Archive for September, 2015


In Michael Foley’s Life lessons from Bergson he says this about Bergson’s concepts of time –

Bergson distinguished two versions of time – time measured, which he defined as clock time, and the experienced, which he defined as duration. Clock time, spatialised and uniformly calibrated, is obviously necessary, but only duration is authentic.

When I was reading Deleuze’s work on cinema I came across Bergson’s concept of duration for the first time. That was my entry point. Realising that the way cinema artificially creates movement by showing you still images in rapid succession was the first time I had encountered the idea that clock time is actually artificial. We invented it. It wasn’t sitting there waiting to be discovered.

We experience time as a flow, not as a rapid succession of images or events.

For most of my working life a large part of the day was divided into blocks of minutes. A standard clinic of follow up appointments would be set out in 20 minute periods. A new appointment allocated 90 minutes. In General Practice the time slots were all much shorter than that. Our Practice was created around standard 10 minute appointments. Other groups used a standard of 5 minutes.

I didn’t wear a watch, and I didn’t have a clock on the wall, but I rarely ran late.

Same thing with giving talks or presentations, or teaching. Whatever time allocation I was given, most times (not always!) I said what I’d come to say in exactly that period of time.

Somewhere in me something kept me to time, but not by measuring minutes. I think that mainly arose through habit and experience. I became able to work according to duration.

Here’s more from the Life lessons of Bergson –

We should learn not to manage time but to let time manage us….the paradox is that the only escape from time is in submission to time. When we are flowing along with a process, awareness of time disappears.

We all know that one don’t we? When we go to a great movie we are surprised that two hours has passed already. When we are absorbed in a great book time disappears. When we are fully immersed in sharing a meal or being with someone we love, time disappears.

The “slow movement” is really based on this concept. In fact, the slow movement is, I think, not about being slow at all. It’s about immersing yourself fully in whatever you are doing. Sinking into, absorbing yourself in, fully enjoying and experiencing the present. The best book I know about the slow movement is Carl Honore’s “In Praise of Slow”. Why not buy a copy, and read it…..slowly?

I love Michael Foley’s suggested exercise of sitting on a sofa a dusk –

The gradual fading of the light is a perfect example of process, ‘succession without distinction’, impossible to catch in action but impossible to miss in effect. And the effect, especially if accompanied by a glass of wine, can be mysterious, enchanted, a spell that encourages reconciliation with process and time.

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Reality no longer appears essentially static, but affirms itself dynamically, as continuity and variation. What was immobile and frozen in our perception is warmed and set in motion.

Those are the words of Henri Bergson, quoted in Michael Foley’s excellent “Life lessons from Bergson”.

I love that. The experience of life as dynamic, “warmed and set in motion”.

Life isn’t “frozen and immobile” to me, and that’s why I am wary of categories and labels. I’ve always resisted being put into a box, defined by one or two of my characteristics. When I think of that I recall the adage of the General Semanticists – “judgement stops thought”. So often fixing someone or something into a category or type stops us from really seeing, really understanding.

Reducing an individual to a type diminishes them in all senses of the word.

Every patient I ever encountered was unique, presenting experiences and stories unique to them. To reduce them to diagnostic categories, or to types of any sort, blocked my understanding of them. Everyone always has more to reveal, more to share, more to experience and be understood.

Michael Foley says he came back to Bergson’s work after dismissing it decades earlier. His way back is interesting. It’s not the same as mine. My first encounter with Bergson came when I was reading Deleuze but I didn’t find him easy. I later stumbled into complexity theory and, in particular, the idea of complex adaptive systems. At that point I remembered some of Bergson’s ideas and went back to explore his writings further. Michael Foley’s path was through his encounter with “process philosophy” and with particle physics –

I learned from twentieth century philosophy of mind that memory and the self are processes rather than fixed entities – and suddenly this connected with the theories of particle physics, which claim that at the heart of matter there are in fact no particles but only processes…….everything is process…and everything is connected to everything else.

In the process view nothing is fixed, nothing is final and no circumstances ever repeat in the same way.

This strikes me as very true. Dan Seigel, one of the founders of Interpersonal Neurobiology, worked with colleagues to come up with a definition of the mind. What they concluded was that ” the mind is a process of regulation of energy and information flow. ”

The mind is not an entity or a thing, it’s a process.

The body is not a fixed entity or thing either – it’s a dynamic ever changing network or community of cells.

Disease is not a thing either. That really startled me when I read that once I was a practising doctor. As a medical student I picked up the view that disease was pathology and pathology was the changed organs or cells. Once I became a GP I encountered dynamic, hard to pin down illnesses that certainly couldn’t be reduced to pathological entities. Hearing that disease was a process not an entity was liberating for me.

