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Archive for the ‘from the reading room’ Category

Oh, I wish I could share the scent of these astonishing flowers with you. How the sense of smell conjures up such vivid memories and experiences. Hyacinths are the only flowers which provoke my mind to recall poetry. I’m not saying I don’t think of lines from poems in other circumstances. It’s just that hyacinths, specifically, start a passage of poetry in my mind every single time….in much the same way as a few notes of music will transport me back to a particular time and place.

Here’s what I hear in my head when I smell the hyacinths –

‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

“They called me the hyacinth girl.’

_ Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living not dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Do you know that poem?

I’ve never seen her, the hyacinth girl, her arms full and her hair wet, but I swear I have. Yet I couldn’t describe her to you. I’ve never seen her physically…and that’s what’s most interesting about this for me. I have a deep knowledge of seeing her, but I’ve never seen her. I have the feeling of the experience of seeing her, but I’ve never seen her.

But I have seen the hyacinths….and every time, they still my soul and I’m “looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

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Look at the skeleton of this beautiful fish. The intricate and delicate structure of the bones is a stunning demonstration of the nature of networks. We can see the whole skeleton is made up from two simple elements, nodes and connectors. Whether we zoom in to study just one group, or out to look at the larger regions we see a variety of different patterns based on these two simple elements.

If you start at any point on this skeleton you’ll be able to trace a path to any other point without ending up down some disconnected cul de sac. In other words every single point is connected to every other one….either in simple one or two step connections, or through an almost infinite variety of pathways across the whole structure.

This is one of the most fundamental patterns at the heart of reality – networks of nodes and connectors.

You can see the same design in all forms of life, especially in multicellular organisms, all kinds of plants, animals and human beings.

Networks of nodes and connectors are the essential fabric of the universe.

Two of the best books I know about this phenomenon are Linked by Barabasi, and Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. I recommend them both. They show how this apparently simple structure builds up into the most complex of phenomena, from individual organisms, to social groups and whole ecosystems.

Once you see things this way you can’t help but see connections everywhere. It’s the science which demonstrates the limitations of reductionism and abolishes the notion of atomisation.

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wishing-well

I’m quite a fan of having my eye caught.

When the sun goes down just west of the village over the hill, it frequently turns the sky a gorgeous shade of red gold. It’s a quality of light which catches my eye.

I can be walking through a room and suddenly see the faint pink tinge on one of the walls, or sitting reading and look up to see a spreading, deepening glow, or walking to the front door and notice the wall change colour in front of my very eyes. Wherever and whenever it happens, I’m drawn.

First it catches my eye, then it focuses my attention. I move towards it. Either to stand on the wall in the far corner of the garden and just watch as the sun sinks below the horizon, and then to wait for a while as a tobacco colour seeps up from the ground once the sun has gone, or I turn my back to the sunset to look at the way the light and the colour changes the world to east, colours the whitewashed walls, and tints the earth and the air in front of me.

Often, I take a photograph. This particular day I adopted a different position. I walked across the garden and round the well then looked back at the setting sun through the well’s iron arch. I had to wait a few minutes until the sun sank a bit lower in the sky, then I saw this…the end of the day’s burst of setting sunlight shining as if from the end of the chain….creating the effect of a radiant light emerging from the bucket which hangs above the well (except there is no bucket hanging above the well, only the one in my mind’s eye)

Is this well a wishing well? It’s certainly a source, albeit of water a long, long way down beneath the ground.

This is the kind of experience which I find magical. It’s the magic of attention, which is first caught, then focused. The kind of attention Iain McGilchrist describes in The Master and His Emissary as having a quality of care, a right hemisphere directed attention. It changes what I see and it changes me. In that moment, I’m standing still, holding my breath, feeling connected. Feeling as if I belong. Here, in this moment, on this particular piece of the Earth, with water lying silently far beneath my feet, and the very air around me glowing with the fiery rose gold of the setting sun.

