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Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

What colour is the sea?

Blue?

Like the sky?

Green?

Like grass?

White?

Like clouds?

What colour is the sand?

Yellow?

Like lemons?

Grey?

Like stone?

Blue?

Like the sky?

Here’s one thing I’ve found….the more I pay attention to the particular, the more I see (or hear, or smell, or taste, or feel)

We use our left cerebral hemispheres to focus on parts or aspects, label them, categorise them….which is all useful of course, but if we leave it at that we stop seeing reality as it really is.

We need to reintegrate that information into the right cerebral hemisphere to see its contexts, its connections and relationships to everything else. Only then do we experience the particular, the uniqueness of all that is real.

I found that in my work with patients. It was never enough to apply the diagnostic label and think of the patient as just an example of that – whether that be a “diabetic”, an “asthmatic”, or whatever. I had to pay attention to the specifics, to this particular patient’s unique story. Only then could I experience the reality of who they were and understand what they were experiencing.

So, here’s something to try today. Slow down and take your time to pay attention. Explore, as much as possible without labelling. Or, actually, it’s pretty tough not to label, so once you apply the label, just say to yourself, ok, this is an apple (or whatever it is you are exploring), but then, what colours do I see, what textures do I feel, what scents do I smell, what sounds do I hear as I interact with it (turning it over in your hand, running your fingertips over its surface, biting into it…..only if you are exploring something edible of course!)

You get the idea?

Pick anything you like. An object, a song, a view, a flavour, a scent, a sensation. Slow down, pay attention, notice the labels which pop into your head, then continue to explore.

Allow yourself to experience the diversity of the unique.

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Quite a lot of people, me included, are saying this pandemic is throwing a light on certain things – how fragile our systems of health care and social care, how poor the safety nets are, how interconnected the world is, how the instincts to collaborate and connect are so strong in human beings, how much we humans move around the Earth……[add you own here]

But today I stumbled across some old photos of reflections and I realised that the reflections are a different sort of light.

A direct light brightens and maybe even makes more clear the object it is shining on. That’s useful. Though it immediately brings to my mind that question I have about Scandi-noir crime drama – why does the (usually female) detective always go down into the basement or the abandoned warehouse at night, all alone, with just a torch to light up little bits of the room? Well, I suspect I know the answer to that one already.

Reflections are different.

They turn things upside down.

They give us an unusual and different take on reality, which lets us see beyond what the light is illuminating.

Look at this one, for example –

lily leaves on a still pond which is reflecting the blue sky and some clouds.

Or this one –

the edge of a Scottish loch where the still water is reflecting the clouds

Or, this one –

the solitary flamingo doubled by the water’s surface

In all these cases the reflection does something special I think.

It literally turns something upside down which immediately makes us look more carefully.

It changes our perspective whilst keeping our default one. In other words, it increases our perception and understanding by doubling our perspectives.

It shows us connections we were happy to ignore as long as we focused solely on the central subject. It connects the sky to the water, the water in the clouds to the water in the loch, for example, reminding us of these cycles and links and interconnections which are the most fundamental characteristic of Nature.

It increases our experience of beauty. Each of these photos could have been beautiful without the reflections, but I think that including the reflections make them exponentially more beautiful.

All of which brings me to my main thought today – shining a light on something helps us to understand it, promotes analysis and clarifies what has been obscure or forgotten. Reflecting adds in something completely different – it promotes our perception and understanding by changing our perspective, highlighting the connections, and increasing our senses of wonder and delight.

“And not or” is my moto – analyse and reflect. Actually, as I write that sentence I’m reminded of Iain McGilchrist’s Divided Brain thesis and how the left cerebral hemisphere is great for zooming in, analysing and cataloguing, while the right seeks out the connections, the specific and the unique.

 

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The phrase “everything is connected” immediately appeals to me and strikes me as true.

The first thing I think of is the human being.

Although I was taught Medicine in parts, learning about cells, tissues, organs and even systems separately, it was an almost unspoken given that all the parts were connected. In Second Year of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, one of the main subjects was Anatomy and we were put into groups of six to spend a year dissecting a human body. Our guide was a three volume textbook, “Cunnigham’s Manual of Practical Anatomy”, along with “Gray’s Anatomy” (probably the most beautiful textbook I ever possessed). I was a bit overwhelmed with the sheer number of pages in these texts and asked one of the tutors “Which bits of this book do we need to learn?” He replied, “Which bits of human beings do you think patients will ask you about once you’re qualified?” “Ah, you mean we have to learn it ALL?” He smiled and walked away.

It would be a full two years after that before I met an actual live patient, but, hey, they don’t teach Medicine that way any more do they?

