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Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

One day, as I was walking to the railway station to go to work, I saw this little guy apparently checking out surfing! Ok, I know, it’s actually the stick from an ice lolly but, hey, to a snail, maybe that looks like a surf board? I paused to take a photo, smiled, then continued on my way to work. But this photo still makes me smile every time I look at it.

It reminds me of two of the most important things in life – slowing down and playing.

I emigrated from Scotland to France when I retired in 2014, and I now live in the Charente. This region of South West France has a snail as part of its logo. There is a strong culture here of slowing down, staying calm, and enjoying the everyday. Slowing down is what I had to do to take this photo. I was on my way to work, and for most of us, that’s something we do somewhat hurriedly. After all, I had a train to catch. However, stopping for a moment, getting my camera out of my bag and taking the photo, pulled me right out of my head full of “to do” lists and schedules, right back into the here and now. That’s what slowing down does. It gives us the opportunity to be present, and to savour the moment. It gives us the opportunity to pay attention to reality, right here and right now, instead of surfing across the face of life with our head in the clouds. It also prompts you to reflect and consider. I find that when I pause, or slow down, and notice what is around me, that whatever I’ve noticed lingers for a bit. It affects my mood for a bit. It stimulates a line of thought that I carry forward…..on that particular day, into the train, where I got out my notebook and jotted down some thoughts about the “slow movement” – “slow cities”, “slow food“, “slow medicine“.

The second thing is that this is just fun. It’s amusing to think of a snail taking up surfing. It’s about play. The neuroscientist, Panskepp, describes seven fundamental emotions we can find in many living creatures (including humans!). The three “negative” ones, are the ones we are all probably familiar with – Rage, Fear and Panic. Interestingly, though, he names four “positive” ones – Seeking, Care, Lust and Play. (read this interview with him in the “Journal of Play” – yes, there really is such a thing!) Play turns out to be a really important driving force, stimulating curiosity, experimentation, imagination and creativity.

You only need to spend a few minutes with a toddler to see how important play is. They press every button (yes, including your buttons!), as they explore what each object can do, and what they can do with each object. As they get a little older you see children totally absorbed in imaginary worlds….whether playing with toys, with found objects, or with other children. Give a child a piece of paper and some crayons or paint and they don’t stop to wonder if their art skills are up to the challenge of creating something, they just start to draw and to splash the colours around. How much do children like dressing up? Building spacecraft, houses, vehicles from cardboard boxes (thank you Amazon)? Play is absolutely fundamental. Pansepp has studied this in depth, and much of his work has been on the way animals play. He’s gone a long way to help us understand the importance of play and thank goodness for that, because otherwise we are likely to dismiss it as “childish”. It isn’t.

So, here’s my recommendation for this week – follow the surfing snail’s example – slow down and play a little!

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I love this photo of a tree in winter. Without its leaves you can see how the tree has a classic structural pattern – a pattern which we call “branching” – no doubt in reference to where we see this most – in trees!

This is a pattern we see in many, many places. You can see how water runs down the mountainsides in small streams which gather together into larger streams, then rivers, until one big river makes its way down to the sea. You can also see it at the coast where rivers form an estuary. You see it in root structures under the ground, as well as in bushes and trees above ground. And, perhaps more for me because of my lifetime work as a doctor, you see this pattern throughout the human body – in our circulatory system, in our lymphatic system, in our urinary system, nervous system, our liver, and especially in our lungs.

So when I see an image like this I see something “universal” – something fundamental. It gives me a glimpse of some of the underlying structure of the world. And I find it beautiful. I love how seeing this in the tree brings to mind all those other locations – out in the countryside and within the human body – so that the single tree elicits a broader and deeper reality.

Mind you, we mustn’t get carried away and think that this is the only kind of structure we find in the universe. Of course it isn’t. It’s just one of THE main ones. Equally, or maybe even to a greater extent, we uncover the patterns of networks and webs.

