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Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

I’m convinced the images we encounter daily influence what we feel, what we think and how we behave. In fact, I don’t just mean images such as artworks, adverts or photos. I mean how things look – including the shapes and sizes of buildings, the presence of trees, flowers and bushes, the colours of walls, the landscape or the cityscape, depending on where we live, and the decor, light and shapes of the rooms we live in, as well as the objects which surround us.

All of these images influence us deeply, and, largely unconsciously, creating moods, emotions and feelings which stimulate or inhibit well-being, and which change the course of our lives.

One dramatic example of that is in hospital design. There is a lot of research about this, but, to give one example, it was found that patients who had a view of nature from their hospital bed recovered more quickly, needed less painkillers, and had less complications than those who only had a view of a wall.

Of course the advertising industry is well aware of the power of the image. These days there is even a specialist area of knowledge and advised described as “neuro-marketing” which seeks to employ the findings from neuroscience to persuade customers to buy certain products. These things work at the level of image, sound and smell. Mostly, they work unconsciously.

So, I think it’s good to notice our here and now, our everyday reality. I think it’s good to be aware of the images we absorb as we work, play and relax in our home and shared environments.

Taking photos is a good way to become aware. When you look around, or go out somewhere with a conscious intention of photographing what you notice, then your awareness is automatically heightened. These days most of us have smartphones which are more than ably equipped to take photos. You don’t have to have a fancy camera.

These two photos I’m sharing today are of street art I noticed as I walked around the streets of Salamanca one day last year. The image on the left is like a work of modern art. It looks a bit “Miro” to me! What I really notice about it is how the artist has used the walled off entrance as a frame, using the concrete filling the space as a canvas, but, he or she hasn’t stopped there. They’ve spread their artwork beyond the bounds of that frame….reaching out to cover the left hand pillar. I like that. I like how it demonstrates how creativity can be opportunistic, inspired by what is already there (the walled-in entrance way), and how that inspiration can come from the most unlikely places. Would you have thought that entrance way represented a canvas? I like how the artist isn’t bound by that either. How they kept creating outside of the frame – thinking and creating “outside of the box”. This work inspires me to be creative, to see opportunities for creative work, and to refuse to be constrained by other people’s frames.

The second photo shows the power of stencil. I mean just look at this person holding their head. Are they in despair, or are they trying to figure something out? I can see both. So it’s an image of hopelessness which reflects something we all feel from time to time, but, instantly, it’s also an image of someone thinking, someone deep in thought, trying to come up with a solution. At least, that’s what I see there. How about you?

I know, with every interpretation we bring our own standpoint, our own sets of values and beliefs, our own moods and preoccupations. But that’s one of the great things about art, isn’t it? It isn’t just the power of the work to convey “percept and affect” (as Deleuze would say). It offers us the chance to wake up and change by engaging with it. And even if we don’t wake it, it influences us without us realising. It interacts with us, and we interact with it. It’s a relationship.

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Reflecting – I’ve long since thought this is a vital tool in life. There are two main modes of being – reactive and responsive. When some information, some energy or a substance evokes something within us our default is to react.

For example, when we see something threatening our “fight or flight” system kicks in fast and prepares us to do one of those two things…..fight or flee! It’s a complex system involving nerve pathways like the “autonomic nervous system”, certain nodes within the brain, like the “amygdala”, and a release of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. Accompanying all that are the organising influences of the emotions. It happens fast.

The energy of heat makes us react too. When we get too hot our body re-routes the blood flow towards the surface of our skin, and we start to sweat, to try to maintain a steady body temperature in the face of the environmental change. There are many such reactive feedback systems in our bodies to enable us to react to environmental changes. All without requiring any conscious, active role, ourselves.

When we inhale an allergen, such as pollen, then, if we have the potential to be “allergic” to it, we react instantly with sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, or whatever, all provoked by an automatic activation of part of our defence system.

All of these are reactions.