I don’t remember a single lecture about holism, but somehow it was a core value for me right from the start. However it was over a decade after graduation before I came across “Psychoneuroimmunology” and “Psychoneuroendrocrinology” which were fields of study looking at the connections between the Mind, the Nervous System, the Endocrine System and the Immune System. I think that’s where I first encountered a more holistic science, one focused on “systems” not “parts”.

It was much, much later when I encountered “Complex Adaptive Systems” and both “Chaos Theory” and “Complexity Science”. Somehow I think we are still in pretty early days of developing the sciences of the connections. But it sure still excites me!

As a GP I also had to be aware of the individual patient’s connections between themselves and the rest of the world….their relationships, their work, their housing, their family and so on. Those are threads you never quite get to the end of. I think that makes us humble, that knowing that we will never know all there is to know.

Sometimes it seems to me that our minds are like fractals, vast webs of mirrors reflecting similar patterns of reality to each other. Actually, as I write this I remember “Indra’s Net” – where every drop reflects every other drop. I think we humans are great at spotting patterns, and regularities, and that, combined with our ability to use metaphors and symbols enables us to appreciate the incredibly rich, dense nature of reality.

When I saw this shape on the surface of the water I wondered if it had been caused by a boat, or was it something lying on the river bed? But look at the shape drawn by the farmer who has been working this field. What a gorgeous echo of the shape on the river. One of the things that happens when we appreciate these connections is an experience of beauty and wonder intimately entwined.

One time when flying over the English Channel, I looked down and saw the shadows of the clouds on the water’s surface just before the coast. Ooh, that still pleases me so much to contemplate this image! I love the fragility and impermanency of the little clouds. I love the even more ephemeral nature of their shadows on the Channel. And I love that transition of density of the clouds from the area above the water to the area above the land, how you can see in that the dynamic, ever moving dance of the land and the water and the air. Magic!

What connections have you spotted today?

 

 

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See this large rock just above the harbour in Biarritz? How does the sea make it to the shore when this rock is in the way?

The most obvious way is to go around it.

And that’s what most of the water does. It makes it way towards the shore, and back out to sea again by breaking against the rock and flowing around each side of it.

That’s one way to deal with an obstacle, with something standing in your way…..find a way around it.

But, wait, look at this…..

…the water has found another way as well.

It goes THROUGH the rock!

I suspect this has taken a very, very long time for wave after wave to make its way through a small crack in the rock, widening the gap slightly every time it passes through. But look at it now. Sometimes when a more substantial wave hits the far side of the rock it flows directly through the gap. Doesn’t happen every time. Just when the waves are big enough.

So, there’s the other solution. Keep going. Keep pushing up against the obstacle, looking for a gap, an opportunity, a way through, and once you find it, come back again and again. Each time, it’ll get easier. Each time the gap will get wider, the way will become broader.

Something else…..this is just beautiful to watch. Mesmerising even. Over the course of a few minutes you can see how the rock and the sea sculpt each other. It’s a delightful relationship.

Oh, and something else……Michel Serres, a French philosopher who died recently, used to describe human beings as “anticipation creatures”. I recently listened to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Onbeing, where the science journalist, Erik Vance, talked about “the drugs inside our head”. He was discussing the poorly understood but fundamentally important phenomenon known as the “placebo effect”, and one thing he said was that our brains are “prediction machines” (well, I hate the metaphor of “machine” applied to living organisms, but you get the point…).

Both Serres and Vance are talking about our incredible ability to spot patterns, so that we can predict the future. OK, not too far into the future, and not with 100% accuracy, but we don’t just notice the world, we anticipate it.

As I stood watching this phenomenon of the white surf gushing out of the mouth in the rock, I was quickly captured by the experience of anticipation, watching the swells on the surface of sea further out, trying to predict which would turn into waves big enough to pour through the rock.

It was hard to stop.

It was delightful.

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We humans are pretty good at making maps. We do it all the time. Dr Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, describes the three commonest maps we make in the frontal cortex of the brain – a “me” map, a “you” map, and a “we” map. You might wonder about the use of the term “map” there, arguing that we create “images” rather than maps, but let’s not get bogged down on that one. I like both terms (one of my favourite principles in life is “and not or” – 🙂 )

The thing about a map is that it shows contexts and connections. It shows us where we are, where we might want to go, and helps us to imagine how to get there.

I was in Tordesillas, in Northern Spain, recently and visited the “Treaty House” which displays a number of ancient maps. Here’s one set which particularly grabbed my attention.

It’s a set of panels describing the known world at the time – the world of the “Occident” followed by a set describing the unknown world – the world of the “Orient”. Take a look –

In this first section you can clearly make out Britain (although Scotland hasn’t really become known yet!) and you can see the areas we now call Portugal, Spain, France, Scandinavia and so on.

The next one extends the first one to show Italy, Greece, Turkey, “The Middle East” and also more of the North African coastal countries.

