Archive for the ‘art’ Category

I saw this door panel in the Chateau Chenonceau. Isn’t it wonderful? What an incredible piece of craftsmanship carving this scene. I love the waves below the characters and the clouds above them, and I especially like how the clouds break out of the frame.

The scene is Poseidon and Amphitrite (I think!), the God of the Sea and his wife. They are being blessed with a wreath and a flower (a lily perhaps?) by two creatures with human bodies, fish tails and wings……nymphs I presume…from Amphitrite’s ancestry.

Apart from the beauty of this image in it’s own right, it is laden with symbolism, as are many of the carvings and tapestries of that period. Exactly what the significance is of each symbol and, indeed, of the myths of which they are integral part can be uncovered to a certain extent with study and research.

I invite you explore this for yourself. What can you find out about the characters represented and what stories are there about them? What can you find out about the nymphs, about the cupid figure, the trident, the bow, the wreath and the flower?

Some historians say that in their time the people who had these works of art created were well versed in the answers to all those questions. They could “read” a scene in the light of the knowledge they’d gained. They had been told these stories, taught these symbols, and they wouldn’t just look at an image like this and think “how beautiful” – the work would evoke whole sets of emotions, memories and fantasies for them. When I think of that I feel we’ve lost something because most of us haven’t had the education which allows us to have a similar experience.

Symbols and myths are an integral part of human life. Creating works of art is fundamental to our nature. I was listening to a BBC podcast the other day about cave art and the experts said the wall drawings of bulls, aurochs, deer and so on date way back to the times of not just the earliest humans, but to neanderthals too. Some of the cave art was created in caves so deep that not only were they in perpetual darkness but there could be no real reason for human beings to go there….other than through sheer curiosity, or to hide and protect their art works.

Who were those images created for, and what part did they play in their lives….of both the artists and the spectators? We don’t really know. But whatever the answers to those questions there is no denying that we are a species which does more than hunt, gather and farm. We create and live with art. It’s in our bones!

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I saw this framed poster a couple of years ago in a shop in Copenhagen. I kinda wish I’d bought it! It’s a simple but elegant representation of something which has become my core model when I consider reality – networks.

When people say everything is connected to everything else they are right and the easiest way to both visualise and explore that is the network.

A picture of a network is simply some nodes connected by lines. The nodes might be people in your life, including you, with each line representing relationships. The nodes might be cells in your body, some more directly interconnected than others but all living in each other’s influences. The nodes might be neurones in your brain, each of which is connected to up to 50,000 other neurones! Can you imagine that? It’s literally mind boggling.

Networks can map thoughts, feelings and actions. They can help us trace the influences on any single moment cast by the past and the future if each node is an experience, real or imagined.

We have two halves to our cerebral cortex and it seems the left half is particularly good at noticing and exploring the nodes – the parts, the elements, the items, components or data. The right half, on the other hand, is particularly good at noticing the links, the bonds, connections and relationships.

Think of the constellations in the night sky, each twinkling star a node. When I look out now I see Orion has reappeared and makes his way each night across the winter sky from east to west. He’s been gone all summer and now he’s back I know winter is coming. But how do I see Orion? By tracing the invisible lines which connect the individual dots (stars).

When I first read about complexity science it was this model of networks which made it all clear to me, and, in particular, learning about the non-linear nature of the relationships between the nodes in living creatures helped me grasp the concept of the “complex adaptive system”…..which shone a bright light of understanding on everything from self-healing, to uniqueness.

If you’d like to explore this subject a bit more, here are some of the best books I’ve read about this concept of networks, connections and links.

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A couple of years ago I saw this image on the front of a shop in Copenhagen. Uniqueness is an important quality for me. Every single patient I ever treated was unique. Every single one had a unique story to tell me. I feel unique. I see you as unique.

So, what makes someone unique?

Is it your DNA? That’s part of it. There are no two human beings with identical genomes. Is it your face, your eyes, or your fingertips? That’s part of it too. There is scarily effective face recognition equipment already deployed everywhere from airports to security cameras. You can even get access to your phone by having it recognise your face. Iris recognition technologies have been around for some time allowing restricted access to closed spaces, and fingerprinting has a long history in detection work.

So, each of these characteristics can be said to be unique to you, but none of them captures your uniqueness, because YOU can’t be reduced to your fingertips, your eyes, your face, or your DNA. Maybe these features can help to name you….to tell others how to identify you from within a crowd, or a group.

