuesday 5th May 2015

When my daughter was two and a half she had a sudden raise in temperature. She went blue, then grey and we couldn’t get her to breathe. It was terrifying. I put my finger in her mouth and she nearly bit it off. That’s when I realized she was having a febrile convulsion and that her tongue was blocking her airway. We tipped her upside down, laid her on her front and she started breathing again. We rushed to the downstairs neighbours and bundled her into their car and rushed our floppy little daughter to hospital.

An hour later she was sitting in a hospital bed singing nursery rhymes with a paediatrician.

I’ll never forget this awful experience, but I’ll never forget the doctor either. She held my wife’s hand and said, “You’ve had a very shocking and frightening experience, but your little girl is fine now. We’ll keep her in for observation, just to be on the safe side.” Wow: A doctor who holds your hand and who sings to your daughter!

Later that night, I was sitting quietly watching my daughter sleeping when two young doctors approached a little girl with cerebral palsy, fast asleep in a bed nearby. I’d seen this child earlier, with her parents, who had just gone home. The conversation between the doctors went something like this:

Male doctor: Watch this. This patient has severe spasticity but is now asleep. If I move her legs like this (does something I can’t see) you won’t see any sign of spasticity. It’s amazing!

Female doctor: Don’t do that. The child is sleeping and she might wake up…

Male doctor: But it’s something you must experience. It’s fascinating!

Female doctor: I can read about it in a textbook. Please leave her alone.

I was shocked: for a number of reasons. How could a doctor infringe a child’s sleep like that? What gave him the right to treat her like a curiosity? How do people become so heartless?

The Piano Guys: Rockelbel’s Canon: for no apparent reason other than it’s groovy

There’s more. A few weeks later I was working as a speech and language therapist and one of my clients was a little boy with a hearing loss, and who had a very rare syndrome. Part of his condition was that he had a typical set of facial features and bone structure. Let’s call him Adam. Adam’s mum, who was a nurse, asked me to accompany her and Adam to an appointment at a leading Ear Nose and Throat hospital. When I asked Mum why she wanted me to go with her, she said, “To make sure I don’t get emotional.” I wasn’t sure what being ‘emotional’ entailed, but I agreed to go along with them, and soon found out why she wanted me there. The consultation went something like this:

Consultant (female): Goodness! I’ve never seen a case like this before! (To another doctor sitting in the corner) Come here and look at this bone structure. It’s not every day you see a case like this.

(They proceed to examine Adam)

Consultant (to Adam’s mother): When we’ve finished, can you take him down to our medical photographer, so we can share his photo with other doctors and students?

Adam’s Mum: OK.

The consultation ended and we left the room. I was fuming, but trying not to show it. Adam’s Mum said, very calmly, “Let’s take Adam to get an ice cream. They can stuff their photos.” While little Adam was tucking into his raspberry sorbet, Mum let rip (in a very controlled whisper): “The heartless bleeping bleep. I get this all the time. The more senior the doctor, the more arrogant and emotionless they seem to become.” Being a professional working in the NHS, I wasn’t sure how to react, so didn’t say anything, (though I was sorely tempted to hold Mum’s hand and tell her she’d just had a very nasty shock). Mum beat me to it: “It’s OK Michael. You don’t have to say anything, but you being there stopped me from giving that consultant a piece of my mind, which wouldn’t have done Adam any good.”

Were these doctors ‘heartless’? Maybe I was just too ‘sensitive’ and should have let these nasty experiences with other people’s children go? Luckily I worked as part of a team with a consultant, to whom I described both incidents. “Oh yes,” my colleague replied, ”Unfortunately we do find doctors like this. It’s an occupational hazard. They are intellectually top-heavy and lose touch with their feelings, as well as the clients’. They don’t do the profession any favours by behaving like that.” This doctor, I might add, was regularly to be seen putting toddlers on her knee and was renowned for her affectionate and reassuring two-handed handshake that she reserved for parents. Needless to say, parents loved her back.

A few weeks ago I was driving through Lincolnshire, listening to a Radio 4 programme called Ramblings.

Every episode revolves around Clare Balding going on a walk through the countryside with a group of walkers, and this week she was rambling with a group of retired doctors. What the medics had in common was that they had all had a heart attack at some point and were walking to keep fit. There was a lot of discussion about things medical, as you would expect. Then Clare Balding said something that instantly took me right back to the ‘heartless’ doctors of thirty years ago. She’s talking about the emotional component of recovery and says,“All of you being scientific and unemotional….” To which one of the doctors interjects, “My wife would agree with that.”

This was, I shouted at the radio, “A load of…..” but then I heard the so-called ‘unemotional scientist’ express his very warm feelings very clearly when he talked about how he felt towards the other men in the group, who had included him and become his friends.

So here’s my question: If you are a scientist, or a child or teenager who is showing a clear fascination with science, does that mean that you have to lose touch with your emotions? Or will you become ‘intellectually top-heavy’ or even be described as being ‘on the spectrum’? It’s an important question, because many so-called ‘eminent’ scientists give the impression of indeed taking no interest in their own emotions, or the feelings of those around them (including their own family). Is this just a stereotype?