But we humans can also respond. We don’t need to be 100% on auto-pilot. We respond, rather than react, by creating what the psychiatrist and author, Iain McGilchrist refers to as “the necessary distance”. We have this remarkable super-power to create a pause, a bardo, or a gap, between the stimulus and the response. We can stand back, stand apart, and change our perspective. This gives us our chance to reflect and it is a major factor in enabling us to move beyond an auto-pilot way of living.

Meditation practices of all types help us to step out of auto-pilot mode too. They strengthen our ability to become more aware in the present moment, and so open up the opportunity for us to play a more active role in our own lives. But reflection, I think, brings an additional benefit.

If a major benefit of meditation is heightened awareness and a breaking of the automatic stimulus-reaction loops, then reflection allows us to bring both our analytic functions of reasoning and our ability to imagine to bear. We can look back, unpick and unpack an experience and use the benefit of hindsight. We can “figure out” what happened and why and choose to act differently on any similar future occasion. We can think through a series of “what if”s to become aware of different potential outcomes.

As a doctor, I was encouraged to do this all the time. It is a common practice for doctors to reflect on their clinical work. That’s how we learn. That’s how we improve. But it’s the same in all walks of life. Stopping regularly to reflect frees us up – you could say it turns us from “zombies” into “heroes” (hero in the narrative sense – the main character of our own story).

There are many ways to build habits of reflection into your everyday. I think the top three are “Morning Pages” – where you write continuously to fill three pages of a notebook, preferably before you do anything else in the day; “Gratitude Journals” – where you end the day by thinking back and noting anything today for which you feel grateful; “Journaling” – whether in diary form, sketching, painting, whatever you prefer, but some regular time spent reflecting and then turning that reflection into something creative – a short essay, a poem, a letter to an imaginary friend, a letter to your older, or younger self, a cartoon, a drawing…..it’s up to you.

Oh, I should add, that it’s essential that all reflection is as non-judgemental as possible. It’s not about beating yourself up, or finding people to blame. It’s about learning and growing and a judgemental attitude isn’t going to help that.

What works best for you? How do you encourage yourself to reflect?

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What protects us from infection?

The immune system.

What supports, encourages and maintains a healthy immune system?

The answer is lots of things, and no one thing by itself. There isn’t a magic pill or single technique which will keep your immune system healthy, but I thought it might be worthwhile just summarising some of the things which have a good chance of helping.

Nature

My first one is Nature. Japanese scientists have shown that “forest bathing” boosts immune activity. It seems that trees actually send out certain chemical which boost particular immune defence chemicals in the human body. But there’s probably a holistic, experiential element active as well. In other words, it’s probably not all down to particular molecules in the atmosphere. Because we also know that just spending time in natural environments boosts health….to the extent that Richard Louv describes Nature as “Vitamin N” and hypothesises that most of us are suffering from “NDD” – “Nature Deficit Disorder”. It seems that whether we are in a forest, in a garden, up in the hills, walking along the sea shore….all of these places are probably positive for our health and our natural defences.

Physical activity

There seems to be ample evidence that physical activity and many forms of exercise can both boost positive moods, and reduce unhealthy levels of inflammation which damage the immune defences. The bottom line is the more inactive your are, the worst it is for your whole system. Physical activity can include walking, jogging, gardening, sports, swimming, cycling – there’s a wide enough range there for pretty much everyone to find some kind of physical activity they can enjoy.

Diet

There are gazillions of articles about so-called healthy diets, or “anti-inflammatory” diets, or whatever. It’s mind-bogglingly confusing! But I think there are certain well established themes which run through every single “healthy diet”. It starts with eating mainly plants. Diets high in fruit and veg turn up again and again in research which identifies what seems to help to reduce chronic diseases, boost immune defences, and even encourage longevity. The second part is minimising what damages us – and that comes down to refined sugars and artificial chemicals more than anything else. How do you do that? Well, most simply by eating what is prepared by hand at home. The more processed, the more industrialised the “food” we eat, the more we are exposed to the harms. Ideally the more you can eat locally produced, seasonal foods, the better. And the more you can eat food from farms which don’t use artificial chemicals or industrialised techniques, the better. But the bottom line is “the less processed the better”. The third part is not eating too much – of anything! Whether you do that through an “intermittent fasting” diet, or simply by stopping snacking between meals, limiting consumption to what we need is good for us.