The sun sets, the Earth rises, on a day of my life, a day I’d never experienced before, and one I’ll never experience again. Until tomorrow, when another one will come, a new day, a different day, a unique day.

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dscn7600

Barrie Condon, a retired Professor of Physics, generously shared his new book, “Science for Heretics” with me. He thought I’d like it. He was right. The subtitle of the book is “Why so much of science is wrong” and his aim is to provoke the reader into questioning both the claims of science and its methods. He uses the device of three characters, The Believer, The Sceptic and The Heretic, throughout the book as he considers several fields of science including mathematics, physics, and medicine.

The Believer is one who science reveals the Truth and will one day enable us to understand everything in the universe. The Sceptic accepts the basic tenets of science but retains some doubts about whether of not we will ever be able to understand everything. The Heretic doesn’t buy the whole project. He thinks the universe is not completely knowable and that our scientific theories which shape our views what we see are simply the projections of our human brains.

He particularly attacks the use of theory in science which tends to be translated into “laws”. He clarifies that no such “laws” exist and sets out the case for a return to observation and experimentation instead. I really enjoy his writing style and some passages particularly stood out for me.

For centuries we have been measuring all sorts of things but generally only recording the results we expected and ignoring the rest.

This captures two of my main objections to so much of medical practice – the reduction of human beings to measurements and the belief that the particular measurements which are made allow us to completely understand a patient and their illness. Although I have heard of a medical teacher say “Don’t listen to patients. They lie all the time. You can only trust the results.”, my own experience of doctoring couldn’t more diametrically opposed from that view. ONLY the patient’s experience can be trusted. Measurements, sadly, frequently mislead, and ALWAYS need to be set in the context of this individual patient.

Life saving claims for medicines need careful examination. Drugs do certain things which are beneficial to the human body in disease, but they inevitably have other effects which can be deleterious or even fatal.

I wish more doctors made that more clear every time they write out a prescription.

He’s even better on physics and cosmology.

For me, the two most important things he has to say are, firstly –

Science gives us theories that purport to explain how the universe works. This breeds confidence in scientists who then go on to do things that carry certain risks. These risks are rationalised away on the basis of existing theory. Even if our Heretic is wrong in saying that all theory is actually erroneous, history shows us that most or perhaps all theories ultimately prove incorrect. Our perceptions and calculations of risk are therefore also likely to be erroneous. Science generally also assumes a high degree of control over experimental conditions and again this faith seems misplaced. While we may routinely underestimate risk, we also routinely overestimate our ability to control it.

This is SUCH an important point. He’s arguing for a greater use of the “precautionary principle”. Instead of assuming that everything we produce, all our chemicals, all our technologies are safe until proven otherwise, we should be more wary. What we need is a whole lot more humility and the ability to confess that we really don’t know very much at all. And we certainly way overestimate our ability to control things. It’s the arrogance of believers which frightens me most – people who are so sure that they, and only they are right – I’m on the side of the Heretics in Barrie’s terms. It’s likely that what we think we know at any point will be proven not to be quite right in a few years time (or, indeed, to be completely wrong).

The second important conclusion he reaches is that there are no fundamental laws of the universe…..apart from, maybe, two –

As well as a possible law for uniqueness, the Heretic is open to the possibility of a second law governing complexity, namely that it increases with time.

Well, there he puts his finger on what I’ve written about many times on this blog – that the most important characteristics of the universe are its tendency to create uniqueness and its trend of ever increasing complexity.

Take those two undeniable features on board and try and practice science or medicine by measuring, generalising and trying to control the future! Good luck with that.

Thank you, Barrie Condon, for your delightful, humorous, thought-provoking, paradigm-challenging book. If it was an integral part of science education we might be able to look forward to a better world.

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image

There’s a statue of the poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca, in the Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid which has just become my favourite statue in the world.

