Dementia, Sexuality and the Brain

Dementia, Sexuality and the Brain

I am currently recruiting for a fully-funded ESRC CASE 1+3 MSc. & PhD studentship in partnership with Manchester Carers Forum. The studentship is available to outstanding candidates wishing to commence their MSc. in September 2017 before moving onto the PhD studentship in September 2018. You will be based in the University of Manchester’s Morgan Centre for the Study of Everyday Lives, which is a world-leading institute for the study of personal life and for the development of creative qualitative methods. This is a great opportunity for a talented student to become part of a thriving research community, in one of the UK’s largest and most successful sociology groups.

So why this project? In recent decades dementia has grown in significance as a health condition, brought about by an ageing population, and presents challenges for understanding the complex changes which occur in the lives of people with dementia. For example, some people with dementia experience changes in sexuality and sexual activity. Such changes are characteristic of one form of dementia in particular, ‘behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia’ (bvFTD), and form one of the possible diagnostic criteria for this condition. This doesn’t always mean increases in sexual activity, sometimes it can be a reduction, as Robin describes in this video about her life with her husband. Robin’s video is a powerful example of a carer negotiating her experiences of changes in romance and love.

These kinds of changes are often explained to carers and people with dementia, whether in the medical context of diagnosis and treatment, or in the support literature provided by charities, as having been caused by chemical and structural differences in the brains of people with dementia. Of course, dementia does have important effects on the brain and it remains a terminal illness. So it is bound to cause changes in people’s capacities. However, our everyday understandings of love, sex and sexual identity do not always align with neurological explanations. This project explores how people with dementia, their carers, family and partners, make sense of changes in sexual and romantic lives by reference to the brain, or not. It examines the consequences for carers and people with dementia of explaining more of their lives through neurological evidence and ideas.

The project will use the personal life approach in sociology. This means understanding changes in the lives of carers and people with dementia as being fundamentally entangled phenomena, and exploring the ways in which the meaningfulness of everyday life is negotiated through interaction. The project will use creative qualitative methods to examine these issues. For more information on the kinds of methods the Morgan Centre works with, see some of our research projects. For example, you can see some of the sketches that Lynne Chapman has been doing as part of various research projects in the Centre, here, and in the picture below, which Lynne made as part of her work with me on my ‘Facets of Dementia’ project.

dementia-couple-sketch

As an ESRC CASE studentship, the PhD scholarship will also involve close work with Manchester Carers Forum. The successful candidate will volunteer at the Carers Forum as a member of their team, working directly to support carers of people living with dementia. The PhD student will work there for 3 months of the year, broken down into a certain number of hours per week. S/he will also produce materials which are of use to the Carers Forum as an impact of the project, meaning that the PhD research will help to support carers in negotiating changes in sexuality, sex and romance.

Studentship Details: The successful candidate will be supervised by Dr Andrew Balmer and Prof. Brian Heaphy in the department of Sociology. This ESRC CASE 1+3 studentship will cover tuition fees for the 1-year MSc. Sociology and the 3-year PhD Sociology courses at the University of Manchester. It will also pay a stipend during these four years of approximately £14,057 per annum. Continuation of the award is subject to satisfactory performance.

Entry Requirements: Applicants must hold a Bachelors First Class (or in exceptional cases an Upper Second Class Honours) UK degree in Sociology (or a closely allied discipline such as Anthropology). Degrees in Psychology and Health Sciences will not be considered acceptable. The successful student will register first for the ESRC-recognised MSc. Sociology course before proceeding on to the PhD course. You must satisfy ESRC UK residential criteria to qualify for this studentship (see page 4 of the document here.)

Candidates meeting the following criteria will generally be given preference: above 70% in their Bachelors; some demonstrable knowledge of the sociological literature on sexuality; demonstrable interest in qualitative research methods, and the ‘relational’ approach to sociology.

How to apply

Applicants should email Dr Andrew Balmer, Andrew.Balmer@manchester.ac.uk with:

1) a full CV, (including most up-to-date grade transcripts) and;

2) a covering letter explaining why you think the project is interesting and how you are qualified to conduct it.

