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Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

What makes this photo special?

For me, it’s the sort of symmetry you can see here between the rows of vines covering the hillside and the rays of sunlight shining down through the gaps in the cloud.

There’s a resonance there. A sort of harmony which catches my attention. I think “as above, so below”, which is an old esoteric teaching about the way in which this physical world and the spiritual world are connected….or, if you prefer, how the Earth is connected to the Sky or Heavens.

Our brains are brilliant at spotting patterns. In fact, we don’t just spot patterns in the way that a mirror might reflect what stands in front of it, we create patterns. We learn patterns. We remember patterns. Think of the night sky, for example. Once you’ve been taught to see the invisible lines between some of the stars you call them constellations. And then you can find them again much more easily in the millions and millions of stars shining down on a clear night. But someone imagined those lines. They aren’t the same as the threads which make up a spider’s web, or the lines of minerals running through stones you find when you are out for a walk. Our ancestors created those patterns, and told stories so that others would be able to see them and share them.

So we are brilliant at spotting “similars” – we see patterns and attempt to match them to ones we know already, or others we can see, or create in the same moment. When we spot a similar it’s exciting. It’s “remarkable” – it’s attention grabbing and potentially meaning-creating – because that’s something else we are great at – making experiences and perceptions meaning-full. We constant attempt to make sense of the world we are living in, and to connect our experiences to a sense of purpose.

Some of these matches, these “similars” are like resonances – and this is one of those. Resonances are like harmonies. They delight. They spark a little joy, set off some feelings of awe or wonder. They are special.

This is one of the ways in which we can live a more “enchanted” life. A more “meaningful”, “rich”, “deep”, life. A life of soul. A life of spirit. A connected, “integrated” life. A healthy life. A life of flow and movement.

What patterns do you notice today? And what resonances, or similarities, do you see between those patterns, both between them and ones you already know, and between them and the others around you today?

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I saw this woman yesterday standing outside a supermarket in the middle of town. I was struck by the size of the books she was holding, and which she couldn’t resist opening and starting to read. It turns out they are a trilogy of YA fiction by a famous French author, the third volume having just been published, which is maybe what inspired this woman to buy all three.

I understand this compulsion. I’ve always had way too many books on my shelves….well, way too many in the sense that I couldn’t read them all in one lifetime. But that doesn’t stop me buying new ones. Suffice it to say I read a LOT!

I’ve had a fascination for stories all my life. In my earliest years I remember my Grandpa reading to me – he read me all of Walter Scott’s “Tales of a Grandfather” and he read me collections of myths, legends and fairy stories which he bought for me when I was born. My mum used to have a photograph hanging on the wall of her living room. It was a black and white print showing my Grandpa reading in the local library. I guess I got that gene!

I’ve told countless people that when I worked at the NHS Centre for Integrative Care (which I did for the latter two decades of my career), I used to look forward to meeting a new patient every Monday morning because I knew they would tell me a unique story – one I’d never heard before. In fact, story was the very heart of my engagement with these patients who, largely, suffered from long term conditions which had failed to respond to drug treatments.

Did it surprise me that they had failed to respond to drug treatments? Nope. Because there aren’t any drugs for people, there are only drugs for diseases and drugs to suppress symptoms. Drugs don’t heal. At best they create an environment conducive to healing. It turns out it’s people who heal, not drugs. It’s people with self-defending, self-repairing, self-balancing, self-creating and growing interwoven complex systems who heal.

I found that stories were the way to understand a patient. Not symptoms.

I read a piece about a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Karl Deisseroth, yesterday, and in that interview he said

Anybody can read a diagnostic manual and see a list of symptoms, but what really matters to the patient is a different story

see it here

which reminded me of a passage by the English philosopher, Mary Midgely, which I read many years ago –

One cannot claim to know somebody merely because one has collected a pile of printed information about them.

Wisdom, Information and Wonder. Mary Midgley

and of this passage from philosopher Richard Kearney

Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living.

On Stories. Richard Kearney

In fact, that latter passage came into my head as I took this photo – here’s a woman absorbed in stories, standing next to empty supermarket trolleys and with her back to the stalls of food laid out in front of the shop.

Stories, I found, weren’t just the way to understand a person (to make a diagnosis even), but they were also the way to heal. By helping someone create a new story, I could stimulate that complex of healing systems within them, and spur them on to more than relief from suffering…….More than? Yes, to more self-awareness, more self-compassion, and to a re-evaluation of their life choices, habits and behaviours.

Stories can set us free.