Supplements

I’m not a fan of supplements. Probably because I’m one of those weird people who finds it nearly impossible to swallow capsules and most pills! I also think we evolved to get what we need from Nature. However, again and again we are finding that Vitamin D deficiency makes us vulnerable. I’ve read a number of studies showing that vitamin D deficiency is most prevalent in patients who get the most severe forms of COVID. But vitamin D deficiency has been implicated in a host of chronic illnesses. So I do recommend it.

Other supplements? I’m pretty convinced about the value of two others when it comes to viral immune defence – Vitamin C and Zinc.

So, that’s what I take, and that’s what I’ve recommended my whole family takes. Vitamin D (4000 iu), Vitamin C (1G) and Zinc (15mg) every day just now. But you should find out for yourself, because we are all different sizes and ages and the amounts to take vary. So, be clear, I’m not prescribing these supplements for you….do your own research and ask health care professionals who trust, and, especially, ask your doctor if you are already taking medication. Immune defence is certainly not all down to supplements but they are worth some consideration.

Stress

There are undoubted, unavoidable links between the immune system, the nervous system and the endocrine system. Stress and emotional distress undermine the body’s defences. How you manage stress, and what practices work best for you, will differ from person to person, but it’s likely to involve some form of mental practice such as Meditation, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Heartmath, Visualisation, keeping a Gratitude Diary, or something like that. That’s in addition to spending time in Nature and taking exercise, both of which also reduce stress.

Maybe you already know what you can do to reduce stress, it’s just you find it hard to set aside the time to do it. Well, now is the time! Start today!

Emotional intelligence – there’s a link between stress and emotional intelligence – by that, I mean that learning to handle our emotions lowers stress, and that stress makes emotional turmoil worse. This is way too big a subject to tackle in a single blog post but I thoroughly recommend learning about your emotions, and how to handle them.

Love

I’ve left this one to last because I guess it’s the least “scientific” factor, but whether it’s longevity studies or studies of well-being, again and again human relationships are shown to be important. We need to be engaged, we need to love and to feel loved. We need that in relation to other people, to other creatures, to Nature, to Life. And that’s pretty tough in times when were are forced into social distancing, or even worse, social isolation. That’s why it’s so important for societies to make sure that whilst physical distancing might reduce the chances of spreading the virus, people are not isolated. We need contact, communication, simple checking in to see if we are ok, or if we need any particular help. We need to know that we are valuable, appreciated, even loved. Without that we are likely to suffer from more stress and less effective defences.

I am sure there’s a lot more you could add to this subject, but my bottom line is that I think we don’t pay enough attention to consciously, actively improving our well-being and our immune defences. If there was ever a time to do that, it must be now.

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What influences how we experience the everyday? What shapes reality?

One of the ways our minds work is by creating frames and schema. We learn from our own experiences, from the stories of others, and from the messages we are given. All of these combine to create frames, or lenses, through which we filter the present moment. They also combine to create schema which are like pre-formed sets of perception, values, attitudes and behaviours.

There are lots of examples from psychology research – although, beware, because a lot of psychology research has been called into question and other researchers have failed to repeat the results of very famous experiments. But here’s an example of a type – volunteers are told they are being tested on a cognitive skill, say, perhaps, the ability to undertake certain mathematical tasks. But before they take the test, some are interviewed by a researcher who asks them to talk about the lives of the most elderly members of their family. Others don’t have that chat. After the test is complete, the researchers measure the time it takes the volunteer to walk to the exit. Those who had spent time talking about elderly family members before the test take longer to walk to the exit after the test. Bizarre, huh? This kind of experiment suggests that we can be “primed”. That pre-fashioned patterns of thought and action can be set in train unconsciously.

There are lots of different experiments which seem to demonstrate the same idea. These “schema” or “pre-fashioned” patterns of thought and action can be activated and influence how we experience and perform in the light of them.

