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Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

I love spirals. I find them quite captivating. My attention is caught by them and I’m drawn close to contemplate them. I’m not sure what it is that makes them just so beautiful, but, to me, they are amongst the most beautiful shapes in the universe. You can see them around you in many places of course….in plants, especially climbers which use this method of finding places to hook onto, then pulling tight to hoist themselves upwards. But also in ferns, and in plants which throw out creepers and tendrils which stress across the ground. We humans often create spirals in our art. Maybe it’s because I’m Scot, because like most Scots I’ve been steeped in the traditional Celtic and Pictish complex knots, three armed spiral shapes which we call the triskele, and intertwined ribbons which swirl around each other. However, I suspect it’s not just those of us with Celtic backgrounds who like spirals.

One of the things I like best about the spiral is that it seems to me that a person’s life story often has that sort of trajectory. There are issues, problems, difficulties which we meet, attempt to address, or run away from, which just keep spiralling back again and again. In fact, human development too seems to have a spiral path.

I don’t think time flows in a straight line. It loops, and it spins, slows down, pauses, runs forward. The past and the future both have their part to play in my ability to make sense of the present. They don’t exist in three separate, sequential boxes, but rather, they loop, cycle and spiral together to create the intricate patterns of the tapestry of a life.

There’s a special thing about this photo. You have to look a bit more closely to see it. Right in the middle of the main spiral in this photo you can see the world clearly – it’s as if you are looking through a lens.

Isn’t that magical?

It reminds me that if I really do want to see the world clearly, then the lens of the spiral can be a pretty good way to do that. What do you see more clearly about your life, when you consider it through the lens of a spiral?

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This is one of the most unusual windows I’ve ever seen. I spotted it during a trip to Segovia, Spain a few years ago.
Have you ever looked through a window which has really old glass in it? The glass has structure and shape. It often has twists, curls or waves in it, so that whatever you are looking at through the window is completely changed by the window itself.


We are used to having factory produced smooth, “flawless” glass in our windows. It’s so unobtrusive that we don’t even really notice it at all. In fact, some places put red discs, or notices on the glass to stop people from trying to walk through it. But I like that older, hand-fashioned glass. Those patterns and shapes don’t seem like flaws to me, and I rather enjoy seeing the results of the creative fusion of whatever is on the other side of the glass, the glass itself, and my own act of observation. It reminds me just how actively creative perception is. Other wise I tend to think of it like a camera lens with the image of the “outside” cast precisely onto the screen after flipping upside down twice, once as it goes through the lens, then a second time, to “correct” it, as it passes through a prism. See, even that apparently more direct way of seeing, isn’t as direct as we first think, is it?

As well as reminding me of the active creative processes involved in perception, because it makes me more aware of myself as the viewing “subject”, I’m also reminded of how every one of us experiences the universe from our own unique perspective.

This particular window magnifies that idea for me. You could imagine that each of these circles is a unique lens through which a different person sees and experiences the world. Each one a bit different from the others. But, actually, all of the circles are connected……you see those connecting lines in the glass?

Because that’s a bit like how it is for us, isn’t it?

I view the world from this place of a “self”, whatever that is, this particular place which I cannot share with any other living being. No two of have identical experiences of what we perceive. We bring our unique memories, values, beliefs and imaginings to bear on it all. But that doesn’t mean we are completely separate looking at totally different worlds. We share a lot….we share a lot of atoms and molecules, we share time and space, we share stories, beliefs and traditions…..whatever we see and experience is not entirely disconnected from what others see, experience and feel, after all.

It’s a tricky one, that. It’s a constant dynamic balance, an integration of what’s different and what’s shared. Pretty amazing, huh?

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I know that it is still too early for many of you to feel that we’ve reached a time of opening up. Here in France we are into yet another “confinement” and can only travel up to 10 km from home and there’s a curfew every night. But this is Spring here in the Charente and as I look around my garden I see “opening up” everywhere I look.
The trees and flowers have buds starting to unfurl. I see the green protective covers begin to peel back and show me hints of the glorious colours of the petals and blossoms which are about to emerge.


Life doesn’t progress along neat straight lines. It’s not “linear”, and it’s not exact. In fact, Life is so diverse that the changes around me occur at different rates all the time. The plants go through their various stages of seasonal cycles in their own time. The plum tree blossom has gone now, the cherry tree blossom is carpeting the grass every time there is a breeze, but the mulberry tree is only showing its first hints of the leaves to come. The Spring daffodils and tulips are all but past however the irises, the poppies and the tree paeonies are only about to reveal their beautiful flowers.


