Letter from Roger Tarbuck, August-September 2018

I recently read a report by a doctor on the small section of the human brain that censors our speech and how, as we grow old, the cells of that part of the brain may start dying, with the result that embarrassing things may be said. I’ve known people who have suffered in this way, and I’ve always been impressed by their relatives or carers who have just carried on good-naturedly with what they were doing. I’ve always been aware that this condition exists, but what I read in that doctor’s report gave me better understanding. I’m sure we have all had the experience when someone’s granny or grandpa suddenly said a strong word or two, maybe prompting a kindly, humorous moment. I had just accepted this as a symptom of old age, but I wasn’t aware of how it happens.

It concerns that censor in each of us, which is conditioned by learning from birth. There are things that are said and done at certain times but not at others, and there are some “taboo” things that should never be said or done. Taboo words are nevertheless said, and we have all heard them over our lifetime. The trouble is that mental associations are made and – like lightning – a taboo word may pop into our consciousness, just as any old word might. This is how memory works; the connection is automatic and ruthless, but the censor in our brain filters it out safely.

However, if the cells in the part of the brain where the censor lives have died, the word may slip out. Unfortunately, this might happen in a public place and a passer-by may inform the police, who may start an investigation and hand the matter over to the Director of Public prosecutions, with a charge of indecency, or provocation, or even racism, according to the circumstances. (This does happen.) Let us not forget that deep inside each of us, there is an acquired supply of memories, ranging from the heavenly right down to the most dreadful – any of which may associate with whatever comes into our perception and trigger an unwanted response. Normally we can control the product of the association and let it fade away – except for some unfortunate people who have recurring problems in this field.

Try this. Imagine a happy day on a town’s market square. Hundreds of people are milling about, buying things and talking. Then suddenly, a band across the square starts playing “Colonel Bogey”. A ripple of laughter passes over the crowd as they recognise the tune and the words, which are ingrained in the memory of most of them; then they carry on with what they were doing. I’m sure we are all good people who would never publicly sing “Colonel Bogey”: the words are there in our consciousness and our censor steps in, and helps us to preserve our goodness.

No matter how pure or sweet we are, the words appear whether we want them to or not, but our censor has complete control. Having the words inside us doesn’t make us all criminals. It’s what we do with them that matters. Another example is the printing of the initial letter of taboo words in a newspaper report. We all know what the words are, but we don’t suddenly shout them out loud, because our censor is in charge.

Now those people with problems. I’ve heard a few – young or old – make the most awful gaffes in the wrong company: a word enters their consciousness, and out it comes; some may even tell a rude joke. Perhaps we feel offended by what we hear, but we might temper our hostile feeling by trying to understand the person we are listening to. These unfortunate people, “who should know better”, may have a defective censor, unless they mean to do harm, which is another matter. They mean well, in spite of the rudeness of their remarks. And sometimes, if people are upset or angry and say something dreadful, shouldn’t we try to give them the benefit of the doubt, knowing that all those words are inside most of us, who would never dream of saying such things?

A word of comfort to those who may have experienced elderly dear ones saying rude -even cruel – things: I believe, as do many people greater than I, that we are more than a series of chemical and electrical reactions in the human brain, which is only the instrument through which the spirit works. We can’t blame a joiner if his only tools are faulty and his creations are imperfect. So also with the fading tools that are available to the spirit, as it withdraws to greater freedom.

Yours sincerely,

Roger Tarbuck