And in those places where we find a beautiful merging of both of these core forms.

Deleuze and Guattari clarified this best for me when they described these two structures as “arboreal” and “rhizomal”.

Take a look around you and see where you can spot them. It’ll help you to become more aware of how often you use these structures when you think, and when you try to make sense of your world.

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“Don’t draw attention to yourself!” “Keep your head down!” “Don’t stick out like a sore thumb!”

Social pressure to conform.

I bet you’ve heard a few of those instructions before. Or others which say pretty much the same thing. The basic idea is that to be safe you need to hide yourself away. Isn’t it a common experience at school that the kid who is really different gets picked on? You can see where all this advice comes from…..as this chameleon demonstrates, disappearing into your environment is a good way to avoid predators, and so stay alive!

But we aren’t chameleons. While there are real advantages to “fitting in” and conforming, every single one of us has a strong sense of Self, and deep feelings of uniqueness. There is, after all, nobody who is “just like you”. The truth is we need to do both – we need to function well socially, which means building healthy mutually beneficial relationships with others, and we also need to develop our autonomy and our self-expression.

The social powers of human beings are incredible, and, as a species, they are responsible for a lot of our survival and development….our success, if you like. But, equally, is there any greater diversity possible between members of the same species as their is between two humans? I’m not sure there is. We’ve evolved such complex nervous systems, such sophisticated bodies and brains. We have consciousness, imagination, language. We just can’t stop ourselves from co-creating and from expressing our uniqueness.

I wrote a book based on “and not or” because I think this is perhaps the most important characteristic we have – the ability to handle paradoxes. It’s built in. The cortex of the human brain is divided into two almost equal parts, with each part (hemisphere) engaging with the world in its own distinct way……the right seeking connections, the new, relationships and an understanding of the raw whole, whilst the left focuses, analyses, labels and categorises. One half giving priority to living relationships, the other most at home with objects and machines which can be measured and controlled.

It’s the same then with conformity and uniqueness. We do actually need both, because we need to be aware of our uniqueness and self-fulfillment involves fully expressing that uniqueness, and we equally need to form mutually beneficial relationships with others, which involves finding points of connection, shared values and desires, tolerance and respect.

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This pandemic with its lockdowns (or “confinement” as we call it in France) has been, and continues to be, tough for a lot of people for many reasons. It’s the biggest global disruption of our way of life that most of us have ever experienced. So many “normal”, “everyday” and “routine” activities and experiences disappeared over an incredibly short period of time. Apart from the disruptions of work, family and social life, we’ve seen an end to “mass” everything – no crowds of spectators at sporting events, no theatre or cinema audiences, no music concerts, no festivals…..well, I’m sure you can add to that list.

However, there have been two positive developments which I’ve read that many people have experienced – one inner, and one outer which enhances the inner. Pardon? Let me explain.

With the shrinking of our horizons, physical and social, many of us have been spending more time in contemplation – yes, maybe deliberate meditation or other such exercise, but, also a more general reflection. A kind of reassessment and revaluing. It’s given us the time and space to become more aware of our habits and routines and ask if we want to re-establish them when the time comes (when the pandemic is over).

What patterns of behaviour, what modes of living, what activities have been disrupted that I don’t want to re-establish? That I want to let go off.

What new patterns, rituals, activities do I want to create instead? What new ways of living do I want to begin?

This un-asked for, and, frankly, pretty unwelcome, pause, is a real opportunity for both awareness and change. You don’t need to have a meditation space, like the man in this photo, to do that, but maybe there’s something inspiring in this image anyway? Maybe it would be good to create, if possible, a place, a space, which we find is conducive to contemplation and reflection? Or maybe we can do that wherever we are?

That’s the inner – this is an opportunity to develop our inner selves – to pay some more attention to our physical and mental health and our lifestyles. To become aware of our habits of thought and feeling and ask ourselves if we want to develop along different paths now.

