Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

There’s something which really bothers me about modern management theory and practice – “efficiency”.

“Why should that bother you?” you ask.

Well, because it seems to me that it usually means getting the greatest return from the least input or effort. And I’m not sure that’s always a good idea. I’m coming from the perspective of health care. I despaired of the annual cuts after cuts after cuts in the NHS. Every year I saw colleagues who retired or moved away, not replaced. Every single time someone left the remaining staff were asked to “absorb” the missing colleague’s workload. Every year there were more budget restrictions, more closures of beds and services, all in the name of “efficiency”.

So what has happened now that a pandemic has hit? Not enough beds, not enough equipment, not enough staff. Even now, weeks into the crisis, frontline staff lack adequate amounts of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). All the pressure to “protect the NHS” was due to the fact it had been pared down to the bone over at least a decade. There was, and there is, no, or little, resiliency in the system. Yes, they redirected staff and reallocated beds to deal with the COVID-19 patients, but did so at the expense of the care and services which those staff and beds were normally employed for.

Is it really a good idea to have “just in time” ordering and delivery systems for something like the NHS? It doesn’t look like it. Is it really a good idea to have as few beds as possible, as few hospitals as possible and as few staff as possible? It doesn’t look like it.

Nature doesn’t do it this way.

Nature goes for abundance. Look at the seedhead in the photo at the start of this post. How many seeds are there from that single plant? Way more than you’d “need” for reproduction and spread you might think. Would it not be more “efficient” for the plant to produce, say, half that number of seeds? Or maybe only ten percent? It doesn’t look like it.

Complex adaptive systems are Nature’s way of enabling adaptability and resilience. All such systems have what scientists call “redundancy” – by which they mean there are “belt and braces” approaches, there are several pathways to achieve the same thing. It’s by drawing on those “extra” resources and methods that Natural living organisms survive and thrive.

I think we need to learn that from Nature. There’s been way too much paring back, stripping down, and minimising going on. If we want resilient services, and resilient societies we aren’t going to get there by “efficiently” going for the least, the cheapest, the quickest and the meanest.

Here’s what Nature does –

It goes for more……

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These two images were taken within seconds of each other. Both are a picture of the full moon through the branches of a tree.

But they look very different don’t they?

In the first one, the tree is to the fore. We notice the pattern of twigs, buds and branches, with the full moon as a white, circular background. If you look carefully, you can even see different colours, some reddish, some bluish, in the tree….although I’m still not sure where those colours came from!

In the second one, I’ve allowed the light of the moon to dominate, whiting out the tree in front of it….almost completely, but what this has done is reveal the parts of the tree lit by the moon, but just outside of the intense white light of the moon itself. This does two things…..it creates a sense of a swirling circle of branches around the moon, with an opening in the tree which just happens to be moon-shaped. This is an illusion – there is no moon-shaped gap in the tree.

I love both of these images, and don’t actually have a preference, but I realise that just by altering the exposure setting in the camera, I alter the entire frame of the shot….and that the two different frames give very different experiences of reality.

That’s what frames do. They shape our experience of reality. The frames we use all the time are fashioned out of our beliefs, values, habits of thoughts, and established attitudes. They aren’t easy to change. They aren’t even that easy to see. But I think it’s important to try to become aware of them, given how powerfully they shape our perception of reality.

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Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Le Petit Prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I often notice, and photograph heart shapes, but in this particular photo what I like best is that the heart is in a path.

I like that because I think this is the most fundamental value for me. It’s not a simple value….this heart-focused one….but its complexity adds to it, rather than diluting it.

The heart is a symbol of love for us. If I want to live the best life I can live, I believe it has to be a life of love. Love in all its forms. Love in the form of care and compassion. Love in the form of passion and desire. Love in the form of bonds and relationships. Maybe we don’t speak much about these forms of love these days, but it’s always something I think we can do with more of.

The heart is also a symbol of the soul. “Heart felt”, “heart warming”, “good hearted”, “heart to heart” are all phrases which suggest authenticity and depth. It is the antithesis of the superficial and careless. It nurtures. It supports. It nourishes.

The heart is an important part of the body for processing emotions. We now know there is a neural network, of the kind of cells we used to thought you found only in the brain, around the heart. What does that network do? It seems to be involved in the generation and management of emotions.

The heart also focuses us on qualities rather than quantities. What we see, what we feel, what we know, with the heart can’t be examined under a microscope, weighed, measured or have a monetary value attached to it.

A path of the heart is a path of love, emotion and quality.

