brain


How do geese know when to fly to the sun? Who tells them the seasons? How do we, humans know when it is time to move on? As with the migrant birds, so surely with us, there is a voice within if only we would listen to it, that tells us certainly when to go forth into the unknown.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Swiss psychiatrist

Here’s a thought-provoker. What if your gut tells you one thing but your brain pushes you in the opposite direction? As we all know, there’s no fool like an old fool (if you’ve not learnt your lessons by now, you’re an even bigger fool….etc etc).

Perhaps what you hear from your instinct is unpalatable; perhaps it’s inconvenient. Whatever is going on in that brain of yours, when your guts tells you one thing and your conscious mind another, it’s definitely a conflict. You’re hearing from two different parts of the brain, which work in different ways, and are differently evolved (and have different purposes). We’ve got the reptilian brain (instinct), working on the basis of things you might not consciously recognise (small signals, tiny reflections of past experiences), and the conscious, modern brain, working on logic, rationale; “sensible” stuff, the stuff you can see, can count, can list.

Much modern wisdom advises us to trust our instincts; to have confidence in them. But instinctive feelings – more often than rationale – are often characterised by doubt. So, what’s the maths?

Early in 2007, a team from University College London reported findings to the effect that people make better decisions when they don’t think too hard about them – even when the tasks or decisions facing them involve things like counting.  Many of you out there will have read Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book, Blink, which comes from the same viewpoint. The subconscious mind works very hard, peddling away for you, while the lazy old conscious mind looks like it’s doing all the work.

So, back to the beginning: resolving instinct/cognitive brain conflict. Perhaps the safest thing to remember is that instincts put the self first; they are all about survival. That can make you greedy (wanting more than your fair share) or just wary (been here before – don’t make the same mistakes!). If anyone knows any interesting work or has any observations on this, would be fascinating to hear more, so I can witter away at greater length at a later date.

😉

LOUD MUSIC, rudely, unpolitely, SHOUTily (in this case, PJ Harvey, The Piano) exorcises a house like nothing I know.

For hours today, I was living mouse-like politely in my own hole, intensely communicating away, nibble-nibble, by email, by face, by ‘phone and by smile and then  – I stopped. But  – gah, horror – the flavour of the careful listening stayed. It sat on me, squishing me down.

I turned up the volume. Some more. More, up to ‘naughty’; more, up to ‘taking the proverbial’. And now, right now, PJ (on a repeating, monomaniacal loop, but happily between the Pixies and Placebo should I need variety) is deafening anyone within range.  I can’t quite get it loud enough, tho’.

We forget the importance of music too often, I think. In the last fifty years, we must have become more singularly-visual (since TV and latterly, computers). Music might accompany  this new visual intake, but in its own right, it must receive less attention.

But music has a power over our selves which is rivalled only by great art; and the beauty is that the tinkliest pop song can bring you to nirvana (with a capital N, if you like). A combination of notes, a sequence of chords, a variation in volume, pace, tempo and instrumentation all quicken or calm the senses, evoke moods and memories, inspire ideas – it takes us backwards, forwards, down, up and inwards.

Research shows that stroke patients recover a wider range of brain functions and are less depressed than those exposed merely to language. Einstein put his braininess down to his violin playing (he was slow at school, written off by teachers – until his mother bought him a violin). And many animal species use music in ways similar to us (humpback whales’ songs are structured much as ours, although last up to 21 hours). Seals and of course, birds, also sing – and learn songs, most importantly. For them, however, it’s always social – whereas we practice (hum, howl) alone as much as in groups.

For us, musical euphoria lives in the same part of the brain as sex and drugs, with endorphin rushes. Male birds have dopamine rushes when they sing to females (girl birds don’t sing): they enjoy it.

Get up and SING – or at least, turn up the volume (not for too long, mind you; lifelong tinnitus is too hig a price!). Beat the gloomy blues (one of the search terms that has brought people to this site in the last few weeks is ‘miserable’, sadly.) Reclaim your dopamine!

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, [which is] a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

– Albert Einstein (as ever, so wise)

BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week programme (a superb piece of radio – Andrew Marr at his brightest, with fascinating guests, always) included a conversation with James Hall, author of a new book on the left and right in art (The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art – OUP). You can listen to it here, and I thoroughly recommend it. I am sore-tempted to get the book, but let’s be green and thrifty and go to the library. The publisher’s blurb goes as follows, just so you know what’s so interesting…

Traditionally, in almost every culture and religion, the left side has been regarded as inferior – evil, weak, worldly, feminine – while the right is good, strong, spiritual and male. But starting in the Renaissance, this hierarchy was questioned and visualised as never before. The left side, in part because of the presence of the heart, became the side that represented authentic human feelings, especially love. By the late nineteenth century, with the rise of interest in the occult and in spiritualism, the left side had become associated with the taboo and with the unconscious.

I’m not always a philistine, but I must tell you that I’m not really too interested in the dryly historical side of all this; in how cultures have shifted their ‘view’ of left and right. But I am very interested in how people feel about, relate to, their own left and right sides. Why? For several reasons – bear with me:

• Spatial awareness; our sense of space (hmm; is that outside the usual five?); the feeling of contact without actual touch; the near-ownership of the space around our selves, which is (for me) linked tight to the sense of left/right sides.

• Children don’t intuitively know left from right – as an adult, I still don’t, and need to think about it. Why is that? And why is it that we can have very trenchant spatial (and left/right side) awareness yet need consciously to consider the official left or right?sear_goldensection-full

• With the ‘golden section’ or fung shui, in art, architecture and in the science of sound even (think stereo!), we sense things and they feel ‘just right’; a nudge here, a nudge there and utter peace (or turmoil) is achieved (within a framework which is necessarily bounded by the left and the right) – but why? Or how?!

