Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and His Emissary, says we use our two cerebral hemispheres differently. The hemispheres, remember, control the opposite sides of the body, so the right control the left hand, and the left hemisphere control the right. It’s the same with vision where the right field of vision is the responsibility of the left hemisphere and the left field of the right hemisphere. I’m simplifying here, but you get the idea. In birds which have their eyes on the sides of their heads instead of in the front of their faces, each hemisphere controls the opposite eye but the idea is the same.

The right hemisphere supports a broad, vigilant attention. In a bird the left eye, therefore, is taking everything in to be aware of predators.

left eye

See how this duck is looking at me?

They use the left hemisphere to focus the right eye on details….for example, when picking out food.

right eye

There’s something else interesting about the field of view of interest to each hemisphere.

In we humans, the right hemisphere is more interested in what is far from us….


while the left is more interested in what is close up….



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Here’s a couple of thoughts – is the scientific method the way to be sure of things? And, is there only one scientific method?

What provoked those thoughts? An article in the Guardian citing research about jihadists

What kind of person becomes a jihadi terrorist? Specifically, what kind of educated person? The overwhelming majority of graduates recruited into Islamist terrorism studied engineering, science and medicine. Almost none are social science or arts graduates, according to research. The insight could have important implications.

Almost half (48.5%) of jihadis recruited in the Middle East and north Africa had a higher education of some sort, according to a 2007 analysis by Diego Gambetta that is cited in Immunising the Mind, a new paper published by the British Council; of these 44% had degrees in engineering. Among western-recruited jihadis that figure rose to 59%.

The author of the paper, Martin Rose, describes what he terms the “engineering mindset” which, he claims, makes science and engineering graduates more susceptible to jihadist indoctrination.

The culture of science teaching, says Rose, resolves all too easily into a right and wrong, correct and incorrect binary. This damages the ability of science and engineering students to develop the skills of critical examination.

……three specific traits that characterise the “engineering mindset”: first, it asks “why argue when there is one best solution?”; second, it asserts “if only people were rational, remedies would be simple”; and third, it appeals to those with an underlying craving for a lost order, which lies at the heart of both salafi and jihadi ideology.

It does seem that the jihadists see the world in a binary way – black and white, right and wrong etc – “That is perhaps why, in Isis-controlled territory, university courses in archaeology, fine art, law, philosophy, political science and sports have been eliminated, along with drama and the reading of novels.”

This claim that a training in science and engineering leads to seeing the world in binary ways and assertions of certainty is totally contrary to what I just read in “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. He describes a number of revolutions in human development – the agricultural revolution, the cognitive revolution and finally, the scientific revolution. Of the scientific revolution he says

The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions…….modern people came to admit that they did not know the answers to some very important questions, they found it necessary to look for completely new knowledge.

This seems to suggest that scientists might be best placed to say “I don’t know”, rather than to make claims about the possession of “THE TRUTH”.

Isn’t a good scientist always unsure? Does a good scientist ever claim they have the complete, final, definitive knowledge or understanding of anything?

Well that’s what I thought about science until I oversaw a science student’s notebook one day. The scientific method described there was of “Observation; description; explanation; prediction; control”. That shocked me when I read it but suddenly a particular approach to science made sense to me. I hadn’t taken on board that the ultimate goal of science was control. I thought it was explanation – possible explanations!

But a little further on in “Sapiens” Yuval Noah Harari writes

In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto titled The New Instrument. In it he argued that ‘knowledge is power’. The real test of ‘knowledge’ is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge


Back to Bacon again! The sometimes claimed “father of the scientific method”. I never warmed to him with his desire to dominate Nature and human beings.

So also there are two kinds of empires, as rewards to those that resolve them. The one over nature, the other over men; for the proper and chief end of the true natural philosophy is to command and sway over natural beings; as bodies, medicines, mechanical works, and infinite other things

So maybe here’s the link – its a particular type of “scientific method” which is a quest for certainty in order to wield power.

