Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

Walking through the town of Rochefort the other day I chanced across this man sitting on a park bench in amongst the trees with his smartphone attached to his laptop. He was wearing a sunhat suggesting he wasn’t here entirely by chance (there’s some evidence of forethought) and I wondered if this was a favourite spot of his. I also immediately thought “What a great place to choose to work”. I know we talk about flexible workspaces these days, so this got me wondering “what’s the best place to work?”

Of course the answer depends on the questions of what work you need to do, but I just wonder how aware you are of how the environment you are working in affects the work itself.

Here’s a photo I took from a high rise hotel in Tokyo –

Well, obviously this is a different kind of “outside working” – if your job is to clean windows, you’re not going to be short of work here! But I got to thinking of the people on the other side of the glass. In a big city like Tokyo you see thousands and thousands of office windows. When you look at night time you can see white shirted people sitting at row upon row of desks. That’s quite a work environment. I wonder how often the office workers look out the window and if they do, do they see the sky above, the thousands of windows opposite, reflecting their own windows, or the tiny cars and people rushing by on the roads way, way down below. Do window cleaners look down? Ha! I guess not everyone could do that particular job.

“Working outside” reminded me of what I think was a student in Aix en Provence one evening.

I’m not sure if this was his job, if he was studying, or if he was performing. I only noticed him because I heard his voice. He was reading his book out loud and I had to look up to find the source of the voice. When I was a medical student in Edinburgh my most favourite place to study was the Botanic Gardens. But I didn’t read the textbooks out loud!

One more image came to mind while I was on this subject. Years ago we had a flat in a chateau just outside Aix en Provence and one week the proprietor was having roofing work done. One thing you quickly become aware of is that in France everyone stops for a lunch break. Arriving back from town one lunch time I found one of the workers having a post-prandial nap.

Now, I’ve always claimed that sleeping is one of my core skills. I think all those nights on call both in hospitals and in General Practice gave the opportunity to develop the skill of falling asleep quickly and waking up quickly. I, too, have fallen asleep in some surprising places, but never inside a wheelbarrow!

Well, back to my original question –

Where do YOU find you do your best work?

Do you have any particularly favourite places or environments?



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I’ve noticed there is a phase of consciousness between sleep and waking up, a kind of half-asleep/not-quite-awake phase. It’s different from being asleep and it’s different from being awake. Maybe it’s a time of surfacing which sways between those two distinct states. Whatever it is the other morning, in that phase, I became aware of a number of different things “coming to my mind”….an image, a memory, an idea, a bit of a conversation, some things on a list to remember to do….it was really quite a mixture. At about the same moment I became aware of the feeling that I wasn’t in control of any of this. Whatever images, words, thoughts, ideas, memories there were, it was if they just appeared, or as if they were flowing by and I was just noticing them.

It got me to wondering where the contents of the mind come from, how many there are, and how, probably, the ones we notice are just the tips of an iceberg.

I remembered a number of occasions when I’ve stood on a bridge (like the one in the photo above) and looked down at the water as it flows towards, beneath or away from me.

This experience of noticing the contents of the mind flowing past reminded me of those times.

Sometimes what would catch my attention from the bridge would be movement. Like the flow of the water over the rocks, or leaves on the trees in the banks of the river blowing in the wind, or birds darting down to catch an insect or even a fish, or even a fish swimming in the water. Movement catches our attention. Change catches our attention. Something appears….like a branch or some leaves tumbling over the rocks to be carried away by the river. We notice that.

Sometimes my attention would be broad rather than narrow. I wouldn’t zoom in on any particular element but just gaze upstream and take in the whole scene. Seeing the general colours, the shapes of the rocks and the falling water, the patches of turbulent white and the still, dark pools…all at once.

Meditation is a bit like that. You sit and watch to see what turns up, then, after just noticing it, you choose not to interact with it, or hold on to it, but just notice it floating on by. Images pop up and then disappear, a thought half forms and then unravels, a memory emerges and then fades……

And it’s not always rushing and tumbling either. Sometimes what comes to the fore does so quite slowly and gently….

I thought of a number of bridges I’d stood on. The ones over the waterfalls, the ones of the gently flowing rivers, the ones over the big city rivers, the ones over little ponds in Japanese gardens. Each one was a vantage point. Each one allowed me to take a few minutes to stand and gaze and notice and to turn my attention towards something, then let my focus drift over to something else. Never getting stuck, never staying the same, always bringing something different, something new…….

