Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

I love to photograph light….sunbeams, dawn, sunsets, moonlight, you name it. But I am especially drawn to scenes where there is a lot of contrast. I just love an image like this with the dark land before me, the grey clouds above, the grey sea below, and then, there on the horizon, at the far edge of the scene, is a display of sunbeams stretching down to the make the sea shine, and turn the grey clouds, blue.

Maybe it’s the yin and yang thing that attracts me. That’s been my favourite symbol for most of my life, and I have worn a rose gold/yellow gold version of it around my neck for decades. I love that statement of reality which isn’t just that there are always opposites, but that neither can exist without the other. I also love what that symbol says about the constancy of change.

Or maybe we are all drawn to images of sunlight on far horizons. Maybe they spark our imaginings and our longings for what might lie ahead, and give us hope as we journey towards it.

What do you think?

Are you also drawn to both the light….and the dark?

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This little ice crystal mesmerises me. It’s beautiful. Look at the intricate branching structure of each little bristle of ice. It’s almost like a tiny tree, or, at least a snowy leaf. Look at the way it catches the sunlight and sparkles like a jewel. But maybe the most astonishing thing about it is how it is attached to the iron bar from which it is hanging. Can you see? There is a single icy spike holding the entire structure onto the metal. In an instant you can see that this little piece of frozen water is not only incredibly strong, but that the entire crystal has grown from that single point. Isn’t that amazing?

What I love about something like this is that no matter how much you describe water and its behaviour in cold temperatures, the singular, the actual, the specific, particular ice crystal you encounter takes you beyond the limits of your expectations.

I find that everywhere in life, but, especially so in the practice of Medicine. No matter how much general knowledge I had of diseases, their origins, their life histories, and their likely consequences, I never had enough to know precisely what this individual patient today was experiencing, nor how this disease had arisen in their particular life, nor how their illness would progress. On top of that, no matter how much general knowledge I had of therapeutics, I could not predict, with 100% accuracy, what this individual patient would experience as a result of what I was going to prescribe today.

You might say that sounds like a lot of uncertainty, and I guess it is. A GP’s job, after all, has been described as dependent on his or her ability to cope with, and manage, uncertainty. But there was nothing to despair in there. It was a simple recognition that we have to be humble, because there is always more we don’t know, than there is that we know.

More than that…..it meant, and continues to mean, that the individual can never be encountered, understood and helped as a mere example of the recorded experience of groups. That’s another way of saying that statistics are never sufficient to replace stories. Only this unique, singular human being can tell you what they experiencing, what has happened in their life, what sense they have made of it, and only this unique, singular human being can tell you what effect your treatment has had.

The singular can never be replaced by the averages or “norms”.

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When was the last time you used one of these? Actually, if you don’t live in the UK and you’re half my age (I’m in my 60s), then chances are, you’ve never used one of these. I can’t remember the last time I saw a public phone in France, but there must have been some once upon a time. What were public, shared phones like in your country? Do they still exist?

This stimulates my thoughts on how we communicate. When I was a GP in Edinburgh, my partner, Sandy, and I were one of the first Practices to use mobile phones on call. We had a huge brick sized Motorola thing, and there was only one telecoms mast in Edinburgh so it only worked on one side of Arthurs Seat! How things changed…and how fast!

This pandemic has had an impact on how we communicate too….I don’t just mean what technologies we use, but who we communicate with and when. A lot of communication is now “asynchronous” – which you could have said was the case before the telephone was invented. But I don’t think that text-based or messenger-based asynchronous technologies have brought about a revival in letter writing skills! Of course, we aren’t just using asynchronous technologies, there has also been a huge growth in our use of Zoom, FaceTime, Skype and other video-calling platforms. Then there are social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, which drive the growth of “one-to-many” communications, “public” communications over “one-to-one” and “private”. Obviously there are many many more, but what’s clear is that for most us, we don’t limit our communications to only one of these services. We are using combinations of them – messenger services, social media platforms, texts, email and video calls, and, hey, some of us still even use the telephone!

So, what do you think? With this vastly increased ease in our ability to communicate, are we communicating better?

Hmm…..I think I’ll take my time over that one.

The first thing that springs to mind is how many people I have reconnected with in the last twelve months. Without this expansion of services, combined with the extended, forced, physical distancing and isolation, then I don’t think that would have happened. But the second thing that springs to mind is the growth of “echo chambers” which feed conspiracy theories, fake news and social division. I suppose the answer to my question depends on how you define “better”. And isn’t that always the case? Isn’t life complex and interconnected? Nuanced and diverse?

Is anything ever reducible to a single label? Like “better” or “worse”? I don’t think so.

However, I still think it’s interesting to spend a little time reflecting on the following three questions –

  • Who do I communicate with?
  • How do I communicate with others? (I mean technologies)
  • and, finally, Does my communication build bridges?