Mind you, it’s also true that we can get trapped by stories – the stuck, multilayered ones we’ve been taught as children, or been brainwashed into believing by others. But even then, the answer, the release, the movement forwards, lies in the creation of new stories……our own, unique stories which allow us to realise our hopes, express our singularity, and live the life we want to lead.

Stories, you see, have a magnetic pull. We don’t live without them.

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I walked into the courtyard of a temple in Kyoto one day and saw this display of flowers. Well, actually, this first photo is what I saw once I got closer to the display which had caught my attention.

When you look at these flowers, all you see is some flowers. It’s not possible to see the pattern which is revealed only from a distance.

This is what you see when you stand back…

Isn’t this amazing?

Actually, whether you encounter the full image first, then get closer in order to realise that it is constructed from hundreds of flowers, or whether you start close up seeing only the flowers, and gradually stand back to see the full image, the two positions are a huge contrast, aren’t they?

These are the two perspectives we bring to everything. We use the left cerebral hemisphere to zoom in on individual elements. To do that it focuses on parts and identifies them, matching them up to whatever we have previously encountered and categorising them. In this case, it identifies the objects as flowers and labels them according to their colour. But at the same time, we use the right cerebral hemisphere to take in the whole picture, to see whatever we are looking at within its contexts. To do that it focuses on the connections and relationships, and, at the same time brings a heightened awareness for novelty – it homes in on whatever is new, whatever is unique, whatever is special.

You’ll know already from my writing that I believe the principle of “and not or” is a good one in life, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that this is exactly how we have evolved. We don’t have only one way of looking at things. We have multiple ways, and we throw them into the complex mix of reality so that we can do more than perceive the world in which we live, we explore, play, learn and create. We adapt, we grow and we evolve.

I’m very wary of black and white, rigid, fixed, narrow views of reality. The world is richer than any of us can conceive. The universe has more potential than any of us can imagine. And there is much to gain from diversity and tolerance.

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I think I first became aware of research suggesting that even a view of natural surroundings could be good for us in the paper about recovery times after surgery. The findings showed that post-op patients required less painkillers, had less post-op complications and required shorter stays in hospital if their bed had a view outside to a natural environment (as opposed to no view, or a view of a wall).

Then I came across the Japanese concept of “forest bathing” and work from a university in Tokyo which showed that spending a few minutes in a forest could increase the levels of helpful immune chemicals in the blood.

Today I read a paper about “Attention Restoration Theory” suggesting that spending time in nature improves the concentration levels of children with ADHD. This “ART” concept describes two kinds of attention – an easy, effortless, “bottom up” (neurologically speaking) attention to the environment, and an effortful, focused “top down” attention which we use when deliberately concentrating on something. We use the former when gazing out of a window to the natural environment, and the latter when trying to do a difficult mental task. The research study I read split children into three groups, putting one group in a classroom with no windows, one in a classroom with windows looking out onto a bare, built environment, and a third group in a classroom with windows looking out onto nature. They gave them all the same difficult lesson, took a five minute break where they stayed in their classroom, then tested their concentration after the break. Only the third group, the one in the classroom with a natural view, improved their concentration.

One of the things I like about this paper is that it showed two things – that turning our awareness towards the natural world is good for us, and, that the way to improve concentration wasn’t to “concentrate harder” but to build in a break where the mind could drift into a more natural state of open awareness.

Well, you know, I don’t really need any scientific research or “evidence” to convince me I like to have a view of nature from my window, or that I enjoy walking in forests, parks or along beaches, but, hey, it’s still good to learn about some of the measurable effects of open awareness and engagement with natural environments.

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I came across this old stone bowl in the middle of a forest over ten years ago. The bowl was full to the brim with water. I don’t know what the bowl was doing there. I don’t know if someone threw it away, or placed it carefully here. I don’t know if they filled it with water, or if the rain fell day after day, between, and onto, the leaves of the trees which surround it. I don’t know its history.

But it stopped me in my tracks because of its beauty. Beauty can do that. It can be what we call “arresting beauty” because it captures us, catches our attention, slows right down and pulls us in.

I crouched down and took this photo. This is one of my photos which I return to again and again. Yes, partly because it gives me pleasure just to gaze at it. Within seconds I’m transported back into the depths of the forest. I can smell the damp bark of the trees, see the rich diversity of greens in the ferns, the bushes, the mosses and the trees. I can hear the birds singing.

But also because this is one of those images for me which works as a powerful metaphor of the mind.

When I look inside the bowl, the first thing I notice is the surrounding forest reflected on the still surface of the water. Isn’t that interesting? The first thing I notice is the world represented in the bowl. The first thing I notice is not the water itself. In fact, it’s quite hard to really see the water. When I look more closely I see ferns and I see tall trees and I see patches of blue sky above the roof of the forest.

