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Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

I took this photo five years ago, but I still find it one of the most dramatic images of a storm that I’ve ever taken. You can see the leading edge of the storm system making its way from the West, heading over the vineyards to where I live.

Of course, if you weren’t actually there you might think this is the back edge of the storm system which has passed over and is now receding. You’ll have to take it from me that that’s not what was happening.

What do we do when we see a storm coming? Brace ourselves? Batten down the hatches? Run away? Or just do nothing apart from feeling afraid?

I don’t mean only literally in the face of a weather event……I mean what do we do when we think we see the signs of a big challenge or problem looming over the horizon?

Our body’s nervous system sets off three possible responsible responses to threat – you’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response – well, in addition, there’s a “freeze” response. I always remember watching the news footage of the bombing of the Boston marathon. After the blast the first thing you hear is silence and then quickly after that screaming and shouting as people run in all directions. That first silence really grabbed me. That’s the freeze response. Part of our defence system (the parasympathetic nervous system) kicks in at that moment and basically shuts down a lot of activity so we can really pay attention, really become aware, then after that the adrenaline/sympathetic nervous system response is activated and we are set to fight or flee.

Of course our range of reactions and behaviours is incredibly varied and individual, but we all share these basic reactions as the information and energy flows through us.

What I’ve just described there is the “acute” response. It’s short term, time limited, often very brief and kicks in when there is a clear and imminent danger. But on a day to day basis our whole system responds to our thoughts, to the words and behaviours of others, and to both memories and imaginings with aspects of these systems playing a part in creating “chronic stress”. That chronic stress is pretty damaging, impairing our immune systems, creating chronic inflammation in our bodies, and undermining our mental well-being.

What can we do about it?

I always start with awareness. When I worked as a doctor, usually my first priority was to understand – to figure out what was going on, to make a diagnosis, to assess the situation. That usually involved an element of analysis, but you can’t analyse anything until you are aware of it, so the first response is to be present. In becoming present, you become aware. In fact, being present is a powerful therapeutic behaviour. It’s good for the patient and it’s good for the doctor, too.

I think the next step involves responding with intention. It’s one thing to become aware, and even to figure out what’s happening, but it doesn’t amount to much without an intention which shapes your next thoughts, ideas and behaviours. In Medicine, that intention is to care. If you care, if you give a damn, if you activate love and kindness, then the healing responses will fall into place.

I reckon it’s the same with life. I think a good place to start is with awareness and intention. If we aren’t present, if we aren’t aware, we’re on autopilot, “zombie” mode, and we are open to the manipulation of others, and to becoming stuck in habits created by rumination and pain. But if we do wake up, we have a chance to recognise what’s happening, to stand back a little, by taking a pause, or a few deep breaths, and then make a choice…..make a choice formed by our intentions.

What if our intentions are kindness, love, and understanding? What if our intentions are to feel joy, wonder, and connection? What if our intentions are to build “mutually beneficial bonds”? What if our intentions are what the French call “bienveillance”…….well-meaning, well-wishing?

What do you think the experience of seeing a looming storm would be like then?

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The pine forest at the “Côte Sauvage” in the Charente Maritime, the “Foret des Cedres” in Provence, the deciduous forest around the Bracklinn Falls in Central Scotland, the maple forests around Kyoto……these are some of my most memorable forests. They delight me.

It’s many years since I learned about the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” – which simply means spending some time in a forest – well, actually, not so much just passing some time there, but immersing yourself in it, really engaging with it, listening to the sounds of birds calling, of the branches swaying in the wind, breathing deep the scents of pine, cedar, and other trees, watching the play of sunlight through the leaves as together they create whole performances of light and shade, of shape and shadow – you get the idea.

We have learned a lot about forest bathing in recent years. We’ve learned of the benefits it brings to everything from a sense of well-being to a boost in some of the chemicals and cells involved in our immune system, to a calming of the harmful chronic inflammatory activities inside our bodies which occur as a result of stress. It’s just GOOD for you! And that’s a sweet spot for me – finding what is BOTH good for me and just utterly enjoyable – health boosting and happiness boosting – result!

We’ve also learned a lot about the lives of trees and forests in recent years. We’ve learned that trees don’t live in isolation, that they are in constant communication with each other, sending out warnings when they are attacked or vulnerable, sharing nutrients, and supporting each other. They do this both by sending out chemicals through the air, and by an astonishingly complex network of root systems intertwined with microfibres of fungi creating what has been termed “the wood wide web”.

Here are some of the main books I’ve read which have taught me what I know about how trees and forest demonstrate inter-dependency, how they communicate with each other, and how they behave as one complex adaptive organism. “The Hidden Life of Trees“, by Peter Wohlleben, subtitled, “What they feel, how they communicate: discoveries from a secret world”; “Gossip from the Forest” by Sara Maitland, subtitled, “The tangled roots of our forests and fairytales”; “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which blends “indigenous wisdom” with “science and teachings of plants”; and, the novel, “Overstory“, by Richard Powers. You can probably add your own favourites to that list, but if this is something you want to explore, you could do worse than start with any of those books.