I think that’s the important thing after all – how we use these technologies will always be determined by our intentions – and, hold me to account here, I want all my communications to be open, tolerant, kind, compassionate and understanding. When they aren’t, I want to address that, and improve.

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It isn’t difficult to be utterly entranced by this world. Near the town of Roussillon, in the South of France, there is an ochre trail you can follow through a forest. Two things have made this place as amazing as it is…first, and foremost, the Earth herself, which has created the most incredibly beautiful ochre rocks….pink, rose, yellow, orange, and many shades in-between. They are really, really gorgeous. Secondly, human beings who have mined this rock in the past, and have since, allowed, encouraged, and nurtured the forest to grow up around the rocks. So you look at a site like this and you see that interplay of human and non-human forces.

One of the most stunning features of the ochre is how often the surfaces look like faces. As best I know, these are not art works. Nobody deliberately carved the rocks to look like this – although it would be none the less beautiful if they had. No, it seems that we see the faces because of that part of the human brain which has evolved a special skill in seeing and recognising faces. Yes, there really is such a part of the brain! We use it to recognise other humans, but it works all the time, showing us what appear to be faces in rocks, clouds, trees….you name it.

I love that all of this – the geological creativity of the Earth, the living world of trees, and the evolution of the human brain, all combine to make a place like this feel utterly magical. This is the kind of “enchantment” I think we humans long for. This is the kind of “spiritual longing” which only the Earth can satisfy.

For me, these images will always be “The Ochre Gods of the Forest”. Aren’t they fabulous?

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When you look closely at a water droplet you can see that it acts as a kind of lens. You can see the world around the drop reflected in the water. But it’s upside down. Just like you’d see inside the old kind of camera which cast the image of whatever the lens was paying attention to, onto the film at the back, and/or, onto the viewfinder.

The first camera I ever had was a box camera. You held the camera at waist height, flipped up the lid and looked at the image lying on the horizontal glass plate underneath. I think it used a prism to flip the image around so that you could see it “the right way up” in the viewfinder. We don’t even think about that with our modern digital cameras which process the image before we even get to see it.

I think it makes you stop and think when you see an upside down image like this. It literally makes you look at the world differently. And we need to do that sometimes to actually see and understand what is around us. For most of our days we sail along not really noticing most of what our senses pick up. In some sense we only notice what we pay attention to, and we only pay attention to what we notice. This relationship between noticing and paying attention is curious, partly because we can make a choice and attach our attention to whatever we choose….we can choose to become more aware of a scent, a particular colour, a shape or a texture. In fact, it’s a pretty great way to live more in the present, isn’t it……to pay attention to what our senses are sensing?

But it can happen the other way around – our attention can be “caught”. Something which moves suddenly, something which changes, like a loud noise, or a change in temperature, a darkening or lightening of the room as clouds pass over the sun…… Or it can be caught by something “odd”, something “unfamiliar”, something “unexpected”.

I think these upside down images are a bit like that. We aren’t used to seeing the world upside down, so we notice it when it happens, and that noticing “grabs” our attention, and leads to a natural exploration.

There’s a Tarot card called “The Hanged Man”, which I think about when I see an upside down image in a lens like this. I’m no Tarot expert, but I think there’s something about that card which is about changing our perspective, about looking at the world differently, in order to understand it better.

We have to do that from time to time if we want to understand reality. We have to change our perspective, look from a different angle. Other people can be the trigger to doing that….but only if we encourage and are genuinely interested in other peoples’ views.

Getting stuck in social media echo chambers, or trapped in the manipulated information of advertisers and politicians happens all the time. That’s why it can be helpful, though not always comfortable, to try to understand the world view of people who don’t see things the same way we do. It’s not a question of who is right and who is wrong. It’s a question of reaching a fuller, deeper understanding of other people, and of the world.

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Yesterday I wrote about a road, and how we can be inspired to think forwards or backwards by that same road.

Today I want to share this photo taken in the North of Scotland. I’m pretty sure you’ll agree it’s beautiful. Beautiful, moody, atmospheric. The still silvery grey water of the loch, the dark, craggy islands, the far shore rising to a gentle peak with low cloud and disembodied spirits of mist obscuring our view of the mountain. The large, black, lumbering cloud, dominating the upper half of the image, and the bright, white clouds with a hint of pale, washed out blue sky above the mountain slopes but below the ragged edge of the rain cloud.

Dark earth, bright sky, glimpsed between two bodies of water….the loch and the heavy, black cloud.

You see all of that, don’t you?

I wonder what you noticed first? Whether it was the foreboding heavy weight of the black rain cloud, or the bright white, sunlit clouds over the pale blue sky?

And where did you go from there? Did you start with a sense of foreboding, only to end with a feeling of optimism? Start from an experience of dark times, softened by a hint of brighter times to come? Or did you start with the bright light between the dark mountain and the black cloud, only to feel it in danger of disappearing under the lumbering weight of the Death Star rain cloud?