I will return to some of the issues raised by this thinking in other posts but let me finish this one by returning to the title, because once we gain the insight which shifts our attention from entities to processes we discover diversity – we find out that variation is a key characteristic of Nature and of Life. But I think we find out something else too – that the universe, the world, and our lives are not completely random, chance, accidental phenomena. Instead there is continuity. We are in a process of continuous creation and emergence. We are who we are in our networks of family, nature, society and the world. We emerge from the past, as the past encounters and interacts with the present. Our future doesn’t contain just anything you could ever imagine. It emerges from here and now, from that flowing river of life and connections.

Continuity and variation. Just like the flow of a river. Just like the natural history of a plant, an animal, or any other living organism.

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When I started this blog, and came up with the title “Heroes not zombies”, I also chose a byline of “becoming not being”. Those choices were very influenced by reading two French philosophers – Giles Deleuze and Henri Bergson. Bergson wrote in the late 19th century, early 20th. His ideas preceded our discoveries which followed the splitting of the atom which led to a new physics. They also preceded the findings of neuroscience which have turned out to be consistent with his thought. Yet, sadly, his writings have been pretty much ignored for the last hundred years.

I am utterly delighted to have just discovered Michael Foley’s concise, crystal clear book, “Life lessons from Bergson”. I cannot recommend it too highly. Buy it! Read it! It might just change your world view.

Here’s a summary passage from the end of the book to whet your appetite.

he sought to protect the evolving self from finality, rigidity and circumspection, privileging the dynamic over the static, the holistic over the compartmentalised, the organic over the mechanical, the qualitative over the quantitative, the intuitive over the analytic, the continuing over the completed, the open over the closed and above all the free over the determined.

If any of that touches you, resonates with your values, then you will love this book. I’ll share some of the best ideas from it in future posts.

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Out walking in the vineyards the other day I noticed this plant with its strikingly unusual flowers and its little red berries.

It’s “dulcamara”, which is a plant I know from my homeopathic studies. Its fuller name is “solanum dulcamara” which helps us to realise it is from the same plant family which other “solan…” plants belong to. That family is the Solonacaeae family.

The Solonacaeae family is a fascinating one to explore if you want to look at the relationships between the plant and human worlds. Some of them are staple foods – potatoes and tomatoes for example. But others are hallucinogenics – belladonna, hyoscyamus and stramonium being striking examples. Witches were said to make up a paste which included some of these hallucinogens and applied it to their skin with a stick – the origin of the “flying sick” perhaps?

In fact a lot of these plants can be poisonous to humans and I often wonder how human beings first got the knowledge to enable them to distinguish between the nutritious and the poisonous – trial and error? Sickness and health? Life and death?

If you are at all interested in looking into “ethnobotany” this is a good family to start with!

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The diversity and complexity of life never ceases to amaze me.

Look at this beetle – it’s not just that it’s body shape, wings and limbs are so striking, but look at the intensity of its colour, of its deep, shining blackness. And look carefully and see the flecks of iridescent blue.

I find it utterly mesmerising!




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Rows of vines and rows of clouds.

This caught my eye while out walking yesterday. The clouds seem to be traveling in rows. That’s what caught my eye.

But now I see the image on the screen I’ve noticed that not only are the clouds crossing the sky in parallel rows, but they are doing that above the vines which are growing in rows on the land below them.

There’s something very pleasing about this pattern with rows above and below, running at right angles to each other…

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The thing that’s always bothered me about reductionist science is how quickly it becomes so abstracted from the world that it no longer usefully models the world.

Human beings, as living organisms, are complex adaptive systems. We are inextricably embedded in multiple contexts, physical, social, and cultural. You can’t truly understand a human being when you consider them isolated from the air they breathe, the food and water they eat and drink, the extensive web of relationships they live in, from family, friends and colleagues, to the networks of production of goods and services.

We are dynamic, open systems. That is, change is the constant of our nature, and there is a permanent flow of energy, information and substances between ourselves and the world in which we live.

A team of researchers in Montpellier has just published an interesting study beginning to try to examine and understand how chemicals in our environment bring about changes in our bodies.

They examined forty common chemicals which are found in the environment and in human bodies. Each of these chemicals has been tested on its own as part of state regulatory processes. Each one on its own has effects on the body, but not large effects (according to the studies). But of course, in the real world they don’t exist in isolation, so what happens when more than one of them is present at the same time?

