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Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

Cognac

This image is one of the ones which makes me very aware of the quality of light. It’s a simple shot of a street in Cognac around mid-day, but I find the light quite magical.

Isn’t it interesting how different the light appears depending on the time and place? Here are some very different examples, all taken in early afternoon light, but all on different days and in different places.

First up, here’s the Saint-Eutrope crypt in the town of Saintes.

The crypt

 

Then, the Charente river as it flows through Saintes.

 

Then, the bridge to Île-de-Ré, with the oyster beds in the foreground………

From the Ile-de-Re

In each of these images, the light looks different, partly because the weather conditions are different, but also because where the light hits the land, it reflects back in altered states…..the light illuminating the land, and the land altering the light, so what we see is the result of this intimate, constantly changing relationship.

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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….

distance

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

catkins

 

We need to use both hemispheres – a whole brain is better than half a brain! But Iain McGilchrist shows that we’ve all developed a rather bad habit – using the left hemisphere to focus on parts and utility to the extent that we ignore or disregard the right – which seeks out the personal, the particular, the connections and the whole.

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illuminate

One day, I stepped out through the back door of the cathedral in Segovia and onto a large paved terrace surrounded by stone lions. When I turned to look back towards the tall arched doorway I noticed that the plain glass doors which hung in the doorway perfectly reflected the buildings across the street. I took a photo.

When I loaded up the photo later I noticed that there were some strange lights above and on the roofs and when I zoomed in I saw more clearly that behind the reflection of the tiles and the satellite dishes some of the cathedral’s stained glass windows shone through the glass door.

That got me thinking……

For centuries the church has created images and told stories to convince people what the world is like, what life is like, and how we should live. With captivating art and gripping stories it presented a particular view of the world. More than that, really, because in presenting that view and spreading it so widely, it created a reality for the people who lived in it.

But look at those satellite dishes.

Who is creating the images and the stories now? Who is telling people what the world is like? What life is like? And how they should live?

Who is presenting a view of the world and spreading it so widely, that it’s creating the reality for us who live in it?

With the rapid development in communications technology, with powerful mobile phones, connected computers, the internet, social media, memes, images and videos which “go viral”, some writers say we have created a whole new layer of the environment in which we live – the “noosphere” (the sphere of human thought).

The truth is we’ve always had a noosphere. We’ve always lived, we humans, within this environment of human thought.

There are image creators and story tellers who fashion the patterns of thought in this noosphere, and in so doing, they influence many others. They create the reality we experience.

But we have a choice. We can be the image creators and the story tellers, or we can be passive consumers. If we choose to be passive consumers, whose world, whose idea of the world, are we choosing to live in?

If we choose to be the image creators and the story tellers, what images shall we share? What stories shall we tell?

Are we going to live as zombies or heroes? Let’s co-create the world we want to live in. Let’s “be the change [we] want to be”.

I think it’s time to resist, to refuse to accept the world view which is responsible for massive inequality, injustice and suffering through the promotion of selfishness, division and greed.

We can make a better world than that. Can’t we? Let’s share our images of beauty, truth and goodness. Let’s share our daily delights and our experiences of awe and wonder. Let’s tell each other our stories of kindness, love and generosity. And let’s promote the world view that we are all connected and interdependent in this one, small planet we call Earth. Let’s share our attempts to adapt and live sustainability so we can co-create a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Shall we?

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Common sense would tell you the world is made of things. We are objects surrounded by other objects. The left hemisphere of the brain is great at narrowing our focus so we can separate some of what we are looking at from its environment, and its connections. So I can stumble across this beautiful dandelion seed-head and focus the lens of my camera right onto “it”. Isn’t “it” gorgeous?

