Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Look at this amazing pattern left on the sand by the action of the water after the tide has gone out again at the beach.

When you look at this you know immediately that the sand has been shaped by the water, although, to be honest, I don’t understand how water manages to make such intricate patterns like this on the sand. Maybe somebody does!

There are other striking patterns on the wet sand at the beach, some clearly made by plant material, seaweed I expect, and some obviously from the imprints of shells, some little worm-shaped piles caused by burrowing creatures throwing up the sand behind them, and often many footprints of birds which have run across the beach.

What impresses me most about all these patterns is that they are the traces left by some activities which occurred a little while ago. They are the evidence of the past imprinted on the present. That reminds me of how we are shaped by the events and experiences of our lives. Our encounters with others change us. Our experiences don’t just create memories, they set up patterns of chemical, electrical and cellular response in our bodies.

We can become aware of some of that in bodily changes, from tightenings of muscles, to changes in heart rate and breathing, to sweating and trembling, and so on, usually before we are even aware that we reacting to something.

I spent much of my career working with patients who had chronic, long-standing illnesses, and we could often make some sense of what was going on by teasing out the threads and themes which ran through their stories over many years. It certainly wasn’t always the case, but sometimes the actual disease and its precise location in the body was clearly related to the body’s responses to events or experiences long forgotten.

It’s pretty clear to me that just as the movement of the water shapes the sand in the way you can see in this photo, so do our experiences and relationships shape us. Realising that makes me want to be more aware of my own actions and words. It makes me want to choose to spread constructive, supportive and creative waves in the world. After all, whatever we do, whatever we say or write, has effects far beyond the limits we could imagine.

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I reckon we pretty much expect trees to grow straight up, then branch a bit, then grow further, still straight up. But, actually, of course, this is seldom the case. Trees, even their main trunks often veer off this way and that, or bend in one direction, only to turn in a totally different one a few metres further on. I confess I don’t know what makes a tree take the twists and turns that it does.

Look at this one for example, not only has it swerved around an almost 90 degree angle but it seems to have entwined itself on the neighbouring tree. What do you think? These trees are lovers? They’ve entangled themselves in each other’s lives forever?

It looks that way to me.

So maybe some of the shape of this tree can be understood in relationship to the other tree. Now how often is that the case with we humans? Do we ever reveal our character in any other way than by responding to what we encounter and by acting in response to the others in our social world? Can you really understand anyone without understanding their place in a family, in a community, a society? Can you really understand anyone without seeing how they respond to others, without exploring the nature of their relationships? I don’t think so.

A belief in the uniqueness of every single human is at the core of my world view and my practice as a doctor. But I never attempt to understand a person solely in isolation. I can only get an idea of who they are by hearing the stories of their experiences and relationships, and by observing how they respond to others….including myself.

I’ve no doubt that all our interactions with others change us. I would not be who I am today without having been changed by all the doctor-patient relationships I experienced in my life. You could say patients made me who I am. Not only patients of course, you also have to take into account the others in my life, family, friends, colleagues, even those who challenged me, or disliked me.

Our lives are entangled.

That’s just how it is.

But we can make choices, and we choose both who and how. We can choose to pay attention to certain people, to care for them, to engage with them, to collaborate with them, or to compete with them. All of those choices weave our unique, personal web of inter-relationships. And that constantly evolving cloth forms the very tissue of our being…..or should I say of our “becoming”.

When I look at this photo today it leads me to contemplate the people in my life, those who are no longer present, those who I’m actively relating to, and those who played significant roles in fashioning my experiences and creating the memories I have. You could say, it leads me to consider the characters in my life story. Who they are, who they were, what experiences we had together and how we become entwined and entangled.

I am grateful to them all. We made each other who we are…..together.

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Water and rock. Two very different forms of matter. The one flowing, moving, changing, restless. The other solid, steady, firm and enduring.

What happens when these two forms meet, as they are doing so vividly in this image?

Just look at the water amongst the rocks. I’ve zoomed in to focus on this area but you can see the ocean beyond the rocks and it looks pretty quiet and peaceful in comparison. In this zone, where the water is bounded by the rocks, it is seething. There is turmoil. There is action. There is an abundance of energy. You can see that, hear that, feel that.