Maybe it’s time for us to invest more in the humanities if that’s what is required to produce critical thinkers who can live with the reality of uncertainty.

Rose suggests that the British Council, the organisation funded by the UK to spread British cultural influence around the world, should involve itself in education reform, to “humanise” the teaching of scientific and technical subjects. A broader-based education would give vulnerable students the intellectual tools to develop an open-minded, interrogatory outlook – and to question authority, whether scientific, political, religious or scientific.

And maybe it’s time to promote a different scientific method – one based on wonder, curiosity, and the humble belief that we never know everything about anything.

But then, “que sais-je?”

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I graduated from Edinburgh University, with my medical degree, in 1978. The next four years were my foundational training to become a General Practitioner (I still think “Family doctor” is a nicer title).

Here’s four of the core teachings which I received.

Don’t practice “a pill for every ill”.

There was an assumption that drugs should only be prescribed if you thought they were really necessary. If you issued a prescription at the end of every consultation you weren’t practising good medicine.

Underlying this teaching was to prescribe as sparingly as possible.

If you refer your patient to a man with a knife, he’ll use it.

There were two aspects to this teaching – firstly, that you shouldn’t refer a patient to a hospital consultant unless you expected that doctor to treat the patient with their particular specialist skills. Secondly, a specialist was likely to try to treat your patient using only the particular specialist skills they had.

Underlying this teaching was to refer to secondary care as sparingly as possible.

Don’t arrange an investigation/test unless you think the results are likely to change what you otherwise propose to do.

I was taught that most diagnoses could be made on the basis of a good medical history supplemented with relevant clinical examination. Tests were only for when you couldn’t do that.

Underlying this teaching was to test as sparingly as possible.

The doctor is the drug.

This was a big one. Back in the 1980s Balint’s teaching still influenced General Practice, and Balint proposed that one of the most powerful therapies a doctor could offer was him or herself. The doctor-patient relationship was the most important part of therapy. Active listening, understanding, compassion, care and good communication were the core daily tools, employed with a sound knowledge of the natural history of diseases, the risks and harms of various potential treatments, and the ability to help patients to understand what they were experiencing, what this illness meant in their lives, and what they might do cope and to become well.

Underlying this teaching was to pay as much attention to, and to spend as much time with, each and every patient as was possible.

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I bet there’s a good chance you will look at this photo and it will touch your heart.

Looking after wee ones is SO important.

I wonder if we really honour and respect that enough?

Are our societies structured in the way which allows the wee ones to grow and thrive, to reach their full potential?

I think the solutions will lie in developing our heart intelligence, but we need our brain intelligence too.

For a data-driven, brain-focused approach, here’s a video of a presentation by Sir Harry Burns who was Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer until last year. It’s almost half an hour long, and some of it is pretty technical, but Harry Burns is expert at delivering the messages in clear, simple ways. I think the first twenty minutes or so of this presentation will startle you if you haven’t seen this kind of analysis before. The takeaway message is that the way we structure our society, in particular in the physical, emotional and social environments we create, powerfully influences the health and illness paths of individuals right from conception (or earlier?) and the first few months of life. (The last ten minutes or so of this particular presentation goes off into the “patient safety programme” – which is a different issue – in my opinion)

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In Eric Cassell’s “The Nature of Clinical Medicine”, he postulates that a key problem with Western Medicine is the focus on disease, at the expense of seeing, hearing and understanding the person who may, or may not, have the disease. At Medical School I was taught it was very bad practice to refer to “the gall bladder in bed 3” or to say “I admitted a case of pancreatitis last night”. Despite that we continue to think of disease as paramount in patient care, and we even create our health care services around the diagnosis and “management” of disease. Whole protocols of procedures are created, distributed and enforced around the concept of diseaes. Doctors and nurses are told what to do with a patient with disease X on the basis of “the best evidence”, where “the best evidence” refers to group studies which seek to “control for” individual factors – a process which prioritises the disease over the individual experience of it.

