Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

There’s no doubt this is a very challenging time for very many people. This pandemic is shining a bright light on many problems which we’ve collectively tolerated or ignored.

For me, perhaps THE most impressive feature of this crisis is how human beings are connecting and caring about each other. I know, you might think that’s an odd thing to say when we are all being told to “self-isolate” and practice “social distancing”, (I don’t like either of these phrases, preferring “physical distancing” for the latter, and “sheltering” for the former) but you’ll have seen people on balconies singing, shouting to each other, clapping to salute the health care workers. You’ll have seen people offering their talents and creativity online with free lessons, concerts, publications. You’ll have seen hundreds of thousands of people volunteering to make sure neighbours are safe and nourished. You’ll have seen health care workers, drivers, emergency workers, people who work in the food production and supply chain, and many, many others giving 100% to keep others safe, to heal, to nourish, to support.

You’ll have seen that scientists and researchers around the world are publishing and sharing their work freely and widely without barriers between nations and peoples. We human beings are absolutely brilliant at learning from each other.

We all live on the shoulders of giants.

There is an outpouring of love, of care, and of compassion. Maybe more on a global scale than I’ve seen at any other time in my life.

I’m not naive. I know there’s a lot of evil, cruelty, injustice and selfishness too. But I just want to a take a moment today to celebrate our human ability to make connections, to care, to love, to learn from each other, and to collaborate.

I hope we build the next phase of our lives together on those principles.

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With all the “social distancing” that is going on, and being urged upon us, I thought it might help to remember this line from Saint Exupery’s “The Little Prince” –

The important things in life you cannot see with your eyes, only with your heart.

I don’t really like the term “social distancing” because I think we need each other now more than ever.

What’s important during this pandemic is to reduce the time you spend in the same physical space as other people. The more physical contacts you have, the more chance you will catch this virus and spread it to other people. A French official put it well the other day when he said – don’t think how can I avoid catching this, think how can I avoid spreading it to everyone else?

I think that’s a useful flip because people spread this virus without having any symptoms, and while, chances are if YOU get this virus then it won’t be serious, for about one in every five people it will be. Reducing your physical contacts now is the most caring thing you can do.

But that does NOT mean to minimise your relationships.

More than ever this is a good time to tell the people you love, that you love them.

Now more than ever this is a good time to share…..to share thoughts, to share feelings, to share our stories.

We humans are perhaps THE most social of all creatures. We die without social contact. So let’s pay attention to that and increase our communications. Phone more, text more, FaceTime, or Skype more, blog more, instagram more, WhatsApp more…….whatever means you have at  your fingertips use them now.

Have you seen any of the video clips online of Italians or Spaniards on their balconies? Singing, cheering, banging pots and pans…….all saying “we are here, and we are in this together”.

As we minimise our physical contacts for now, let’s over-compensate for that, by increasing our “invisible” ones, the ones we can see only with our hearts.


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This is a photo I took while travelling to the north of Scotland a few years ago.

Both the dark foreground of the land and the foreboding rain-filled clouds in the sky could make a scene like this oppressive.

If both what’s right at our feet and right above our heads is gloomy and threatening it’s hard to stay positive and calm.

But look! That’s not all there is to this scene. There’s the crack in the clouds, the long strip of bright silvery light with sunbeams pouring down onto the water and making it glow. The water surface dazzles like the Sun itself.

Beyond the light a whole palette of colours emerge in the sky, shade after shade of blue.

In a bright blue sky, none of this would be visible.

In a completely overcast sky, none of this would be visible.

This is life, this is the world we live in.

There is always foreboding and darkness, and there is always hope and light.

The incredible thing is, they are often here at exactly the same time and place.

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Coronavirus, epidemic, pandemic, deaths, school closures, travel bans, hospitals overloaded, patients in the corridors, floods, fires, plagues of locusts, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, snowstorms, climate change, immigration, deportation, walls, cancer…….

It’s not hard to make a list of threats, to find things to be afraid of.

Every headline screams – be afraid, be very afraid!

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best”

Sounds good advice, huh? Said this way around the first thing to do is focus on the worst, then once you’ve done that you might get around to dragging up a bit of hope. Said the other way around you hope first, but what you do, what actions you take, are determined by imagining the worst.

Is this a good way to live?

Imagining the worst every day? Feeling fear every day? Feeling anxiety every day?

Maybe not, huh, but isn’t it just common sense? Isn’t it just “sensible”?