The second is about what we call “Nature”. You know, I’m a bit uncomfortable about talking about “Nature” as if Nature is a thing, and more than that, as if “it” is a “thing” “out there”. We are part of Nature, not apart from Nature. But then, we’ve sort of forgotten that, as a species, and maybe that’s one of the problems which has brought us to this pandemic. So, maybe this is a great time to reconnect, to re-engage, to re-orientate ourselves with regard to the “natural world”.

I’ve found that noticing the cycles of the flowers, the vegetables, and the trees, has become something I am much more aware of now. I’ve found that I’ve noticed many more species of birds in the garden. I’ve noticed that when I’ve had the chance a walk in vineyards, in amongst some trees, or along a sandy beach on the Atlantic coast, then I feel a huge boost. That shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve written before about the recognised benefits of spending time in the natural world – to the extent that some people now talk about “Nature Therapy“.

There is something truly life enhancing about becoming more aware and more engaged with “the natural world” and from “forest bathing” to spending time in open spaces we know that such activities boost the chemicals in our bodies and minds which influence our immune system, our moods and our thought patterns.

So, connecting better to the “outer” enhances the “inner”.

Again, you don’t need a beautiful Japanese garden like the one in this photo, (although, isn’t that gorgeous?) – but I recommend taking advantage of this time and space to develop your inner self, and your connected self, by grabbing or creating every opportunity you can get to do so.

Contemplation and Engagement with the Natural World.

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It’s interesting how we use the verb to light in English. This photo is of a full moon, but what it shows best is the foliage of the tree through which I took the photo. I like the effect very much.

The Moon has no light of its own. It’s not like the Sun. It doesn’t generate any physical light, but, rather reflects the light of the Sun. That makes the light of the moon a completely different kind of light than that from the Sun. For a start we can gaze directly at the Moon for as long as we want, but we daren’t even stare directly at the Sun for a second without running the risk of damaging our eyes. I suppose that makes it easier to contemplate the Moon than it does the Sun.

The Moon’s light is a softer, gentler light, but on a clear night with a Full Moon you can still find your way around in the dark. It’s enough to give us a hint about what is around us in the world. But the colours aren’t there, and neither is the clarity which daylight brings. So, it almost demands that we use our powers of imagination and creativity more. After all, vision is a creative process. You know that, right? Our brain doesn’t contain something like a movie screen for us to watch the moving images. In fact, light itself doesn’t even get into our heads. Instead our eyes convert the light to electrical signals which are passed along a vast network of nerve cells in the brain and the brain does the job of analysing all the signals, and somehow creating clear images for us to perceive – images without any gaps in them, despite the fact that the back of the eye has a “blind spot” where no light can be detected. We literally create the images we see moment by moment.

Creativity involves an interplay of memory and imagination with the current information being received by the sensory system. It’s a true, continuous blending of the present, the past and the possible futures.

I think that by moonlight, without the clarity of colour and forms, we demand more of the imagination and our creative powers to enable us to see our way in the world.

Moonlight also works through symbolism and story – is it possible to contemplate the Moon without thinking of Venus, of Love, of Romance, of the Divine Feminine? It is, but it’s not nearly as rich an experience when we ignore all that. We associate the Moon with the unconscious, with feelings and with rhythms of tides and hormones. We associate the Moon with a certain wildness of thought – the word “lunacy” meaning madness has the word for “moon” right in there – “luna”. I’m not going to get into a detailed description of the history of madness and psychiatry here, but let’s just say our understanding of the psyche and of “mental illness” is ever changing and we still don’t really understand the more severe forms of disturbance, the “psychoses” which come with “hallucinations” and “delusions”.

So, when I see a Full Moon, or even one of the phases of the Moon, I don’t just see the physical, reflected light of the Sun, but I see a whole world of imagination and enchantment.

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How do you grow a forest?

One seedling at time.