Eric Cassell enumerates “8 problems with using disease language”.

Disease names, for example, coronary heart disease or carcinoma of the breast, wrongly imply that a disease is a concrete thing (as opposed to an abstract concept) that can be found separate from the patient in whom it is found.

I read the phrase about disease being a concept, not a concrete thing, many years ago, and it had a big effect on me. Disease is exactly that – a concept. It’s a pattern of change which we name. Yet how many people, patients or health care professionals, think of a disease as being a thing? If you look at recent slogans used in health care, and in charity campaigns you’ll see the kind of thing. They are full of war metaphors about fighting this, beating that, kicking cancer’s butt, and so on. 

Disease names, for example, renal cell carcinoma or ulcerative colitis, incorrectly imply that the disease and its behavior are independent of the persons in whom they are found.

There are NO diseases which exist outside of people (or other living organisms). A disease is ALWAYS found in the context and the environment of the person who is suffering. 

Disease names, for example, lupus erythematosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, mislead the unwary into believing that the name refers to one thing whose manifestations in individual patients are more alike than dissimilar. Just as the word tree refers to a class of things whose members are more alike than not, when, unless one wants to use trees or their wood, their variations are more important than their similarities.

What does every patient who attends an asthma clinic have in common? Asthma? How similar does that make them? Is this the most important fact to know about this person who is attending today? It’s individual differences, not the similarities, which are the most important.

Disease names, for example, multiple sclerosis or pneumococcal pneumonia, fool the unsuspecting into believing that what is referred to is a static entity, like the Bible, the Statue of Liberty, or the map of the New York City subways, rather than a constantly unfolding process that is never the same from moment to moment. The history of disease concepts depended on and furthered the classic separation of structure and function in which abnormal function was believed to follow from abnormalities in structure. This distinction seems to have been derived from the idea of form (which goes back to the Greeks) and its consequences that loomed large in 17th- and 18th-century medicine (King, 1978). The hard and fast distinction between structure and function itself is invalid. Structure is merely slower function, in that it changes at a lesser pace than the process called function—put in mind how bony structure changes in response to trauma or age so that it continues to perform its original function. Even the Statue of Liberty and the Parthenon are constantly changing.

As best I can understand, change is the nature of reality. There are no static entities. Even the ones which look static, are just changing more slowly, or less perceptibly. As Cassell says, “structure is merely slower function”.

Having named a disease within the patient, for example, diabetes mellitus or metastatic adenocarcinoma of the lung, physicians may be fooled into believing that they know what the matter is at this particular time and why. The disease may be the sole underlying reason why the patient is sick, but more often other factors—physical, social, or psychological (or all three)—have been crucial in the generation of the details of the illness and its losses of function (Cassell, 1979).

This is a common error. Just because an abnormal reading is found, that does not necessarily mean the explanation for the patient’s suffering has been found. For example, it has been clearly shown that there is no direct linear relationship between a lesion and the pain a patient is experiencing. Pain can change irrespective of the findings in the MRI scanner.

Disease names, for example, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and psoriasis, inadvertently cause physicians to fall back on definitions of disease that are now accepted as outmoded because they fail to provide an adequate basis for treating the sick.

Disease names can, and do, change as we develop our understanding.

Using disease nomenclature to describe human sickness encourages the belief that only research into (molecular) mechanisms of diseases holds promise for understanding and treating human sickness.

You’ve probably encountered one of the ways in which “patient centred” is being used – pharmacogenomics. The idea that as long as we find not just the genetic code associated with a particular disease, but the genetic codes which seem to indicate responsiveness to certain drugs, then all we need is the genetic code. This isn’t to say that molecular or genetic research is not of value. It’s just not enough.

Finally, focusing on naming the disease takes attention away from the sick person.