We shouldn’t be too surprised by this. We know we are influenced by the messages which bombard us. Why else would advertisers spend billions to catch our attention? There’s a whole discipline now of “neuro-marketing” where companies can learn how to use how the brain works to catch our attention and to “prime” us to do what they want us to do – click “buy”, or vote “yes”, or whatever…..

This is one of the things underlying my choice of the title “Heroes not zombies” for this blog. I think that it’s easy to spend life on autopilot, allowing others to press our buttons, to convince us of their frames, to implant their schema in our minds. If we want to become the “heroes” of our own narratives, then we need to wake up, become aware of things like this, and then, perhaps, even consciously choose to create our own frames and our own schema.

So here’s my question today – for me, and for you – what are the frames, the schema, and the messages which are creating my experience of today?

Once we become aware of them, then we are able to make some choices – choose to accept them, or choose to make our own ones.

Let me finish with a simple example. If you spend the first part of your day “doom-scrolling” (you know that new term? Where you read story after story on your newsfeed, your twitter feed, your facebook feed, each one horrifying you, irritating you, outraging you, frightening you….but you can’t stop…you keep on scrolling)….so, if you spend the first part of your day doom-scrolling then what kind of day follows? What are you set up, or primed to notice, to pay attention to, to give your energy to? What if you chose to start the day some other way? With affirmations, reflection, gratitude…….you get the idea?

What if we started each day with some “conscious creation“?

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A couple of years ago I took this photo from my house. I suppose it was actually the Moon which caught my eye, but, hey, an iPhone isn’t that great for capturing images of the Moon, is it?

However, as is often the case, once I loaded the photo onto my computer, I noticed something completely different – an orange face at the right hand side of the trees and bushes at the end of the field. Do you see it?

It’s not just an orange face, it looks like something with a wide open mouth, either in amazement, or in fear? By the way, the face is facing West which is where the orange glow comes from, as the Sun was starting to set as I took the photo.

Once I’d seen this face-like image I couldn’t ever un-see it. It’s the first thing I see now every time I look at this photo. Our brains function this way. From our very first days we have the ability to notice faces, and it doesn’t take long for a baby to be able to distinguish mum from other people. But it’s not just that we have a great ability to recognise individual faces, we seem to have the ability to see faces even where none exist. We see them in rocks, in trees, in bushes, in clouds, in the landscape….you name it.

Faces. Don’t you think that’s significant? We see faces way more than we see feet, or hands, or even whole human bodies. We are particularly attuned to seeing faces and face-like patterns. Surely that is linked to the fact that we are such incredibly social creatures. We are able to see a friendly face, or to be wary of an unfriendly one, almost in an instant. We don’t just have the ability to pick a familiar face out of a crowd, but we are able to “read” faces unconsciously. We “read” the emotion on a face, and we respond to faces with emotional reactions. We know there are people we like at first glance and those who we are immediately wary of. In fact, we have a tendency to rush to judgement, and it might take quite an effort to move past a “first impression”.

You know the phrase “if your face fits”, for example. We judge faces pretty much instantly. Again it might take quite an effort to move past that “prejudice”, that “pre-judging”.

Fortunately we do have those skills too. We are able to learn and to adjust. We become familiar with certain people and change our opinions of them as we experience them to be friendlier, or the opposite….un-friendlier, than we found them to be at first. This learning and adjusting is, however, not all about faces. It’s about behaviours, actions, words, conversations and shared experiences. Then we might begin to see someone differently.

It’s Halloween at the end of this week, so that’s partly why I thought I’d share this particular image with you today….it’s kind of a Halloween face, don’t you think? Or am I thinking that just because Halloween is approaching?

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We often look at the world this way….just a peek through a narrow gap. We can see a bit this way. It’s a way of being focused. If we narrow our gaze we can ignore everything except what’s in the target zone of our attention.

You know we have “two brains”, right? I mean the recognition that we have a cerebral cortex which is divided into two, non-symmetrical parts. Why do you think the brain is like this? Why not just have one, whole brain? Why did evolution prefer to develop the cortex in two significantly different hemispheres?

