Archive for April, 2009

Carrying a camera

I’ve posted before about the value of carrying a camera everywhere. I’ve got two cameras (well, three if you count my mobile phone), a Nikon D70 which takes wonderful high quality photos, and a Nikon Coolpix S10. The D70 is BIG. It’s a conscious decision to take it with me, and, usually, I do that when I’m heading out on a photo trip. The little S10 with it’s amazing swivelling zoom lens is in my jacket pocket all the time (just have to remember to move it when I change my jacket!). I find even having the camera in my pocket makes me look at the world differently. I’ve hardly ever taken photos with my mobile phone (probably haven’t rated it as a “real” camera!) but this site by Chase Jarvis has just changed my mind about that!

Take a look for yourself – go to this link here. I find this totally inspirational! I’m amazed that he takes between one and a thousand photos daily with his iphone and I’m even more amazed by the quality of the photography.

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I came across an excellent article about epilepsy recently. There’s a common belief that a seizure is a kind of chaos of the brain. In fact, it’s the opposite. A seizure is where the complex patterns of electrical activity in the brain break down and are replaced temporarily with a single big co-ordinated pattern.

A normal brain is governed by chaos; neurons fire unpredictably, following laws no computer, let alone neurologist, could hope to understand, even if they can recognize it on an EEG. It is what we call consciousness, perhaps the most mathematically complex phenomenon in the universe. The definition of a seizure is the absence of chaos, supplanted by a simple rhythmic pattern that carries almost no information.

I was especially struck by that last phrase – “a simple rhythmic pattern that carries almost no information”. We have a strong tendency to think it’s the ordered, clear patterns which convey information, and that when there is no clear pattern, that there’s no clear information. Interesting how it’s the opposite!

I then came across this interesting study of the zone between order and chaos. There’s a place between order and chaos which scientists describe as “edge of chaos” (otherwise known as “far from equilibrium”). It’s a difficult place to hold, easily tipping into some form of order, or some form of chaos, but it’s found everywhere in complex systems.

Self-organized criticality (where systems spontaneously organize themselves to operate at a critical point between order and randomness), can emerge from complex interactions in many different physical systems, including avalanches, forest fires, earthquakes, and heartbeat rhythms.

Well it turns out this is exactly how the brain performs best – and here’s why –

Due to these characteristics, self-organized criticality is intuitively attractive as a model for brain functions such as perception and action, because it would allow us to switch quickly between mental states in order to respond to changing environmental conditions

If you are too structured, too ordered, too stuck in your ways, it’s harder to adapt when things change.

Interesting……complexity means it’s hard to predict what will happen, but this fine balance between order and chaos turns out to not only Nature’s favourite, it’s a great survival strategy. I suspect one of our biggest challenges in the world now is to learn how to be more adaptable and not so reliant on rigid structures and patterns.

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delicate plant ghosts

This tiny little plant is only about the size of my little finger. It’s so small, it would’ve been easy to miss it, but I’m glad I didn’t.

It inspires me for so many reasons.

I love the fact that what catches the attention is the spaces. They’re the first thing you notice. Almost as if when looking at a net you’d see the holes first, then the thread. And what was in those spaces? Some kind of seed I expect. This framework was most likely the structure that held the seeds in place, raised them up to the sky and waited till the wind blew and took them away to settle somewhere else. That got me thinking about seeds, and how many amazing ways plants have to spread their seeds around the world, how they’ll use the wind, insects, birds, really pretty much any way they can to hitch lifts, travel far and wide without any power to move in the seed itself. This set me thinking about the interconnectedness of everything, of how the world is a vast interconnected network, how really you can’t understand anything or anybody without knowing something of the world they live in and some of their vast web of connections, influences, links and bonds.

Then I got to thinking about how this little group of circles held up the past for inspection. Look, said the plant, here is where my sons and daughters were, and now they’ve all flown and I’ve only the spaces now in my life, where they used to be. And that’s just how it should be.

I had other thoughts too, but I’d be interested to hear if this little plant inspires any thoughts of your own!

delicate plant ghosts

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tree monster

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Here’s an interesting piece of research.

Psychologists decided to study how mood affected a sense of identity. The first thing they did was split the volunteer subjects into two groups – European and Asian. They claim that Europeans culturally value individuality and independence most highly, whilst Asians rate community and harmony most highly. I can see where that comes from but it’s one of those rather sweeping generalisations, isn’t it? However, let’s assume they actually checked out to see if their particular volunteers rated those characteristics in those ways.

They conducted two studies. In one, each group had to first list to Mozart (described as uplifting) and then Rachmaninov (described as mood lowering) [yet another BIG generalisation, huh? Again, let’s presume they had some way of checking that out on their subjects]. In the second, they had to hold a pen in their mouth, first between their teeth (forcing a smile), and second between their lips (forcing a frown)!

The groups were then tested in a variety of ways to see how strongly they expressed either individualistic or group values.

What they found was interesting – the mood elevated groups expressed more highly divergent values, and the mood lowered groups reverted much more to cultural stereotype, as if good moods lead to a freedom to explore a wider sense of self, and low moods did the opposite.

