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Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

Spotting this little creature on the petals of this flower hooked me. I stopped, looked closely, drawn by the beauty of the sunlit metallic green colour, particularly against the red petals.

I was more than drawn to it. I was engrossed by it. It caught my attention and for a few moments I revelled in it.

I savoured the moments.

Then, of course, because this is what I do, I took a photograph.

This is one kind of attention.

It’s the kind of attention of the senses. It might be visual, as it was in this case. It might be a sound, like a bird song, or the chirping of a cricket. It might be a scent, like the honeysuckle bush I passed on my walk, or might be the taste of the fresh, juicy gariguette strawberries in the market, or the feeling of the cool morning grass on the soles of my bare feet.

There’s something that happens to the heart with this kind of attention….it slows down. And as it slows down, the “parasympathetic nervous system” becomes active (actually it’s not as linear as that. The world isn’t as cause and effect as we think), and the whole body relaxes, the pupils in the eyes dilate and softly focus. There’s a feeling of peace, joy, delight, ease.

It’s wonderful.

There’s another kind of attention which is the type associated with mental effort. The kind we need when we work with mathematics and logic. In that second kind of attention quite the opposite occurs in the body. The heart speeds up, adrenaline quickens the body, sharpens the mind, produces a very narrow, focused concentration.

We need both these kinds of attention, but sometimes, I think, we rely too much on the mental effort type, and not enough on the kind that melts us into the rest of the universe.

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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 suspect a lot of us have a lot of music in our heads. Sometimes we start to hum a tune or sing a song and only after we’ve started do we become aware that we’re doing it. Then we might pause to wonder “why did that particular song, or tune, come into my head just now?”

I find that when I look at some images something similar happens. Take this for example. I took this photo of an old couple sitting in a public park in Limoges a few weeks ago. They are both engrossed in their books. Their body positions and their physical closeness tell us they are close, that they are connected, as well as the fact that they are both enjoying reading in the park.

As I saw them, and as I looked at this image again just now, certain songs popped into my head and I could hear them as clearly as if I was playing them on a stereo.

This because of the line “You read your Emily Dickinson and I my Robert Frost. We mark our page with bookmarkers which measure what we’ve lost”

And, by the same musicians….

 

“sat on a park bench like bookends”

OK, so that example was a pretty obvious one, but sometimes the music which starts to play in our heads is not so easy to nail down. Sometimes we just enjoy that it’s there without even wondering “why this music?” “why now?”

I know I can use music to match or create mood, but this phenomenon of the music just seeming to appear has all the quality of somebody else hitting the “play” button. Even if that somebody else is also me!

What music started to play in your head today, and do you know why?

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Last November I was invited to address the Faculty of Homeopathy at their Congress in Belfast. I prepared a talk entitled “Images of Health. Pictures and stories” based around some of my own photographs and covering the key principles of health which guided me through my career as a doctor.

Here’s the video of that talk. I hope you enjoy it, find it interesting, or even inspiring. (by the way, if Google pops up any ads along the bottom of the video, just click the “x” box to make them go away 😉 )

I wrote a book to accompany this talk. It’s called “Escape to Reality” and I’ve published it (so far) only as a Kindle e-book. You can find it on Amazon.

 

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Yesterday whilst out in the Trossachs just north of Stirling in Scotland, the clouds opened up to reveal some patches of blue sky and allow the sun to reveal itself. Loch Venachar was as still as I’ve ever seen it. The reflections were simply stunning. I took a number of photos. Here’s one I’m particularly pleased with.

What you’re looking at here is the edge of the loch at the bottom of the image. The rocks are at the water’s edge. The branches stretch out from a few leafless trees which grow amongst the rocks and the rest of the image is the still water reflecting the sky.

I love how this image catches my attention straight away. My first thought is just how beautiful it looks. Then as I start to look more closely I feel a bit disorientated. What’s that rock doing up in the sky? Is it just hanging there, or is it impossibly supported by the tree’s spindly branches? Then the image resolves itself as I become more aware of the reflection.

I think it’s like this in life sometimes. We engage at an intuitive, emotional, even aesthetic level, taking in the whole as it is, then we start to focus on elements, or parts, and become a bit thrown off course, until we put what we are focusing on back into the contexts where they exist. Then the whole experience of standing at the edge of the water comes together again, but now intensified by our way of engaging with it.

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Here’s an example of the type of photograph I enjoy so much. At first glance it’s pleasing. It delights me. I can sit and gaze at it for ages, enjoying its beauty. But it stimulates my thoughts too.

I see this and I think about ways of engaging with the world. Iain McGilchrist shows us in his Master and His Emissary that our two cerebral hemispheres allow us to simultaneously use two different types of focus….narrow and broad.

The left hemisphere separates out whatever we are looking at from the contexts in which it exists. It allows us to set a kind of frame around what we are looking at, to distinguish it from the whole. That lets us label it, put it into a category, and so grasp it. Literally. Get a handle on it so we can manipulate it. It’s a narrow focus, one which drills down to separate out and analyse aspects or components.

The right hemisphere focuses on the connections rather than the parts. It lets us see the broad view, the over view. It helps us to see whatever we are looking at in the fullness of its context. We don’t see the separate parts, we see the connectedness of everything. In the terms of classical philosophy, it helps us to take the “view from on high”.

The view from on high lets us do something else too….it allows us to stand apart from whatever we are looking at. It lets us put a little distance there…a distance in space, and/or a distance in time…a pause, or a moment to reflect and consider.

Some people argue this is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of human beings, this ability to create a distance which allows us to choose responses rather than simply react in programmed or patterned automatic ways. But I think it is equally characteristic of human beings that we have this huge cerebral cortex divided into two distinctly different hemispheres allowing us to focus on the world in two such distinctly different ways.

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