Brunch at an Algerian Café

The glass door portal, transporting from questionable South London street to quaint Algerian Café, Circa 1990ish.
The Arabic writing, the not-quite-right cakes, something that looks like calzone.
The unadventurous foreigner (me) clinging to the comfort of the familiar: Full English with a Cappuccino
Amidst a plethora of colour, culture and intriguing smell.
My company: pseudo-date or laptop. All equally out of place.
The distracting slurp of soup ingestion? Whimsically Algerian, I guess.
The Algerian tongue, falling under the ignorant umbrella labelled ‘foreign’.
Chairs without tables. Tables with informal crumbs. Lined up in imperfect lines.
But for all the unfamiliar and unknown, there lies a powerful undertone of comfort. Like a duvet which still smells like home.
Our similarity is our difference. We’re all having breakfast in bed. I’m not from these woods too.

Exploring Novel Stress Reducing Interventions in the Context of Unorthodox Study Techniques: a Case Study

Chirag Mehra
The Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre
Institute of Psychiatry
King’s College London

Introduction

Anecdotal evidence suggests that writing a dissertation involves hard work, dedication and increased levels of stress. While hard work has been reported to be rewarding for some, others have associated it with hypertension, increased McDonald’s consumption, and hair loss (Schwartz, Pickering, & Landsbergis, 1996).

Therefore, it is not surprising that several studies have looked at stress reducing techniques (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004). However, only few authors have explored stress reducing methods in the context of unorthodox study practices. In the current study, we assess the efficacy of novel stress reducing interventions in three MSc Neuroscience Students undertaking night time study. Night time study poses several challenges, including a shortage of establishments trading in caffeine and food, an impaired circadian rhythm, and stigmatisation by society. Therefore, stress-reducing interventions must consider these challenges and make best use of limited resources.

This study has been approved by the Tesco Horse Meat Ethics Committee.

Methods

Participants: 1 male and 2 females (mean age 22) with a dissertation deadline at the end of July were recruited for the study. Inclusion criteria comprised studying in New Hunts House library between 11pm and 11am for at least 4 weeks.

The participants were found to have a mean Common Sense Index Score of < 2.

Methods and Procedure:

Several stress reducing techniques were implemented:

1)      Sit-ups, push-ups and yoga in Guy’s Quad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was a refreshing break, and was especially effective in increasing blood circulation to the brain. Furthermore, the privacy associated with night-time meant that passers-by did not throw the participants confused and judgemental looks. Based on anecdotal evidence, the author does not recommend wearing a skirt while performing headstands.

2)      Tree-hugging

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The resulting sense of warmth, love and oneness with nature helped cleanse the body and mind. However, some participants did not know where to draw the line and got a little carried away…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3)      Caffeine and Sugar

Participants attempted to re-fuel and keep themselves awake with the help of vending machines. These were assumed to be functioning 24 hours a day.

However, the participants realised the importance of not making assumptions…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Participants were taught that it is crucial to following instructions after daringly drinking the coffee from machine 2, despite numerous warnings. The author recommends against ingesting flies as a source of protein.

Participants settled for purchasing refreshments from the friendly 24 hour Guy’s Hospital Coffee Shop.

4)      Fox Chasing

 

 

 

 

 

 

This activity was found not only to be extremely stress-relieving, but also excellent for the cardiovascular system. Although yelling abuse while chasing foxes was reported to further reduce levels of stress, it resulted in the involved participant being teased by the others and being called names. This was not very nice.

5)      Subject Love and Happiness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was found that there was no substitute for actually loving the subject and being passionate about research and finding the truth. This made participants the most happy, and happiness makes the world go around, etcetera.

Results

These techniques were moderately successful and all participants completed their dissertation to an acceptable standard. However, towards the end of the study, the participants had an epiphany that they could have probably got as much work done, enjoyed a much more convenient life, and not have continuously been judged by society, if they had just swapped around their ‘am’s and ‘pm’s.

Conclusion

Nocturnalism should be reserved for owls and people embarking on A Game of Thrones marathon.

References

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57(1), 35–43. doi:10.1016/S0022-3999(03)00573-7

Schwartz, J. E., Pickering, T. G., & Landsbergis, P. A. (1996). Work-related stress and blood pressure: Current theoretical models and considerations from a behavioral medicine perspective. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 1(3), 287–310.

 

 

 

Squatter’s rights

Just like many other 20-something year olds aspiring to change the world, many a time I have gone to bed thinking, So…What did I realllly achieve today?

Today, I achieved everything.

Two of my neuroscience buddies (denoted as ‘A’ and ‘P’ for your convenience) and I were just about to leave a university event at Westminster Bridge Street when we bumped into a mutual friend (‘C’). She mentioned something about going to see a protest in a building across the street where some squatters were residing.

My ears perked up. Squatters? I remembered a tube journey from a couple of years ago, where I was first introduced to the media-hype on a squatters rights case: a group of squatters had (then legally) entered an empty house, and refused to leave despite being ordered to do so by the police. Such incidences resulted in the change of squatter’s rights laws:

http://metro.co.uk/2011/07/13/squatters-could-be-forcibly-removed-under-new-proposals-by-ministers-76181/

I was amused, but quietly charmed, by the intricacies of the British legal system, the quirkier side of British culture, and the fact that the Metro could not resist publishing a double-spread about the matter. Every. Single. Day.