It’s a nice metaphor for the interaction between the conscious and unconscious regions of our minds.

But, wait. I’ve got more big questions now.

Where is the bridge?

Who is the me, the observer, who is standing there watching the flow of mental content?

Where is the mental content coming from and where is it going to?

Strange how hard it is to pin down this idea of the “self”. Two things pop into my mind right now…….Mary Midgley, the philosopher, who tackles the idea that the self doesn’t exist at all…it’s an illusion….in her book, “Are you an illusion?”, where she asks the question – if the self is an illusion, who is it who is having this illusion? And Dan Seigel, who in “Mindsight” and other books, defines the mind as “an embodied, inter-relational, process of regulation of energy and information flow”.

And something else pops up now…my training in TM. Sitting, repeating the mantra, noticing words, thoughts, ideas, images and memories bubbling up and just gently returning to the mantra, letting them all flow on by.

Well, one thing at least is pretty clear to me. The origins of all this mental content are multiple. Sometimes they are a response to an external stimulus, a sound, a light, noticing something. Sometimes they emerge from memory, from imagination, or from whatever area of the mind we use for gnawing away at things….problems, worries, things to do, things we want to say. But wherever they come from, I really don’t think we have much control over that flow. What we can do is to notice, to become aware. Then we can begin to choose where to direct our attention and decide how which ones we want to follow and which we want to let go off.


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Yesterday I posted about the leaves appearing on the mulberry tree in my garden.

The day after I looked at these unfurling little leaves unfurling from the swollen ends of the woody twigs I took another look. I noticed something strange about the leaves now. They had strange tufts of what looked a bit like green hair now. Then when I looked closer I realised that these new forms were the beginnings of the fruit.

These are mulberries, or, maybe its more accurate to say these are “becoming mulberries”.

Aren’t they the strangest looking creatures?

Over the coming days and weeks they will swell and change colour ripening as a dark, dark red, almost black fruit. The first year I lived here was the first time I’d seen them and I didn’t actually notice them until they were ripe. My initial impression was that they were little bugs on the tree but I quickly discovered that they were in fact fruit. The second year there were hardly any at all. But this year it looks as if almost every single leaf has its own fruit. I’ve never seen so many.

I know that this fruit doesn’t quite undergo the metamorphoses of butterflies whose life stages seem to belong to different creatures. But seeing this fruit at such an early stage makes me think of how we all change so much throughout our lives.

This is one of the reasons I have that byline at the top of my blog – becoming not being. Living creatures are so hard to pin down. They never stop changing, growing, and developing. And we can never understand anyone by just considering one small part of their life, one small timespace of their life.

We are all unique in so many ways. Seeing the unfolding emergence of an individual over the course of a whole life is one of the greatest, most exciting, gifts anyone could have. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to get to know and work with so many patients over the course of medical career.

How amazing Life is!


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Last November I was invited to address the Faculty of Homeopathy at their Congress in Belfast. I prepared a talk entitled “Images of Health. Pictures and stories” based around some of my own photographs and covering the key principles of health which guided me through my career as a doctor.

Here’s the video of that talk. I hope you enjoy it, find it interesting, or even inspiring. (by the way, if Google pops up any ads along the bottom of the video, just click the “x” box to make them go away 😉 )

I wrote a book to accompany this talk. It’s called “Escape to Reality” and I’ve published it (so far) only as a Kindle e-book. You can find it on Amazon.



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When I commuted to work in Glasgow I’d often squeeze my way through the hundreds of people spilling off the trains onto the platforms and make my way to one of the coffee outlets, joining a pretty fast moving queue to buy a coffee in a disposable cup with a plastic lid and sip it as I continued down the stairs to catch my second train. By the time I reached my workplace I’d be ready to drop the empty container into one of the bins on the platform, or, sometimes, I’d finish it as I walked up the path to hospital door and discard it in a bin at reception.

That’s one way to have a coffee. Here’s another.

In France, you choose a seat at one of the tables in front of the cafe. You can sit at one of the sunny ones, or go for a bit of shade. Settle yourself down and look around. You’ll likely have time to take in the blue sky, the architecture of the old buildings around you and start to notice the passers-by. Or you might get out the book you’re reading, the morning paper you just bought, or the notebook or diary you write in.