This fairly new knowledge of forests is part of a much wider trend in science – the attempt to understand connections. I think this is a radical, and much needed, shift. The reductionist science of understanding parts has led to an explosion of knowledge, but too often, we fail to really understand the real world because we fail to see that every single part only exists as an embedded, inextricable element of the whole. The fabulous improvement in that approach mirrors a shift in the use of the left hemisphere of the brain which engages with the world by separating it into parts to analyse and categorise, towards the use of the right hemisphere with engages with the world as a whole, and focuses our attention on connections and relationships.

We are now looking much more at whole environments, whole webs of inter-relationships. We see such networks everywhere, from the activity of micro-organisms in our guts (the “microbiome”), to the “neural networks” within the brain, the inter-relationships of species within ecological “niches”, or “biomes”, and in world wide cycles of movement of water, gases, and other molecules.

One concept which is useful in all these areas is the one of the “connectome” – this is the activity of mapping out the interactions and relationships within whatever we are studying. In terms of the brain it can be helpful to imagine that every single thought has the “neural correlate” of a “connectome” of nerve cells. Apparently we have so many neurones in our brain, and each of them is so massively interconnected, that if you were to consider all the potential permutations of activity of little networks within the greater network, then that number would be greater than the number of atoms in the universe! Well, I don’t know how anyone works out something like that, but suffice it to say, the potential for our imagination, for our cognition, for our memory, for our ability to visualise, conceptualise, analyse, synthesise and create, is pretty damn close to infinite!

There’s something else interesting about all these “connectomes” – they are related to each other. Each one is nested into several others, and each one of them sets up resonances and harmonies with other ones. Perhaps that partly explains how we feel what other people feel, how we come to think what other people think, and, maybe even how our inner environments are affected by our external ones.

Amazing what a walk a forest can do for us, huh?

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I do think these little yellow flowers are beautiful, but after overnight rain, once the sun comes up, their embellished appearance lifts them to new heights. Aren’t they gorgeous?

We tend to take water for granted. We don’t really think about it much until either we have none, because of drought, or burst pipes, or something else which has cut off our supply, or until we have too much, when the rivers burst their banks and the land is flooded. Both of those circumstances are very distressing. There are those who live with drought, struggling every day to find enough water, those who live with polluted supplies, who are constantly drinking infected, or poisoned water, and those whose houses have been indundated and made uninhabitable.

Too little, or too much…..neither is welcome.

Water fascinates me. It’s an astonishing substance, created from the combination of oxygen and hydrogen…..how did that happen? Where were the first water molecules in the universe created? Without that happy combination of those two elements, each produced in the great furnaces of stars scattered across the night sky, life here on Earth would be impossible. About 60% of the human body is water…….60%!

This peculiar, but vital, substance, with two hydrogen atoms bound to one oxygen at its essence, has astonishing properties. It’s one of the few substances which expands as it freezes, and it has the incredible ability to exist in solid, liquid and gaseous form in the natural world. It’s what clouds are made of, it’s what falls as rain, tumbles down the mountains as streams and rivers, fills the oceans and thanks to wind and the sun flies up from the ocean surface to disappear into the sky, completing what we call “the water cycle”. I think it was the water cycle which first introduced me to the idea that everything in this planet is connected. It introduced me to the whole subject of ecology, and to the study of bio systems.

We don’t really understand how it behaves the way it does, but one thing which were are very familiar with is the ability of water to separate out into droplets, the way you see it adorning this beautiful yellow flower. There’s some exquisite balance of opposites….of surface tension and molecular bonding….which produces sparkling displays like this. However, as best I know, nobody is able to predict either how many water droplets will form on a single flower, nor tell us where exactly each drop will form.

When I look at this image, I start with a feeling of delight, of joy at the sight of such beauty, but then, that delight is flooded with a sense of wonder, and my thoughts fly off in all the directions I’ve just described – back to the origins of the universe, around the water cycle which makes life possible on planet Earth, into the human body, and further, into the very structure of water itself. All this involves my whole brain – my right brain engaging with the totality of the phenomenon, and my left abstracting, categorising and analysing. I don’t do all that in a deliberate way…..it just all happens, and contributes to one of those moments of “émerveillement du quotidien” that I’ve written about before.

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Vineyards consist of several parallel rows of vines, each plant pruned and tied onto wires which run from stake to stake. The cognac makers call each row a “wire” and a contract between a grower and a distiller will detail how many “wires” are being sold each year. As best I understand it, this is the unit of agreement – a number of wires, not a number of grapes. Interesting, huh?