Wherever you live in the world there will be seasonal changes going on around you which are a bit different from the ones I see around me. Life is varied and diverse, and whilst all Life shares a tendency to “becoming” over “being”, the evidence is always contextual. It all depends on the circumstances and the local environment.
I think we humans are like this too. Yes, you can see broad, sweeping life stages in every individual, from birth to childhood, through adulthood and into mature, old age. But we don’t all develop at the same rate or in the same way. And we don’t progress mechanically as if we are working our way square by square around a board game.
We leap forward, retreat, hit setbacks, meet challenges, stumble across opportunities. We build support and networks of relationships. We connect, and we disconnect. There really are an infinity of paths and an infinite diversity of life stories. No two of us are identical.

But this “opening up” that I see in today’s image, is an essential part of being human. We don’t grow if we don’t open up.

For the second half of my career I worked in a specialist centre for people with chronic illnesses. When someone has suffered for a long time they are often in a state of closing down, of separating themselves out from the world, and of building more walls in the hope of some security and safety. They are often exhausted and lack the ability to take even small steps forward. For all those reasons, our hospital was built around a garden which was like a small, abundant, natural, cloister, where we could wander, sit, wonder and talk together……the patients and the staff. Time and time again we’d see how this enabled people to re-connect, to break out from the closed, separated, fearful places they had retreated into, and begin to notice the plants, the seasons, the birds, the fox and the squirrels, to begin to be heard, to begin to feel cared for.

This process of healing required a coming together of “opening up”. The opening of the hearts and minds of the carers, who paid attention, and listened without judgement. And the opening of the hearts and minds of the patients who could begin to feel safe, to feel hope, and begin to get in touch with Life’s flow of energy again.
Wherever we are in life, whatever stage we have reached, we all need to open up in order to grow. We need to find the right circumstances, the fertile ground, the caring, loving connections between ourselves and the rest of this world……other people, other creatures, “Gaia”, herself…..in order to flourish, in order to become fully what we can become.

Even in the midst of these difficult times if you look around you will see signs of opening up…..in hearts, minds, bodies…..in communities, relationships, in plants and other creatures.
I think it helps to look out for those signs of opening up. It gives us hope and courage, and without those, then what?

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Every connection we make is a bond. Every relationship we have involves an interaction between ourselves and the other which changes both parties in the process.
In Saint Exupery’s “The Little Prince” he describes two key relationships, one which the Prince has with a rose, and one with a fox. In both cases he makes the point that creating the relationship changes how they see each other. In that process they become unique to each other, they start to care about each other, and, in fact, they become responsible for each other.


Lynne McTaggart writes in her book, “The Bond

An entirely new scientific story is emerging that challenges many of our Newtonian and Darwinian assumptions, including our most basic premise: the sense of things as separate entities in competition for survival. The latest evidence from quantum physics offers the extraordinary possibility that all of life exists in a dynamic relationship of co-operation.
All matter exists in a vast quantum web of connection, and a living thing at its most elemental is an energy system involved in a constant transfer of information with its environment.
The world essentially operates, not through the activity of individual things, but in the connection between them – in a sense, in the space between things.

We often have the tendency to think of a bond as a limitation, even something which imprisons us, as if each bond is a chain. But, I prefer to think of bonds as relationships, as connections which, at their best, are “integrative” – that is – mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts. That, after all, is how the body works. Every single cell, every organ, every tissue and every system within the body exists in constant interaction with all the others. It functions because the basis of all these relationships is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds. And as I often think, what happens inside the body, happens outside the body. In other words, what we come to understand about the nature of reality by coming to understand ourselves helps us to understand the entirety of reality.

Carlo Rovelli, the nuclear physicist, advocates a relational understanding of the universe. He says

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time, events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones.

Once we shift our awareness away from parts and separate entities towards relationships, connections, experiences and events, we find a whole other set of values develop.

Try it for yourself and see how it seems to you.

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I took this photo in a steampunk themed cafe in Capetown a few years ago. There’s no doubting this is a work of art. There is a beauty in technology which we can admire in both some of the latest devices and machines we have available to us, and there’s also a certain beauty in old technologies, which are the source material for these steampunk creations.