But then and object, or a thing, needs to have some kind of consistency for us to see it. I mean, look what happens a second or two later, when the wind blows –

It’s changed already! And why did it change? Because something happened. Some of the seeds blew away when the wind blew. So if I want to understand this “thing”, this “dandelion” that I’m looking at, I need to see more than what the first image can show me. I need to know that these plants we call dandelions have evolved a method of multiplying and thriving – they have created these astonishing little means of dispersal of their offspring, of their seeds. So when the wind blows, as it always does, these children of the parent plant will fly away to land somewhere else, maybe far away, maybe close by –

and then the cycle starts again with each seed germinating, pushing its roots down into the dark earth, and it’s leaves and flower up to reach the sun, and the bees and the butterflies and who knows how many other kinds of insects will come along and spread the pollen in the yellow flowers to fertilise them and produce these magnificent seed-heads again.

So this is what this object, this thing, called the dandelion does. And it’s hard to know to where to begin its story, but maybe we begin by following one single seed, blown on the wind. We don’t know which way the wind will blow, how far the seed will travel, whether or not the ground it lands on will enable it to germinate and whether or not it will be able to successfully grow into a green leafed, deep rooted, yellow flower and whether or not the insects will cross pollinate it with its neighbours, whether near or far, and produce seeds of its own.

So many unknowns.

But also, and here’s the point, so many happenings.

So many events.

So many occurrences.

This object, this thing, which we call a dandelion. Is it really reasonable to think of it as a thing? Or is it more useful to consider it as so many happenings.

That’s the point I heard the physicist, Carlo Rovelli, make in his interview with Krista Tippett, in an OnBeing podcast. Have a listen. He puts it more beautifully than I do. He says the universe isn’t made of stones, its made of kisses. (Not things, but happenings)

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Points. When I look at this photo of a bifurcation of a railway track into one to the left and one to the right the first thing which comes to mind is playing with an electric railway set as a child. A single oval track which just went round and round was no fun. Once you added a set of points the whole thing became far more interesting. There was more than one route your train could now take, and you were the one who decided which way it would go, just by flicking a little lever.

The second thing which comes to my mind is a flood of memories of many, many delayed train journeys to and from work due to “points failure”, almost always in exactly the same place. Over the years I often wondered why they couldn’t fix those particular points for good. I wonder if they’ve done it now.

But then my mind goes off down some different tracks altogether…..the tracks of decisions, FOMA, and singularities.

Decisions – we are faced with many decisions to take every single day. The first time I visited a coffee shop in America many, many years ago, the wall behind the counter was covered with descriptions of all the options. At that time, all I had known in Scotland when it came to coffee choices was “black or white”! I heard customers in front of me ask for their favourite coffees choosing size of cup, type of coffee, type of milk, amount of foam, various toppings or additions…..my mind was boggled! Since those early days, this kind of coffee choosing has become routine. I don’t even think about it any more. That’s one thing about decisions…..we make the repeat ones easier by turning them into habits, and then we don’t even realise we are choosing any more. Think of the number of automatic decisions you are taking every day in this way. Choosing when to get up out of bed, choosing the various elements of your morning routine, choosing your commute to work…..and on it goes. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make our lives easier by turning repeat choices into habits. I’m just saying it’s interesting to pause sometimes and become aware of some of our automatic choices. It’s only when we do that, that we discover there are other ways to do things, other decisions which can be taken.

FOMA – first time I saw this acronym I had to look it up! Fear Of Missing Out. It’s apparently a big thing! Sometimes we decide to do, or to have, what everyone else is doing or having, because we are afraid that, if we don’t, then they’ll all be benefiting from something and we won’t. I guess this is a variation on the age old “keeping up with the Joneses”. This is a manifestation of the power of social connectedness which has evolved in the human species. We really are intensely connected into our webs of social relationships and they influence our decisions enormously. Advertisers play on these fears to manipulate us and influence us to choose their products or services. Instagram, Tik tok, Facebook……they all ramp this one up to the max!