One day I was out walking along the Mediterranean coast and I looked up at this immense grey rocky cliff and a patch of yellow caught my eye. I zoomed in with my telephoto lens and took this photo. Wow! Look at this single, beautiful yellow flower. I was about to write “delicate, little flower” there but stopped myself because “delicate”?? I don’t think so. How did that little seed, blown there by the wind, or dropped by a bird, find enough to sustain it, enough to keep it alive, enough to make it burst out of its shell and stand tall and reach for the yellow sun and spread its petals to say to the world “Here I am” “I am alive”.

People die without hope. I’ve seen it. Many times.

If my mind is flooded with daily fears, if my thoughts swim in an ocean of dread, what kind of day is it going to be today? What kind of life will I experience? And what if this is “my one wild and precious life“? Is this how I want to spend it?

What’s the alternative?

Denial? Delusion? Escapism? I suppose so…..but I think there are better options –

“Hope for the best, and adapt”

If we start the day with hope, make our plans based on hope, then we set off positively. If obstacles appear, accidents happen, luck runs out, then we can adapt. I used to commute from Stirling to Glasgow on the train every day to go to work. I never set off thinking “maybe I won’t get there”. I never went to Queen Street Station after work thinking “maybe I won’t get home”. I never planned for the worst, then got round to trying to hope all the dreadful things wouldn’t happen.

Well, I didn’t always get there, and I didn’t always get home. One day the G8 Summit was held in Gleneagles. The authorities closed Stirling down. No trains. No buses. Motorways blocked. I didn’t get to work that day. One day at work it started to snow. It snowed and it snowed and it snowed. By the time I finished work there were no trains leaving Glasgow. The buses were all full, then there were no more buses because the motorway was blocked. I found a hotel room using my smartphone, stayed the night, and next morning, stopped off in Marks and Spencer for a new shirt on my way to work.

Many, many times, trains were cancelled or ran late. Many times the train would stop in the middle of the countryside for half an hour, or an hour, or sometimes, even longer. The journey wasn’t always as straightforward as it should have been. But I still never set off thinking “maybe I won’t get there”.

So that’s one way……

“Hope for the best, and adapt”

Here’s another –

“Look for the good and adapt”

This isn’t quite the same because it isn’t based on a starting point of hope. It starts with an intention. An intention to seek, to be curious, to be on the look out for what delights, and what amazes. To find “L’émerveillement du quotidien“. Because it’s always there. There will always be beauty to discover, music to excite or delight, scents and flavours to savour, textures to relish. There will always be acts of kindness, acts of courage and acts of love. You can see that all the time. In how many terrorist attacks do we see the cruelty of one person, followed by the courage, kindness and love of many, many others.

What if every day I look for the good, and when obstacles, accidents, infections, bad luck come my way, I find a way to adapt?

I look at that flower, flourishing (because that’s what flowers do, isn’t it, they flourish?) in what looks like barren adversity, and I think, well, that’s amazing, that’s beautiful, that’s life.




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The phrase “everything is connected” immediately appeals to me and strikes me as true.

The first thing I think of is the human being.

Although I was taught Medicine in parts, learning about cells, tissues, organs and even systems separately, it was an almost unspoken given that all the parts were connected. In Second Year of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, one of the main subjects was Anatomy and we were put into groups of six to spend a year dissecting a human body. Our guide was a three volume textbook, “Cunnigham’s Manual of Practical Anatomy”, along with “Gray’s Anatomy” (probably the most beautiful textbook I ever possessed). I was a bit overwhelmed with the sheer number of pages in these texts and asked one of the tutors “Which bits of this book do we need to learn?” He replied, “Which bits of human beings do you think patients will ask you about once you’re qualified?” “Ah, you mean we have to learn it ALL?” He smiled and walked away.

It would be a full two years after that before I met an actual live patient, but, hey, they don’t teach Medicine that way any more do they?

I don’t remember a single lecture about holism, but somehow it was a core value for me right from the start. However it was over a decade after graduation before I came across “Psychoneuroimmunology” and “Psychoneuroendrocrinology” which were fields of study looking at the connections between the Mind, the Nervous System, the Endocrine System and the Immune System. I think that’s where I first encountered a more holistic science, one focused on “systems” not “parts”.

It was much, much later when I encountered “Complex Adaptive Systems” and both “Chaos Theory” and “Complexity Science”. Somehow I think we are still in pretty early days of developing the sciences of the connections. But it sure still excites me!