What is essential is invisible – and can only be seen with the heart.

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Human beings are very, very social creatures. By that, I mean we connect with others, cast our thoughts and imaginings into whatever we are paying attention to, and by creating these bonds, these links, these resonances with “others” we change ourselves.

We’ve known this in biology for a few years now but it’s still a concept which is developing. We continue to isolate the individual from their environment and their relationships when we study them. But that is never going to be a successful strategy. If we really want to understand someone we must, at very least, consider their social environment. Why?

Because we become what we do, and we do what we notice others doing. Look at this photo. Did this phenomenon start in Paris? This “love locks” idea of fastening a padlock to a bridge? Maybe, but you can find the same phenomenon around the world now. However, just looking at this example in Paris – it’s hard to see any spaces left to fix another padlock…..SO many padlocks have been attached! I wonder who fixed the very first one?

Of course, there’s a “meta” level in this photo, because I didn’t just photograph the locks, I photographed this guy taking a photo of the locks. I, sort of, did what he was doing…..which makes me wonder now if anyone was taking a photo of me taking a photo of this guy photographing the locks…..

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Tiktok thrive on this basic human characteristic…..we seem compelled to copy, to mimic, to repeat and to share what we witness. How quickly has “taking the knee” spread around the world in recent weeks? And why now? It’s not that this gesture appeared for the first time this year…..but this year, it’s caught on and spread like wildfire.

As I understand it the field of economics hasn’t caught up with this insight yet. The currently dominant “neoclassical” or “neoliberal” model seems to think of every human being as an individual, living autonomously, independently making their own choices in complete separate isolation from everyone else. Well, human beings are not like that. Happily there are newer schools of economic thought which are based on the understanding that human beings are such social creatures…..that it’s a mistake to assume we are all independent free agents making uninfluenced personal choices.

When I started out on these daily posts at the beginning of the lockdown period here in France back in mid March, I mentioned the fact that we are all influencers. Whatever we do influences other people. And that’s why I decided to share these little pieces of wonder, amazement, delight, beauty and understanding……to, hopefully set off all those fabulous phenomena in other people wherever they live……to hopefully increase the wonder, amazement, delight, beauty and understanding in YOUR life, as well as in mine.

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Just below the long bridge from the mainland to Ile d’Oleron, at low tide, you can see lots of people out gathering seafood, digging up the shells from the mud. I like this photo I took of them one day. I like the blue colour of the scene and the way people are scattered across the beach. I imagine they almost look like notes on a musical stave.

There’s a growing understanding of human beings, human behaviour and character which comes from taking an evolutionary approach. I think that sometimes it’s a bit overdone, but there are significant insights to be gained by taking this perspective.

For example, one way to understand the brain is to use the “triune” model – the idea that you can see three, distinct, regions or parts – the brain stem, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. Taking an evolutionary perspective we can see that the vital life-sustaining functions of the brain stem are shared with many creatures much further back along the evolutionary tree than human beings. Then we can see the functions of social connection and the emotions which seem to be the domain of the limbic system….functions shared with other mammals. Finally, the cognitive functions of the cerebral cortex, and the development of the frontal regions in particular, are shared with higher primates. This model can help you to get a handle on brain function but it falls down when you take a too reductionist approach to it…..a common problem with a lot of neuroscience which, at worst, degenerates into a kind of phrenology. The brain is a much more complex, massively interconnected, distributed network. It can’t be so easily divided into three separate parts.

Psychologists often explain to people about the alarm function of the amygdala and how it developed to keep us safe as hunters and gatherers but that now that we live in urban environments, pretty free of daily predators, those ancient circuits have a tendency to alert us to imaginary existential threats, rather than real ones.

Last year I read “The Emotional Mind. The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition” by Stephen Asma and Rami Gabriel which brilliantly places emotions in a central role in human behaviour by tracing the evolutionary path of affect. It wasn’t an easy read, and I was glad I’d read so much about neuroscience and evolutionary psychology before I came across it, but it really has helped me understand the emotions as “adaptive strategies”…..something I’ve explored in my book, “And not or”

As I was looking through my photo library I found this photo quite close to the one I’ve shared at the beginning of this post –

See any similarities?

Ha! Sometimes I think it helps to remind ourselves that we humans are part of Nature, not apart from Nature. We have a lot in common with all other forms of Life as we mutually strive to survive and thrive.

If remembering our hunter gatherer origins helps us to remember that, then it’s a good thing!

