Archive for February, 2008

trees in the stream, originally uploaded by bobsee.

I must confess I find reflections entrancing.
They catch my eye. Stop me in my tracks.
Maybe it’s because the world looks upside down or back to front in them. Things aren’t where you’d expect them to be.
I’m glad of reflections. They make me notice the world when I’m maybe drifting, unseeing. We do that a lot I think. Float along on autopilot. Drift through a zombie life.
It’s good to stop, to notice and to reflect. Wakes you up.
The hero life is a conscious life. An aware life. A life where you slow down and take time to reflect

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Amy has nominated me for Best Health Blog – if you click on the badge top right it’ll take you to the Blogger’s Choice Awards to add your vote (if you’d like to!)

While you’re at it, Amy’s been nominated for three awards – photography, writing and parenting. Go visit her blog and see what you think.

Who’s Amy? She’s my amazing daughter of course! Am I biased ? You bet! But, seriously, don’t take my word for it, go and make up your own mind.

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Here’s another study which shows the health benefits of writing about your experience. We all use narrative to make sense of our lives, so you’ll understand that writing about our experiences can help us to do just that – to makes sense of our experience. However, more than that, narrative is a creative, expressive act. It’s a way of affirming our existence, connecting to others and of growing. It helps us to develop.

In this study 71 patients with cancer were asked to write about “How has cancer changed you, and how do you feel about those changes?”

After the writing assignment, about half of the cancer patients said the exercise had changed their thinking about their illness, while 35 percent reported that writing changed the way they felt about their illness. Three weeks after the writing exercise, the effect had been maintained. Writing had the biggest impact on patients who were younger and recently diagnosed.

Changing how you think and how you feel changes your everyday experience so it’s no surprise these respondents reported improvements in the quality of their lives.

It’s interesting  to note how important it is to write about feelings to get the good effect –

“Thoughts and feelings, or the cognitive processing and emotions related to cancer, are key writing elements associated with health benefits,’’ said Nancy P. Morgan, director of the center’s Arts and Humanities Program. “Writing about only the facts has shown no benefit.”

One final point worth noting is that whilst, as you may have expected, many wrote that the experience of cancer had been life-changing, perhaps what is more surprising is that many made statements about the gains which they had obtained from the cancer experience.

One patient wrote: “Don’t get me wrong, cancer isn’t a gift, it just showed me what the gifts in my life are.”

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twilight, originally uploaded by bobsee.

We are all different. One of the most obvious differences between us is temporal. Are you a morning person? Do you leap up out of bed on waking ready to engage with a new day? Or do you slowly emerge from a distant faraway Land of Nod, taking your time to gingerly explore the morning light?
Do you come alive in the evenings?
Are you a night owl?
Being aware of when you’re at your best and when you’re at your least effective can help you lead a better life by planning to do what you want to do as often as you can at the times which work best for you.
When is your best time of day for reading? And when is your best time for doing something creative?

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A study by Professor Kirsch and colleagues of Hull University has set a bit of a cat amongst the Pharma pigeons. It’s a pretty technical study but in summary what they did was got access to all the trial data submitted to the FDA by drug companies applying for licences for the big four new generation antidepressants – fluoxetine, venlafaxine, nefazodone, and paroxetine. This data, by the way, included trials which were not published but which they obtained access to through a Freedom of Information application.

What they found was that there was no evidence the drugs were more effective than placebo in patients with moderate or severe depression. They did show that the worse the depression at the outset of the trial, the greater the effect of the drug over placebo, but they did a fascinating analysis which showed that the explanation for this was likely to be the decreased placebo response in more severely depressed patients.

Given these are drugs with well known side effects and dangers, and that some 16.2 million prescriptions for these drugs were made in England in 2006, this study comes as something of a shock.

The responses to this study are even more interesting. Most experts and authorities quoted on the news items today have made the point that we all know that talking therapies work for depressed patients but that drugs are prescribed because there are insufficient numbers of therapists available. This is a shocking explanation. Drugs as a substitute for people. What’s the problem? Insufficient funds for the provision of enough therapists? Seems so. So why do we prefer to spend literally millions on drugs which probably don’t work instead? The answer lies partly in the way medicine is currently delivered. The priority is given to drugs. You can’t placebo control human care or loving attention. Maybe it’s time we began to change our priorities and save the drugs for when therapeutic relationships are not enough.