But we humans have become almost hypnotised by the machine model of reality. Everywhere we go we see machines. We use the concepts of components, parts, processes with inputs and predictable outputs everywhere. The human body is often thought of as an elaborate, perhaps complicated, machine. But it isn’t.
If there is one big modern myth I’d like to counter it’s the myth of the machine. Life is NOT machine-like. Human beings are not like machines….no not even computers! Animals and plants are not like machines. Reality, in fact, is not machine-like.

Why not?
Because reality, Nature and Life are not assemblages of components. We are not made up of discrete parts which can just be replaced.

Reality, Nature and Life are non-linear and massively interconnected. Nothing exists in isolation and every movement, every behaviour, every birth, life and death makes changes which ripple through the entire world. Life is dynamic, never fixed. Life is emergent….it changes in ways which cannot be predicted at the individual level. Life is adaptive, constantly detecting and responding to changes in the environment and in the vast networks of relationships.

Reality, Nature and Life are inter-dependent. All that exists is implicated in the co-creation of all that exists.
Some scientists have defined life as possessing a quality of “auto-poiesis” – self-making capacity – all living creatures grow, mature, reproduce, replace cells, repair damage throughout their entire lives.
Others define life as having “self-moving capacity” – a stone can’t move itself, but a bacterium can, a bird can, a human can.

In fact, it’s still pretty amazing to look at Biology textbooks, check the index and see if you can find a definition of Life. Let me know if you find any! Similarly, textbooks of Medicine don’t seem to have even index entries, let alone whole chapters, about “health” – it isn’t even defined!

There are many other arguments to consider which make the case for just how UNLIKE machines reality, Nature and Life are. So, why do we persist? Thinking we can deal with reality as if it is a giant machine. Why do we persist in giving such attention to short term thinking and reductionist science? Because the longer the time scale, the less and less machine-like, reality appears.

In the last fifty years or so there have been great advances in our understanding of networks, of systems, and of “complex adaptive systems” in particular. We are waking up to the inter-dependent nature of this little planet we all share. My hope is that these insights will shift the balance and the machine-like model will be put back in the box where it deserves to be – the box marked “machine”. Let’s not put anything else in there!

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Here they come again….the leaves on the mulberry tree.
I have a mulberry tree in my garden. I provides the most amazing shade on hot summer days and its abundance of mulberries feeds many birds, as well as leaving more than enough for us to make crumbles etc. In the autumn it sheds all its leaves and I spend many days raking up the dead the leaves to take to the recycling centre. I actually really enjoy that task. It’s kind of a meditation and the variety of colours, shapes and sizes of the fallen leaves continues to astonish me. Then in the winter time the tree stands bare. It’s grown a lot over the six and bit years we’ve been here and I like to think it thrives because I pay it so much attention!

In the Spring, buds appear, then a few days later, the first leaves…..small, curled and bright at first, then rapidly unfurling and stretching out to greet the Sun. Here are some of the first ones which have appeared over the last couple of days.

The cyclical nature of the seasons is right here in front of my face. I see it every time I look out the window or step out of the front door.

When you live with this it is absolutely clear that time is not a straight line….it’s not “linear”……but, rather, time spirals. It turns around, loops, and eternally returns. There really are no straight lines in Nature.

Thinking about this reminded me of T S Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

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I know, I know, you’re thinking, “didn’t I see that photograph yesterday?” Well, you did. And if you didn’t you can see it now if you scroll down to yesterday’s post “The edge of the Storm”.

I don’t know how this universe works, but one thing I do know is that synchronicities occur which are both attention-grabbing, and have the potential to take our understanding to a whole other level.

Let me start further back…….back in the 1960s when I was a child. One year we took a family holiday to the Isle of Man. We took the ferry from Scotland, a thrill in its own right, and as we sailed through the Bay of Ramsay, if my memory serves me well, we passed a boat with the name “Radio Caroline” emblazoned on the side. Radio Caroline was a “pirate radio station”. Which kids don’t want to be pirates? I loved Radio Caroline. I loved the fact that it was broadcasting outwith the control of the British state. Pirate radio stations were ones which didn’t have approved licences to broadcast, and even at that age I wasn’t fond of Establishment controls which tried to tell us we could only listen to the BBC. So it was a thrill to listen to Radio Caroline. You felt as if you were part of some underground movement. But as a radio station they just played fabulous music. I discovered several artists on Caroline who I don’t think I’d ever have found on mainstream radio.