In fact the water and the rocks are in a relationship. They are constantly exchanging atoms and molecules with each other. The rocks set a boundary for the flow of the water, giving it a shape, the shape of a roiling cauldron. The water leaches minerals out of the rocks. The water dissolves the surface of the rock. So, just as the rocks shape the water, so does the water shape the rock.

This exchange of materials goes both ways. There are molecules and substances deposited onto and seeped into the rock as the water crashes over it, again and again.

I look at this photo and I see the creative power of difference. When different energies, different materials, different thoughts and ideas crash against each other, and constantly interact freely with each other then they release a creative power.

If every day feels the same, if all our days are filled with the same mindless habits and routines, if we only ever exchange with the same people, comfort ourselves with our social media echo chambers, then our energy starts to sag. The mundane, the apparently unchanging, the monotony, are all energy sapping, and without energy there is no creation, no growth, no life.

I think it’s one of the most important things to do in life – make new connections, discover new things, new places, make new relationships and friends, read about new ideas, listen to new music, read new poetry……you get the idea.

I heard a psychologist talking about children recently, explaining how children’s brains seem to work differently from adult brains. She drew from both psychology and computer research to describe – the “explorer/exploiter” duality. We are all born as explorers and young children are in that mode all day. Everything is an adventure. Every day is filled with discovery and learning. Then as we get older we begin to prioritise the exploiter mode, learning to how focus, make plans, and how to fashion the things around in into objects and goals we want to achieve.

Well, the truth is, we need explorer mode a lot more than we use it. So why not start today? Discover, do, experience the creative power of difference.

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As best I understand it, the latest discoveries about the nature of the universe suggest that everything which exists comes into being within an infinite field. The “field” is a beautiful concept. You might also think of it as a network or a web, but part of the reason why I like the “field” metaphor is that it works at the level of energy. We know that electromagnetic energy exists as a field. It doesn’t really fit to see it as a beam, or as building blocks, because it washes over, around and through everything. Think of how you can pick up radio signals anywhere within the field of transmission, and think of how different radio signals can “interfere” with each other.

Interference patterns are one of the things I remember from schoolday science. I remember learning about them in Physics class and finding them beautiful and intriguing even then. Watching one set of ripples encounter another set, and seeing the new patterns emerge as they interact with each other was, and still is, a delight.

I thought of that when I saw the concentric rings around this duck sitting on the water. I’ve returned to this image many times and one of the things which draws me in is the fish – they really seem to be arranging themselves around these circles of influence which the duck is emitting. I’ve wondered if they are just keeping their distance from the duck, but although ducks do eat fish, I’m not sure they eat these ones.

However, it’s the pattern which captures my attention because the duck is just sitting there. It isn’t swimming around. It’s just being. And I think that all of us continuously interact with, and affect, whatever is around us, just by being.

For example, researchers at the Heartmath Institute, have studied the electromagnetic waves and fields set up by the beating of the human heart. Did you know that your heart rhythm can influence the heart rhythm of someone standing next to you? It seems that the actual rhythm sets up a field which can harmonise with the rhythms of other fields within a couple of meters or so…..an effect enhanced by actually touching each other. Ever since I read about that I’ve wondered if that’s the basis of the feelings and intuitions we get about others. How often have I thought about how some people just seem to be “on my wavelength” and others never are? I know there are many other ways we signal to others and many other signs and influences we can detect, but I’m pretty sure these heart waves are a significant part of it.

That’s where I find my thoughts returning to when I look at this image. I realise that I send out energies and information all the time….just by the way I live. I send out vibes from my heart, my mind, perhaps even my soul. And I know most of that occurs below the level of consciousness. I’m not aware of it. But surely it’s a good idea to become more aware and to choose more deliberately what kinds of energies I’m sending out into the universe?

And surely it’s also a good idea to become more aware of the influences on me which come from the vibes and ripples sent out into the world by others? That’s partly why I choose to direct my attention towards what is loving, what is beautiful, what is creative and curious and amazing. Because I want to magnify all of that. And why I choose to direct my attention away from negativity and hatred – and I don’t mean by that to ignore them – I mean to deliberately shift the balance so that they don’t overwhelm me, so that I can adequately defend myself, and, more than anything, so that I can refuse to be a repeater – magnifying and sending on those destructive energies to others.

