Archive for the ‘from the reading room’ Category

Many years ago I discovered the writings of a French philosopher called Gilles Deleuze. I found some of his writing really hard to understand but several of his basic ideas and concepts completely changed the way I saw the world. That “becoming not being” phrase at the head of my blog is one of them. That shift from seeing the world as a collection of separate objects to seeing that everything is connected and always changing was a radical shift for me.

One of the other concepts was exploring the difference between trees and grass….what he termed “arboreal” vs “rhizomal” thinking.

You know the basic shape of the tree….a single stem or trunk which bifurcates again and again producing more and more branches and twigs as it grows upwards, and more and more roots and rootlets (is there such a word?) as it grows down into the soil, the one a kind of mirror image of the other.

This tree like form is everywhere. It’s the shape of our circulatory system as arteries branch out into smaller arteries which branch out into capillaries. It’s the shape of our lungs as the trachea bifurcates into bronchi which bifurcate into smaller bronchi, bronchioles (there is such a word!) and ultimately into alveoli.

We use it as a way of ordering and organising what we see in the world. It’s the most fundamental way of categorising and classifying the world. Everything is ultimately connected back to the single trunk or stem….the same original root, but everything exists in a separate category way out along the furthest branches, each ultimately distinct from, and separate from, everything else.

Grass is a rhizome. It doesn’t grow in this branching way from a single root. You can’t find the original stem or root of the grass. It’s like it has multiple points of origin, and each blade is connected to roots which then connect to other roots in a vast web or network. This rhizome structure is everywhere too. Because there is nothing which isn’t connected. The connections are multiple, diverse and ever increasing.

Two things became clear to me when I compared these two phenomena.

One was that the tree like view was produced by a sequence of “or” choices – at each division we say this is either this or that. The rhizome view is produced from a sequence of “and” choices. We don’t say “I’ll use either Facebook or Twitter”, we’ll use them both and connect them to each other. That’s what I do when I started to blog. I created my blog on WordPress but automatically connected every post to a tweet and a Facebook post. That way I could write once and share on several different platforms, for different audiences.

The other thing, which came after I read “The Master and His Emissary” was discovering how well adapted our left hemisphere is to the “arboreal” view of the world, and our right is adapted to the “rhizomal” one. We use the left to discriminate, categorise and classify. We use the right to see the whole by focusing on the relationships and connections.

How amazing that we have evolved this incredible brain with its ability to engage with the world in both tree-like, and grass-like, ways simultaneously.

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Look at this! I mean, just look at this! I know, it’s not one of my best, my sharpest photographs, but I was in the garden the other day and I heard this deep low buzzing sound. It wasn’t as deep as the humming-bird moths which will arrive when the buddleia bushes bloom later in the year, but it was a lot deeper than the various species of bees and wasps I usually hear in the garden. Luckily, when I turned to the sound I saw the source. This inch long jet black bee with iridescent blue wings. I quickly got my iPhone out of my pocket and did my best to snap a shot before the bee flew away. I have never seen anything quite like this. There were two or three of them buzzing around the flowers but they just never settled long enough to be able to focus a camera and take a nice close up (not yet anyway – I haven’t given up!).

I looked it up online and it seems this is a “violet carpenter bee”. Never heard of such a creature. What a thrill! What a delight! Made my day!

There’s an important lesson to learn here. I’m sure you’ll have come across “mindfulness”. It’s quite the thing these days. Mostly the term is used in relation to certain meditation practices and they are good ones. It seems that mindfulness meditation can have a lot of benefits, from easing depression and anxiety, to stimulating “neuroplasticity” (that’s the phenomenon of how the brain changes and develops itself). But even before the meditation practices were popularised Ellen Langer researched mindfulness in everyday life. She claims we can either go through life mindfully or mindlessly. Seems a clear choice, huh? How do we lead a more mindful life? Search for the new.

By new, she means what’s new to you. The trick, you see, is that every day is new. You have never lived this day before. Nobody has ever had, or ever will have, the same experience as you are going to have today. Once you are aware of that you can set out to be aware of what’s new.

Iain McGilchrist points out in “The Master and His Emissary” that our left cerebral hemisphere has a preference for what is familiar, whilst the right hemisphere thrives on curiosity – it leads us to seek out what’s new. His larger thesis is that we have become very left brain dominant in our present society and that some deliberate change of focus to the right brain might bring about a much more healthy, more integrated level of brain function.