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I’m fascinated by carved objects on buildings. Often they are above a door or a window. Other times they are under a roof overhang, or somewhere in a garden or building. Certain buildings, like churches, are often highly embellished with these works of art. This owl is on a church wall. I know most of the carvings on churches relate to saints and important people in the Christian faith, but many of them are really not so directly related (think of all the gargoyles!). Who chose them, and why?

When I’ve traveled around Japan I’ve seen lots and lots of statues and statuettes….particularly buddhas.

However, it’s not at all uncommon to find figures like this for sale in Garden Centres here in France and I’ve noticed them a lot in French people’s gardens and houses.

There’s also quite a controversy raging just now about statues, with calls for the removal of statues of famous people whose actions and values communities no longer wish to celebrate (although maybe they were never celebrated, despite standing there for decades).

All this got me thinking about the symbolic power of objects. I wonder if you have any in your house? Or your garden? I wonder which ones you notice in your Public spaces?

Maybe we should assume that they are intended to exert some influence over us. For example, I think many people with the buddha statues often see them as objects to help them to remain calm. One of the first phrases I encountered here, in the Charente, was “Soyons zen” – “Let’s be “zen” – or calm”.

I have quite a lot of owls in my house. I feel an affinity with them and I think they help me access reflection, contemplation and wisdom.

A common “device” over doorways is a heart.

I can certainly see the point of that! In fact, I think I’d quite like having a house where there was a heart over the doorway. Maybe it would help everyone who entered to remember the importance of “seeing with the heart”.

There’s a really interesting mythical one in this part of France (and I believe elsewhere in Europe too) – Melusine.

Half woman, half serpent (or dragon), with wings, there are a number of variations of the Melusine myth. Here’s a passage from wikipedia about her

One tale says Melusine herself was the daughter of the fairy Pressyne and king Elinas of Albany (now known as Scotland). Melusine’s mother leaves her husband, taking her daughters to the isle of Avalon after he breaks an oath never to look in at her and her daughter in their bath. The same pattern appears in stories where Melusine marries a nobleman only after he makes an oath to give her privacy in her bath; each time, she leaves the nobleman after he breaks that oath. Shapeshifting and flight on wings away from oath-breaking husbands also figure in stories about Melusine.

I wonder what influence her presence has on the people who live with her likeness on their walls?

One of the things which makes we human beings so unique is how we handle symbols and metaphors. We don’t just see objects as “things”. We attach value and meaning to them. They provoke emotions in us. They provoke our memories, stimulate our imaginations.

The objects to which we attach symbolic value, either individually, or as part of a culture, or society, have an influence on us. We often choose them exactly for that reason.

What symbolic objects are there around you in your daily life? And are you aware of the influence they have upon you?

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The river Charente which flows through this region has a reputation for being calm and steady. At least, here in Cognac, and in this photo I took in nearby Jarnac, it pretty much always seems to be flowing with no fuss. It’s a total contrast to the tumbling, rushing, foaming waters falling down the rocky hillsides in Scotland, although, I must confess, the River Forth which meandered around Stirling where I was born, was also pretty smooth….it’s just that it seemed to swell and overflow frequently, which I haven’t seen happen in the Charente.

Local people claim the easy, relaxed attitude of the river influences their state of mind, and their behaviours. I’ve lived here for coming up on six years now and it isn’t stress free, but the values of ease and taking your time are really prominent here. Hey, it’s no surprise that the symbol of the Charente is a snail! And that’s not because they are a local delicacy – they aren’t!

On the particular day when I took this photo the water was astonishingly green. That was pretty unusual. I was walking along a riverside path shaded by trees and I came across this box which someone had placed here as a seat. I was struck by just how attractive this spot was for taking a pause, slowing down, and savouring the day.

As I look at this photo again now I am yet again astonished by the green-ness of it! Isn’t it lush? The overhanging tree, the river itself, and the far wooded riverbank are all completely different shades of green. Wonderful!

I don’t know about you but I definitely associate green with Life. This image seems full of Life to me. I’d be hard put to decide what colour is my favourite colour because I adore the blues in the sky and the sea, and I love the reds, yellows and goldens of autumn, but green, in particular seems to be the colour of Life for me.

I suppose when I stop to think about it, its the chlorophyll in the plants which gives us most of the green around us, and without that chlorophyll, there would be no life….at least, not as we know it.

I believe there is a power in Nature. A power of healing. A power of presence. A power of Life. And this green image exudes those powers. Surely we humans need to live amongst green spaces?