Well a lot of people have tried to claim that the right half does these things, and the left these other things….like the right is what we use to “do art” and the left is what we use to “do logic”. But we know that’s not true. The brain is not like a clock, a car, or a computer. It doesn’t function with one part doing “this” all by itself whilst other parts do “that”.

But Iain McGilchrist figured it out. In his “The Master and His Emissary” he lays out what I find to be a convincing thesis – each hemisphere engages with the world differently – in other words, each hemisphere gives us a different way of approaching, understanding and interacting with, the world.

What the left hemisphere allows us to do is like what you see in this image. We use it to narrow our gaze. We use it to focus in on “parts”, to analyse them, label them, categorise them, in order to try and “grasp” and manipulate them. The right hemisphere, on the other hand (see what I did there?), is used to enable a broad gaze. We use it to focus on the connections, to explore the bonds and relationships, to discover what’s new, and to see things in the broader view, or in “the whole”.

What amazes me about this is that we use both halves simultaneously pretty much all the time. They are in constant interaction, giving us the ability to “integrate” and “synthesise” what they focus on.

The trouble comes when we fail to pay enough attention to one of the halves – actually, in our modern world, it’s the right hemisphere we fail to attend to sufficiently. We get stuck in our world view of seeing reality as composed of separate parts which we can label, categorise and control. We get hooked on a mechanistic model. And, well, reality is not like that. That picture is incomplete and can lead us astray.

So, we do need these abilities to focus narrowly, to separate out elements, analyse them and organise that knowledge, but we ALSO need to be constantly aware of the big picture. We also need to see the contexts, the connections and the circumstances. It’s this that enables us to see uniqueness.

When it comes to this pandemic, we need to understand and analyse the COVID-19 virus. It will be a real boost to us to discover how to improve our treatment of people who are infected with it to try and reduce the potential damage they might suffer. But we need to use that other half of the brain too and see what the circumstances are in which this pandemic has arisen. We need to join up the dots. We need to see the connections and the contexts.

Isn’t it clear that one reason why this pandemic is so damaging is that we don’t have enough good health care? I think this issue is the same whether you live in the UK, France, the US, Spain, Belgium….you name it. It’s not the sheer number of people who are suffering from significant effects of this virus – after all, it seems about 80% of those who catch it don’t even get any symptoms. It’s that the small percentage of people who DO suffer serious effects from it still constitute numbers potentially too big for our health services to cope with.

Why do you think there is this constant message about “protect the NHS” in the UK? The NHS shouldn’t need “protecting” from sick people! It’s very purpose is to treat them. But the truth is there aren’t enough staff, there aren’t enough hospital beds, there isn’t enough equipment, there isn’t enough PPE, there aren’t enough testing materials, or laboratory resources.

There isn’t enough decent, safe social care available for the elderly. There isn’t sufficient support for people whose incomes are hit by forced closures of their workplaces. There isn’t enough decent housing. There isn’t enough decent nutrition because the current model of industrialised farming and processed food production is feeding both obesity and nutritional deficiencies of important vitamins and minerals which are needed for healthy immune systems.

And so on……

Unless we use our whole brains and address the underlying weaknesses, vulnerabilities, insufficiencies and injustices in our societies we will find not just this pandemic hard to handle, but we’ll set ourselves up for more of the same.

It’s time to change.

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I’ve stumbled across trees like this a number of times. The first time I saw a tree trunk taking such a convoluted, twisting path I was quite astonished, but more than not I see such patterns not just in a single tree, but in a tree’s relationship to another tree.

It’s not that common to find trees entangling themselves in each other like this. Of course, there are other plants, for example, “climbers”, which have the ability to entwine themselves on whatever they can reach, as their core characteristic. But in trees, it’s not so obvious. You know why? Because they do most of their entanglement below ground….in their root systems, which we now know from forest studies, are vast entangled webs of connections between trees with microfibres and fungi creating most of the functional connections between them.

We humans are perhaps the most sociable creatures of all. We certainly have the most highly developed systems within our bodies and brains to enable us to pick up signals, make responses, create bonds and connections, and to co-operate with others.