This photo is one of many like this which I’ve taken over the years. I love how the Sun catches the wires at certain times of day. It makes them vibrant. It makes them sing.

You can tell this is a Spring photo from the fact that there are no leaves on the vines yet, and that beyond the vineyard the trees are full of blossom. Everything has its season.

This image of wires sets off my train of thought along two different paths.

Firstly, it reinforces my understanding of the world as multiply and massively connected. The wires are a symbol of connection for me. They connect the plants together, they connect the growers to the distillers, and they create the basic structure of each and every vineyard. They are an underlying, foundational, creative structuring force which makes the vineyard look and live as it does. There are many such patterns, forces and structures running through and below our lives. There are many, in fact, which give us the forms of physical reality in which we live. I love it when we glimpse these patterns and become aware of the flows of energy and change which shape our lives.

Secondly, the phrase from neuroscience “what fires together wires together” comes to my mind. Although I think the metaphor of wiring for the elaborate, complex set of relationships between neurones in our brain is somewhat overdone, the truth is that it seems that our habits of thought, feeling and action, do actually change the physical structure of the brain. When we think, feel or do something repeatedly we lay down strong, fast pathways of neurones which not only make it easier to do or think those things….they make it harder to not do them! They become the underlying structures which determine some of our unconsciousness activity. To develop new, different, thoughts, feelings and actions, we need to consciously choose to initiate them and repeat them. That’s great news actually, because as well as “what fires together wires together”, we have discovered the brain is “plastic” – not made of the material we call plastic, but has the characteristic of “plasticity” – it can constantly be remoulded. We are not stuck with a set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. We can change them. We just need to consciously choose to do so, and to repeat what we have chosen. That’s at the basis of the teaching about creating new habits by doing them each day for 30 days. It seems that by that time we’ve created new pathways, or new wiring!

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I’ve seen this only once.

One day, three years ago, I looked up and saw this sort of rainbow. I say “sort of rainbow” because it isn’t actually an arch. From time to time, in different places, I have noticed various rainbow-type phenomena. I’ve seen them in the spray of water in a fountain, in short almost square patches in the sky, and even in long thin strips once. But this particular one looks different from all the other ones I’ve seen elsewhere.

I don’t expect I’ll see another one the same.

What caught my attention? Was it the sudden appearance of colours in the sky? Perhaps. But I don’t think it was all down to the colours. The shape, the size and the location were equally important. What really caught my attention was its uniqueness. It appeared strange, rare and peculiar.

Some of you may recognise that triad of terms – strange, rare and peculiar. It’s one which was at the heart of my medical practice for several decades. I found that every single patient who came to see me was unique. I was never able to, nor ever wished to, reduce them to a diagnostic category. Naming their disease was one small step towards understanding them. Listening non-judgementally, with genuine curiosity and interest allowed them to unfurl their stories. Every story was strange, rare and peculiar. In every story I would be struck by something. Something would provoke a question, stir a sense of awe or amazement, in me, move me, suggest to me that here was a story of a unique life, a life where particular (peculiar) events occurred, and which had unusual (rare) effects. Every story would strike me as having something distinct, something “not normal” (strange) about it. Because that’s how life is.

Every single one of us is “strange, rare and peculiar”. We cannot be understood as “data sets”, spreadsheets full of “variables”, “averages”, “norms” or “typical features”.

And so, I learned, this is true, not only of patients in a consulting room. It is true of life.

Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary” remains one of the key texts of my life. His description and exploration of the asymmetry of the two halves of our brain (our two cerebral hemispheres) has helped me make sense of things in so many circumstances. Our left hemisphere is great for picking bits out of what we perceive, matching them up against our memory banks of what we know already, ascribing labels to them, and filing them away as further examples of familiar categories. Our right hemisphere, however, is continually on the lookout for what’s new, what’s different. It engages with the world as a whole, not as a collection of bits. It sees whatever we are looking at in its contexts, understands it in its vast web of connections and relationships with everything else.

In short, I think, our right hemisphere is terrific for finding the “strange, rare and peculiar”.

So what? you might ask. Well, look again at this photo. I find that the colours and shapes together are beautiful. I love the way light has been prised apart into these bands of colour, in two clouds, one above the other. I love how this phenomenon hangs on a setting sun orange sky, how the silhouettes of the trees form the lower border of the image, and how flocks of birds scatter across the entire sky.

It’s all very beautiful. Enchanting. Entrancing, even. It amazes and delights. It makes me feel good to be alive, and humbles me with the awareness that I will never know all that can be know. I will never cease to encounter what I’ve never encountered before. And neither will “we”, we humans together. I love the feeling of wonder and curiosity that these events create. I love the sense of mystery.

Opening ourselves up to what’s strange, rare and peculiar, turns out to be a great way to live.