He’s standing holding a little bird in his hands and what makes it such a magical piece of art is how children respond to it. They love it! I’ve been sitting in the square these last two evenings, enjoying a glass of wine and delighting in the sheer joy and fascination that this statue inspires. Lots of adults have their photos taken next to him, some take the photos with their own selfie sticks, but it’s the little children who really caught my attention. They gaze up at him and the bird. They ask to be picked up so they can touch him, or they climb up and hold his hands or stroke the bird. It’s beautiful.

image

It’s obvious why his hands and sleeves are so shiny…..so many little hands have held them.

“I will always be on the side of those who have nothing and who are not even allowed to enjoy the nothing they have in peace” Lorca

 

 

 

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two

In the Spring of 1784, Armand Marie Jacques de Chastenet, marquis of Puységur, discovered that Victor Race, one of the peasants who worked on the marquis’ land, had pneumonia. The marquis had become interested in the work of Mesmer and “animal magnetism” so decided to see if he could help Victor back to health using this new method.

Victor fell into a trance and began to speak. But to the astonishment of his master, he didn’t speak in his usual patois, but in perfect learned French instead. Not only that but he talked about subjects that an illiterate peasant couldn’t have known about.

What happened next is even more astonishing. The marquis and Victor became a therapeutic couple. The marquis would ask an ill person about their symptoms….he’d “take the history of the patient”, and, in trance, Victor would pronounce the diagnosis and prescribe treatments.

Neither of these men were able to carry out the acts of healing by themselves, but together, they could.

This was one of the first recorded episodes of “lay mediumship” in Western civilisation.

I think that’s a remarkable story and I know of other instances from within my own lifetime where such astonishing collaborations occurred.

But even setting aside the somewhat “supernatural” aspect of these tales, isn’t there something like this going on in every therapeutic act? Isn’t every therapeutic act a collaboration between the patient and the therapist. Without each other they can’t achieve healing, but together, they have the chance to become something unique and greater than either of them. Together they can gain a greater understanding, and together they can find answers they couldn’t find alone.

I think we forget that in modern medicine, thinking that the doctor can do it all by him, or her, self. Thinking that one person has all the answers, ready made, so to speak.

There can be some of the most astonishing examples of magic happening when two people form a bond and work together for a common purpose.

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better before

I came across this article in the French “Philosophie” magazine this month. Translated into English, the headline says “It was better before”, and the article goes on to explore this particular, common, state of mind.

It begins with a dissatisfaction with the present, but instead of that stimulating creative thinking motivating people to turn that dissatisfaction into positive action, the mind turns backwards to think back to a past which quickly becomes a utopian illusion.

When Donald Trump says “Let’s Make America Great Again” – what previous time is he referring to? When the UK Leave campaigners said “I want my country back”, which country were they referring to? A country of the past, but an illusory one. When they said “Let’s take back control”, when did we ever have it? Which controls are they referring to?

The fabulous Woody Allen movie, “Midnight in Paris”, beautifully plays with this way of approaching the world –

When was that time? The time of Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast“, or the time of the “Belle Epoque“…..or just when exactly?

The article argues that older people are more likely to think this way because they have less life left to look forward to. A young person might look at the future and see it full of potential, where an older person might look at it and see illness, decline and death.

refage

Maybe that partly explains one of the voting patterns seen in the EU referendum, where older people voted Leave, and younger ones, Remain.

I saw one elderly Englishman struggling to hold back tears as he said “I’ve got my country back”…..and I wondered, what country is that then? And how, exactly, have you got it back? But the emotional power of his view was clear.

I think there are many other factors at play in what’s happening in the UK just now, but I’ll leave them for other posts in the days ahead…..meantime, I think it’s worth asking people who have been seduced by the illusion of the utopian past to say more clearly what they intend to do now. Now that they have voted to go back to wherever they think it was, what do they want to do today?

In fact, I think that’s a question for all of us, because illusory past utopia or not, the present has changed for us all.

Let me modify my question so we can all join in…..what are YOU going to do today? Now that we are where we are? (And, yes, I’m asking myself for an answer too!)

 

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