As is often the case with these reports, I particularly liked the conclusion –

They conclude that the findings also suggest that the “self” may not be as robust and static as we like to believe and that the self may be dynamic, constructed again and again from one’s situation, heritage and mood.

It’s just that……are there still people around who think the “self” is a static entity?

Isn’t it now widely understood that the sense of self is an act of continuous creation?

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I stopped at a junction in Aix en Provence. The traffic lights in France include a set fixed at car level, as well as a set higher up. This particular set has been enhanced by someone with a sense of humour.
Emoticons on the traffic signals, huh?
Nice idea!

traffic lights

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I don’t know about you but in the middle of this “world economic crisis” I’m just not hearing what seems like a decent plan. The main so-called solutions seem to be about how to get people borrowing and spending again. But weren’t borrowing and spending actually at the heart of the problem? Wasn’t it the system which encouraged the unregulated pursuit of self-interest which produced exactly the current crisis? But tired old slanging matches between free market capitalists and state control advocates just seem like debates about who should hold the reigns of power. It feels like something more radical and new is needed. I found myself saying, don’t we need a society more based on love, than on power? (and does that mean I’ve never quite left Woodstock, flower power, and the “LA habit” behind?)
I’ve long since been impressed with the work of Richard Wilkinson and been convinced about his findings on inequality so when he commented on one of my posts recommending his latest book, The Spirit Level (ISBN 978-1-846-14039-6), I knew a trip to Amazon was imminent.
Most of The Spirit Level, which he has written with Kate Pickett, re-presents the findings and the arguments I’ve read before. If you’ve never read any of his work, then is, for sure, the best starting place. However, where it got exciting for me was at chapter 14. In fact, the last three chapters of the book were the three which gripped me most strongly.
The authors quote Thomas Hobbes who believed that there was always a danger of conflict in human societies as people competed over scarce resources, so the purpose of strong government was to keep the peace. You’ll be familiar with the Hobbes’ phrase that without such government life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Against this view they propose

“As well as the potential for conflict, human beings have a unique potential to be each other’s best source of co-operation, learning, love and assistance of every kind. While there’s not much that ostriches or otters can do far an injured member of their own species, among humans there is.”

They describe the ‘ultimate game’ where volunteers are paired randomly, one is given a sum of money and told to propose to the other a share of the money. If the ‘responder’ accepts the proposal both keep the money. If they reject it, neither keeps the money. Interestingly, what happens is that the commonest offer is 50%. This is despite the fact it’s made clear that there will be only one ‘round’ of this game and the volunteers will never meet again. ‘Responders’ reject offers less than 20% on average, so punishing greedy proposers. This shows two interesting human characteristics – co-operation and “altruistic punishment” which reinforces co-operative behaviour.
Somewhat startlingly, but undeniably, they claim that human beings have lived for 90% of our history in egalitarian societies based on co-operative, hunter-gatherer groups, and only with the invention of agriculture did dominance hierarchies develop.
Their conclusion is to call for more “affiliative strategies”

At one extreme, dominance hierarchies are about self-advancement and status competition. Individuals have to be self-reliant and other people are encountered mainly as rivals for food and mates. At the other extreme is mutual interdependence and co-operation, in which each person’s security depends on the quality of their relationships with others, and a sense of self-worth comes less from status than from the contribution made to the well-being of others. Rather than the overt pursuit of material self-interest, affiliative strategies depend on mutuality, reciprocity and the capacity for empathy and emotional bonding.

I think this hits the nail on the head. I think we need some bright minds to come up with the  detailed methods, but I do believe what we need now is a radical realignment of our energies and our structures away from the mistaken belief that competitive self-interest producing dominance hierarchies are the best model for society, back to our roots, to the 90% of our history, to

“mutuality, reciprocity and the capacity for empathy and emotional bonding”

Wilkinson and Pickett make it clear that their research has compared existing developed nations, not current models against a hypothetical utopian one. If we can reduce our enormous economic inequalities, we can look forward to less violent, more healthy societies. If you’re not convinced about that, read this book.

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Where does your mind exist? There’s a longstanding “common sense” view that it’s inside your skull. But, it’s becoming apparent, that is far from the whole story. Yes, of course a lot of what we call the mind is related to brain activity and the brain is indeed inside the skull, but many researchers are discovering that just as the brain does not exist in isolation, neither can cognition, behaviour, a sense of self, for example, be understood solely on the basis of brain processes. If we want to understand the mind we have to consider the body in which the brain is embedded. Phrases such as “embedded mind” and “embodied mind” capture the essence of this view, and the more you think about it, the more your realise the importance of the incredible network of connections between the brain and the rest of the body.
I get frustrated by doctors and scientists who act as if we can divide a human being into two components – a body and a mind. Especially when they then use this arbitrary and false dichotomy to actually recommend treatments for people’s illnesses. The “embodied mind” concept binds the body and the mind inextricably. That makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve never met a mind without a body, and the only bodies I’ve met without minds have been in the mortuary.
However, some thinkers, scientists and researchers have pushed the idea of “embedded minds” a stage further. (the difference being that “embodied” is exactly what it says – “in the body”; whereas “embedded” argues for a broad contextual understanding which situates the mind in it’s multiple environments). Andy Clark, who promotes the concept of the “extended mind” is one of the writers who has taken this furthest.