I recently read a book by French author, Belinda Cannone, “S’émervieller”, which explores many of the ways we can bring a heightened sense of wonder and awe into our everyday lives. Bottom line is the same as Langer and McGilchrist say – seek out what’s new. And that’s exactly the experience I had the other day when this violet carpenter bee turned up amongst the garden flowers. Cannone gives various different examples of the places, times and activities which seem most likely to stimulate “l’émerveillement” (“amazement”) and the strongest one is “Nature”.

The thing is the natural world, especially the world of living forms, is constantly changing. Pretty much any time we spend in natural environments will be likely to gift us the delights of something new.

Let me just clarify what I mean by “new” in this piece. I mean it’s anything you haven’t seen before, heard before, smelled before, touched or tasted before. It’s also the newness of the present moment. You have never ever lived this present moment before, so what do you notice? Right here, right now. It’s also the encounter with anything you don’t know or don’t understand. These are the experiences which stimulate our curiosity and our drive to learn. They are the every day experiences of adventure and discovery.

From the Japanese art of forest bathing, to Richard Louv’s claim that we are suffering from “Nature-deficit disorder” which can be treated with a good dose of “Vitamin N” (Nature), to l’émerveillement, to mindfulness and neuroscience, it’s clear that one of the best ways to develop a healthier brain is to spend some time in Nature – whether that’s a forest, a beach, a park, or a garden. I recommend it.

You’ll be amazed.

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I listened to an interview with Yuval Noah Harari recently. I read his “Sapiens” some time ago and mostly enjoyed it, but I haven’t been tempted to read his more recent “Homo Deus”. This latter book looks ahead to consider how things might go as artificial intelligence and robotics develops apace. He argues that our technology could give us incredible powers, so that we may end up more like gods, but he also says things could go the other way and create an increasingly large class of people he labels as “useless”.

That “useless class” terminology is certainly a way of getting attention, but when he specifies what he means by it, there’s a lot in it –

“I choose this very upsetting term, useless, to highlight the fact that we are talking about useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system, not from a moral viewpoint,” he says. Modern political and economic structures were built on humans being useful to the state: most notably as workers and soldiers, Harari argues. With those roles taken on by machines, our political and economic systems will simply stop attaching much value to humans, he argues.

He goes from there to imagine a future where this class spends its time on drugs and Virtual Reality games machines. Depressing, huh?

So, two things struck me immediately. Firstly, this connects to some of the debate about “Universal Basic Income” – the idea that every citizen should receive a monthly allocation because we are heading towards a system which will be “post-work” – robots and algorithms will take over most of the jobs and the increased automation will increase unemployment. Our current economic system will either be adapted to take account of that, or human beings will have to adapt to the current economic system. Or not. It’s this “or not” that Harari explores by describing the “useless class”. One question then is what do we value in society and how do we allocate resources to what we value? As a society.

The second thought was, what, if people don’t have jobs in factories, shops or offices, the only thing they’ll be able to do is take drugs and play VR games? What popped into my mind straight away were caring and creating.

Human beings are great at caring. Sure, we don’t do nearly enough of it, and we could sure do with developing our capacities to care, but take, as one example, the response to an earthquake, a storm, a flood, a terrorist attack. In all of those situations we hear story after story of human kindness, human sacrifice and human caring. With declining infant mortality and increasing life expectancy more and more people in the world are living longer and in need of more care. We won’t run out of opportunities to care for others.

Human beings are great creators. We are problem solvers, scientists, home makers, gardeners, cooks, and artists of all kinds – writers, sculptors, painters, musicians, dancers. We won’t run out of opportunities to create.

Thirdly, I’d argue, human beings are great learners. We have whole neural circuits primed to seek out what’s new or different. We have whole systems dedicated to learning skills, acquiring knowledge, understanding and making sense of things. We won’t run out of opportunities to learn.

So, when I visited the town of Blaye recently, I saw this artwork in a car park. Isn’t it beautiful? Simple, and beautiful. Doesn’t it capture something about the human ability to care and to create.

Isn’t there an opportunity at this point in civilisation to change our focus away from grabbing and consuming, to caring and creating? And learning!

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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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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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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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