Or have you finally ended up appreciating it all, delighting in the contrasts, the shades, the variety of forms and of light, of the interplay of water, earth and the fire of the sun, and the belief in the pure, clean, fresh, life-giving air which you can’t see, but which you know is all around?

Breathe deep. Breathe deep. And breathe deep again. Take a moment, then carry on.

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Many years ago I did a road trip to Skye, and as I travelled up through the Highlands, around the island for a few days, then back down to the Central Belt again, I was stunned again and again by the beauty of the country. There’s no doubt that Scotland is a beautiful land. It isn’t best known for blue skies, sunshine and beaches, but, actually, on the right day, all of that is there. However, it’s always seemed to me it’s easier to find the darker, moodier, and I might even say, richer, atmosphere in Scotland. On that particular road trip I think it rained every day, and I got some of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever taken.

This image captures so much that delights and inspires me. The first thing I notice is the bridge. It’s a traditional, old, stone, single arch bridge. There are dozens like it in the Highlands, and no two the same. I think it’s beautiful and I’m a big fan of bridges because I think they are the technology we humans invented to allow us to do two of the things closest to our natures – explore and connect.

We are insatiably curious creatures, we humans. Some of us more than other I’ll grant, but I still think the desire to explore and discover is as core to us as the Life Force. In fact, Jaak Paksepp, who is so important to an understanding the fairly new discipline of affective neuroscience – the neurological science of our emotions, identified seven core or “prototype” emotions, of which SEEKING is perhaps THE most basic and important. SEEKING is connected to the basic motivational arousal state of all forms of life, and we humans probably access it, and use it, more than any other other creatures on the planet.

Bridges speak to me of that SEEKING, that desire to discover what lies on the other bank of the river, what lies on the slopes of the opposite hillside.

They also inspire me to think of that equally strong drive which is central to our being – connecting. Iain McGilchrist, with his brilliant and detailed analysis of the human brain, shows us how the two halves of the cerebral hemisphere engage with the world in distinctly different ways. The right hemisphere is especially interested in making and exploring connections. Just stop to ponder for a moment – absolutely everything we encounter, everything we experience, everything we think, we connect to whatever else we know and imagine. It’s impossible for us to really consider anything at all as utterly and completely isolated from everything else. We are connection-driven creatures.

But there’s more than a bridge in this photo. There is a river too, which runs under the bridge, and this particular river has very stony banks. Stony banks with small shrubs and bushes growing in it. Rivers never stay the same. The water which flows down from the mountains doesn’t follow the exact same path every day. Some times the river will swell and all those stones will be hidden. Other times it will reduce to a trickling stream revealing vast stony banks. I love the river as a symbol of constant flow and constant change.

There are the mountains too. Tall peaks, so tall here, that the cloud base is hiding their higher regions. I love mountains. They inspire me to remember times I’ve climbed such hills in the past, struggling to get to the top, then finding myself utterly filled with delight at the views laid out before me once I get there (being careful not to go hill climbing on a day like that shown in this photo!) They inspire me too to think of the old philosophical practice of “the view from on high” – how helpful it is to stand back from the busy cluttered flow of the everyday, ascend to a height, and contemplate the bigger picture, change your perspective, and see how life changes as a result.

And then there are the clouds – clouds which hide tall mountains, clouds which dissolve into rain which then trickles down the hillsides to form the rivers which all run off to the sea again. Clouds which merge seemlessly with mists here – hiding trees, rocks and bushes, soaking them all as they pass on by. Mists which drift across the face of the glen like ghosts of clans from the distant past. Yes, I find that mists stimulate my imagination. They lead me to contemplate the invisible, and the traces of the past which still soak the present, the lives from the past which are still with us, carried by us in our genes, our memories and our stories.

Really, I can get a lot of enjoyment out of a scene like this. This is what I mean by “rich” experience, multi-layered, entangled, connected, inspiring……

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Whether you think of waves appearing and disappearing on the surface of the sea, or of the emergence and disappearance of beautiful forms within a cloud, you know that both the wave and the cloud formation are inextricably connected to either the sea, or the rest of the cloud. Neither exists apart from the environment in which they appear.

We humans are like that too, even if we’ve been pretending to ourselves for hundreds of years that we aren’t. Whether we take on board a religious or a scientific concept that we humans are apart from Nature, we are wrong. Nature isn’t a thing, and doesn’t exist outside of us. We cannot relate to Nature by “dominating it”, or “controlling it”. Partly because Nature is not an “it”, but more so because we are as much Nature as the cloud form is the cloud, as the wave is the sea.

We emerge within Nature, never leaving Nature, never living outside Nature or separate from Nature. Nature isn’t a part of the country to go and visit. But we can definitely understand that the “natural environment” is different from the “built environment” or the “urban environment” – not separate from, or detached from, but different.