• Could these (and no doubt many other phenomena) link back to our reptilian pasts? I go for the left/right brain stuff, sure, but I wonder whether there’s more instinctive, reptilian brain work going on here…. (not surprisingly, I feel fractals, but will try to delay their joining the game for as long as possible).

• Are we hunting for balance, symmetry? Is it about oppositional meaning, i.e., we see the picture because of the frame; perceive first what is not before we can see what is there?

OK, so them’s my reasons for being interested in all this. Hope I’ve raised some interesting questions for you, too. I’m going to see what we can find out on all of this, then posit a specious conclusion. Or I might instead raise some further, seemingly gnomic, questions, idly and wantonly shirking any pretence of responsibility to give you answers; after all, what are we here for? All together now: “the ride!” I might be back on this – but just not yet. All thoughts happily welcome – you know where the comment box is!

octoI’ll leave you with this little gem. Octopuses have more than 50 per cent of their nerves in their tentacles and partially “think with them” (if we “think with” our heads, I suppose…). They’re smart, have individual personalities and are quite sensitive to stress. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat any more at this rate. Anyway, research is due to be published very soon on whether they have a favourite tentacle – by giving them Rubiks Cubes to play with.

Heads are usually filled with busy-ness, aren’t they? Interior monologues, ‘must do this’, ‘what about that?’, ‘what does that mean…?’ You know the kind of thing. It’s what Zen Buddhism tries to escape, nirvana being the ultimate empty-head experience, complete here-and-now-ness.

Sometimes it’s just right to accept the calm, and not fight it. I’m looking at a few days with no-one really to be accountable to but myself. And it’s weird, sometimes. Knowing I ‘have to’, ‘must’, ‘need to’ etc etc can be a security blanket. It provides legion excuses for not taking responsibility for your own happiness / contentment. It gives you something to blame for your state of mind. But how ridiculous! Only you can control that….

Let go, be quiet… 😉

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

– Aldous Huxley

These fragments I have shored against my ruins – TS Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922

It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream – Edgar Allan Poe

If you and I swapped brains, where would I be?

  • Would I be inside your body, or could I still be in my body, conscious that my brain was ‘over there’, in your body?
  • Would I want to get it back or would it be enjoying the new body?
  • Would the you-version-of-me see the body-me in a way it had never managed to see it through the mirror?
  • And would the my body/your brain combination obviously be a very different person from the 100% “me” head-body set?
  • I mean, presumably, you’d make this body move differently from the way I do, and even though you had the same hardware (voice box, arms, legs, joints, lips) you’d be putting your software/brain into my hardware/body.

    And it’s very individualistic software: there are variations in every synapse, neuron, in the chemical levels of dopamine and serotonin, the electrical impulses work differently…and that’s before we’ve even dug around in the cache of memories, prejudices etc.

    So if that was the case, it would look like me at first, anyway, but it would be your brain running the show.

    Now, here’s a thing: it wouldn’t be what we’ve known as “you” (personality-wise), or “me” (looks-wise) for very long, I suspect.

    After all – let’s go to an extreme to demonstrate the point – say you’re used to being a man, tall, skinny, dashingly handsome. But my body is that of a small, green, wing-flapping, eyelash-fluttering, supernatural imp.

    Now, while some would argue (I disagree) that we had the same software / brain package at birth, we’ve both adapted it to work best for the hardware/body we’ve got – unless we have (s)elf-destructive tendencies; always possible. So, your brain would have to adapt quite significantly to be able to run the Tricky Little Imp body effectively; it would become a new thing (we know this because if we left it in there, working away as the “Imp formerly known as Tall, Handsome Man” for a while, both the body and the brain would adjust to work together – and would have to alter again if we plopped its brain into the Tall, Handsome Man’s body).

    Now, of course, there is nothing new, if by “new”, we mean 100% previously unknown, or non-existent. Everything comes from something (yes, we’re back with philosophers’ axes and spirals of life; there may be no escaping). And so, is this very binary question – “would I still be me?” or “where IS me if I swap bodies?” which is the premise for a hundred light matinee films as well as a million real philosophers’ words – just reductive? After all, doesn’t it just highlight the point that “me” is in fact a constantly fluid thing? You can‘t actually pin it down like a squirming butterfly under a pin, because in fact “me”, or “you”, our sense of self is just a linkage of things: a line, a thread, a common factor.

    I am, in fact, just a washing line of socks and pants in the garden of life. I am the line, the socks, the garden and the sky. I have rain and sun, weeds and orchids, bird shit and mud, barbecues and games. I am all of that, simultaneously and in fragments.

    Better start rushing before the rush begins!– Ashleigh Brilliant

    Disorganisation. It’s not an objective state of being – it’s a feeling. And I’ve got it now and need to talk myself out of it. It’s also time-driven: I see a deadline upon me, like an encroaching horizon, and before I reach it (and I’m being propelled; this ‘motion towards’ is not of my own volition), I have to gather and plant a million things in the right place. Or else…? Or else It All Goes Wrong.

    So I try to negotiate: there are my Wants and my Obligations. And I suppose I can move some Obligations into the Not Urgents.…but can I ? So then I’ve created another mental folder of mess and doom, called Maybe I Can Get Away with It. And this folder is very tempting, but There Be Dragons. It gleams and shines, like a false Holy Grail and I daren’t trust it.

    Ah, but then….chaos. I feel chaotic. And that can only be good, creative, exciting. Which has just injected a stream of peace into the game: how interesting. Because if the sense of chaos can be harnessed, then everything gets richer. It’s about letting the Organising part of the brain cede control. And in chaos, there is natural beauty! Left brain, right brain…So. Enough writing about it; time to do it….