Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

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.

Read Full Post »

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” – ūüôā )

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.

Read Full Post »

I reckon I come across something amazing every day. Maybe I’m easily amazed! But in French, the phrase, “l’√©merveillement 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 “√©merveillement”?

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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’√©mervieller”, 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’√©merveillement” (“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’√©merveillement, 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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »