Our minds are partly shaped by mimicry, which is why Phil makes me feel alert and Jeff leaves me empty — and why Tony Blair apes the way George W Bush walksby Paul Broks / January 16, 2005 / Leave a comment
Every three or four weeks a face would appear at the glass panel of my office door. It was a pale, cartoon face and belonged to Philip. He never made appointments. Nor did he knock on the door. He just stood there looking in until I noticed and beckoned him through. He would stay for half an hour or so, standing all the while and bobbing slightly like a puppet, then leave without announcement, sometimes mid-sentence. Our conversations were fractured. “Do you think my internal organs are made of Lego?” he would say, or, “I’m visible now, am I?” There were long pauses, minutes on end, as he scanned the walls for shifting hieroglyphics or attended to his voices, of which there were several. One was critical and abusive; one gave a commentary on his actions (“He’s filling the kettle”) in counterpoint with another that tried to redirect his behaviour (“Don’t fill the kettle”). The devil was in there too, growling deep oaths in a mysterious language. When Phil went, he left traces in my brain, like a tune when the record stops. I felt infected. Was I moving like a puppet? Was that my cartoon face in the mirror? Was I visible?
If Phil’s head was pandemonium, Jeff’s, by comparison, was a vacuum jar. He sat like a corpse at the kitchen table as his wife prepared coffee. “You’re a bit low at the moment, aren’t you love?” she said, but he was beyond melancholy. We were handed mugs of coffee and left to it. For the next hour I entered the void of Jeff’s frontal lobes, probing with puzzles and neuropsychological exercises: “Tell me as many words as you can think of beginning with the letter ‘A.'” “Ant,” he said. I always found it hard working with depressed people. They might feel a photon brighter for their hour of cognitive therapy but I would leave the session feeling soaked to the bones with their despair. Depression has a physical presence. Jeff’s impoverished emotional state was due to brain damage rather than mood disorder. It was a sense of absence that permeated the room. He was a black hole. The longer I spent in his company the emptier I felt.
When I interacted with Philip, my eyes widened slightly; I felt myself paying closer attention to the walls; my thoughts became looser at the joints. By contrast, I only…