This beautiful little seedling is captivating. I spotted it growing from the moss covered forest floor, the seed casing with its wind driven system of flight and dispersal still intact, but the bright green of new growth clearly visible, and the beginnings of the spiral of unfolding showing us that this little seed has taken root, and is beginning the long journey to become a tree.

It makes me think about the relationship between the tree and the forest, between the particular and the general, between the individual and the group. A relationship I think we tend to get badly wrong. With the rise of statistically driven data collection and analysis, along with the development of algorithms, we reduce the unique person to a point in a set far too often. We pick one, or a handful, of observable, measurable characteristics, categorise them and use them as the be all and end all.

We define people according the group we’ve put them into. In so doing, we fail to see them as unique, individual, human beings. You just can’t know and understand a person from a data set. It’s not enough, and it’s often a fast track down the wrong cul-de-sac.

We make people invisible by reducing them to examples of a group.

All my working life I saw one person at a time…..whether that was in the GP surgery, with a rhythm of one patient every ten minutes or so, or in the specialist referral centre for people with long term intractable conditions, where we’d spend an hour to an hour and half for the first visit, then about twenty minutes for each follow up. In both these settings the rhythm of my day was determined by the scheduled appointments allowing me to give full attention focus to every single individual who came to consult me. I found that a great meditation practice, a great way of continuously coming back to the present moment…..not thinking ahead to who might come next, and not hanging on to the story of the person who has just left the room….but, rather, encountering the crowds, the queues, the “lists”, one person a time.

Of course I learned a lot from all these individuals which informed me about others. But the point is, it was a practice of focusing on the individual, and gleaning the general knowledge from there……not learning the general knowledge and trying to force each person into the right pigeon hole.

I learned from the work of Iain McGilchrist that this was the result of how we use the two hemispheres of our brain. The left hemisphere focuses in, abstracts information from its contexts, labels it and categorises it. It works with sets, groups, and generalities, continuously trying to fit new information into what we’ve learned already. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, focuses on the whole, seeking what is unique and particular in every context, every relationship, every circumstance, endlessly fascinated with what’s novel and what’s particular. As he says in his “Master and His Emissary”, we’ve let the left hemisphere become the dominant one, but evolution never intended that.

It’s time to re-balance, to prioritise the approach to life driven by the right hemisphere and to reap all the potential benefits of the analytic, labelling and classifying left hemisphere by handing those insights back to the right – in other words, by putting whatever we encounter, whatever we understand, back into the contexts and environments in which we found it.

We need to re-learn how to experience life, one seedling at a time. That’s how we’ll grow a healthy forest.

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It isn’t difficult to be utterly entranced by this world. Near the town of Roussillon, in the South of France, there is an ochre trail you can follow through a forest. Two things have made this place as amazing as it is…first, and foremost, the Earth herself, which has created the most incredibly beautiful ochre rocks….pink, rose, yellow, orange, and many shades in-between. They are really, really gorgeous. Secondly, human beings who have mined this rock in the past, and have since, allowed, encouraged, and nurtured the forest to grow up around the rocks. So you look at a site like this and you see that interplay of human and non-human forces.

One of the most stunning features of the ochre is how often the surfaces look like faces. As best I know, these are not art works. Nobody deliberately carved the rocks to look like this – although it would be none the less beautiful if they had. No, it seems that we see the faces because of that part of the human brain which has evolved a special skill in seeing and recognising faces. Yes, there really is such a part of the brain! We use it to recognise other humans, but it works all the time, showing us what appear to be faces in rocks, clouds, trees….you name it.

I love that all of this – the geological creativity of the Earth, the living world of trees, and the evolution of the human brain, all combine to make a place like this feel utterly magical. This is the kind of “enchantment” I think we humans long for. This is the kind of “spiritual longing” which only the Earth can satisfy.

For me, these images will always be “The Ochre Gods of the Forest”. Aren’t they fabulous?

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Can you think of any works of art which changed you? Any which changed your worldview? Changed how you understand yourself, your life, your world?