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This is one of my all time favourite photos. I took it while having breakfast at a little cabin at the top of the hill on the edge of Biarritz. I realise that the concrete fence is not bonny! But that doesn’t take anything away from the picture for me. The rich, deep hues of blue in the sea, sky and even distant mountain are just gorgeous and I like the fluffy summer style of clouds floating by.

Hey, you might be saying, you’re going on about the fence, the sea, the sky, the mountain, even the clouds, but isn’t this a photo of a coffee cup?

Well, yes. You could say that. But, then you know my tendency to explore the contexts, the connections and the environment….how I am drawn to the “whole”. But, yes, it is a photo of an expresso, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Even though these short coffees in Europe are called “expressos” they don’t necessarily imply a brief, speedy period of time. I noticed that when I first stopped for a coffee in Italy that the cafe had tall tables and no chairs. That was a surprise. Maybe that’s when I thought that an “expresso” wasn’t just fast to make, it was fast to drink. But that was a misunderstanding. When I went for breakfast with a group of Italian friends, they stood around the tables chatting, drinking their coffees, eating pastries or biscuits, and there was absolutely no sense of urgency or hurry.

Coffee time is a pause.

It’s often an in-between time….between waking up and engaging with the tasks of the day, for example. When I worked in Glasgow, I lived in Stirling, and traveled in the train for about an hour each way each day. I’d stop and enjoy a coffee once I arrived in Glasgow and before I caught my second train to the hospital, and, often, I’d stop and enjoy another one on the return journey. Those were times of pausing. Of stepping off the busy flow and slowing down to reflect, to read, to ponder. Coffee times were also times of sharing, of enjoying the company and chat. Not all coffee times are social times, but many of them are, and that’s important.

There’s a term in buddhism – “bardo” – it means a space. For example, there is a bardo between each in breath and each out breath, and another between each out breath and each in breath. There is even a bardo between each thought, but good luck catching any of those! I think a pause is a kind of bardo. A life bardo, breaking up a busy day, and helping us to re-centre, to re-focus, to re-connect and to re-store.

I was reading in an article in “Philosophie” magazine this morning. It was about rituals and one philosopher described his coffee ritual. He said he wakes up, drags his heavy feet and thick head through to the kitchen, pops a “dosette” into the coffee machine, presses the on button, and listens to the familiar sounds of the machine. That first coffee begins to re-connect his disconnected brain cells, but it also makes him cough. He has a second coffee, which settles his cough, then, the third coffee, he says, is “for pleasure”. Then he is ready to get on with the rest of the day. Wow! I think if I started every day with THREE expressos I’d FLY through the day!!

We all have our own rituals, our own habits, our own routines. This little coffee cup resting on the fence reminds me of that. It’s good to pause now and again, and in that bardo to take stock, to reflect, and to become aware of rituals, habits and routines. What are they, and what part do they play in my life?

How about you?

What comes to mind when you think of a pause, a bardo or a ritual?

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In most countries the response to the Coronavirus pandemic has been to enact a lockdown. In France, it’s called “Confinement”. The same word used in English generally refers to imprisonment, but in Obstetrics it has another meaning related to the time between labour commencing and the baby arriving. Both of those situations come with quite a degree of stress!

Many people have found the restrictions tough but as long as they were in place then a kind of predictability began to emerge. In fact, each day could seem so similar to the previous day that sometimes it could be hard to work out exactly which day of the week it was. I’ve no doubt these lockdowns have produced their own particular stresses.

However, pretty much everywhere, the lockdown is ending (in France we have moved into “De-confinement”). The restrictions are being lifted in varied ways at different speeds. Because I live in France and would like to visit family in Scotland, I have to keep up with three sets of rules – those in France, those in the UK, and those specific to Scotland. Week by week that’s getting harder and more confusing. This period of lockdown easing has, in turn, its own, particular stresses. Not least because the rules keep changing now.

In addition to the stresses induced by trying to factor in different regulations in order to make future plans, I’m hearing an increasing number of people say that although they are now allowed to leave their home, they are too afraid to do so. On top of that, when you do venture out, what with all the perspex panels, instruction signs, brightly taped lines on the ground to stand behind or to follow, wearing masks, standing in long spaced-out queues (I don’t mean spaced-out in a drugged way!), and trying to maintain distance from everyone else…..well, it sure doesn’t feel like it used to do. It all takes some of the pleasure away. It all produces a sense of un-ease.

So, I thought today might be a good day to share a calming image. I’ve seen people sharing calming images on social media but I must say I don’t often find them very calming. I guess we all find different scenes calming. However, here’s one that works for me.