But is this the same as “identity”?

I don’t think so. The reason why I don’t think so is that identification has spilled over from the capture of these physical features to encompass a whole person.

You are not reducible to any of these features, just as you are not reducible to any other “characteristics” such as country of birth, ethnicity, gender, religious belief, height and weight, or hair colour.

You are a person, and a person has a subjective reality, a life of memories, experiences, imaginings. A life of emotions, thoughts and beliefs. A unique, and singular story to tell, which is not, and never can be, the exact same as anyone else’s story, past, present or future.

Our uniqueness isn’t found in our characteristics or our features. It’s found in our connections….the connections which connect the past to the present, the present to future, our selves to other people, our unique set of experiences and life events, the contexts and environments of our existence. It’s found in the invisible nature of our subjective reality, with our own consciousness, our own unconscious being, and our ever changing, ever developing sense of self and person.

I abhor the reduction of a human being to a data set.

Because every human being is unique.

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I took this photo in a Japanese Garden in Scotland in October two years ago. I’m steadily working my way through my digital photo library (from oldest to newest) and I’ve just reached October 2018…..which is pretty appropriate given its now October 2020.

This photo leapt out at me. I just LOVE it! Those gorgeous reds and greens together are quite stunning!

The next two photos also really transfixed me…..

I just think they are breathtakingly beautiful.

And, hey, isn’t a great idea to share some beauty today?

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From the perspective of complexity science an “attractor” is an area of organisation within what otherwise appears as a chaotic system. Think of the phenomenon of a “Black Hole”. It’s like a sink hole where everything, even light, disappears into it. It’s like a point in the universe which pulls everything within its reach into its centre. A “Black Hole” is a sort of attractor.

An attractor appears around a focus, and once it is there it exerts this kind of “gravitational” or “magnetic” pull on anything which comes close to it. But the simplest way to think about it is the emergence of a consistent pattern in the midst of chaos. If there weren’t these points of organisational focus in the universe then space would be even, smooth and featureless. But space isn’t like that. It’s full of features, full of phenomena, of areas and points of organisation.

You can see something similar happen in the brain where distinct networks of neurones which “fire together”, “wire together”. There are examples of brain imaging which show the thickening of neural pathways when something is repeated…for example, when practising the piano (where you can see a thickening of the brain nerves used to control the fingers). It’s sort of a neural equivalent to what happens to muscles when someone practices body building.

The same thing happens with our habits of thought and emotion. The loops which start to fire in relation to particular thoughts or emotions have a pulling power. Many years ago I read a book by the psychologist Edward de Bono, “Water Logic”, where he described this tendency for thought patterns to become embedded in our brains by likening them to the way water makes its way down towards the sea from the heights of a mountain. The rain falls pretty evenly over the high lands, but starts to run together to form streams, rivulets, rivers and finally estuaries into the oceans. The next rain which falls tends to follow the paths already carved out by the previous rain.

I thought that was a pretty powerful image and I shared it with many patients over the years. It helped explain phenomena like flash-backs, compulsions and addictions to some extent. But I always thought it was only part of the story, and it wasn’t until I discovered “attractors” that I realised what the other part was.

So, it seems to me, that events which are accompanied by strong emotions can make new attractors in our minds. They can be traumatic events, accompanied by fear, anger, shame, or pain. Or they can be life-enhancing events like joy, wonder, tranquility, or a sense of one-ness with the world.

When we recall one of those events we are drawn back into the same original pathways and loops. Or when something new happens which is pretty similar to one of those attractors, then the whole thing kicks off quickly and powerfully once more.

Once I understood this I realised we can actively create our own new attractors, by having, and/or re-creating, the kinds of experience which we want….the ones of love, joy, belonging, tranquillity, awe or transcendence.

Attractors, it seems, are not fixed entities. They need to be fed to keep them growing, and neglect makes them likely to wither away. The more attention we give them, the more powerful they become.

I was thinking about this today when I looked at this photo of mine, taken in a zen garden in Japan. What I like about this image is not just the spiral, which is indeed very attractive, but the wider scene – how there are different flows, paths, bends, loops and spirals across the whole expanse of the stones. Can’t we do this with our minds? Create our own unique inner landscapes of pattern by becoming aware of existing attractors, and actively creating new ones?