I was reading about Stendhal Syndrome the other day, which is the phenomenon of overwhelming emotions and physical symptoms experienced by some people in front of particular forms of art. Stendhal described it in relation to his visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce –

I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.

What grabbed me about this concept is how art can have a profound impact on us – not just on the way we think, the emotions we feel, but in changing our inner physical reality…..speeding up the heart, releasing a whole cascade of different hormones, causing us to feel a little breathless, a little light headed, to give us butterflies in the stomach, to make us weak at the knees…….but it actually does something else too….

Every experience we have sets off patterns of activity in the neurones in the brain. In neuroscience there is a phrase used which is “what fires together, wires together”. That’s a description of how these patterns of activity, when repeated, actually change the shape of the microstructures of the brain. Art, literally, can sculpt our brains. No wonder it can change us!

Well, this image here is of Anthony Gormley’s work entitled “The Field”. I saw this for the first time in Inverleith House, in the middle of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. I stood in the doorway and looked at these thousands of little creatures, all looking up at me, all the same. Then, as I looked a little more closely I realised that each and every model was different. Not only were they not all the same, but every one of them was unique.

That’s it, I thought! This is the paradox at the heart of my work as a doctor. Every single patient who I meet has some characteristics, some symptoms, some signs of change in their body, in common with other patients I’ve met before. That’s why I needed to learn anatomy, physiology, pathology, the natural history of disease. That’s why I had to learn how to make a diagnosis. But, at the very same time, every single patient who I meet is unique. Every single patient has a story to tell me which I’ve never heard before because nobody has lived an identical life to them. The diagnosis of the “pathology” or “disease” isn’t enough. I need to understand it in the context of a life story, and a present life. What exactly is this person, today, experiencing? How has this present experience and change come about? What sense do they make of this “illness”? What does this “illness” mean to them, mean in their life, mean to the others in their life?

Well, that became the core of my understanding of the Practice of Medicine.

But it went further than that, because I realised, just as quickly, that this insight wasn’t relevant only to my work as a doctor. This is the essence of what it is to be a human being. We share a lot, you and I. But we are also unique, you and I. We can’t be reduced to a single characteristic, demographic, or “data set”, but we can be gathered into those groups…..we can find some common values, beliefs, desires in those features and factors. But we can never, ever, stop there. We can never rest in our understanding of a person by summing up their data, by figuring out what group we want to put them into. We have to discover the individual. What makes this particular person different? What is distinct and different about this person’s life story?

Even as I write this today, I find this excites me. It delights me. It moves me. It activates my thinking, my feelings, even my body.

Art really can be that powerful.

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What caught my eye here was the juxtaposition of the advert for the photographer and the statue in the alcove.

The older work is the statue. It’s a representation of prayer. France, Italy and Spain are three of the countries I know best on the continent, and all three share a rich religious tradition. To be more exact, they share a Catholic tradition. Representations of the crucified Christ, of the Virgin Mary, and of various saints can be found everywhere…..not just in churches and cathedrals, but on street corners, city centres and in small villages. What struck me about this particular statue was the act it portrays – prayer.

I know there are many different kinds of prayer, not least prayers of intercession (asking for help), and prayers of gratitude, but the image of the wedding photos in the windows just next to it led me quickly onto thinking of dreams, of hopes and desires. So, that context drew me into the consideration of prayers of that type – prayers of hope.

I don’t think we can underestimate the importance and the power of hope. I don’t think people can live without it. I’ve seen that many times in my medical career. People with no hope slip into despair and decline. I once I had a patient I knew say to me that her husband had just been diagnosed with cancer and that the doctors had given him six months to live. I asked her how she felt about that and her response surprised me. “Angry”. I asked why, and then came the bigger surprise. “How come he gets to know how long he’s got and I don’t know how long I’ve got?” Well, I didn’t see that one coming. However, it did lead to an interesting discussion about prognosis and what we can, and can’t, predict. Too often predictions like that turned into self-fulfilling death sentences. Because the reality is that, in any individual, we cannot make such accurate predictions. I learned that the hard way as a young doctor.

