neurology


I died as a mineral and became a plant, I died as a plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?

– Jalalu ‘D-Din Rumi, Sufi poet

Some people believe in reincarnation, and there are many variations of that theme amongst the faiths and spiritual models of the world. Many times I’ve mused here about the cyclical nature of the single life, peeling of layers, of skins, personalities, and of the spiral nature of …nature!

Neuropsychologists such as Paul Brok will posit that there is not in fact any such thing as the ‘self’. That, in fact, we are no more than a series of firing neurons – not even the product of those firing neurons but that ‘we’ are the actual neurons themselves.  Consciousness is no more than that. All is flesh; there is nothing else. And of course, the word “reincarnation”, if you like playing at etymology,  is about “being made flesh again”. But leaving aside the question of a single, identifiable soul moving from a human to a bird to a tree for today, I wonder whether we “reincarnate” many times within the one lifetime?

What on earth is this about? Well, is it so sacrilegious to wonder whether I really am the same “person” I was when I was 17? No, of course not. For many people, it is common wisdom to accept that we all change. However, most tend to believe there is a common thread of selfhood, on which the multi-coloured, -shaped and -sized buttons of my ‘persona’ hang (a button each for me at 6, me at 10, me at 50).

What if we denied that thread, and said instead that we’re just a bag of loose buttons? An initial reaction might be that in so doing, we lose something. But what? I have my memories – I remember things that happened in the past. I don’t necessarily need to be the same rigid ‘soul’ to remember, do I? Could denying that thread of rigid selfhood be instead liberating? If we let our selves perceive our selves as a button collection, might we be freed of notional constraints? For example, you might be uncleashed from self-limiting beliefs, such as “I’m a secretive type of person”, or “I’m never been good at sharing my thoughts,” “People don’t warm to me,” or “I’m rubbish at remembering birthdays.”

I suspect that if we let go, denied, ignored, that thread of Me-hood, we could all have much more interesting, exciting and fulfilling lives. If we un-anchored ourselves from the Legend of Me (made both by others and ourselves) and let our present, current being be, who knows what voyages we might make? If we understood that I am who I am this moment and that is the only Me that matters right now, then perhaps we would find it simpler to find happiness and satisfaction?  We would not be seeking to fulfil past or potential needs; we would not act out of fear for the future, only out of clarified self-knowledge.

We would not confuse our worries with our desires.

I’m not advocating short-sightedness – quite the opposite. Rather look forward to the lfe that you will live day after day, knowing you’re your best person today and will be another best tomorrow. Look forward to that and recognise the boundless potential you’ve just spotted! If – as a result – anyone has a problem with you being you, well….

😉

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Assumption is the mother of the screw-up

– Angelo  Donghia, New Yorker and interior designer

I had an idea today – or perhaps it was a thought. I almost wrote, “just a thought”, but realised that would put ideas above thoughts, and that’s just a false promotion.

Anyhoo, it struck me, this notion. It was this: without a whole bunch of feelings and thoughts about the world – and more specifically, the people – around us, it could be very hard to function effectively. But they don’t – by any means – necessarily help us out all the time, either.

What sort of things are in this bunch of feelings and thoughts, then? It’s assumptions, empathy, sympathy, compassion (“feeling with” someone), anticipation of another’s wants, needs or feelings. All of these are about putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Neurologically, it’s partially about prediction of events (“if or when X happens, Y tends to follow” becomes “when her ice-cream falls to the floor, Suzie will be upset”).

That’s the logical side of things – but in terms of narrative, it lacks what would be the natural next step for the majority of people: to anticipate and then react to the other person’s need (compassion / empathy / sympathy), perhaps by putting your hand in your pocket to buy another ice cream, getting the hankies ready, or providing a distraction, like letting the ice-cream fall on your own head to make Suzie laugh, rather than cry…..because all of those would be a nicer thing for her.