There is an enormous amount of evidence that spending time in “natural environments” is good for us. A recent study of 20,000 people showed that two hours a week could be a threshold. Researchers found significant differences in mental and physical health of those who spent more than two hours a week in natural environments, from those who spent less than that. They also found that people who lived in streets with more trees in them seemed to need less prescriptions for antidepressants. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can just replace antidepressants with trees! There are many other factors affecting the environments which people live in. Still, the finding of the benefit of trees, persisted even when the researchers controlled for other social factors.

Of course, we are never really outside of “natural environments”, any more than we can ever be outside of Nature. It’s a matter of degree, isn’t it? We know when there is a lot of life around us – trees, flowers, shrubs, birds and other creatures. What these studies confirm are that we need to be aware of that connection with the rest of Life on this planet. That when we feel cut off from the living world, our health declines.

As we move forward through this pandemic we’re going to have to reconsider how we live, both as individuals and collectively. Some of that change might be best informed by a change of mindset – one which considers that we are “a part” of Nature, not “apart” from Nature.

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This is Loch Gary. When I stopped at the side of the road to take this photo many years ago, I was struck by how the shape of the loch so closely mimics the shape of the Scotland. It’s almost good enough to be a map!

If you do look at this as a map of Scotland, then one of the interesting little extra things is that the bridge you see could represent the connection between Edinburgh and Glasgow across the “Central Belt”.

I was born in Stirling, a town which is almost equidistant between Scotland’s two cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. I studied Medicine in Edinburgh, worked there for most of the first two decades of my career then changed to work in Glasgow for the second two decades. There’s a long, long rivalry between these two cities. Each has a very distinct culture, and each is home to remarkably different accents. Maybe because I came from Stirling, people in Edinburgh often guessed that I’d come from Glasgow, and people in Glasgow often guessed I’d come from Edinburgh. I never subscribed to the rivalry between the two cities, liking them both for their very different cultures.

Maybe all of that has contributed to my love of connections, of seeing, accepting and even relishing difference, and my distaste for rivalry and competition.

I wonder how much the geography of our lives affects our values and our beliefs?

What do you think? What comes up for you if you reflect on that?

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When I worked as a GP in Edinburgh, my partner and I had two Practice premises (“surgeries” as we called them in Scotland), one up near the university, and the other down at the river front in Portobello. A typical day involved doing some work in both places, as well as visiting half a dozen to a dozen patients in their own homes (something which seems to have all but disappeared from the work of a GP). The working days were, as you imagine, busy days. There were many ways to travel between the two surgeries but one of my most favourite ways was to drive through Holyrood Park following the narrow road which snaked around the base of Arthur’s Seat. In the grass, at the roadside, I’d often spot someone sitting on a park bench, maybe reading, maybe drinking from a flask, maybe just looking around, and I’d think “Oh how I would LOVE to be sitting on that park bench!” But there was never time to do just that.

I’ve often wondered how much my work, and the busy-ness of the ordinary day, contributed to my love of park benches! Whatever the reasons, I know I’ve always had an eye out for them, and have several photos of seats in different parts of the world. The one in this photo was taken over 15 years ago in the Southern French town of Carcassonne. I still find it utterly beautiful. It pulls me towards it. I have a longing to be sitting there. Clearly it’s not about the super-comfortable shape or form of the seat, it’s what it represents – a pause, a moment of stillness, a quiet time to “do nothing”, or to contemplate, breathe, become aware of the here and now.

What this sets off for me today is reflection on the importance of slowing down from time to time, and the importance of deliberately breaking up the endless cycles of habits. We need to stop, take a breath (or several, conscious, slow deep breaths would be better), and allow ourselves to experience some moments of stillness. We need that even now in the midst of this pandemic and the total disruption of our “normal” lives (will “normal” need to be redefined after this? Probably)

So, take a moment today and ask yourself – where are your favourite seats? Best to consider a seat you can actually sit on today! Where can you take a moment, still your breathing and your mind, and return your clammer of anxieties, worries and fears to the here and now, and just notice. Just become aware. Just for a few minutes at least.

If that sets off a recollection of favourite memories of seats where you have experienced the greatest moments of calm, tranquillity and peace, then, go with that. Allow yourself to recreate those experiences as vividly as you can. What did you see there in that moment? What did you hear? What did you feel with your body? What did you taste and/or smell? Allow yourself to re-create the feelings which that moment engendered. Allow yourself to live it again for a couple of minutes.

You know what that will do? Well, what it might do anyway? It will produce a distinct harmony of the rhythms of your heart and your brain. It will set off a chain of reactions in your body which enhance your immunity, reduce harmful inflammation, and increase your resilience. It’s called “coherence“. And it’s good for you!

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