Take a wee while to yourself and gaze at this scene. Look at the wide and extensive calm water, stretching to every edge of the scene and beyond. See the red guide markers on the left, subtly guiding any boats to or from the shore. Look into the distance and see the long flat bridge, connecting the mainland on the left, to an island on the right (take that from me, you can’t see that you are standing on an island looking out at the sea from here) . Then notice the colours, the deep blue of the sky at the top of the scene fading into the pink from the last light of the sun which has just this moment set below the horizon. See the light blues in the sky just above the band of pink, and the similar light blues in the sea just in front of the bridge, and notice how the blues become darker and richer as the water reaches the shore just in front of you.

I find this scene wonderfully calming and peaceful. I hope you do too.

Do you have any photos on your phone, your pad, or your computer, which you can turn to, to absorb your attention in the beauty of this world we live in?

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Life is tangled.

Every one of us is a multitude. Check out Bob Dylan’s new release “I contain multitudes” for a very recent expression of this idea. In fact, as he sings it, maybe we are multitudes, plural.

The Scottish psychologist, Miller Mair, coined the term “community of selves” back in the 1970s. It remains a powerful metaphor for the complexity of an individual personality. That idea made a lot of sense to me, and helped me to understand not only my patients but also myself. We all have that experience of at very least tapping into different strands of our lives when we act within our different roles – parent, child, friend, neighbour, employee, professional, artist, consumer etc etc. We know all those roles are just a part of who we are but it can be very hard to untangle them, to see how they inter-connect.

The French philosopher, Deleuze, wrote about “multiplicities” as a way of understanding the complex universe, and described any particular instance as a “singularity of multiplicities”. I liked that idea the moment I read it. I happened upon his writings at the same time that I was exploring the new “complexity science”, and in particular the concept of the “complex adaptive system“, which fundamentally changed how I saw our lives and our world.

I once spoke to a “Chef de Service” at a Parisian Homeopathic Hospital and he described to me that he saw each patient as like a diamond, with multiple facets shining, each one different, but together all part of the same individual. He saw his therapeutic strategy as being based on addressing several of the most prominent of a patient’s “facets”. A rather poetic way to think of the same underlying issue.

What is the underlying issue?

Life is messy.

On the “inside” and the “outside”. I put those words in quote marks because I’m pretty sure that frequently there is no clear boundary between the two. I think wherever we look we can find multiple threads to follow. We can identify particular paths, storylines, themes, chains of cause and effect, which run through a lifetime.

And, here’s the important point, brought back to the front of my mind by this photo today, all those paths, storylines, threads or whatever, are entangled. They are connected. They are inextricably interconnected, astonishingly woven together to create a unique, beautiful tapestry of a single life.

I’m not a fan of labelling a patient with several different concurrent diagnoses then sending them off to separate specialists to have each disease treated as if it exists in isolation. In Medicine this is referred to as “silo-ing“, a strange word which means separating out someone’s problems into separate baskets, boxes, or “silos”, then treating each one separately. Most of the evidence used in “Evidence Based Medicine” comes from trials where patients have been selected on the basis that they have only the single disease which is under study, and that they are receiving only the single drug which is being trialled. But the real world isn’t much like that. Much more common is the finding that an individual patient will have several different diagnoses active at the same time and that they will already be on a cocktail of drugs. Medicine is more messy than some people would have you believe.

So what? Is this a counsel of despair? Am I saying life is too complex and entangled to make any sense of it? No. Absolutely not.

What I find is that this complex entangled life is beautiful. That it manifests in the most unique, most varied, most astonishing individual narratives you could imagine.

What I find is that when you look for the connections between the parts, you get insights and understanding which you’d miss if you kept your attention only on single parts.

What I find is that it’s best to use your whole brain, not just half of it, as Iain McGilchrist, author of “The Master and His Emissary“, would say. It’s not enough to separate out the threads and elements and study them. You have to weave them back together to see the contexts, the contingencies and the connections. In other words, you need both your left hemisphere ability to see the threads, and your right hemisphere ability to weave them together into a whole.

What I find is that when you look at life this way, then you encounter the “émerveillement du quotidien” – that you find yourself wondering and marvelling every single day. You find diversity and uniqueness. You find infinite trails of connections. You find that curiosity is constantly stimulated and never ends. You find that you are humbled by how little you actually know. You find that you doubt predictions and develop a distaste for judging people.

You find that Life is astonishingly, endlessly, fascinating.

What a delight!

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