Enter Professor Sarah-Jayne Blackmore. She is an’ eminent scientist’ specialising in cognitive neuropsychology and the neuroscience of teenagers in particular. Listen to her on Radio 4’s The Life Scientific and you will get the impression that this scientist is very much in touch with her emotions. She loves psychology, but you also have the feeling that she loves her ‘subjects’ as much as her ‘subject’.

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: I wanna hold your hand?

I think, by now, you will be getting my drift, but I’m going to spell it out anyway. I don’t believe for one minute that scientists, including doctors, have no emotions. It’s just that some of them believe that they shouldn’t show emotion. They are all very intelligent people (especially the ‘eminent’ ones). But the problems start when they allow their intellect to completely dominate their emotional life, so that the pursuit of facts and explanations and discovery becomes more important than paying attention to their emotional life and the emotional lives of those around them. Their brains come to rule everything in their lives and these individuals become slaves to their intellects. This is not the same as having a diagnosis of Autism, or Asperger’s syndrome, or truly being somewhere ‘on the spectrum’.

People with Asperger’s are very much aware of their emotions and other people’s. It’s just that they can’t make sense of them. Teenagers are the same too, but they learn to understand their feeling and other people’s as they become adults. (And they might become scientists too.)

I felt that the badly-behaved doctors should have been made to feel shame at their behaviour, as they allowed their intellectual fascination to take control of their feelings. Clare Balding ought to be ashamed too, for promoting the falsehood that ‘scientists are unemotional’. Here’s a clip from the wonderful film, Pride, starring Paddy Considine. In real life, Paddy Considine has recently been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. But that doesn’t seem to stop him from connecting with other people’s emotions and portraying them in a convincing way. By the way, in this scene he is not the one who is proudly dancing in a shamelessly glorious way!! And also by the way, it’s not true that Welshmen don’t dance. It’s just that in the 1980s many were a bit inhibited about sharing their emotions in this way. It’s not like that now, by all accounts!

Shame, shame, shame….shame on you, if you can’t get through!

And finally, here’s George and Queen, filling Wembley with emotion!

Take care out there.


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6 responses to “Are scientists ‘unemotional’ or ‘on the spectrum’? Or why we love doctors who are in touch with their feelings. With help from The Piano Guys, Shirley & Co, Queen and George Michael!”

  1. John Rice says:

    An interesting post, Michael. Our daughter also had a febrile convulsion. Given that she’d recently been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening heart condition and we couldn’t find a pulse this is marked as up as a 10/10 scariest day ever. She made a full recovery and enjoys hearing about the time I placed her body across my knees and drove the car through the garden gates at 2 am in my urgency to get her to A+E.

    I liked the phrase ‘intellectually top-heavy’ although I suppose this could be more positively termed as ‘clinical detachment’. I think we can be guilty of the same detachment and intellectualism in teaching. Sometimes the child’s condition can threaten to become more interesting than the child… and that’s always a concern.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks John! Unfortunately I CAN begin to imagine what that experience was like. However, you now have a story that will remain in the family for generations and will be told frequently. And you are a ‘Hero Dad’ into the bargain, who thinks nothing of driving through closed gates, just like in the films (BTW have you noticed that when they do that, the cars are never even scratched).
      I prefer to use ‘out of touch with his feelings’ and ‘top heavy’ as they truly reflect what is going on: the intellectuals have developed the habit of turning their backs on feelings and in some cases look down on people who are ’emotional’. They need help with this.
      I really dislike people using ‘on the spectrum’ as an insult, as it insults those who really are autistic and who struggle to make sense of emotions.
      All that and The PianoGuys too!
      This is a rich seam I’m writing about, so expect more posts in the same vein soon (including Robert Palmer, Eric Clapton and Florence and the machine!
      Best wishes

  2. Kathy Brodie says:

    A brilliant blog, thank you Michael.

    Perhaps we all do this a little bit? Sometimes the unique child gets a bit lost in the maze of ‘Areas of Learning and Development’, levels and baseline assessments. It’s a great reminder that emotional intelligence in both children and adults is so important.

    I love the Life Scientific programmes as well (and Clare Balding, obviously!).

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks Kathy! It’s great to be ‘gifted and talented’ but when children are very ‘intellectual’ they may need help to keep ‘grounded’ and in touch socially and with their feelings. if we feed the brain too much, it very quickly takes over! (Not that I live in fear of that for myself!)
      Best wishes

  3. Paul Morris says:

    Interesting topic! As a speech pathologist, my colleagues and I frequently have to attempt to determine disability versus disinterest. Are the child’s behaviors the result of not being able to do it, or being able to, but not wanting to do it?

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Paul!
      Good point!
      Working as I do, with what we call in the UK ‘reluctant talkers’ I feel it is more a question of the children who experience difficulty with communicating away from the family developing anxiety reactions. One of these is to naturally find yourself (and I don’t think it is always a voluntary reaction) avoiding stressful communication. If we can help the adults to communicate better with the children (e.g. working hard to tune into them and get on their ‘wavelength’ then the children and teens begin to relax and then communication starts to flow.
      I really enjoy your posts: always full of insight and also with practical information.
      Thanks for getting in touch!

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