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I’m pretty keen on biology….as you might imagine for a doctor! I’m interested in how the body works, the way the different cells, organs and tissues all function so beautifully together. I’m interested in discovering the connections within us with all the incredible feedback loops and cascades. I find it all fascinating.

But it was very clear to me from very early on in my work as a family doctor that human beings can’t be reduced to biology. There’s more to us than biology can explain. I often refer to the three flows which pulse through our very beings every moment of every day – the flows of materials, energy and information. Biology is pretty good at shining a light on the first two flows, but its the third one where things start to get so uniquely interesting when thinking about human beings.

One of the aspects of information flow is art. Now, I don’t mean to reduce art to information, or at least, not in the sense that information is “data”. I mean information as signals, not simply data. Information as meanings. So language, music and visual art all connect with us, and our whole being responds. You can blush because someone says something to you. Your heart can race because you hear a certain song. You can catch your breath, or feel a range of emotions, from disgust to delight, when you see a work of visual art.

Our lived environment is not just physical. We imbue it with meaning. We react to particular colours, designs, patterns, sounds, scents and physical touch. A particular taste can set off a cascade of memories….one of the most famous examples being Proust’s “madeleines”.

I think both street art, and advertising, affect us deeply. The images trigger certain responses within us…..maybe certain emotions, certain thoughts, or particular memories. But whatever they do, they change us. And because we are not compartmentalised, those changes ripple through our entire being. We don’t keep them in our heads.

I think we’re often quite unaware of the images and art around us. They often exert their influence in sub-conscious ways. But I like to be aware of them. I like to notice them, stop, and reflect.

In this photo I’ve captured both street art and advertising. What do you feel when you see them? What do you think when you see them? What effect do they have on you? (If any….because of course we are all affected differently by different images)

We co-create our lived reality, we humans. We do it collectively and we do it as individuals, creating and publishing, or “showing” our creations. We do that whether we are artists, or writers, or whether we simply talking to each other. We change the lived environment by constantly changing our behaviour, our language and by using our creative powers.

What kind of reality are you going to co-create today?

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Maybe one the most important concepts at the base of all my understanding of people, of Life, and of the world, is that everything is connected. Nothing exists in isolation.

If I want to understand a patient, a friend, a relative, or myself, I have to follow as many of the threads which create the rich tapestries of Life as I can. I can never know them all. The daily judgement is deciding that I know enough to act, keep an open mind and awareness, and watch to see how things change after the act. I don’t really know any other way to live.

In scientific terms we humans are “open systems”. That means we don’t have impermeable walls or borders which separate us out from the rest of existence. It is just not possible to know an individual in total isolation. Our whole being is continuously immersed in flows of materials, energies and information which change us as we change them. We are influenced by, and impacted by, the environment in which we live, the food and drink we consume, the behaviours and emotions of other human beings, and the experiences of all non-human life every day. And vice versa……everything we do, what we consume, what we discard and excrete, how we act towards other humans and other forms of life changes the planet we share every day.

I loved hearing the stories patients had to tell me. Every single story was unique. Every story was a story of events, experiences, and change as a result of interactions between the person and their vast interconnected webs of environment and relationships.

I was taught that good medical practice is based on making a good diagnosis. A diagnosis is an understanding. It was my job to listen to the story, examine the patient, and, if necessary order some tests, to discern the patterns within their experience which I had been taught to recognise. In my early years as a doctor those patterns were almost exclusively pathologies, or diseases. Over time I came to understand that diagnosis, or “understanding”, needed to be both deeper and wider than that. It wasn’t enough to name the disease. A doctor had to learn to see and understand the person who was experiencing the disease. That shift from pathology to person involved teasing out the threads, exploring the influences, the impacts and the personal responses.

Each of us have distinct patterns which occur and re-occur throughout our lives. Patterns of thoughts, emotions, behaviours run through our stories. Patterns of memory, experience and fantasy cycle and spiral across whole lifetimes.

They are amazing. They are remarkable. They are astonishing. I can’t see a time will come when I’m done with this. It seems to me that every day there are new patterns to discern, threads to follow, new connections to find and to create.

What a life! What a remarkable, awe-inspiring, wonderful phenomenon is Life.

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We change the world every day. Just by living. Here’s a photo of a path. It shows a distinct gathering of seeds, leaves and other plant materials in a curving line. You know, instinctively, or because you’ve seen something like this before, that water has passed this way. Sure, maybe an artist did it. Maybe someone like Andy Goldsworthy, the sculptor, who creates fabulous works of arts from natural materials, but, no, somehow we just know, this particular trail was not created by any human hand.