Singularities – I’m no expert on quantum physics but as I understand it scientists current understanding of how the universe works involves something like this – there is an infinite number of possibilities in front of us – as best I understand it, this is like the philosopher, Giles Deleuze’s idea of “the virtual” – all these possibilities, collectively can be described as a “multiplicity of singularities”. In quantum physics, at the moment of observation, this infinite multiplicity collapses into “the actual”. At that moment, all the other options disappear. They’re gone. Some suggest they play out in the “multiverse” which is the idea of an infinity of parallel universes, each one following a different path. Not sure what I think about that, and, hey, its kind of hard to prove, isn’t it? Well, I find, that whether I’m coming at this from the quantum physics angle, or from a philosophical one, reality seems to be that the moment we decide, the moment we choose, all the other options or possibles are gone – at least for me in my one, unique, single life. I like this idea of a “singularity” – of the one unique actual which emerges from the vast web of possibles or “the virtual” every moment of every day. It reinforces my feeling that the present is special.

My goodness…..wasn’t expecting to go wandering down those tracks when I saw this photo!

How about you? What comes up for you when you see a bifurcation of the ways ahead like this?

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I took this photo of the sea and sky – at the time I wasn’t that conscious of the shape of the window through which I was looking, but, somehow, in this image the window becomes a hugely present frame. I think it’s because I’ve exposed the camera for the outside so the dark interior has become even more black than I remember at the time.

Still, that difference brings something extra to this photo. I mean, I could have cropped it removing all the black, but then it would’ve been a completely different photo. Isn’t that interesting?

I think this makes something about perception and reality more obvious. Whatever we perceive is the end result of a process of selective attention. We exclude certain elements from our awareness, include others, and we bring a lot of our life so far to every single experience.

Iain McGilchrist makes it clear in his Master and His Emissary book that the two cerebral hemispheres engage with the world differently, and one of the most important aspects of that is the way in which they focus. Briefly, the left hemisphere uses a narrow focus, zoning in on particular elements, re-cognising them, labelling them and categorising them. The right hemisphere, on the other hand uses a broad focus, seeing the whole as it is, seeing the contexts, the environment and the connections. We use both hemispheres all the time, but we might give more weight to the activity of one over the other. There is an interesting interplay between both of these types of attention in this image, or, maybe better, this image evokes an interesting interplay between both these types of attention. We focus in on the sea and the sky, we notice the black frame, we see the whole image, we see the smooth ripples on the surface of the water and the suggestion of clouds above the horizon.

What do we bring to create our personal frame? Thoughts, memories, and imaginings…….stories, images and experiences. What is my emotional state before I start to look at this? Those emotions “colour” what I see. What memories and previous experiences does it evoke? Whatever they are, they will interact with my emotions, and, together they will influence what I see and how I experience that viewing. Does this scene spark my imagination? Does it stimulate my creativity? Does it influence my motivation, stir my desire?

These are questions we don’t tend to ask ourselves. Most of this goes on below the level of conscious awareness, but it goes on, all the same, and it’s powerful. We literally co-create the world we live in.

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What do you see first when you look at this photo?

For me, it’s the mountains. I immediately see their jagged shape, their almost purple colour, and notice the beautiful blue sky above, with only a few white, fluffy clouds. The fluffy clouds and the sharp mountain ridges make an interesting contrast.

But then I see the path, and am pretty amazed by how straight it is. My eye is drawn quickly from the foreground right up the line of the pale, sandy path as it narrows like an arrow and heads straight for the mountains.

Then I see that on each side of the path are rows and rows of trees. It’s clearly not a path through a forest, but more an orchard, or a cultivated garden. So, again, there is an appealing contrast between the wild, ragged mountains, and the trimmed and tended garden through which the path has been laid.

This is one of those images which makes me reflect on those two elements of motivation and/or focus in our lives. There is the goal, or the destination – whatever we are working towards, whatever we hope for, visualise, or desire. And there is the path – the way we walk towards that destination, or work towards that goal.

Put them together, in other words, don’t choose “or”, but instead choose “and”, and you have the journey – the entire, irreducible experience of living – the subjective, unique, personal experience of you, on your way, along your chosen paths, along the paths you are busy laying, as you move towards your dreams, your desires and your destinations.