As a GP I also had to be aware of the individual patient’s connections between themselves and the rest of the world….their relationships, their work, their housing, their family and so on. Those are threads you never quite get to the end of. I think that makes us humble, that knowing that we will never know all there is to know.

Sometimes it seems to me that our minds are like fractals, vast webs of mirrors reflecting similar patterns of reality to each other. Actually, as I write this I remember “Indra’s Net” – where every drop reflects every other drop. I think we humans are great at spotting patterns, and regularities, and that, combined with our ability to use metaphors and symbols enables us to appreciate the incredibly rich, dense nature of reality.

When I saw this shape on the surface of the water I wondered if it had been caused by a boat, or was it something lying on the river bed? But look at the shape drawn by the farmer who has been working this field. What a gorgeous echo of the shape on the river. One of the things that happens when we appreciate these connections is an experience of beauty and wonder intimately entwined.

One time when flying over the English Channel, I looked down and saw the shadows of the clouds on the water’s surface just before the coast. Ooh, that still pleases me so much to contemplate this image! I love the fragility and impermanency of the little clouds. I love the even more ephemeral nature of their shadows on the Channel. And I love that transition of density of the clouds from the area above the water to the area above the land, how you can see in that the dynamic, ever moving dance of the land and the water and the air. Magic!

What connections have you spotted today?



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I am sorting through old photographs just now and came across this one which I took fifteen years ago from a hot air balloon near the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

I suspect I took the photo because I spotted this strange patterning of the ground but I don’t really remember. Looking at it again now I am really struck by a combination of beauty and strangeness. There is undoubtedly something pleasing about these multiple semicircles on the red soil. They are almost like one of those wave paintings you see in traditional Japanese art.

Sure, it provokes my curiosity. I can’t help wondering who made these marks, how they made them, and why? But I only visited Morocco for a few days and I was never closer to these markings than I was in this photo. I’ll never know. But that takes nothing away from them, because I find I’m content to enjoy them. In fact, I find they draw me to them and I time can stand still for a little while as I contemplate them.

There is evidence of human mark making all around us of course. I look out onto this –

Of course, I do know how these patterns are produced and why. But they certainly create a distinctive landscape don’t they?

Another place where I came across strangely beautiful marks is the Kilmartin Valley in Scotland. There are several large stones covered with markings from pre-history in that valley.

Who made these marks? How did they make these marks, and why?

More questions we don’t have answers to, but, again, aren’t they just beautiful in themselves?

But more than that, I realise as I look at these images again, their beauty is enhanced by mystery.

I like to explain things. I like to understand.

But I don’t deny that part of the enchantment of life is just how much mystery there is.

“And not or” – our lives are rich because explanation and mystery are so entwined.

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I don’t deny there is a beauty in fog.

But when I looked out the window this morning and saw that the vineyard covered hillside had disappeared, the word “obscured” popped into my head.

Fog “obscures”. It prevents us from seeing the world so clearly. It draws the horizon closer, sets a nearer limit to our perception.

Well, with that in mind, I spotted an article in Wired magazine……”To fight disinformation we need to weaponise the truth

Through social media, mainstream media and mass media, we are being manipulated on a daily basis. We are bombarded with propaganda and advertising, trying to get us to think what someone else wants us to think, to buy what someone else wants us to buy, to believe what someone else wants us to believe, to vote they way someone else wants us to vote.

When I started this blog over a decade ago I chose the title “Heroes not Zombies” because I had an idea that we tend to drift through life on autopilot, but that if we wake up, become aware, and claim the authorship of our own stories, then we become the heroes of our own stories. But, of course, it’s not just that we drift along on autopilot, it’s that we allow others to sit in the driving seat.

So, here, in that Wired article, is a wake up call, but also a kind of education. The author explains how we are being manipulated.

Cybersecurity researcher Ben Nimmo describes Russia’s approach in terms of the “4Ds”: dismiss critics, distort facts, distract from other issues, dismay the audiences. And indeed Russia has been leading the way in using disinformation-based warfare against other nations. But others are now joining them.

The article is worth reading but I thought I’d summarise the 4 “Ds” here. Just so they are nice and clear. Just so that I don’t forget them.

  • DISMISS critics
  • DISTORT facts
  • DISTRACT from other issues
  • DISMAY audiences

So, as you browse through your timelines on your social media accounts today, or read the headlines on the front pages of the newspapers, or watch the news on TV, why not write these four words down on a post-it and see what the messages you are reading look like in the light of the 4Ds?

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