Some people are very empathetic (watch out for people who ‘catch’ other people’s yawns) and in extreme instances can be irritating in their ever-readiness, meeting, matching, catching the needs of those around them. But they might be the ones who make the world go round, so I’m going to leave them alone.

And there are other people who choose not to “feel with” others, or choose not to at certain times (ranging from ignoring the whinger in your group of friends to “compassion fatigue”  – a term now used to describe the public’s weariness at hearing “too much” about suffering and donating less and less). And we all do this on occasion, whether for tiredness, boredom or other reasons, ranging from the selfish to the “it’s good for them” school of thought. And before you ask, I’m not going to address the issues of empathy and autism and Asperger Syndrome – others are better qualified.

But…

…what interests the Imp today is how we walk around our worlds making all kinds of assumptions about other people; about their thoughts, needs,  desires, dreams. And very often, especially with those we flatter ourselves we know best, we don’t even realise we are doing it.

How often do we hear ourselves and others say, “he did it because…..”, or we explain another person’s behaviour away with, “oh, well, she’s jealous / excited / waiting / plotting….”? And doing this is not a bad thing – I think we need to do it to learn, to interact, but it can be ludicrously off the mark and lead to all kinds of misunderstandings, wrong judgements and rather unusual situations. We usually only find out we got it wrong when we get a surprise (which makes sense, doesn’t it?) or offend (prejudice being the bad extreme of this “thought-about-others” spectrum).

Alfred Korzybski, a profoundly influential semantician,  said that “the map is not the territory”. IE, it’s important to remember that what you believe to be the world around you is not the reality. It’s your perception of it. Others perceive it differently, constantly, and you can perceive it differently, too.

By extension, in the Imp world view (which is ever-changing, of course), it’s best always to be reviewing your map as you move through life – just as if the life ahead of you is uncharted. Because, of course, it is.

For he who has no tranquillity, there is no concentration.”- Bhagavad-Gita

“The pursuit, even of the best things, ought to be calm and tranquil.– Cicero

Time for some reflection from you chaps. By you, on you and on those you know. Not on me, thanks! ….Ever have times when your own activities surprise you? A moment or seven off, “What on earth am I doing?”, or even, “Now this is strange!”?

It won’t knock you over to read that such a condition is where I’ve found my impish self.

I’m surrounded by tubes of paint, sketches, computer sketches and maps. Obviously, ‘cos I’m Painting A Thing and that’s (clearly) the way to do it.  I’m also doing this tippity-tap and draping myself under the dripping mellifluidities of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, in prep for a singing rehearsal….Having edited photos, chatted with snowed-in chums and made a rather nice squid-ink seafood risotto (yeah, that’s the bit I’m most impressed with, too).

But here’s the rub: can any of it be any good, being so juggled? Can they possibly cross-fertilise? The thrill of the squid ink (try it) does go very well with Ella’s Misty (nip to itunes – the youtube version’s nowhere near as good and it’s 79p very well spent), to be fair.

Pish pash posh:  these good things are mere externalities. The output is how the effect should be judged, surely? Well, maybe not. After all, surely all I ought to be concerned about is the quality of my own experience? Not in a selfish way (moderation, etc etc), but in a recent post, I jotted that in some brain disease/injury cases, patients lose their sense of time, and with that loss, they also lose anxieties and – more importantly – increase their sense of well-being. That’s the condition to seek, surely? Peacefulness. We all achieve it differently, of course. I couldn’t sit on my bum all day (which reminds me; must set the video recorder); I’d be very unpeaceful. For me, the peace (and it has to be temporary to have value; time-limited, ironically) comes from pleasing, productive pottering. Like this.

Now, go on and play Misty for me…..

😉

When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened

– Winston Churchill

I’m working on a new play. While waiting on verdicts for the first. Scary, possibly arrogant, but hell, what’s an Imp to do? I’m loving it; it’s great fun. It’s also an utter privilege – I have time and am very conscious of that, using as much as I can to scribe.