One of the things which fascinated me when I came across this was the fact that the creator of this “natural art”, or, more mundanely, if you wish, of these marks, was water. Water carried these seeds, leaves, etc then it seeped away, leaving them in its wake.

I look at this and I think….this is what we do, we humans. Day by day, moment by moment, actually, we change the world, we leave our traces, we gather some things together, and discard them, or set them aside. We metabolise what we take into our bodies, and we excrete the products of that metabolism. We change the world with every breath.

This is happening on such a massive scale now that some scientists refer to this present time as the “anthropocene” – because human beings are now producing large scale changes to the very geology of the planet (and certainly to the biology of the planet!)

I don’t think we can avoid this. We change the world by existing. But we can become more aware. We can, individually, and collectively, try to understand just what changes we are bringing about. We can use that understanding to ask ourselves if we want to make other choices, if we want to try to make different changes.

And yes, I think that can be applied at all kinds of scale. If we develop more inter-disciplinary, integrated sciences and arts, then I believe we have the chance to reach better understandings, and make different choices. The key, I believe, lies in exploring the trails, seeking the connections, discovering the influences and factors involved in any change, and shifting our focus from trying to control to trying to understand reality.

How does the world change when we concentrate on competition and consumption? How does the world change when we concentrate on co-operation and sustainability? How does the world change when we prioritise quantities, data and statistics? How does the world change when we prioritise qualities, experiences and relationships? How does the world change when we prioritise money? How does the world change when we prioritise health? You get the idea….feel free to add, or to choose, your own.

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We humans seem to develop the habit of making binary choices. You can either choose this OR you can choose that. I suppose we make either/or choices on multiple occasions every day. It’s not something to avoid. If we tried to avoid it, we’d be paralysed. What would we have for breakfast? Where would we go today? Which tasks would be pay attention to and put our energy into? Let’s be clear, we make, and we need to make, binary choices all day long.

But I think this becomes a problem when we try to see the whole life through this lens. It’s a problem when we select out too little of complex reality to try to reduce it to either/or choices. That’s too simplistic, and it detaches us from the real world, leads to mistakes and regrets, pushes us into divisions and conflicts.

So we also need to see the “whole”, to look at “the bigger picture”, to take a “view from on high“. In other words we also need to explore the contexts and connections which exist, to follow the trails, the feedback loops, the influences and flows.

To do that, we need to stand back from time to time, take stock, pause and reflect. I think that’s happening a lot during the time of this pandemic. A lot of habits, routines, behaviours have changed now, or at least, for now. We are having to adapt. Is this virus going to go away any time soon? Doesn’t look like it. So, how am I going to live now? What’s important to me? What paths aren’t looking so clear now, and which other ones seem to be opening up?

Our brains have two enormous divisions – the left and the right cerebral hemispheres. Each of these halves engages with the world differently, and if, Iain McGilchrist’s thesis is correct (which I believe it is), then we’ve been paying way too much attention to the way the left hemisphere engages, and not nearly enough to the right. Here’s one of the key differences – the left makes binary choices. It separates, divides, and abstracts. It simplifies, categorises and labels. The right, however, seeks connections. It synthesises, contextualises, looks for the bigger picture, the “whole”. It prioritises relationships over objects.

The truth is we need both halves of our brains. Surprise, huh? But we need to learn to get them working together better than they’ve been doing. We need to learn the habits of joined up thinking, of humility, and of open-ness.

And not or – that’s the way I see it!

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I didn’t really know what this was when I took this photo, and years later, when I look at it again, I realise I still don’t really know what it is. One thing I am sure of, however, is that this shape didn’t appear on the wall all by itself.

I don’t know if it started with a damp patch, then some growth of moss, then some shaping and trimming by someone…..but I’ve never seen anything else quite like it.

I think it’s a great example of co-creation. Human and non-human forces working together to produce something unique, something which could only be produced by the human and non-human forces working together.

Co-creation is one of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems. I know we often think of healing as an individual activity but it’s not. It is always a co-creation with others, with other human beings, with other life forms which are not human, with other energies and forces in the world.

We are co-creators, we humans, and we co-create our Selves, our Lives, our communities, societies, environments. There are even some who now call this period of the Earth, the “anthropocene” – a time when human activities are changing the geological nature of the Earth.

So, here’s the thought worth having……what am I co-creating today?

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