A bit like with the trees, most of those connections go on underground. Well, not below the soil, as they do in tree world, but in the sub-conscious. I think we tend to forget that. Our oldest, most developed, most evolved systems of function are unconscious. From everything to do with maintaining a healthy living body, to the detection of information and energy, to the whole vast world of emotions. It mostly happens below the level of consciousness.

We don’t have to think about making our heart beat. We don’t have to think about releasing insulin or adrenaline. We don’t have to be conscious of our processes of digestion. Our emotions, like our dreams, emerge from our sub-conscious.

Neuroscientists have discovered that our conscious thought making processes are actually much slower than our unconscious ones. Much slower, and starting just a bit later than the unconscious ones.

That’s quite something. We tend to imagine that we are primarily conscious, reflective, analytic, critical, rational creatures. But actually our survival, and our maintenance of healthy life occurs below the level of conscious awareness. We interact with, form bonds with, relate to, and entwine ourselves with other humans and with the rest of the “more than human” world through ancient, highly evolved un- or sub- conscious processes. They work. They are highly refined and they are fast.

I think it’s a mistake to think of our conscious processes as “superior” or “higher”. Rather, they give us the ability to create spaces, to stand back, to pause, to see, hear, become aware and reflect, and then to make choices and express our will. They are wonderful processes and we wouldn’t be fully human without them.

But let’s not dismiss or belittle our processes of entanglement which connect us to all that is more than our individual selves. Let’s not dismiss them, because if we do, we delude ourselves into thinking we are completely separate, isolate individuals existing as if in a vacuum.

We aren’t. We emerge from, and exist within, all that exists. We are entwined.

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I saw this framed poster a couple of years ago in a shop in Copenhagen. I kinda wish I’d bought it! It’s a simple but elegant representation of something which has become my core model when I consider reality – networks.

When people say everything is connected to everything else they are right and the easiest way to both visualise and explore that is the network.

A picture of a network is simply some nodes connected by lines. The nodes might be people in your life, including you, with each line representing relationships. The nodes might be cells in your body, some more directly interconnected than others but all living in each other’s influences. The nodes might be neurones in your brain, each of which is connected to up to 50,000 other neurones! Can you imagine that? It’s literally mind boggling.

Networks can map thoughts, feelings and actions. They can help us trace the influences on any single moment cast by the past and the future if each node is an experience, real or imagined.

We have two halves to our cerebral cortex and it seems the left half is particularly good at noticing and exploring the nodes – the parts, the elements, the items, components or data. The right half, on the other hand, is particularly good at noticing the links, the bonds, connections and relationships.

Think of the constellations in the night sky, each twinkling star a node. When I look out now I see Orion has reappeared and makes his way each night across the winter sky from east to west. He’s been gone all summer and now he’s back I know winter is coming. But how do I see Orion? By tracing the invisible lines which connect the individual dots (stars).

When I first read about complexity science it was this model of networks which made it all clear to me, and, in particular, learning about the non-linear nature of the relationships between the nodes in living creatures helped me grasp the concept of the “complex adaptive system”…..which shone a bright light of understanding on everything from self-healing, to uniqueness.

If you’d like to explore this subject a bit more, here are some of the best books I’ve read about this concept of networks, connections and links.

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From the perspective of complexity science an “attractor” is an area of organisation within what otherwise appears as a chaotic system. Think of the phenomenon of a “Black Hole”. It’s like a sink hole where everything, even light, disappears into it. It’s like a point in the universe which pulls everything within its reach into its centre. A “Black Hole” is a sort of attractor.

An attractor appears around a focus, and once it is there it exerts this kind of “gravitational” or “magnetic” pull on anything which comes close to it. But the simplest way to think about it is the emergence of a consistent pattern in the midst of chaos. If there weren’t these points of organisational focus in the universe then space would be even, smooth and featureless. But space isn’t like that. It’s full of features, full of phenomena, of areas and points of organisation.

You can see something similar happen in the brain where distinct networks of neurones which “fire together”, “wire together”. There are examples of brain imaging which show the thickening of neural pathways when something is repeated…for example, when practising the piano (where you can see a thickening of the brain nerves used to control the fingers). It’s sort of a neural equivalent to what happens to muscles when someone practices body building.