Fast forward to last year…….I got a pair of pro AirPods for my birthday, and I just loved/love the quality of sound which they deliver. I found an app, called “sTREAMs” which made it easy to find radio stations which made full use of the surround sound capabilities of the pods. Guess what I found there? Radio Caroline! Hey, it’s still there! Of course, not a pirate station any more, and now with internet radio, is there any such thing as pirate radio any more? What a joy! But, a little browsing on the app took me to another station I’d never heard of before….Radio Paradise. Well, I’ve been listening to Radio Paradise A LOT in recent weeks. There are no ads, no “stuffing”, just one good, high quality, track after another. It delivers old favourites to me, so I know “I’m on their wavelength”, but it also serves up lots of artists I know nothing about. It’s like opening a door to a new treasure room of delights! I love it!
Well, yesterday I used the photo of the storm, and I wrote the post “The Edge of the Storm”, contemplating about our reactions to looming storms, our ways of both reacting to, and responding to, threats. Then in the afternoon, I’m sitting out in the sunshine and I’m listening to Radio Paradise and on comes this song……..”Storm comin’ “ by the Wailin’ Jennys. I’d never heard this song before and I’d never heard of the band either but I was hooked! What a great song……..here’s a link to the youtube video so you can hear it.

Ok, that was surprise enough, and counts as a synchronicity for me, because how likely is it that I’d write a post about a storm coming in the morning, and here this song, apparently, “just by chance”, on a radio station in the afternoon? But listen to the lyrics. This isn’t a song about the fight/flight/freeze reactions I wrote about in the morning. It’s a song which says “don’t run for cover” – “let whatever is coming rain down on you” – in other words, have courage, and don’t hide, but go with the flow, lean into it, and continue to be present. Well, that’s a whole other level of response from the ones I wrote about in the morning, so listening to this deepened and broadened my understanding of how we might respond to the challenges and stresses which come our way.

Maybe in acute situations, freeze/flee/fright might be just what we need, but I suspect in the longer term we need to face whatever comes our way, allow ourselves to be present with it, and live the experience. There’s a teaching about acceptance in here. There’s a teaching about adaptation. There’s a teaching about immersing yourself in the full flow of LIFE.

Isn’t synchronicity wonderful?

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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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As I walked along this beach I came across a piece of seaweed and shell. But that’s not where my observation ended. So, I stopped and took this photo.

What do you see?

Maybe you see a piece of seaweed and a shell on the sand.

But maybe you see the suggestion of a face? Maybe this piece of seaweed looks like the eyelashes on a closed eyelid, and the shell, a piece of jewellery on the side of someone’s nose?

Well, that’s what I saw. And once I’d seen that I felt more connected to the beach. It was as if the beach was at peace, and lying beautifully in the sunshine. I know that at the beach we often feel pretty relaxed anyway, but as I saw this, and as I look at it again just now, I feel a wave of calm. This image pleases me. It delights me. It brings me joy and makes me feel content. It stirs that deep feeling I have inside that the universe is essentially a friendly place, created with such precise balances between fundamental forces that everything Life needed to come into being fell into place, that the abundance of the universe facilitates both our survival and our thriving…..individually, as a species, and as one of Life’s myriad of forms.

Maybe you look at this image and the seaweed is a sort of smile? Maybe it seems to be a happy emoji? Well, I didn’t see it that way, but if you do, I bet you are aware of feelings of happiness growing inside you.

It’s strange that for many years now we humans have lived with the idea that there is “me” and there is “everything else” “out there”. That somehow we live separate from, and disconnected from a meaningless universe of objects. But that seems to be changing now. The Physics of the 20th and 21st centuries have revealed to us a whole other perspective on reality and our place in it. Gone are the notions of separate, disconnected objects. Everything, it now appears, is connected to everything else. Everything which exists is manifested within a universal energy field. Everything which appears, briefly, or for a number of years, is a manifestation of relationships and connections. The universe, as Carlo Rovelli, the Physicist, says, is made of events and experiences, not things.

And maybe one of the biggest insights we’ve gained is how there is no disconnection between the observer and the observed. We now know that whatever we observe is changed in the act of being observed. And we also know that the observer is changed by what they observer. It’s a two way process.

We humans bring our imagination to bear on what we observe. We bring our memories and our consciousness. We uncover meaning, create narratives, and enrich our worlds with art, with poetry, with stories, music and dance. We interact with the rest of the universe every moment we are alive. Now, we are beginning to realise that.

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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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