Isn’t this a bit like how we perceive the world? Don’t we allow all the stimuli from the environment to set off cascades of chemicals and electricity inside our bodies and send them up towards the right cerebral hemisphere where we explore them, appreciate them, connect to them, and hand off some of that activity to the left cerebral hemisphere where we re-present it all to ourselves, match it against memories and knowledge, re-cognise it, analyse it, name and categorise it? Then send out the ripples and waves of that mental activity back towards the right hemisphere to be re-integrated into the whole, to offer it back to ourselves to give us the opportunity to make sense of it all, to seek meaning in it and weave the threads into our unique, personal stories.

I look more closely into the bowl to try to see the water itself, but it’s still not so easy. After all, how do we manage to see our own minds? How do we manage to see the processes which are going on which allow us to have this experience?

What do I see next? The hint of something below the surface. Are those brown leaves lying there? What else lies in the depths of the bowl? That gets me wondering again about the unconscious – all that activity which goes on just beyond our ability to be aware of it – all the processes of the mind and body which keep us alive, which nourish us, which defend us, which promote our growth. Now and again we catch some glimpse of what might being going on below the surface of awareness, of consciousness. We might glimpse it in our dreams. We might glimpse it in coincidences, synchronicities, in our imagination. We might glimpse it in meditation.

And what if the water in this bowl represents the self, the ego, the “I” who perceives and experiences? The water, the consciousness, which is filled with the reflections of the world in which we live our embedded, embodied lives?

The water, the deep subconscious below, and the bright reflective, surface above?

And after all this wondering, and mind wandering, I return to the sheer beauty, the magic, of this simple, old bowl of water lying in the depths of the forest, waiting for the opportunity to make my day special.

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I graduated in Medicine from The University of Edinburgh back in 1978. During my medical education and training I was taught about the heart. I remember we were taught about the heart muscle, the system of electrical conduction which produced the rhythm of beats, about the heart valves and how to diagnose different valve problems according to the sounds we could hear when we listened through our stethoscopes. I learned how to administer and read an “ECG” – that series of spikes and waves you see on heart monitors and printed out on long strips of paper.

I didn’t learn that there was a neural network around the heart, nor what that might do. Back then if we thought about it all, the heart was a sophisticated pump for keeping the blood flowing around the body, and phrases like “heart felt”, “broken heart”, “having a heart to heart conversation”, and so on, were considered flowery or poetic metaphors.

I know better now.

We now know that there are sophisticated networks of nerve cells around all the hollow organs of the body, but especially around the heart and the gut. We also know that there is a LOT of communication between the heart and the brain, and that, contrary to what we used to believe about those connections, most of the flow of information is from the heart TO the brain, not the other way around.

We’ve also learned that the beating of the heart creates electromagnetic waves which radiate out around the whole body, and can even be detected outside the body. Those rhythmic waves seem to have a role to play in co-ordinating, or “integrating”, a wide range of functions of the whole body, and even connect with, influence and can be influenced by the waves radiating from other peoples’ hearts.

It turns out that those metaphors we use have a biological, neurological, physical basis in the person. We have a certain kind of “heart intelligence” which allows us to “know” and to “communicate” from one heart to another.

Isn’t that amazing?

Since I came to understand all that I’ve realised just how important it is for we humans to have a “heart focus” – to try to connect to others and communicate with others “from the heart”, not just from the rational brain.

We all love to find heart shapes in Nature, don’t we? Like this little flower in today’s image. Or in the bark of a tree, the shape of a stone, or in a work of art. Why is that, do you think?

I think it speaks to the core importance of everything we think of when we use these heart metaphors in our language, in our poetry and in our songs.

After all, who thinks it’s a good idea for someone to act in a “heartless” way?

Not me!

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My daughter, Amy Palko, who produces a knitting blog on youtube, entitled “The Meaningful Stitch” did a poetry advent in the month of December with one of her online friends from the knitting community, Jackie, of Cady Jax Knits. You can find their videos here

One of the things they discussed was creating a personal anthology of your favourite poems. I thought that was a great idea and got out this handmade notebook which my wife, Hilary, had created and given to me, and started writing some of my favourite poems in it.

I think it’s important to actually write the poems in, not to print them out from the internet and paste them in, though, if that would work better for you, then go ahead. I find that taking the time to hand write each poem enhances my experience of the poem itself.

I keep this notebook on my desk beside my computer and from time to time I read a poem or two, or I copy in another poem that I really love.

I really recommend this. It’s one of those practices which takes something meaningful and enjoyable – in this case poetry reading – and increases the time and attention you give to the poems you select. In the process you create a unique collection of exactly the “best” poems for you.

