Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category


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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The other day I read an article posted in the Science section of Forbes.com. The title was “Earth’s skies are violet, we just see them as blue“. It explained how the different colours of light scatter differently in the Earth’s atmosphere according to their wavelength, with shorter blue light scattering most which is why the skies seem blue, but then goes on to point out that violet light has an even shorter wavelength than blue so our skies should look violet. Why don’t they? Well, it’s because our eyeballs have three kinds of colour light detector in them. We call these detectors “cones” and each is most sensitive to either blue, red or green (most sensitive to, not only sensitive too) – the blue stimulates most so the skies look blue….

But, wait! Look at this from the other day here (no “post-processing” going on – just as I actually saw it)


Skies look blue, except when they don’t…….(thank you, clouds)

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tulip new

A new day, early morning, the sun rising, the dew glistening on the unfolding petals of the flowers which were just buds yesterday…..

Ellen Langer, the mindfulness researcher, says there are two ways to live your life – mindfully, or mindlessly. Her research shows that the simple way to live mindfully is to search for, and to be aware of, the new.

Neuroscience has revealed that we use our two cerebral hemispheres for different purposes. One of the key differences is that the left seeks out the familiar, whilst the right prefers what’s new.

Our preference for what’s familiar, or what’s new, is inextricably linked to our attitude towards difference. If you are averse to difference, you’ll prefer the familiar. What’s different, or unfamiliar, is then experienced as something to be afraid of, or anxious about.

“You ain’t from round here, are you, stranger?”

It seems the driver underpinning the preference for the familiar is often fear.

Whereas, the driver underpinning the preference for the new is more likely to be curiosity.

The good news is we all have both hemispheres, and we can all choose to focus on fear, or on curiosity. (Remember the story of the hungry wolves?)

If you want to develop certain muscles, you have to exercise them. If you want to develop certain attitudes to the world, you have to exercise those as well.

How much do you exercise your fears? How much time and headspace do you dedicate to them? And, on the other hand, how much do you exercise your curiosity?

Remember, as Ellen Langer says, if you want to live mindfully, seek out the new….

Or, as I’d put it “If you want to be a hero instead of a zombie, be curious”



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As I walked between the trees at the side of the Charente in Jarnac this caught my eye.

I don’t think it was only the pink and yellow colours together which grabbed me. It was the surprise at seeing this delicate flower growing right out of the trunk of the tree. Now, I’m not a botanist, just someone who is insatiably curious, so I don’t know what this flowering plant is. But I’m pretty sure it isn’t a usual part of the tree it’s growing from. There weren’t any other flowers like this further up the tree.

As usual, an image like this sparks a few trains of thought.

How do we notice what we notice?


Isn’t it usually difference which catches our attention?

One of the commonest kinds of difference which we notice is movement. By definition, motion is difference. It’s a change of place in time. It’s the flight of the barn owl from my house to my neighbour’s barn. It’s bats flying round and round the garden at dusk. It’s the sudden appearance of light and shadows as the sun appears from behind a cloud.

Another common difference to catch our attention is sound. Any sudden new sound. The wailing of a siren in a city street, the alarm call of a blackbird which has just spotted a cat, the distant church bells striking noon. The sounds we don’t hear are those which are constant. We only notice them when they stop.

What’s new is different too. We’ve got two cerebral hemispheres, and the right one, in particular, is wired to seek out whatever is new. The left might seek the familiar, but the right is attracted to novelty.

So maybe that’s another reason I noticed this strange and beautiful pink flower growing out of the tree trunk. I’d never seen anything exactly like it before.

Not least because I don’t know what this flower is, I don’t know what the nature of the relationship is between the flower and the tree. Is it parasitical? Is the flower gaining something from the tree, but not contributing anything? Or is it commensal, with both the flower and the tree benefitting from the relationship?

One of the keys to creative development and growth is integration. Integration can be defined as “the creation of mutually beneficial relationships between well differentiated parts”. In other words, it’s when there is a bond, a good, healthy, mutually supportive bond, between two very different organisms or objects.

I’d like to think this image represents that. It certainly increases my awareness of such an idea.

Integration isn’t just about the relationship of course. It’s about the well differentiated parts as well. And that brings me back to the idea of difference.

When we are surrounded by attempts to force us into pre-determined moulds, by monocultures of chain stores and pressures to conform, it can be hard to express our differences in a positive way. There’s so much fear these days of “the other”, of strangers, immigrants, of other races, other genders…….

How different might the world be if we pursued integration instead…..by not only tolerating, but celebrating difference, and finding ways to create mutually beneficial relationships between them?

Might be beautiful. Might be surprising. Might be attention grabbing.

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I love the places where different elements meet. There’s a magic there. Here are three I saw recently.

Where sun, air, clouds and rain meet the sea…..


Where the sea meets the land…..


and where the snow meets the forest and the clouds meet the mountains…


Iain McGilchrist, in his Master and His Emissary, describes how our right cerebral hemisphere has an approach to the world which focuses on “betweenness”. I think looking out for, and noticing, the meeting points, these boundaries, margins and connections in the world is a great way of activating your right hemisphere.