I have three of Andy Clark’s books. The first one I read was “Being There” (ISBN 0-262-53156-9), which was given as a key reference in “Smart World” by Richard Ogle . That book deals with the concept of the “embodied mind”.

Might it not be more fruitful to think of brains as controllers for embodied activity? That small shift in perspective has large implications for how we construct a science of the mind. It demands, in fact, a sweeping reform in our whole way of thinking about intelligent behaviour. It requires us to abandon the idea (common since Descartes) of the mental as a realm distinct from the realm of the body; to abandon the idea of neat dividing lines between perception, cognition, and action.

Being There describes how this concept evolved and lays out the implications of the model. Six years later he published “Natural-born Cyborgs” (ISBN 0-19-517751-7). Here he challenges us to consider just how we, as human beings, extend ourselves outwith the bounds of our physical biology.

For what is special about human brains, and what best explains the distictinctive features of human intelligence, is precisely their ability to enter into deep and complex relationships with nonbiological constructs, props and aids. This ability, however, does not depend on physical wire-and-implant mergers, so much as on our openness to information-processing mergers.

He tracks the evolution of these interactions

….from speech and counting, morphs first into written text and numerals, then into early printing, and on to the revolutions of moveable typefaces and the printing press, and most recently to the digital encodings that bring text, sound and image into a uniform and widely transmissible format…..they constitute, I want to say, a cascade of “mindware upgrades”
What matters most is our obsessive, endless weaving of biotechnological webs: the constant two-way traffic between biological wetware and tools, media, props, and technologies. The very best of these resources are not so much used as incorporated into the user herself. They have the power to transform our sense of self, of location, of embodiment, and our own mental capacities. They impact who, what and where we are. In embracing our hybrid natures, we give up the idea of the mind and the self as a kind of wafer-thin inner essence, the human person emerges as a shifting matrix of biological and nonbiological parts. The self, the mind, and the person are no more to be extracted from that complex matrix than the smile from the Cheshire Cat.

I particularly like this phrase from his concluding chapter in that book –

Our most significant technologies are those that allow our thoughts to go where no animal thoughts have gone before. It is our shape-shifter minds, not our space-roving bodies, that will most fully express our deep cyborg nature.

In his most recent book, “Supersizing the Mind” (ISBN 978-0-19-533321-3), he reproduces the original article which he wrote with David Chalmers, where they both laid out this concept of an “extended mind”. That article alone is worth reading, and, in fact, he recommends you read it first before reading the rest of the book. He juxtaposes the concept “BRAINBOUND” with “EXTENDED”.

According to BRAINBOUND, the (nonneural) body is just the sensor and effector system of the brain, and the rest of the world is just the arena in which adaptive problems get posed and in which the brain-body system must sense and act.
Maximally opposed to BRAINBOUND is a view according to which thinking and cognizing may (at times) depend directly and noninstrumentally upon the ongoing work of the body and/or the extraorganismic environment. Call this model EXTENDED. According to EXTENDED, the actual local operations that realise certain forms of human cognizing include inextricable tangles of feedback, feed-forward, and feed-around loops; loops that promiscuously criss-cross the boundaries of brain, body and world. The local mechanisms of mind, if this is correct, are not all in the head. Cognition leaks out into body and world.

Why is all this important? Well, I think Andy Clark puts it well himself –

This matters because it drives home the degree to which environmental engineering is also self-engineering. In building our physical and social worlds, we build (or rather massively reconfigure) our minds and our capacities of thought and reason.

This is the why this way of thinking so exciting. How does our physical environment shape not just our patterns of thought, but our whole sense of personhood? How does it limit, or potentially expand, what we think we are and what we think we can be? Our social world is a fundamentally narrative one. So what are the stories we are told in our societies? And what stories do we choose to tell each other? How does this narratively-constructed world both shape our sense of personhood, and stimulate our imaginations to become something more than we are now?
If all this seems a little esoteric for you, read David Chalmers foreword to “Supersizing the Mind”. You’ll immediately grasp the everyday-ness of all this as he talks about how getting an iphone has changed his life, and, further, how the use of notebooks, and visual cues, can maintain independent living in patients with Alzheimer’s way beyond what would be possible were they to rely on the minds inside their skulls!

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Look at these daffodils.
All daffodils, but all so different.





I love and am endlessly amazed by the diversity of Nature.

I am reminded every day how different we all are. Every patient I meet tells me a new story, one I’ve never heard before. The appeal of diversity and difference, of uniqueness, is probably one of the things that attracts me to a therapy which individualises the treatments people receive. I don’t think one size fits all. Dr Michael Dixon of the Prince of Wales, Foundation for Integrated Health, gets this right in the BBC’s Scrubbing Up column.

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