So when C suggested going to see the building, I was all for it. What’s the worst that could happen? We were going to go see an interesting building. From outside right? Cool.

The building looked completely out of place on Westminster Bridge Road. The grey walls were rotting. Graffiti impeded the path of most of the light leaving the lone lit window. How had I never noticed this building before?

We approached the entrance, and – consistent with the plot of a dozen haunted mansion novels – the door creaked open. An elderly man poked his head through the crack and muttered a few words to C, who nodded, and much to our confusion, seemed to understand. C walked in.

Ummm. Wut?! The rest of us throw each other an open-mouthed look. We’re going inside?! Very hesitantly, we followed C.

I was not prepared for what I saw next. Two short steps from Westminster Bridge Road took us far, far away. We found ourselves in the ruins of a lobby. In what was the reminiscence of street light, I could make out a red couch, torn and turned on its head. Broken glass and wood shards decorated the floor. The walls were cracked, occasionally broken, leaving nowhere for the plumbing to hide. Two men sat in the corner.

C walked through the room, as casually as people do when walking through a supermarket looking for a sandwich, and out through a set of double doors.  Now assuming responsibility for C’s life, we followed. The other side of the abyss was privileged with light.

This meant that we could now see what we had gotten ourselves into; deserted rooms, barren corridors – empty space as far as the eye could see. Well, except for the graffiti. Barely an inch of the interiors was spared from the black, red and blue of spray paint. While some pieces blew the mind and deserved to be in an art gallery, others gave useful written advice on how to undermine the establishment.

C was now walking several paces ahead of us, midway through climbing a flight of stairs. While walking up, several thoughts (perhaps slightly irrational…) flew through my head: I wondered when the building was going to collapse, when I would get mugged, and if the GMC would revoke my future medical license. I also entertained a fleeting thought of future death due to asbestosis (Oh, the joys of being a medic).

Another set of double doors led to another set of surprises. This time it was in the form of an inhabited hall. Fifteen people were sitting in the corners of the room. An elderly hunchbacked woman dressed in black walked past us. A large, dark coloured dog crossed our path. Nobody batted an eyelid when we entered the room. And, as usual, C just strolled along.

C’s final destination was a small room. As we walked through the doors, we were instantly hit by a thick wall of cigarette smoke. It took me a several seconds to make sense of my surroundings. About 6 people were sitting on a table. The closest to me as a gigantically tall man, with frizzy hair and blackened nails, slouching on his chair. To his right was a clean shaven, well-dressed man with styled hair, thick rim glasses and a MacBook Pro. A MacBook Pro? The rest of the table was occupied by a woman with a multitude of piercings, a man on another laptop, and a giggling couple. Behind us, two men lay on the floor, accompanied by several empty take-out dinner boxes. I have never seen such a random assortment of people in a single room.

Gigantically tall man got off his chair and, much to my surprise, gave C a big hug. This was followed by a session of banter and catching up; apparently the pair had known each other for a while. Our presence in the room still seemed to go unnoticed. What in the world is going on?

After 5 minutes of uncomfortably shifting around, I decided to make some conversation. Becoming friendly with these people was the best chance of us not getting knifed.

The results were fascinating. I was immediately put at ease when I saw how open and friendly our hosts were. In thirty minutes, I learned more about life than any textbook or documentary could teach me. London had an entire squatter’s network. The network had a headquarters which moved around every two months. Squatters’ lives were understandably very difficult and they were under constant threat by the police. In fact, they had been ordered to evacuate this building by the following morning. I seemed more worried by this news than they did though; careful planning meant that their new home had already been identified – an office building somewhere in the city; moving was just part of the job.

Some of the squatters were ‘professional’ squatters: currently, their existence revolved around occupying buildings, finding their next meal, and ensuring that they had somewhere to go when they were told to look for a new home. Others were social or political activists. One of the men with a laptop, Gingux (a code name which he had earned during his time in a school ‘gang’), worked for an online company.

After thirty minutes of riveting conversation, A, P and I felt like it was time to say our goodbyes. An email address was exchanged. Several helpings of handshakes went around. Of course, C decided to stay on, but now assured that her life was no longer in danger, we could leave the building.

We exited the building in complete silence. Each of us took our own time to process what we had just seen, smelt and spoken. Very few people have the privilege of experiencing something this unique, this extraordinary, I thought to myself. Finally the silence was broken: the three of us looked at each other with stupid smiles, jumped around like complete idiots, vigorously shook random body parts, and yelled to passers-by about how incredibly awesome that was.

Being inside and outside the building was physically only a matter of meters. But the two spaces felt like they were a universe apart.

Adiós! It is now time for me to email Gingux.

 

Becoming Someone

I’m sorry that I haven’t posted for a while. I guess I’ve been too preoccupied by my self-titled quest to ‘Become Someone’.