Ultimately, this is Eric Cassell’s main message, and if only we made this the foundation principle of health care then we might have better medical education, more useful research, more effective treatments, and even health care organisations constructed around people, not diseases and drugs.

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What was/is your experience of school?

David Richard Precht, the German philosopher argues that our schooling system continues to be based on the industrialism of about 100 years ago. We still seek to teach sets of facts to all children of the same age, and then test their ability to recall those facts in examinations leading to qualifications. The intention of the education is to produce compliant workers and consumers who will conform to the demands of industrial society.

He argues that we are not fostering creativity, emotional intelligence or relationship skills which enable communities and teams to work together, and individuals to develop and express their unique talents.

He draws his ideas from philosophy, from neuroscience (NOT materialist neuroscience which seeks to reduce all human experience and cognition to identifiable areas of the brain), and from an understanding of how society has changed over the last few years.

Many of his recommendations are in line with teachings from people like Montessori and Steiner, so he can be understood to be part of a more child-centred, holistic movement in education.

I found myself agreeing with much of what he had to say in a recent interview published in Cles magazine (“Notre école est un crime”). He points out that asking children to sit still for an hour and pay attention is not a good starting point – most children, and indeed most adults, are able to concentrate on one topic for about 15 to 20 minutes (which is why TED talks do so well, and why youtube is the new television), and that one thing we know about health is that sitting still isn’t good for you!

He thinks schooling de-motivates learners and that the average 12,000 hours of education leading to the “Bac” qualification in Europe are experienced as pure boredom by most children.

He also thinks we are not teaching the right kind of skills for the 21st century – we need more innovation, creativity, diversity, the ability to use the internet to gain knowledge and to connect with others, more emotional intelligence and a greater ability to form and grow healthy relationships with others.

His proposals include moving away from classroom curriculae to a more project-based system of education which is by its nature multi-disciplinary and encourages children to pursue their own curiosity.

What do you think? How would you change the educational system?

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There are something like 100 billion neurons in your brain – a literally mind boggling figure.  Are you really able to imagine what a 100 billion of anything looks like?

As if that weren’t challenging enough, each neuron has up to 50,000 connections with other neurons, and each connection (a synapse) is an electro-chemical switch of a sort – passing information and energy across the gap between two neurons. This makes the total number of states of the brain (number of “on” or “off” neurons) a figure which is……well, unimaginably huge!

I was taught at university that a synapse was a pretty simple connection between two cells where on neuron released a chemical, which then crossed the gap and stimulated the next neuron. This, of course, is a huge oversimplification.

Researchers have recently managed to describe a single synapse much more accurately.



The researchers say



The new model shows, for the first time, that widely different numbers of proteins are needed for the different processes occurring in the synapse,” says Dr. Benjamin G. Wilhelm, first author of the publication. The new findings reveal: proteins involved in the release of messenger substances (neurotransmitters) from so called synaptic vesicles are present in up to 26,000 copies per synapse. Proteins involved in the opposite process, the recycling of synaptic vesicles, on the other hand, are present in only 1,000-4,000 copies per synapse. The most important insight the new model reveals, is however that the copy numbers of proteins involved in the same process scale to an astonishingly high degree. The building blocks of the cell are tightly coordinated to fit together in number, comparable to a highly efficient machinery. This is a very surprising finding and it remains entirely unclear how the cell manages to coordinate the copy numbers of proteins involved in the same process so closely.

It’s not just the numbers which are astonishing, its the complexity, and that last sentence particularly struck me – “it remains entirely unclear how the cell manages to coordinate the copy numbers of proteins involved in the same process so closely”

Just how much DO we know about how the human body works? How much DO we know about how it evolves to this level of complexity, both through an individual lifetime from the fertilisation of a single egg cell to a fully grown human being, and throughout history from single celled life forms to the multi celled human beings?

Humility. That’s what we need as scientists. Humility. Our ability to discover and understand is astonishing, but so far pales in comparison with the complexity of a single human being.

I’m amazed.

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