Please note that applying for this PhD studentship funding is a separate process to applying for entry to the Manchester PhD programme.  The successful candidate will therefore also be required to fulfil the normal admissions criteria for the School of Social Sciences once they have been offered the NWSSDTP studentship.

The deadline for applications is 7th April 2017.

The project is a great opportunity not only to develop academic, research, writing and presentations skills through a PhD programme, but also to work with a charity for three to four years. We will be looking for someone who can produce a sophisticated, theoretically-informed, qualitative PhD, with interests which align with those of the Morgan Centre.

If you need some more information feel free to get in touch with me at: andrew.balmer@manchester.ac.uk.

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Affect and Dementia

Affect and Dementia

Some definitions of ‘affect’ hold it to be pre-linguistic, something fundamentally ‘non-representational’ (Massumi, 1995), like the sensation of anxiety conjured by a particular urban environment. Red Road Glasgow

Affect in this guise is automatic. It is something the world conveys upon us as if by magic. The brain and wider nervous system are often crucial to such arguments, since they react to stimuli so rapidly it is easy to see how unconscious some of our responses can appear. In contrast, Margaret Wetherell (2012) understands affect to be entangled with all the rest of the mess of the world. Something that can happen in the blink of an eye, something embodied and habitual, yes, but also something that we designate to ourselves and others as part of situated everyday life. Affect is something that we reflect on, foster or discourage. It is structured and also specific.

In my own work I have been musing on affect and emotions as part of studying a very messy situation: what it is like to be caring for someone with dementia. Primarily I have been interested in how we deal with change in this context. No matter which kind of dementia a person is living with, there will be a lot of change involved, not least in their behaviour, but also in their relationships and in their capacities. website-bvftd-2-imaging-reformatted-1140.1140.409.sOne form of dementia is particularly pertinent to understanding affect and emotion. Behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD) involves a range of symptoms, but central to its manifestation are changes to a person’s affective disposition. People can become disinhibited and lack shame, empathy and insight. They might cry or laugh uncontrollably. Sometimes their tastes change, particularly as regards their appetite for sweet and sugary foods. They can also become obsessional, repeating routines and behaviours without relent.

Pyle_Pro_PTED01_PTED01_Electronic_Table_Top_1290002513000_744392For example, arranged around the living room of a carer I interviewed, Mike, there were several electronic drum kits. However, Mike told me as I we walked in that he doesn’t play the drums. They were for his wife, Lucy, who was living with bvFTD. Lucy would repeatedly bash and drum on anything she could find. Mike had bought the drums because at least they made familiar sounds, had a volume control and weren’t easily demolished.

This led me to ponder on whether Lucy drums things because of a change in her brain. Certainly there is a neurological problem causing a disruption in her everyday life. But why drums? This was a question Mike regularly posed to himself and doctors. Some answers he received were that it might stop some unpleasant sensation that Lucy feels, or that she might derive some pleasure from the physical activity, from the sound or from the effect it has on others. Mike wonders if she’s angry, and says that she doesn’t show any empathy for him as he struggles to tolerate the endless cacophony. And Mike struggles to manage his own anger as he soldiers on. But why do the drums bother him, exactly? It seems that there’s certainly an element of automation here. The drums make an unpleasant noise, which makes him feel angry even against his will. But how do we judge a pleasant noise versus an unpleasant noise? There are physical factors. Some noises hurt our ears. But cultural ones too, having to do with the way in which rhythm and melody has been structured in the West. These physical and cultural factors also inform each other.

And surely Mike is also angry because of the sense of injustice he feels. That dementia has affected Lucy in this way and that she does the things that she does. And that he is losing her. He is still angry with her even though he knows this, which makes him angry with himself, and further angry with the disease and that he can’t do anything about it.

Clearly there are multiple forces shaping the manifestation of anger in Mike and Lucy’s relationship, each time situated, specific and multiple, but also part of a broader story of changing embodiment, capacity and everyday life, one that is at least partly shared with others living with bvFTD and their carers.

Encounters like these with changes in affect lead me to believe that we need to better understand its entanglement with the body and the brain, certainly, but that such an investigation has to be conducted from within the relational world in which these changes take place.

References

Massumi, B. (1995) ‘The Autonomy of Affect’, Cultural Critique, 31, 83-109.

Wetherell, M. (2012) Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding (London: Sage Publications).