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Do you know what I like most about this photo?

The heart shape is carved into the keystone.

Without the keystone, the entire structure will collapse. The bridge can’t exist without the keystone. What are our keystones? We, human beings? What are the keystones without which we cannot exist?

Well, actually, I’m simplifying things already, aren’t I? Because you can’t reduce the entire existence of a single human being, let alone the entire human species, to a single structure. In reality there are many essential “keystones” in a life.

But I still like this concept of the keystone. It’s kind of a declaration of a priority. It highlights something so important that life would be utterly different without it.

And this keystone has a symbol of a heart carved into it. So, here’s something to consider today –

What if we recognise that our heart, our way of “seeing with the heart”, our “heart felt emotions”, our “heart felt values”, should be the keystone in our life?

Without going into all the science of affective neurology, of neural networks within the human body, of the intricate and elaborate connections between the heart, the brain and the rest of the body, I just want to focus today on how we support, nurture and develop the heart……the heart-centred way of living.

Well, we know the heart is healthy (and I don’t just mean working well as a pump) when it is in harmony, when the “heart rate variability” hits a certain sweet spot. And we know that this sweet spot is associated with certain emotions and certain experiences. Specifically, joy, awe, wonder, and love. Whether you look at the work of someone like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who describes flow states from a psychological perspective, someone like Dan Siegel, who teaches about achieving a state of integration, or The Heartmath Institute, which focuses on heart rate variability, you will discover what experiences and behaviours are associated with a healthy heart.

If we put the following to the fore –

  • love
  • joy
  • kindness
  • compassion
  • gratitude
  • wonder
  • awe

then we are creating the opportunities to build healthier and better lives, for ourselves, for loved ones, for others, and for the entire planet.

It’s not everything, there’s a lot more we can do, but if we create the intentions every day to exhibit, to practice and to experience love, joy, kindness, compassion, gratitude, wonder and awe, then we will build a really powerful, strong keystone – a heart-centred keystone.

You might say, but, hey, I can’t experience all of those every day, and you’ll be right, but I’d be surprised if you can’t choose to express, and/or discover at least one of these, every single day. I mean, why not give it a go? Why not take it as one of those “30 day challenge” exercises? How about making a chart and recording each day which of the ones you have expressed or experienced?

Maybe something like this ……….

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Ever since I saw this door with its heart shaped hole (presumably a “peep hole” to see who is knocking at the door?) I’ve really liked it. It got me thinking how this shape, this powerful symbol, right there on the front door, might influence the lives of those who come across it every single day. It also made me wonder about whether or not it led the residents of this house to see the world through the lens of the heart – and as Saint-Éxupery wrote in “The Little Prince”, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye”.

Of course there is a lot in that simple little phrase, but the meaning I’m reflecting on today is the power of the heart to shape our best thoughts, our best ideas, our best behaviours. The heart, it transpires, is not a simple mechanical pump pushing blood around the circulatory system. Around the heart is a network of specialised nerve cells – neurones – the kind you find in the brain. It seems that this “neural network” around the heart acts more to send information to the brain, than it does to respond to information from the brain. Just stop and think about that for a moment. We tend to have the idea that we do our thinking, our imagining and our feeling in our brains. But it’s not that simple. We also do a good deal of our mental work with the heart. Actually, there are other neural networks in the body too, and the reality is that the “mind” is an “embodied” phenomenon. The division of a person into “body” and “mind” is a tad artificial!

It seems the heart is especially involved in creating some of our emotions and in harmonising the diverse elements of our being. By that last phrase I mean, one of the things the heart is good at doing is producing “integration” of our entire complex being…..of producing “resonance” within ourselves, and between ourselves and others – yes, it actually sends out detectable energy waves beyond the body…..in rhythms which can influence the rhythms of those around us.

It turns out that the “symbolism” of the loving heart is rooted in biological, physical reality.

The truth is acting with love, wonder, generosity, gratitude and kindness is something that is really good for our health. When we approach others and the world from the heart-felt position of care and compassion then we increase the healthy resonances within ourselves and between ourselves and others.

So, that’s partly why I return again and again to the role of kindness. Can’t we use that more as a tool for living? Can’t we use it more to improve our own lives and those of others? How about we use that as the main touchstone? How about we ask ourselves, of our own actions and words, as well asking of others and even of governments and organisations, “how much kindness does this spread?”

Because I reckon whatever we do, think or believe that diminishes kindness harms us, and harms every other living being. In fact, I believe it harms “Gaia” – the living Earth. Conversely, when we come across the stories of cruelty, injustice, neglect, or violence in the world and we wonder “what can I do to make things better?”, then, one thing (obviously not the ONLY thing) we can do, is try to act, to speak and even to think with more kindness…..to live in better harmony with our hearts.

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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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