If you’ve read a few of my posts on this blog, I’m sure you’ll be aware of how Iain McGilchrist’s thesis on the differences between the left and right cerebral hemispheres. Well, if he’s right, which I think he is, then there is an imbalance for each of us, and for our wider societies, between the approaches, the world views, or the ways of engaging with reality, which each hemisphere offers us. We have become left brain dominant, and it would be much better to use our whole brain more, and re-set the balance, to put the right brain back in its rightful role as “The Master” and use the left brain “Emissary” to do what it does best. Since I came to understand that thesis, I’ve been more aware of trying to support and develop what the right hemisphere can bring to my life.

Well, there are many ways to do that, but I’ll just share three with you here.

The right brain loves novelty and finding connections, so as I practise curiosity and the sense of “émerveillement du quotidien” I’m building up the right hemisphere.

The second thing is music. The right brain relishes music – both creating music and listening to music. I play music a lot. Mostly I listen to music, but I also try to play a bit of piano and guitar from time to time. Music is very personal and what I like, you might not like, but I’ve recently discovered Paradise Radio, a commercial free, internet radio station from the US, and I love, love, love it. You can select between “main mix”, “mellow mix”, “rock mix” or “world mix”. Check it out.

The third thing I’ve identified is poetry. We activate our right hemispheres a lot when we read and write poetry. More so than we do when reading stories, or articles.

So, there are my three daily practices, which I hope lead to development of a more whole brain way of living……curiosity, music and poetry.

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In order to learn and grow we need two, apparently opposite, behaviours. We need to do, or discover something different, something new, or else we’d be stuck where we are. We need to move out of our comfort zones, and to try new things, if we want to develop.

But we learn nothing well, if we never repeat things. Have you ever tried to learn a new language, or acquire any new knowledge? It’s a lot easier if you go over the new words, new concepts or information, again and again. In fact, a key insight from learning theory is to re-present to you, at timed intervals, whatever it is you are trying to learn. There are many pieces of software which facilitate this, and language learning programmes use this technique as well. They present you the words you’ve just learned and test your learning. If you pass, the item is shown to you again after a longer interval than it is if you fail. So the items you haven’t quite learned yet are repeatedly presented to you over a short period until you’ve got them into you brain.

At university, studying Medicine, we had to acquire a lot of new knowledge. I remember being presented with three volumes of a manual of human anatomy before we started dissection class, and I asked the tutor, “Which bits of this do we need to learn?” His reply was “Which bits of a human being do you hope to treat once you qualify?” OK, I got it. It was ALL of it! Everything described in those three volumes! And that was just human anatomy.

Well, we all pretty quickly created our methods to learn and retain all these new facts, writing notes in notebooks, copying out the notes into other notebooks, turning some of the information into flashcards and shuffling those packs time and time again until we got them all right.

Our right cerebral hemisphere is great for seeking out and learning what’s new. It seems to have a real predilection for novelty. Our left hemisphere on the other prefers what it has already encountered. It loves to repeat again and again, rehearsing and refining everything which the right hemisphere presented to it. That’s why it’s good to use the whole brain – we need to encounter the new, and we need to repeat and revise to learn.

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As best I understand it, the latest discoveries about the nature of the universe suggest that everything which exists comes into being within an infinite field. The “field” is a beautiful concept. You might also think of it as a network or a web, but part of the reason why I like the “field” metaphor is that it works at the level of energy. We know that electromagnetic energy exists as a field. It doesn’t really fit to see it as a beam, or as building blocks, because it washes over, around and through everything. Think of how you can pick up radio signals anywhere within the field of transmission, and think of how different radio signals can “interfere” with each other.

Interference patterns are one of the things I remember from schoolday science. I remember learning about them in Physics class and finding them beautiful and intriguing even then. Watching one set of ripples encounter another set, and seeing the new patterns emerge as they interact with each other was, and still is, a delight.

I thought of that when I saw the concentric rings around this duck sitting on the water. I’ve returned to this image many times and one of the things which draws me in is the fish – they really seem to be arranging themselves around these circles of influence which the duck is emitting. I’ve wondered if they are just keeping their distance from the duck, but although ducks do eat fish, I’m not sure they eat these ones.

However, it’s the pattern which captures my attention because the duck is just sitting there. It isn’t swimming around. It’s just being. And I think that all of us continuously interact with, and affect, whatever is around us, just by being.