Life isn’t just about destinations, is it? And it isn’t really about only the paths either. But it is about the journey, which only you will make. Only you can tell your unique travel story if you choose to share your experience with an other.

One last point – these destinations, these far mountains, in our lives – well, some of them are there already, some have been created by others, and some of them are ones that only we can imagine. Same thing with the paths – some are there already, some have been laid by others, and some are our own creation.

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I was walking in a forest just outside of Kyoto and I noticed the reflections of these strange stumps of wood in this pond. I raised my camera to capture the scene, expecting to have a photo of a slightly unsettling landscape of chaotic, jagged sticks and stumps standing at all kinds of angles in the pond, their reflections doubling the feeling of their brokenness. I clicked. As I did so I noticed a blur of white flashing past. It was only when I checked the image in the screen at the back of my camera that I saw this white bird. A heron, I think. A moment of its flight captured in the instant of the camera’s action. Its great white wings elegantly beating downwards to propel the creature over the surface of the water.

It’s pretty difficult to get photos of birds in flight. Well, at least, I find it quite hard to do so deliberately. I have lots of photographs of birds standing on the ground, or perched on rooftops, or in branches of trees. But capturing a bird in flight takes a certain amount of luck. It’s almost a zen archery thing where you don’t try to hard but relax into capturing the scene.

Actually I have several photos of flamingos in flight, and swans too, but in both those circumstances I was somewhere where there were dozens, if not hundreds of them, and they were so busy flying here and there it was hard not to get a photo of at least one of them in flight. But this was different. Here I hadn’t even noticed there were birds around before I took this photo.

So what is this? A lucky photo? Serendipity? Or simply an example of the unplanned moment produced an experience of delight, an opportunity to wonder and feel awe?

I once read that a General Practitioner is a “specialist in managing uncertainty”. I know why that was said. As a GP you never knew what the next patient was going to tell you about. You never knew exactly what you’d have to deal with today. More than that, many, many people present to their GP at a stage in their illness where nothing is yet clear. You know the kind of thing. Someone feels “off”, “achey”, or “has a pain”, or some other of a host of possible symptoms, but it’s the early stage of an illness, and the “signs” – changes in the body which can be felt, heard, or measured – are not very clear. Within hours, or maybe over many days or weeks, the disease makes itself more obvious. It always struck me that this was one of the big differences between GP work and hospital work. In the latter case, the vast majority of patients present with something pretty obvious – either because of the severity, or the acuteness of the problem, of because by the time the problem is this troublesome the “signs” have all become clear. Absolutely, that’s not always the case, but having worked in both settings, my experience was that GP work was filled with much more uncertainty. There was another aspect which intensified that – time. In hospital practice the time spent with the patient is pretty limited. There’s an event or an episode, a diagnosis to be made, a treatment to be administered, then the patient, hopefully, is “discharged”. They go away. In General Practice the relationship is, potentially, for life. For those who spend a whole career in Primary Care they will have patients who they met as newborns, accompanied through their school years, their relationships, setting up their own homes, their work pressures, and the creation of their own little families. They will have known some middle aged men and women become elderly and frail. Patients in General Practice, at least traditionally, didn’t exist only in events or episodes, they existed in these long term relationships. So, of course, when someone developed a serious, potentially chronic illness, as a GP you had no way of knowing how the illness would progress. For some, it would become trivial, or even non-existent, for others there would be an unsteady but unrelenting path of decline, for yet others, this disease would be fatal. The uncertainty came in not knowing what might lie ahead……a fact of life, you might say, but, still, a key issue in the daily life of a GP.

Since the beginning of this pandemic, it’s felt that uncertainty has become a more difficult, daily presence for most of us. The twists and turns of the infection rates, the government responses, the attempts to find ways to treat and prevent it…….

How many times have you heard the word “unprecedented” in the last couple of year? I bet it’s an unprecedented number of times!