As the researchers said, one and one normally make two, but when they studied the effects of the different pairs of these forty chemicals (780 variations of pairs in total) they found that sometimes one and one made fifty, or even a hundred. What they mean by that is that as they work together two chemicals don’t have a simple additive effect. Instead their combined effect can be many, many times greater than simple addition would suggest.

There’s an obvious reason for this. As complex adaptive systems, the cells in a human body are connected in a non-linear way, not a simple, linear one.

This study examines the effects of these particular chemicals on a particular receptor in a cell, (“pregnane X” receptor). They looked at this because chemicals have been shown to affect hormone systems within the human body causing widespread changes in the immune and inflammatory systems by interacting with such receptors, potentially setting off chronic metabolic and physiological disturbances in a person.

There study showed that one particular pairing of chemicals worked together as a kind of double key i.e. neither chemical could fit the receptor site, but when the two types of molecule combined they made the shape of a key which resulted in a much better fit to the receptor. So, singly, they produced little activity in the cell, but together their effect was multiplied 50 to a hundred fold. (The two they highlight are a pesticide and chemical from the contraceptive pill)

This is a small study only looking at the effects of pairs of chemicals in a set of forty, and only looking at the effect on a single receptor site. They point out that there are over 150,000 man made chemicals in our environment.

I’ll say that again.

There are over 150,000 chemicals in our environment.

Not just 40.

How many combinations can there be? How many combination effects might there be? Besides this particular one they have demonstrated. And the receptor site they studied is only one of many such sites in human cells.

A bit scary, huh?

They say they would now like to study the effects of pairs of 1600 prescribed drugs.

Are you a little surprised that we know so little about the real world effects of the presence of combinations of chemicals and medicines in the human body?

Well, thank goodness, we are beginning at least to explore real life complexity and stop pretending that single agents can be sufficiently studies in isolation.

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September’s issue of Philiosophie magazine has an interview with the Japanese author, Kenzaburô ôe who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994.

It’s a fascinating and striking article. He has been a controversial figure in Japan because of the subject matter of his novels, one of which challenges the official version of what happened in Okinawa at the end of the Second World War. Officially, 100,000 Okinawans committed suicide claiming loyalty to the Emperor rather than be over-run by the invading Americans. Kenzaburô says this is a lie. He says the Imperial Army massacred the Okinawans and they died called for their mothers, not swearing loyalty to the Emperor.

He has also shone a clear light on the reality of life for those who survived the blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Telling their stories shows how these particular bombs didn’t just kill and wound when they were dropped, but continue to damage those who survived right into the present day.

It’s no surprise then to read that since Fukushima he actively campaigns for the abandonment of nuclear power in Japan.

A big part of the story of his life is the birth of his son in 1963. Hikari was born with a severe brain defect and his parents had to decide to either let him die, or have an operation which would likely leave him severely mentally handicapped. They chose the latter. In addition to his severe handicap he has autism and he didn’t speak until he was six.

His first words were actually a sentence. The family was walking in the forest and at the sound of a particular bird call, Hikari said, in exactly the same way a radio presenter of a nature documentary would, “that is the call of the (such an such bird)” – and it was! After that his parents started buying bird song CDs and Hikari learned them all. They moved on to music, playing him Bach and Mozart, and were astonished to find, as he got older, that he could transcribe into musical notation perfectly any piece of music after hearing it just once. More than that, he went on to compose his own music.

Kenzaburô says his son has never expressed any emotion but his music is deeply emotional. His first CD sold 400,000 copies in Japan.

Here’s a video clip of one of his pieces.

Kenzaburô’s daily life is spent in his study reading and writing, while his son sits by him listening to, and writing, music.

A remarkable man.

Right at the end of the interview he says of creative work that it is important to find your own voice, or your own style – to be careful not to “get lost in the universal”.

I like that a lot. Too often we lose our singular uniqueness by trying to be accepted, or to fit in, or to be popular. Isn’t it more important to be the one unique person who only we can be?

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I was out walking through the vines the other day and I noticed this.

I was immediately attracted to the colours, contrasts and patterns.

I find this image quite absorbing. Almost like a completed jigsaw puzzle or something! It draws my eye in and encourages me to explore the view.

But then I had another thought. I don’t expect vines are supposed to look like this! Maybe this is a sign of disease or disorder of some kind? But then look at the grapes! They are abundant and they look pretty good too. So if the plant isn’t well, it’s still creating and producing well.

I’m not knowledgeable about vine health so I’ll need to let those thoughts rest, and in doing so I’ll return to sheer beauty and compulsive fascination of the image.

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