But let me return to prayers and dreams. I’m sure you’ll have come across the idea of visualisation? Of creating “mood boards” or “vision boards”? Of creating “goals” and “targets” even? Well, those are psychological methods we can use to create the life we want to lead. And isn’t that one of the things which prayers and dreams can do?

Have you noticed how many athletes seem to say a short prayer before the start of their race? Have you noticed how many perform an act of gratitude to the heavens, or to their god, when they win? I’m sure in our more materialistic, so-called rational, times, that prayer, belief, faith and dreams are dismissed more than ever before, but I always wonder if that’s really a rational response?

Because without hope, without dreams, without prayers, without vision, then what kind of life can we co-create?

My answer would be – the kind of life other people create for us! “Heroes not zombies” folks! We human beings really are the co-creators of our own lives. A person cannot be reduced to molecules and random events if we want to understand them. More than that, I suspect that fear and resentment are powerful factors in creating the kind of world we live in, and that there are plenty of players out there who know exactly how to stoke up both.

So, I’m a fan of prayers and dreams. I’m a fan of dreams and visions. I think that what we imagine, what we put our energy into, what we pay attention to, all contribute to both our personal experiences of daily life and to the reality of the world that we share with every other living creature on this little planet.

What kind of life do you want to lead? What kind of world do you want to live in? One focused on fear and despair, or one focused on love and hope? I do think we have a choice. Not in an “either/or” way, but in what we give emphasis to, what influences our world view, what lenses we use to understand the world, and as an act of co-creation.

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In this pandemic much has been said about “the economy” as if there is such an entity. What are the critics of Public Health measures talking about when they talk about “damage to the economy”? Profit? Well, a lot of Tory cronies in the UK are sure making plenty of profit, so I guess it’s not “profit” as such, it’s some business profits. Probably what most people think about are the shopping and hospitality sectors of society, as shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels and so on have had to close to reduce the spread of the virus.

As best I understand it this is a false choice – you can’t choose either the health of the population or the health of the economy. Both affect each other, and probably you can’t have a healthy economy if your population is sick.

But there’s another whole aspect of life which has been hit hard by this pandemic and the measures taken to reduce social contacts – culture. Now, what is “culture”? Well, I mean all of the “arts”, from performance arts, to expressive arts, from music concerts to gallery exhibitions, to dances, theatre and cinema. And more besides.

I took this photo in Florence almost twenty years ago. It’s the kind of scene you can see in many cities around the world. You could say, it’s just an entrepreneur making a living drawing portraits in the street, but this image tells us more than that. Look at that crowd. They aren’t all buying drawings, or paying to have their portrait painted. They are enjoying witnessing the act of creation.

We humans are, amongst other things, profoundly creative. We apply our creativity to our daily lives, with our problem solving, our aesthetic choices, and our own, individual acts of imagination and expression. Here in France you can find fabulous examples of “wall art” in caves, deep underground. That art goes right back to palaeolithic times. There is no way humans have ever been content to merely survive, to simply invest in getting shelter, food and drink. We have always needed culture. We have always needed visual arts, music and dance. We have always needed storytelling and songs. In fact, I think that need for culture – both personal and shared – is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human.

I suppose that during these lockdowns we have shifted our creativity and culture online, and that’s great, but it isn’t a replacement. My hope is that the online expansion will continue and will feed into the physical/social world of museums, theatres, cinemas and concert halls once this is over.

I have another hope, which is that this pandemic might have raised our awareness of the importance of creativity and culture, that many people will be shifting their priorities and values from consumption and “running the rat race” to relationships and creativity. Because if that happens, then the future could look very different from the past.

I think art is important. It nurtures us. It sustains us. It deepens the meaning of our lives. It enhances the quality of our lives…….even when we are, apparently, not paying attention to it……..

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