Archive for October, 2008

I’ve wrestled with trying to understand what health is – in fact, I often challenge doctors I teach to come up with a definition of health which makes no reference to disease or illness. Sure, WHO’s definition does say that health is more than the “mere absence” of disease, but that still doesn’t quite capture it. I think the three qualities of adaptability, creativity and engagement are good ones to consider when grappling with this concept called health.

But there’s another word doing the rounds now – “wellness”. Was does “wellness” mean to you, and does it mean something that “health” doesn’t?

Whatever definitions you come up with, I bet it doesn’t include what I just read about a new technology – a test card which, using a single drop of saliva or blood, can check for the presence of a bank of diseases.

I’m sorry, but that’s a “sickness card” not a “wellness card”! Even if it could test against 20 diseases, it will only tell you that you don’t have one of those 20 diseases – and that does not make you “well”!

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Shades of grey

birds in an october sky
birds on a stormy day
scottish autumn

Like most people, I enjoy a lovely blue sky, but the other day there I looked out of my window and flickering shimmer of silver caught my eye. When I looked more closely it was a flock of birds whose wings were catching the bright sun. The white of their feathers was such a dramatic contrast with the deeply grey, stormy sky that as they flew it seemed as if they were emitting light.

As I took the time to capture a photo or two I noticed how pleasing the greys of the clouds appeared over the autumnal tree tops.

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Although I get a genuine thrill out of scientific discoveries about how the body works, it’s never quite enough for me. I’m always aware of something else. It’s partly that knowledge that a complex whole human being is so much more than the sum of his or her parts. But it’s also the knowledge that characteristics such as consciousness and highly developed language/communication skills aren’t just other elements which make humans different from all other living creatures. Rather they transform us. Our capacities to remember and to imagine open up whole other ways of being for us.

I’m re-reading one of my favourite trilogies (actually I’m re-reading the first two books in anticipation of the publication of the third and final one…….coming soon in English). It’s Jan Kjaerstad’s The Seducer, The Conqueror and The Discoverer. In the first of these, I came across this dialogue.

I think what I’m trying to say is that every human being could be said to be as much an accumulation of stories as of molecules. I am, in part, all the things I have read over the years. They don’t leave me. They settle inside me like – how can I put it? – like sediment.

So you believe the stories you have heard are every bit as important as the genes with which you have been endowed?

Maybe that’s what life is about. Collecting stories, Axel said, building up an arsenal of good tales, that can be put together in all sorts of complicated ways: like DNA.

If you’re right, then it’s not a matter of manipulating our genes but the stories in our lives, said Jonas.

It’s not the sequence of base-pairs, the genes, we ought to be mapping out, but the sequence of the stories that go to make up a life, and who knows? Arrange them differently and you might get another life altogether.

I certainly find that I gain insights and understanding about life from novels, from painting, from music, from movies and photographs, which I don’t get from a reductionist/materialist science. And I think there’s a lot of truth in this dialogue. Sure, it helps us to understand the mechanisms of molecular function, but if we want to understand living, human beings, then we have to understand how to listen and how to tell stories.

This is a significant part of my work as a doctor…….to understand a person by mapping out their stories and, therapeutically, to help them rearrange those stories in ways which enable them to create a different life.

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I really enjoyed an Editorial in the Guardian about the unreliability of statistics – here’s the phrase which really made me laugh –

Research in 2005 suggested that only 36% of people think official statistics are accurate

I don’t know, what do you think……..do you believe it?

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The main news programme on the BBC tonight had the word RECESSION plastered behind the newsreaders for virtually the entire duration of the programme. Got me thinking about what on earth’s going on in our “global economy”. It seems the economic system we are all living with is designed around the concept of growth. Technically, a growth rate less than zero for two consecutive quarters is the official definition of a “recession”. Some of the items covered under this heading included fears of shop owners that people won’t buy so much this Christmas. But hold on a moment. Does this make sense? Can you really design a system that will work forever on the basis of consumption and production of more, more, more? We’ve already seen in recent weeks the consequences of a financial system geared around the mantra of making more and more money. In a finite world, does any of this make sense?

And what happens when human beings just keep consuming more and more? Oh sure, they grow all right – take a look at this map of the increasing levels of obesity in the USA – watch it spread across the whole continent like a contagion. This growth, this getting bigger, fatter, consuming more……this is health? This is a goal worth striving for? This is a system which will deliver good lives for the human race?

I don’t think so.

You see growth in a healthy way, growth in Nature isn’t about ever increasing consumption and accumulation. It’s about development. A healthy child grows into a healthy adult by maturing and developing. This involves learning, experience, acquiring skills, becoming resilient, adaptable and fit. That kind of growth is sustainable. That kind of growth is worth pursuing.

I don’t have the answers to this one, but it just strikes me that maybe we need an economic model which is based on a more natural and a more human concept of growth…….development, maturity and the fitness to be able to cope with what comes along. Not the current model based on greed, consumption and ever increasing production. The current model doesn’t work. It’s an illusion.

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I just stumbled across this quote and I liked it so much I thought I’d share it –

We are to regard the mind not as a piece of iron to be laid upon the anvil and hammered into any shape, nor as a block of marble in which we are to find the statute by removing the rubbish, nor as a receptacle into which knowledge may be poured; but as a flame that is to be fed, as an active being that must be strengthened to think and feel–to dare, to do, and to suffer.
– Mark Hopkins, Induction address as president of Williams College, 1836.

The flame metaphor really does work for me. I feel the same way about sharing ideas and insights – the things I put in this blog. When my flame adds to your flame there’s twice the energy, twice the heat and twice the light.

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First snow

When I came home this evening (October 21st) I noticed snow on top of Ben Ledi – first snow of the season!

first snow

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