The same thing happens with our habits of thought and emotion. The loops which start to fire in relation to particular thoughts or emotions have a pulling power. Many years ago I read a book by the psychologist Edward de Bono, “Water Logic”, where he described this tendency for thought patterns to become embedded in our brains by likening them to the way water makes its way down towards the sea from the heights of a mountain. The rain falls pretty evenly over the high lands, but starts to run together to form streams, rivulets, rivers and finally estuaries into the oceans. The next rain which falls tends to follow the paths already carved out by the previous rain.

I thought that was a pretty powerful image and I shared it with many patients over the years. It helped explain phenomena like flash-backs, compulsions and addictions to some extent. But I always thought it was only part of the story, and it wasn’t until I discovered “attractors” that I realised what the other part was.

So, it seems to me, that events which are accompanied by strong emotions can make new attractors in our minds. They can be traumatic events, accompanied by fear, anger, shame, or pain. Or they can be life-enhancing events like joy, wonder, tranquility, or a sense of one-ness with the world.

When we recall one of those events we are drawn back into the same original pathways and loops. Or when something new happens which is pretty similar to one of those attractors, then the whole thing kicks off quickly and powerfully once more.

Once I understood this I realised we can actively create our own new attractors, by having, and/or re-creating, the kinds of experience which we want….the ones of love, joy, belonging, tranquillity, awe or transcendence.

Attractors, it seems, are not fixed entities. They need to be fed to keep them growing, and neglect makes them likely to wither away. The more attention we give them, the more powerful they become.

I was thinking about this today when I looked at this photo of mine, taken in a zen garden in Japan. What I like about this image is not just the spiral, which is indeed very attractive, but the wider scene – how there are different flows, paths, bends, loops and spirals across the whole expanse of the stones. Can’t we do this with our minds? Create our own unique inner landscapes of pattern by becoming aware of existing attractors, and actively creating new ones?

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I’m pretty keen on biology….as you might imagine for a doctor! I’m interested in how the body works, the way the different cells, organs and tissues all function so beautifully together. I’m interested in discovering the connections within us with all the incredible feedback loops and cascades. I find it all fascinating.

But it was very clear to me from very early on in my work as a family doctor that human beings can’t be reduced to biology. There’s more to us than biology can explain. I often refer to the three flows which pulse through our very beings every moment of every day – the flows of materials, energy and information. Biology is pretty good at shining a light on the first two flows, but its the third one where things start to get so uniquely interesting when thinking about human beings.

One of the aspects of information flow is art. Now, I don’t mean to reduce art to information, or at least, not in the sense that information is “data”. I mean information as signals, not simply data. Information as meanings. So language, music and visual art all connect with us, and our whole being responds. You can blush because someone says something to you. Your heart can race because you hear a certain song. You can catch your breath, or feel a range of emotions, from disgust to delight, when you see a work of visual art.

Our lived environment is not just physical. We imbue it with meaning. We react to particular colours, designs, patterns, sounds, scents and physical touch. A particular taste can set off a cascade of memories….one of the most famous examples being Proust’s “madeleines”.

I think both street art, and advertising, affect us deeply. The images trigger certain responses within us…..maybe certain emotions, certain thoughts, or particular memories. But whatever they do, they change us. And because we are not compartmentalised, those changes ripple through our entire being. We don’t keep them in our heads.

I think we’re often quite unaware of the images and art around us. They often exert their influence in sub-conscious ways. But I like to be aware of them. I like to notice them, stop, and reflect.

In this photo I’ve captured both street art and advertising. What do you feel when you see them? What do you think when you see them? What effect do they have on you? (If any….because of course we are all affected differently by different images)

We co-create our lived reality, we humans. We do it collectively and we do it as individuals, creating and publishing, or “showing” our creations. We do that whether we are artists, or writers, or whether we simply talking to each other. We change the lived environment by constantly changing our behaviour, our language and by using our creative powers.

What kind of reality are you going to co-create today?

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