For example, researchers at the Heartmath Institute, have studied the electromagnetic waves and fields set up by the beating of the human heart. Did you know that your heart rhythm can influence the heart rhythm of someone standing next to you? It seems that the actual rhythm sets up a field which can harmonise with the rhythms of other fields within a couple of meters or so…..an effect enhanced by actually touching each other. Ever since I read about that I’ve wondered if that’s the basis of the feelings and intuitions we get about others. How often have I thought about how some people just seem to be “on my wavelength” and others never are? I know there are many other ways we signal to others and many other signs and influences we can detect, but I’m pretty sure these heart waves are a significant part of it.

That’s where I find my thoughts returning to when I look at this image. I realise that I send out energies and information all the time….just by the way I live. I send out vibes from my heart, my mind, perhaps even my soul. And I know most of that occurs below the level of consciousness. I’m not aware of it. But surely it’s a good idea to become more aware and to choose more deliberately what kinds of energies I’m sending out into the universe?

And surely it’s also a good idea to become more aware of the influences on me which come from the vibes and ripples sent out into the world by others? That’s partly why I choose to direct my attention towards what is loving, what is beautiful, what is creative and curious and amazing. Because I want to magnify all of that. And why I choose to direct my attention away from negativity and hatred – and I don’t mean by that to ignore them – I mean to deliberately shift the balance so that they don’t overwhelm me, so that I can adequately defend myself, and, more than anything, so that I can refuse to be a repeater – magnifying and sending on those destructive energies to others.

It’s tricky, huh? But it’s inescapable. As this duck shows we affect the world around us just by being. The only choices we have are how aware we want to become, and then how we want to respond to what we become aware of. And finally, what we then choose to magnify with our attention.

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I took this photo five years ago, but I still find it one of the most dramatic images of a storm that I’ve ever taken. You can see the leading edge of the storm system making its way from the West, heading over the vineyards to where I live.

Of course, if you weren’t actually there you might think this is the back edge of the storm system which has passed over and is now receding. You’ll have to take it from me that that’s not what was happening.

What do we do when we see a storm coming? Brace ourselves? Batten down the hatches? Run away? Or just do nothing apart from feeling afraid?

I don’t mean only literally in the face of a weather event……I mean what do we do when we think we see the signs of a big challenge or problem looming over the horizon?

Our body’s nervous system sets off three possible responsible responses to threat – you’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response – well, in addition, there’s a “freeze” response. I always remember watching the news footage of the bombing of the Boston marathon. After the blast the first thing you hear is silence and then quickly after that screaming and shouting as people run in all directions. That first silence really grabbed me. That’s the freeze response. Part of our defence system (the parasympathetic nervous system) kicks in at that moment and basically shuts down a lot of activity so we can really pay attention, really become aware, then after that the adrenaline/sympathetic nervous system response is activated and we are set to fight or flee.

Of course our range of reactions and behaviours is incredibly varied and individual, but we all share these basic reactions as the information and energy flows through us.

What I’ve just described there is the “acute” response. It’s short term, time limited, often very brief and kicks in when there is a clear and imminent danger. But on a day to day basis our whole system responds to our thoughts, to the words and behaviours of others, and to both memories and imaginings with aspects of these systems playing a part in creating “chronic stress”. That chronic stress is pretty damaging, impairing our immune systems, creating chronic inflammation in our bodies, and undermining our mental well-being.

What can we do about it?

I always start with awareness. When I worked as a doctor, usually my first priority was to understand – to figure out what was going on, to make a diagnosis, to assess the situation. That usually involved an element of analysis, but you can’t analyse anything until you are aware of it, so the first response is to be present. In becoming present, you become aware. In fact, being present is a powerful therapeutic behaviour. It’s good for the patient and it’s good for the doctor, too.

I think the next step involves responding with intention. It’s one thing to become aware, and even to figure out what’s happening, but it doesn’t amount to much without an intention which shapes your next thoughts, ideas and behaviours. In Medicine, that intention is to care. If you care, if you give a damn, if you activate love and kindness, then the healing responses will fall into place.

I reckon it’s the same with life. I think a good place to start is with awareness and intention. If we aren’t present, if we aren’t aware, we’re on autopilot, “zombie” mode, and we are open to the manipulation of others, and to becoming stuck in habits created by rumination and pain. But if we do wake up, we have a chance to recognise what’s happening, to stand back a little, by taking a pause, or a few deep breaths, and then make a choice…..make a choice formed by our intentions.

What if our intentions are kindness, love, and understanding? What if our intentions are to feel joy, wonder, and connection? What if our intentions are to build “mutually beneficial bonds”? What if our intentions are what the French call “bienveillance”…….well-meaning, well-wishing?

What do you think the experience of seeing a looming storm would be like then?

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