What have so many people done to try to cope with this? Because, let’s face it, to be filling your thoughts and imaginings with future possibilities, many of them, frankly, scary, doesn’t feel good! I think what many of us have done is to either deliberately, or serendipitously, focus on the present moment. There was a time in mass confinement when our world’s shrunk to the walls of our dwellings, or the fences of our gardens. In those times it felt better to be aware of daily little wonders, to focus on the real delights. That’s my “émerveillement du quotidien” thing that you can read about on this site. And even since the restrictions have eased somewhat, there’s been a sense of increased value and importance in relationships, with more communication…..perhaps not more in person, but certainly more in WhatsApp groups, video calls, phone calls and messages.

I think that’s how we cope best with the unexpected – delight in it when it offers us delight, feel the calmness which can accompany focusing on the present, and filling our days with what we value most.

Because, although it’s almost a cliche, life is best lived in this present moment. And sometimes, the unexpected can actually feel like a gift.

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There are certain numbers which are described as magic numbers in particular cultures. Whether they are magic or not, there are clearly some numbers which are powerfully significant and which appear widely a huge variety of forms.

I could probably make the case for most single numbers to be thought of as significant numbers. But the one I want to highlight today is “3” because I just stumbled across this little group of photos I took during a trip to Japan some years back.

This symbol, of three “comas”, or “tomoe”, is one I kept coming across everywhere. The first photo shows it at the end of a roof, and this is really, really common in traditional Japanese architecture. The second one shows it on the lid of a pump at a fountain. I really like that something everyday, something otherwise quite functional or mundane, is made more beautiful this way. The third one is at the other end of the scale – it’s gold and magnificent. But perhaps the one I like the best is the biggest image in this collection. It’s embedded into one of those wonderful, standing rocks you find at temples and shrines. The white background looks like a light source, but it isn’t. I love the “wabi sabi” appearance of the rusty, reddish metal which forms the shapes of the three commas, and I especially like how the sun casts the shadow of the same symbol onto the white background.

Maybe I find this symbol of three commas especially attractive because it reminds me of the dual, yin yang, symbol, a version of which I wear around my neck. But more because the Celtic form, known as a “triskele” is a symbol which was around me as I grew up and lived in Scotland.

But to come back to the number 3……why do I, and I suspect, so many others, find that such an attractive, even magical number?

Well, for me, I relate it to “body, mind and spirit”, which is one of the key ways to think about an holistic approach to human wellbeing and health. Throughout my entire career, both as a GP in the first couple of decades, and as a Specialist in Integrative Medicine, in the second couple up to retirement, taking a holistic approach was the keystone of my everyday work.

As a medical student back in the 1970s I was hugely impressed with a “Biopsychosocial” understanding of Medicine. There’s another “3” – the biology, the psyche, and the social – all of which, my teachers impressed into me, were important in health care. In fact, it’s been the dominance of the “materialist” approach which has been my main source of discomfort in our form of health care which reduces human beings to data sets and Medicine to pharmacology. That never impressed me, and it still doesn’t.

It’s always struck me that whether I come from a “body, mind, spirit” position, or a “biology, psyche, social” one, that only one of the elements of those triples, is visible. Only the body, or the “biology”, can be observed, palpated, measured. The other two, the mind/spirit or psyche/social, are invisible, and, frankly, I’d say irreducible to measurements. Materialism can’t capture them. Maybe that’s why I’ve always given such emphasis to the individual story, to emotions, thoughts, values and beliefs.

As I understand it, it’s not completely clear exactly what the triple commas represent in Japan, but it’s sometimes related to something like three kingdoms – of Earth, of Heaven, and the Mundane World, or to the Gods who rule each of those kingdoms. In Western thought, perhaps the triad would be Heaven, Earth and the Underworld.