For a medieval map it’s surprisingly accurate. It might even have helped people to find their way from one place to another.

But then check out these two panels of the “unknown”, “Orient” –

At first there are elements we recognise – The Nile, The Caspian Sea, but the further East we go, the more the map becomes an expression of a creative imagination.

Isn’t that fascinating?

I’ve never thought of mapping out what I don’t know before. After all, where would I stop? The older I get, the more I realise how much I don’t know – how much WE (we humans) don’t know. But it might be a fun idea, don’t you think? To sketch out some maps of the unknown…..

The personal maps of “me”, “you” and “we” are constantly being updated, constantly evolving, and we create them from both what we know, and what we don’t know…..from our memories, our present day experiences, and our imaginations.

Map making turns out to be a dynamic and fundamental ability. I wonder how aware we are, on a day to day basis, of the maps we have made, the maps we are making, and the influence they have on our lives.

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I reckon I come across something amazing every day. Maybe I’m easily amazed! But in French, the phrase, “l’émerveillement du quotidien” (the amazement of the every day), is one which has made its way to the core of my being. I don’t know if you’d call it a value, or a principle, but it shapes my life, moment by moment, day by day.

This photo is of something I noticed the other day, something which attracted my attention, then stimulated my thinking. That’s the kind of amazement I like best!

What I saw first was the sky. Just a bit of the sky between two buildings. The clouds looked unusual and pleasing, so I framed the shot, taking in the silhouettes of the buildings on either side of the patch of sky. I liked it the moment I saw it. And I clicked.

When I looked at the shot later it pleased me even more. Not least, I think, because of the contrasts. There’s the contrast between the blue and white of the sky, and the dark browns and grey/blacks of the buildings. But there’s another contrast too.

Look at the shapes.

There’s the shape of the stepwise construction of the building, the bricks laid, one by one, each one separate from the other. It’s like a stair case, isn’t it? A stair case you climb one step at a time. The shape, it seems to me, is typical of what we’d call “discrete”. Each step is distinct from, separate from, the others. And each one adds in a pretty linear, arithmetical way to the others.

But then there is the shape of the clouds. They look like waves. They emerge out of the invisible, out of the blue, each one becoming less distinct, less separate, than the other, till at the top of the image the waves merge into a patch of cloud, almost like waves disappearing into the sea.

I find that pleasing.

I find that appealing, attractive and it make me wonder. Isn’t that the essence of amazement? Of “émerveillement”?

I find that thought-provoking. It seems to me that the left hemisphere of the brain is great at seeing patterns, great at breaking the whole down into individual, discrete parts, great at constructing, building, step by step. Whilst the right hemisphere is busy seeing the whole, seeing the context, seeing the connections, great at finding what’s new, great at engaging with waves which emerge from the whole, (from the sky, from the sea, from the Earth) and dissolve back into it again.

How amazing. To have two brains working away at the same time, enabling us to see and appreciate this universe so uniquely.

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When I stroll along a quayside in any fishing village, I frequently come across heaps of nets, and bits of nets. There’s something engagingly beautiful about them.

One of the thoughts they provoke is the idea of the red thread…..that essential whatever it is that runs through our lives. There’s a red thread which ties all of our experiences and stories together. It’s a kind of metaphor of the self, the narrative self. For each of us that red thread is unique. No two threads have exactly the same point of origin, the exactly same length, twists, turns and knots.

And the red thread doesn’t exist in isolation. There is no red thread which doesn’t weave itself through all the other threads….the fibres which make up existence.

Whether those fibres are neurones, or storylines, or energy flows, or manifestations of “String Theory”, none of them are unconnected to others. It’s a kind of essential Truth of the Universe isn’t it? That every single thread is connected to others, and ultimately, if we start to follow one thread it will lead us onto and along ALL the others?

There are layers upon layers of these webs and nets. More dimensions than we can imagine, intersecting, co-existing, inter-acting, producing both wholeness and uniqueness.

There are more colours, more shades, more thicknesses and lengths than we can imagine. The diversity which exists in the universe is astonishing. And don’t you think this diversity is beautiful? Doesn’t it thrill you?

Whenever I see nets like these I think of the two fundamental elements of all webs – nodes and links. I find that such a helpful way to see Life, to see a human being, a community, a city, a planet……

Have you come across the increasingly large number of words which end in “-ome” these days?

Genome – the network of genes

Proteome – the network of proteins produced by our cells

Microbiome – the network of bacteria which co-exist with our own cells in and on our bodies

And other networks too – of the nervous system, the immune system, the hormone system.

Of family networks, of social networks, of cultural networks….

Of biomes – the environmental niches, each nested in ever larger networks of biomes.

As we evolve our understanding of the universe from the simplified, reductionist model of separate entities floating in empty space, we are moving towards a more holistic, more realistic understanding based on the inter-connectedness of everything.

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