It’s a good way of just enjoying the sheer beauty of the world too!

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Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and His Emissary, says we use our two cerebral hemispheres differently. The hemispheres, remember, control the opposite sides of the body, so the right control the left hand, and the left hemisphere control the right. It’s the same with vision where the right field of vision is the responsibility of the left hemisphere and the left field of the right hemisphere. I’m simplifying here, but you get the idea. In birds which have their eyes on the sides of their heads instead of in the front of their faces, each hemisphere controls the opposite eye but the idea is the same.

The right hemisphere supports a broad, vigilant attention. In a bird the left eye, therefore, is taking everything in to be aware of predators.

left eye

See how this duck is looking at me?

They use the left hemisphere to focus the right eye on details….for example, when picking out food.

right eye

There’s something else interesting about the field of view of interest to each hemisphere.

In we humans, the right hemisphere is more interested in what is far from us….


while the left is more interested in what is close up….



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last leaf

There’s a growing body of evidence that using your brain is good for your brain. Who’d have thought it?!

There’s also a growing body of evidence that what is good for your brain is good for you. The old mind-body duality is breaking down in the light of neuroscientific findings about the connections between the brain, the rest of the nervous system, and the rest of the body.

Using your brain is one of the key themes of this blog. I believe it’s just too easy to drift through life in zombie mode, influenced by others, manipulated by others, controlled by others. And yet, I also believe it very, very possible to make our own choices, to become “self-directed”, conscious creators of our own, unique stories and, hence, lives.

One of the most commonly promoted ways to use our brains is “mindfulness“. A sort of clumsy word which describes a certain state of awareness.

You can practice “mindfulness” by learning certain meditation techniques, and/or, you can do what Ellen Langer says, and “seek novelty”. 

I find that choosing to be aware, stoking the natural curiosity for the day, seeking “l’émerveillement du quotidien” is one of the easiest, and most delightful ways, to achieve this – this is the main way I try to be “mindful”.

There are two related techniques which help me to live this way. They both date way back thousands of years but both work just as well here and now.

Here are two photos to illustrate the techniques.

The first one is the one at the start of this post. It’s “the last leaf”. There’s a mulberry tree in my garden here in France and this is my second season of raking up and gathering the leaves as they fall. The first year I arrived here I wasn’t prepared for this phenomenon. This tree really sheds a LOT of leaves. I confess, I found that clearing up the leaves was a bit of a burden. But this year? This second season for me? I’ve loved it. Pretty much every other day I’d take the rake and gather up the leaves into huge canvas bags and every other week I’d make a trip to the “déchetterie” (“the tip”, we’d say in English). I enjoyed taking my time, rummaging through the different shapes, sizes and colours of the leaves. I enjoyed seeing the green grass again once the leaves were gathered, but quickly, of course, the grass would recreate a “wabi sabi” appearance with just two or three newly fallen leaves adding interest and attracting attention.

As more and more of the tree shed its leaves I decided I’d like to photograph the “last leaf”. That’s my first image in this post. And that’s the first technique – “live today as if this is the last” – that’s not as morbid as it first sounds…..due to the constancy of change, every day is unique, and the truth is, you will never have a chance to live this day, exactly like this, ever again. So it might be a good idea to savour it. To notice what you can, to hear what you can hear, touch what you can touch, smell what you can smell, take your time to taste and savour the food you are eating.

Because this will be your last opportunity to do so.

Here’s the next image –

first leaf

We have twin birch trees in this garden, and when the wind blows in the autumn, they shed, not only leaves, but lots of small twigs and branches. Yep, most of these head to the “déchetterie” too, but Hilary picked some up, finding their shapes pleasing and used a couple as a table decoration. There was a little water in the bottom of one of the vases she used, and look what happened! A few days later, there was a new leaf!

So, here’s the second image, “the first leaf”, and the second technique, “live today as if it’s the first”.

That’s true too. Due to the uniqueness of every day, of every experience, of every moment, whatever you encounter today, you encounter for the first time. Sometimes that’s not so obvious. Our habits and our routines deaden our awareness and we become oblivious to the small changes which can make a big difference.

You have never lived this very day before. So why not approach it with the sense of wonder, curiosity and amazement which you did so naturally as a child? (This is “l’émerveillement du quotidien” – the wonder of the every day)

I mean look at that little twig! It’s grown a leaf! A perfect, bright green, little leaf! Isn’t that amazing? I wondered a wee while ago about how difficult it was to know whether a seed was dead or alive, but I didn’t wonder about these (apparently discarded) twigs. They were dead as far as I knew. But add a little water, and, hey presto! Life magically emerges!

If you don’t stumble across something new, something for the first time, today, you’re just not looking.

So, there you go, two photos, two ancient techniques, “last and first”, and a step in the right direction from “zombie to hero“!

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