There’s an interval between sitting down at one of the tables and someone coming to take your order. I don’t know what determines the length of that interval but at first it felt a lot longer than I was used to. Is it longer than the time taken to get to the front of the queue in Queen Street Station? I don’t know, but when I first experienced this different coffee experience I’d start to feel impatient or irritated. I could even convince myself I was being ignored. But you know what? Those feelings have melted away. I don’t feel that any more. I’ve adjusted, or adapted. Now I sit and enjoy the moments until someone takes my order.

“Un café” – in France, “a coffee” is an expresso. You can make other choices, but the default is an expresso.

There’s another interval until the coffee arrives, easily filled by chatting to your partner, your friends, or your colleagues, by reading your book or newspaper, or jotting down your ideas or lists in your notebook.

Look at this little coffee. Look at the little porcelain cup. I love the feel of it between my fingers. I love the weight of it in my hand. Look at this little saucer, with its dimple in the middle comfortably waiting to receive the cup so that they sit perfectly together. Look at the blue writing, “Caffe Diemme”. Caffe Diemme is the name of a coffee company. The French love to play with words. You can’t see that without hearing “Carpe diem” (“seize the day”) in you head, can you?

The taste is intense and express. A couple of sips and it’s gone. Look around. There’s a young woman reading a novel. There’s a couple talking intimately, delighting in each other’s company. There’s the business man with his laptop. There’s an old man taking in the ebb and flow of people.

You leave your coins on the table or on the little plastic tray  with the bill folded onto it, which the waiter left with the coffee.

You get up, gather your belongings, and continue off into your day.

All this can take only a few minutes…..or several. You choose. Nobody is going to hurry you.

I’m not a great fan of seizing or grabbing, but I do believe life is better when you consciously savour it.

Savour the day.

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Oh, I wish I could share the scent of these astonishing flowers with you. How the sense of smell conjures up such vivid memories and experiences. Hyacinths are the only flowers which provoke my mind to recall poetry. I’m not saying I don’t think of lines from poems in other circumstances. It’s just that hyacinths, specifically, start a passage of poetry in my mind every single time….in much the same way as a few notes of music will transport me back to a particular time and place.

Here’s what I hear in my head when I smell the hyacinths –

‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

“They called me the hyacinth girl.’

_ Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living not dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Do you know that poem?

I’ve never seen her, the hyacinth girl, her arms full and her hair wet, but I swear I have. Yet I couldn’t describe her to you. I’ve never seen her physically…and that’s what’s most interesting about this for me. I have a deep knowledge of seeing her, but I’ve never seen her. I have the feeling of the experience of seeing her, but I’ve never seen her.

But I have seen the hyacinths….and every time, they still my soul and I’m “looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

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Here’s an example of the type of photograph I enjoy so much. At first glance it’s pleasing. It delights me. I can sit and gaze at it for ages, enjoying its beauty. But it stimulates my thoughts too.

I see this and I think about ways of engaging with the world. Iain McGilchrist shows us in his Master and His Emissary that our two cerebral hemispheres allow us to simultaneously use two different types of focus….narrow and broad.

The left hemisphere separates out whatever we are looking at from the contexts in which it exists. It allows us to set a kind of frame around what we are looking at, to distinguish it from the whole. That lets us label it, put it into a category, and so grasp it. Literally. Get a handle on it so we can manipulate it. It’s a narrow focus, one which drills down to separate out and analyse aspects or components.

The right hemisphere focuses on the connections rather than the parts. It lets us see the broad view, the over view. It helps us to see whatever we are looking at in the fullness of its context. We don’t see the separate parts, we see the connectedness of everything. In the terms of classical philosophy, it helps us to take the “view from on high”.

The view from on high lets us do something else too….it allows us to stand apart from whatever we are looking at. It lets us put a little distance there…a distance in space, and/or a distance in time…a pause, or a moment to reflect and consider.

Some people argue this is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of human beings, this ability to create a distance which allows us to choose responses rather than simply react in programmed or patterned automatic ways. But I think it is equally characteristic of human beings that we have this huge cerebral cortex divided into two distinctly different hemispheres allowing us to focus on the world in two such distinctly different ways.

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