However, strange things are happening, and any writers who are reading might recognise this. Happily, the characters are taking on lives of their own, cheekily doing things I hadn’t planned, and that is wonderful. But – also great for the creative end-result, I hope – some really dark things are crawling out of the subtext, smearing their inky, spindly feet all over my previously neat little drama.

This is a good thing – absolutely. It should make the thing more complex and more true to life. But it doesn’t half mess with your mind.

First of all, the little hints I had planned about the darker elements of some  characters’ personalities have become 10 foot high monsters, breathing their stagnant toxins all over the world of the play. The second strange thing is that I  feel so utterly right and at home doing this. I think about what I’m writing, or will write, almost all the time – more so than when I was working on the first play almost full-time a year ago.  I’m writing almost full-time again now, but it feels more ‘proper’. Perhaps it’s ‘cos I’ve got used to the idea of being a writer, but then, I hate the idea that I needed to give myself permission to write…

I think there may be some truth in this, however. Have you ever looked back at a particular time in your life and noticed how good it was – perhaps more than you realised back then? I am getting much better at living in the present, and perhaps this writer-thingy is just  a symptom of that larger attitude. Neurological studies  (Oliver Sachs and others) show that if your sense of time is destroyed through accident or disease in the brain, you can end up without fear or angst about the future. They also report a sense of well-being, even though the people involved know that they have a neurological problem.

Now, as you know, I like the old time/bondage/consciousness thing (if you want to read more, type ‘time’ into the search box on the right hand side, or click here to go straight to the results of that search, thus saving you some time). And it’s fascinating to think that you can lose your sense of time, and when you do, you lose your worries (worry is always about things which might happen, i.e. in the future) and that your sense of well-being shoots up. That says to me that perhaps the lower our consciousness of time, the lower our negative experiences could be. Down with time, up with happiness?

What would we really lose if we stopped worrying….?

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.

😉

Hats off to medics and care/health-worker types. Many fine people in there. ….What inspires this particular random salutation?

It’s the little memory I’ve had just now, that in measuring the success and value of various interventions (operations, drugs, procedures, protocols etc), the quality of the patient’s life is often taken into account. And there are scales of measurement. Which is, natch, where the fighting begins. Quite right too: you have to get these things right.

Quality of life ought always to be a consideration when treating someone’s health.  Seeing the patient as a person, not a “condition” is the only way you can do this, and it takes time. Thoughtfulness always does. What’s so tricky is that things that improve my quality of life are completely subjective (thankfully, otherwise we’d all be quarrelling over the strangest items).

But are you aware of the things that improve your quality of life, really? Today I got a full 3,000 words down, had me hair done, did some proper cooking, had a great conversation with my hairdresser and said ‘screw the tax chores’. All on top of yesterday’s wintry-sun five-mile, peaceful wander and a damn fine sleep. These things make me happy and each one (and other stuff) make my life better.  But it was the writing that made the day so good and really made me feel fine – when I would have thought it would be the walk or the sleep that won.

Of course, it’s not necessarily the activity that generates a sense of well-being. It’s the state of mind generated by the activity. I’m having a jolly fine time right now, thanks to the barber’s shop rendition of “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?” rolling around the kitchen right now [it’s the radio; not me!]. And chatting with you, of course. Although it’s not doing my concentration much good, as you can clearly see.

Lots of us use TV to relax, to switch off – in effect to make the day good after hard work. Some read, others drink, play sport or chat. Do they get you to where you want to be? Have you thought about it? Do you ‘save’ quality of life-improvers for the weekend, thinking they require time? When was the last time you tried or found a new life-improver (without obligations – the horrible fun-spoilers that they are)?

We’re coming up to a time of year that causes so much stress for so many people, when it ought to be enjoyable. Take the holidays and find the fun for you. An Imp on every Christmas tree!

😉

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!

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