It does strike me as interesting that Freud came up with Ego, Id, and Superego, as his tripartite model of the human psyche. And Lacan, I believe, wrote about the Imaginary, the Real, and the Symbolic in his model of the psyche. I’m also struck by the more modern psychoneurological triad based on the structure of the central nervous system – the “triune” model of the “reptilian”, “limbic” and “neocortex” structure, something which I used a lot with patients after I learned Dan Siegel’s “hand model of the brain“. By the way, he also describes the “map making” capacity of the frontal cortex as an ability to create maps of “me”, “you” and “we” (another interesting triad)

Hey, I could go on, but I’m sure you could add your own favourite triads and triples to this understanding.

Powerful as the number 3 is, I often think in terms of other numbers. I’m quite a visual thinker and as I explore ideas I’ll often find I’ve created little maps of 4 zones, or 5, 6, or 8 pointed stars. How about you? Are you aware of these numbers and their symbols in your thinking and your culture?

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This photo has always fascinated me. At the time I took it the sunlight reflecting on the blue waters as they nestled at the foot of the wooded cliffs was what caught my attention. The whole scene is beautiful and it evokes a sense of peace and contentment in me. But from the first time I looked at it on my computer, what has struck me most has been that line on the surface of the water. Do you see it? It’s pretty much right in the middle of the image. It’s like a path, a blue path cut through the glistening white of the sunlit waters on either side of it. It is shaped like a bow, curving round from just over half way along its length to head towards the cliffs. The surface of the water in the path seems calmer than that on either side….it’s smoother somehow.

Clearly this is the trace left by a boat, but there is no sign of the boat. So when did the boat sail this way? A few minutes ago? An hour ago? Longer?

I suppose it could be caused by something which lies beneath the surface rather than by a boat, but what would run a length like that and have such straight parallel edges? No, I think it’s a trace, not something sitting below the surface.

I find that pretty amazing. If there was a boat at the leading edge of it I might not be so impressed, because all boats leave a wake, don’t they? But this is like a wake without a boat…..or a visible wake left by an invisible boat!

I always think of how we humans change the planet by living in it when I look at this photo. Just by moving from one place to another we change the surface, leaving a trail, leaving a trace. It reminds me of Robinson Crusoe finding a human footprint in the sand on what he thought was a deserted island. These traces say “you are not alone”, and that can be both a reassurance and somewhat unsettling.

Of course, this particular trace won’t last very long. It won’t be there tomorrow, or probably not even later today. But other traces we leave change the landscape for decades. Whether through deforestation, through mining, agriculture, or be the creation of living spaces, we change whole landscapes forever…..well, if not forever, then at least for generations. I’d argue it’s forever, because the changes don’t go away.

Changes don’t go away? Surely they do? Well, I’m not so sure. It seems to me that changes just change into something else. Time doesn’t reverse and we don’t return anything in the world to how it was before…….how it was before has gone, so the changes, if they do disappear, only do so by changing into something else. You know what I mean? Landscape changes produce biosphere changes, which cause further changes in the landscape. I see change as more a ripple than an event. I don’t see changes with definite beginnings and endings, but as emerging differences which cascade outwards through the infinite web of inter-connectedness.

Not all changes are as visible as the ones we see on surfaces, or in landscapes, of course. I know I change all the time. My consciousness changes all the time. My emotional state changes all the time. I think, I act, I communicate, I respond and react. Those waves of change ripple out through my connections. Like the one I have with you. When you stop by to read this today, some of what I’ve been thinking, some of what I’ve been feeling, or something that I’ve seen and shared with you today induces some change in you. Maybe a different thought, maybe the start of a different feeling, or the deepening of an existing one. Maybe this experience you are having reading this post, will ripple out into conversations you have today, or into what you choose to do, or, maybe even what you notice as you live your own life in the days ahead.

Of course, I don’t know.

But I’m aware of the possibility. And that awareness is at the heart of why I create these posts. My intention is to share some of my wonder, my amazement and my delight in daily living. To share from my heart with positivity. I hope this leaves a trace, or sets off some waves to ripple out into our shared and wonderful life together.

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