It’s tricky, huh? But it’s inescapable. As this duck shows we affect the world around us just by being. The only choices we have are how aware we want to become, and then how we want to respond to what we become aware of. And finally, what we then choose to magnify with our attention.

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Sometimes I think I don’t say it clearly enough, so I’m focusing on it today.

Here’s my core belief – I believe love is the strongest force in the universe. I believe that love, in all its manifestations, underpins the creation of Life, the existence of human beings, and the constant movement towards ever greater complexity through the creation of an infinite network of connections.

I believe that it is love manifests as attraction. From the blending together of energies and universal forces, to the binding together of subatomic elements to create atoms, the building up of atoms into molecules, and molecules into complex materials which combine to create living cells, to the desire of cells to live together and form mutually beneficial bonds so creating multi-cellular creatures, right up to the way we humans are fundamentally social creatures where none of us could exist in utter isolation.

That deep intense love a parent feels for their new baby from the moment they set eyes on each other. Without that love, no bond would form, and without the bonds of selfless care, that baby would die. With an abundance of love and care that baby can more than survive, they can develop, grow and excel in becoming the unique individual that only they can be.

I believe it is love for other creatures, other forms of life, for this little planet, Earth, in which we all live, which stokes our curiosity, opens our hearts, moves us towards each other and to towards new discoveries. It’s our love of knowledge and understanding which underpins everything from science to philosophy. It’s our love of beauty which underpins so much creativity and art.

I believe it is our love for justice which drives us to demand it.

As I look around the world in these pandemic times, of course I see lots of evidence of cruelty, unfairness and neglect. But I also see an outpouring of love, of people reaching out to each other, of people caring for each other, of people risking their very lives for each other.

I am attracted to those who have loving hearts and minds. I am repelled by those who are driven by hate and cruelty. But here’s the strange thing, from my experience of a lifetime of work as a doctor working with patients one to one I believe that love has the potential to heal even the most hardened, most hurt, most closed off hearts and minds.

So, let me say it clearly once more.

I believe love is the strongest force in the universe.

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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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I think this is one of the most remarkable trees I ever saw. I don’t know what the story is here. I don’t know if the original trunk was damaged, became diseased, or was deliberately cut down by some people. But what you can see here is the remaining stump of the tree, surrounded by new growth on all sides. So it’s like a ring of trees around the original one. I can’t prove it but I bet these are not separate trees at all. As best I understand what happens in situations like this, all of this growth stems from the one plant. It is, in fact, one tree, with several trunks.
This image sparks off two trains of thought for me.

The first is about resilience. Living organisms have astonishing powers of resilience. Of course, they aren’t immortal, but when you do see recovery the shape and direction it takes can be pretty surprising. I saw that many times with patients. There were always those who didn’t just “become well again”, but who were so changed by the experience of their illness, that as they healed, they grew in completely different directions to the ones they had taken up to becoming sick. A few months, or years, further one, they were truly transformed. The impact of the illness might still show in some ways, but the changes in their personalities, choices, behaviours, ways of thinking and living, were so profound that it was hard to see they were, in fact, “the same person”.

The second is about identity. That phrase, “the same person”, is always one which gets me wondering about identity. I read an article online this morning about the Celts. It described the controversy which exists between academics about just how the Celts were, who they were, where they lived and where they came from. What amazed me about that piece was just how widespread the “Celtic” peoples appear to have been in the past, and whilst there is debate about whether the Western Celts moved East, or vice versa, and whether or not, the people we call “Celts” were all “really Celts” is something I find much less interesting. Rather than falling down the rabbit hole of identity and its origins, I found myself wishing again that people would accept how inter-related we all are….all we humans. These attempts to divide us up into neat categories and then challenge each other on whether or not we qualify to be a member are both harmful and sad.

Yes, it might be interesting to trace some of the threads which have intertwined to weave our individual tapestries of self, but can we give up on all this unhelpful categorisation and attempts to separate and divide? Can we see instead that every one of us has connections, past, present and future, which wind their way across all such artificial, imaginary boundaries, which we call “categories”?

Our connections, what we share now, what our ancestors shared before, what we will share in our common future, all matter so much more than all this putting everything and everyone into separate, labelled boxes.
After all every one of us is changing every moment of every day, and with enough time passing, those changes can take on the significance of transformations.

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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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