Does this study mean that people taking antidepressants should stop them because they are useless? NO. The problem with all this so-called “evidence” which comes from highly artificial clinical trials which seek to remove the human factors and average out the results to the point of dismissing the range of difference within the study group is that it fails to show us who might benefit most from a particular treatment. Within these studies are individuals who are substantially improved by the drug, and others for whom taking the drug was of no benefit at all. However, it is reasonable to assume that drugs alone are not enough. Depressed people need more care than mere pharmaceutical care.

Does it mean that we should invest in trying to treat depression with alternatives to drugs? YES. It’s about time we gave clinical priority to people in medicine, investing in sufficient numbers of well-trained doctors, nurses and therapists to give ill people the time and attention they need to become well – if possible, without the risks of prescribed medicines.

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The fairy house

My eldest grand-daughter showed me this the other day –
fairy house behind the pot
“It’s a fairy house”, she said
Come and look closer
fairy house entrance way

It reminded me of how rich the lives of children can be. What is it that makes such a difference?


What a shame that so many toys these days are manufactured right up to the finish point. Kids can get so much more fun out found objects and daily materials which with imagination become castles, boats, and, yes, fairy houses!  If you want to encourage your childrens’ growth and development then encourage their imaginative play.

In fact, I often think adults lead much poorer lives because they’ve lost both childlike wonder and the power of imagination.  When was the last time you let your imagination run loose and played?

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flight, originally uploaded by bobsee.

From my living room window today I saw this little trail of snow on top of Ben Ledi so grabbed my camera (can’t tell you how long it’s been since Ben Ledi was visible from my window – we’ve had days of wild winds and rain or thick, heavy mists hiding the mountains).
What often catches me by surprise are the really obvious things in the picture which I only see when I put it up on the mac and just didn’t notice at all as I pointed my camera and clicked. First of all look at that huge, heavy, water-laden cloud up there! How didn’t I see that?! But look also at the bird in flight – isn’t that beautiful? You couldn’t manufacture a shot like that. I love that about photography – how it can raise our awareness and deepen our perception of the world. I swear I look at the world differently when I’ve been looking at photos and/or when I’ve got one of my cameras in my hand. It’s a kind of second sight…..you see it once, then you see it better!

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Last night I went to see Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham in concert at Falkirk Town Hall and, oh, how I enjoyed it. What a great evening’s entertainment. To be quite honest I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Scottish music which can be everything from twee to tear-jerkingly emotional but I can’t remember the last time I saw such masterly musicianship as I saw last night. The accordion is not my favourite instrument (I was amused that Celtic Connections put on a concert called “Accordion Hell” inspired by Larson’s cartoon where everyone going to heaven is given a harp, and everyone sent to hell is presented with an accordion) but in Phil Cunningham’s hands it is superb. (I’ve never seen anyone’s hands move so quickly over a keyboard of any kind actually!). He played a tune he wrote in memory of his deceased brother and it was profoundly moving. Here’s a video clip of him playing a bit of it and having it analysed to show how it works its power. I love how he says at the end that it’s music from the heart. The best of music is always music from the heart.

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I took this photo of an amaryllis (ok, actually it’s probably not truly an amaryllis, but actually Hippeastrum) recently and when I looked at it once I’d uploaded it to my mac, it brought back to my mind a Hermann Hesse fairy tale I read back in my teens (yep, well over three decades ago!). Sometimes you read a novel, or a story, or a poem and it makes such an impression that it stays with you for life. I read a lot of Hesse when I was a teenager and one of my most favourite was (and still is) his collection of fairy stories – “Strange News from Another Star”. One of the stories in that collection is “Iris”. What I remember about that story is how the young boy imagines a whole world inside the Iris flower in the garden and later in life when he has lost touch with that whole way of experiencing life he falls for a woman named “Iris” who challenges him to go back and find what he had lost. I got my old copy off the bookshelf and the moment I started to read, the old magical feeling came back.