At some point, every child says to themselves, ‘when I grow up, I’m going to be the best *insert ambitious aspiration here*’. One day, perhaps as a 22 year old Neuroscience Masters student, you wake up and think – okay…I’ve grown up. Am I on the path to being where I set out to be? On paper, things look good. In two years’ time, I will leave world recognised institution as a doctor (MBBS) with an MSc in Neuroscience. Decent. You can’t complain too much about that.

But for some reason, that still doesn’t give me that warm feeling of satisfaction others say it should. After all 10 year old Chirag said ‘I’m going to be the best…’ I look at my fellow medic friend, who’s gotten awards year after year for ranking top of my class. I look at the Dean of the IOP, Prof. Shitij Kapoor, a clinician and researcher (what I currently aspire to be), who achieved waaaay more than I have when he was my age. I know children are innocently ambitious, but aren’t these things along the lines of what I had wanted all those years ago? And I know I still want them. Some bucking-up is definitely in order.

Perhaps I’ve had too much fun. I’ve just come back from a feast at Tinseltown (an awesome American restaurant (yes I know, most of my blogs do feature food at some point)). My last weekend was spent touring Bath and Stonehenge. I’ve been exploiting all that London has to offer. But it’s been an intense (but brilliant) year of study – so maybe I deserve to have a few frolics in the park?

I guess the moral of this cheesy philosophical story is that not feeling completely satisfied with your life and seeing others already have reached where you want to be might not be such a bad thing. Of late, it is what’s giving me that kick to try harder etc. etc. etc. Robin Sharma said, “Measure your success by your inner scorecard versus an outer one.” My interpretation: measure your success based on where YOU aspired to be yesterday, a week or a year ago.

But saying all this, it’s vital to remember that life has a lot to offer. Everyone needs their Stonehenges, Baths and Tinseltowns. Don’t let ambition deprive you of them.

London – Cosmopolitan Defined

A Masala Dosa!

If you want to study abroad and don’t want to miss home, come to London.

I am a foodie. I love food. One of my primary concerns when leaving home was missing mummy’s hot home-cooked Indian food. One does learn to adapt though: I can now cook (massive accomplishment) and have found some good Indian restaurants.

However, any residual concerns I had about missing out on an authentic Indian meal were completely eradicated by a trip to Dosa & Chutney. The restaurant is located in Tooting – a major South Asian community – which is an easy 20 minute tube ride from Guy’s Campus. My course-mates and I were amazed: for right from the steel glasses to the menu items’, walking into the restaurant was like being transported 6,795 miles south east (the apparent distance between London and Chennai). We feasted on masala dosa (amusingly described as a “crepe with seasoned mashed potatoes”), idly (“rice and lentil patties”) and chilli paneer – all washed down with Kingfisher Beer. Just writing about it makes me happy.

I’ve probably rambled on about Indian food in London too long. But people from most nationalities could probably do the same about their respective cultures; London is truly a cosmopolitan city. From Chinatown to Malaysia Week, Salsa bars to German pubs; if you have thought about it, London will have it on offer.

I still remember the words of a Turkish herb salesman I met at the 2011 Thames Festival: “You don’t have to be born in the city to be Londoner. London is only London because of the diversity of its people. If you live in London, no matter where you’re from, you’re a Londoner.” He was a wise man. Maybe I should have bought some herbs from him.

Freedom

4.25 pm. Five minutes to go. An entire month’s worth of work boils down to how many words I can scribble in the final few moments of this exam. My primary foes: two hours and twenty-five minutes worth of hand-cramp and a semi-sleepless night.

 4.30 pm. Success. Relief. Joy.

 Freedom.

The best part of any exam period has got to be the post-exam celebration. It is a unique phenomenon, because it isn’t what you do, but instead what you don’t (have to) do which makes it soul-satisfying. I was determined to have as carefree and unstructured an evening as possible.

Keeping with post-exam protocol, the bulk of our 89-strong MSc Neuroscience class cheerfully flocked to our local pub (right outside Denmark Hill station). Exam stress was dissolved instantly by warm mulled wine, Christmas cheer and stories of study-leave shenanigans.

The lazy lull was a stark contrast to the rigour of exam preparation. The last thirty mornings had been spent in libraries; either the swish new WEC or the beautiful, dark-wooded Will’s. Evenings consisted of stress-busting sessions at the university gym, and nights promised ever-delicious Tesco ready meals.

I don’t know whether it was the freedom or the mulled wine talking, but London was suddenly buzzing. A spontaneous joyride on my cycle (the only way to travel) found me on the streets of the city centre. Oxford Street was magical; the red and green of Christmas lights, the hustle and bustle of shoppers and the crisp air hitting my face made me feel alive. My journey ended at Moonraker Point, the swanky (at least for student standards!) KCL halls housing the majority of my MSc friends. What began as a small gathering quickly evolved into a flat party. The music, dancing and merriment lasted until the wee hours of the morning; the icing on the cake of a much needed carefree, mind-free evening.

My flight back home takes off at 9 in the morning. Sleepless nights are so much more fun for the free.