In the morning when he came out of the house, fresh from sleep and dreams and strange worlds, there stood the garden waiting for him, never lost yet always new, and where yesterday there had been the hard blue point of a blossom tightly rolled, staring out of its green sheath, now hung thin and blue as air a young petal with a tongue and a lip, tentatively searching for the curving form of which it had long dreamed. At the very bottom where it was still engaged in a noiseless struggle with its sheath, delicate yellow growth was already in preparation, the bright veined path and the far-off fragrant abyss of the soul. Perhaps as early as midday, perhaps by evening, it would open, the blue silk tent would unfold over the golden forest, and her first dreams, thoughts, and songs would be breathed silently out of the magical abyss.

I don’t think I ever looked at a flower the same way after reading that. Oh how I love those images – of the flower “tentatively searching for the curving form of which it had long dreamed” and of it “breathing silently out” its’ dreams, thoughts and songs.

When he stared into her chalice and in absorption allowed his thoughts to follow that bright dreamlike path between the marvellous yellow shrubbery towards the twilight interior of the flower, then his sole looked through the gate where appearance becomes a paradox and seeing a surmise. Sometimes at night too he dreamed of this flowery chalice, saw it opening gigantically in front of him, like the gate of a heavenly palace, and through it he would ride on horseback, would fly on swans, and with him flew and rode and glided gently the whole world drawn by magic into the lovely abyss, inward and downward, where every expectation had to find fulfilment and every intimation came true.

Each phenomenon on earth is an allegory, and each allegory is an open gate through which the soul, if it is ready, can pass into the interior of the world where you and I and day and night are all one. In the course of his life, every human being comes upon that open gate, here or there along the way; everyone is sometime assailed by the thought that everything visible is an allegory and that behind that allegory live spirit and eternal life. Few, to be sure, pass through the gate and give up the beautiful illusion for the surmised reality of what lies within.

Goodness, it is so many years since I last read those words but they feel as vibrant, stimulating and inspiring as they ever did. What a fabulous capacity we human beings have for imagination and creativity! How amazing is the tool of “allegory”? Isn’t it incredible how it turns what seems to be into something so much more? How it unlocks the potential that lies in everything. Wonderful! I’m off to re-read some more Hesse!

Meanwhile, here are a couple of other lily family photos I’ve taken – an iris I saw in Holland once, and a daylily from Rodin’s garden in Paris – hey, that should inspire your imagination a bit!



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Here’s an interesting study which split stroke patients into three groups – one group listened to music of their choice, one to audio books and the third didn’t listen to anything other than the sounds around them.

After three months, verbal memory improved by 60% in the music group, compared with18% in the audio book group, and 29% in the non-listeners. Focused attention – the ability to control and perform mental operations and resolve conflicts – improved by 17% in the music group, but not at all in the other two groups. In addition, patients in the music group were less likely to be depressed, or confused.

The researchers point out that

during the first weeks and months after stroke, the patients typically spend about three-quarters of their time each day in non-therapeutic activities, mostly in their rooms, inactive and without interaction, even although this time-window is ideal for rehabilitative training from the point of view of brain plasticity. “Our research shows for the first time that listening to music during this crucial period can enhance cognitive recovery and prevent negative mood, and it has the advantage that it is cheap and easy to organise.”

What a great idea! And how interesting. I’ve often felt that a lot of hospital time for patients is empty and involves no explicit therapeutic intervention. Yes, the physical environment of the hospital, if well designed, can contribute a therapeutic influence, but not many hospitals are designed that way, and even in the ones that are, it strikes me as a good idea to fill more of the patients’ average day with therapeutic interventions.

This final paragraph in the BBC’s report of this work really struck me –

Dr Isabel Lee, of The Stroke Association, welcomed the research. However, she said: “Further research into the effect of music on stroke patients needs to be undertaken before any widespread use, as presently the mechanisms of any effect remain unclear.”

Really? We’d better not allow stroke patients to choose to listen to music they like until we understand the “mechanism of action”? Has it come to this? Is this an important thing for science to discover? How music works???

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