The young bride and I have been going to an exercise physiologist recently in order to improve our overall strength and posture - it’s a thing you do when you approach three score years and ten! Over the decades, we’ve been pretty good at staying fit and eating the right foods, and we just saw this as another health related issue we could work on to stave off bodily decrepitude. The strange thing is that we’ve discovered a whole host of muscles which have lain dormant for over half a century, and we know that because every one of them are now aching!!
From a medical point of view, I know that the long term benefits of keeping up such exercises are going to be significant, and so we’re worrying too much about the short term pain. But becoming re-acquainted with all those muscles that I learned about in Med school is not the only thing I’ve been learning about the human body recently.
A part of our daily routine has been to make space for a short meditation - apparently it’s good for you although the changes are not as obvious as aching muscles. The challenge with meditation is “stilling the mind”. For me this is not easy and recently I’ve discovered why. Apparently there’s a neurological pathway in the brain which hadn’t been discovered way back when I was a wet-behind-the-ear junior Doctor. It’s called the Default Mode Network and was only discovered, almost by accident, in 2001.
It was noted that when patients undergoing MRI of their brains whilst waiting for the tests to begin - in other words, they were just lying there doing nothing - there was a part of the brain which remained active. Scientists believe that this is the part of the brain where we “self talk” - the time when all those thoughts float through our mind - others call it our Ego.
By learning to turn this pathway off, or at least to turn it down, our brain has the opportunity to experience consciousness on other levels, which is why trained meditators can experience almost mystical experiences. When MRIs are done on highly trained meditators, this area of the brain remains ‘quiet’ when they’re meditating. There are other ways in which this Network can be “switched off’ and these are currently being researched by major medical institutions in America and Europe. Researchers are now looking at how psychedelic drugs such as LSD and Psylocibin can have dramatically beneficial effects for patients with major depression, end of life anxiety issues and addiction. Preliminary results suggest that we need to change our attitude towards these drugs as, when used in controlled circumstances, not only do they appear to work better than any other medications currently being used, they are also safe and non addictive.
Neither the young bride or I intend rushing out to look for little brown mushrooms and “take a trip”, but this latest information has made us aware that our Egos can act as a sort of wheel clamp on our understanding of consiousness, and that through practices such as meditation and mindfulness, we can free our thinking and maybe achieve a greater understanding of what it really means to be fully human and fully alive.
I’ve been reading some fascinating books recently.
The first was Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary published by Yale University Press.
This book is all about the brain and believe me, it’s not for the faint hearted. I know a bit about medicine and the discipline of neurology, but the author of this book is in a league of his own. Here’s what Prof A C Grayling said in his review: “It embraces a prodigious range of enquiry, from neurology to psychology, from philosophy to primatologist, from myth to history to literature..”
I’m a night time reader and I found that after just reading two or three pages of this book, my brain could take no more and I’d fall asleep like a child. Not out of boredom, but because of the sheer density of fact and erudition that I’d just absorbed. I suspect that it took me several hours of sleep to allow my subconscious to sort out what I’d just read. Several weeks later I completed the book and let out a small cheer which temporarily distracted my wife from her Kindle. Nevertheless, I feel so much wiser for having completed such an Herculean task.
The second book which I am currently reading is called How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan and published by Penguin Press. It’s about Magic Mushrooms and other associated psychedelic drugs. But before you think I’m trying to relive the ‘Sixties (I wouldn’t remember it anyway) this is a well researched book and picks up on recent scientific publications which are showing some remarkable results when using these medications IN MEDICALLY CONTROLLED SITUATIONS, in cases of Depression, Addiction and End of life anxiety issues. The results are truly dramatic. The book poses the question of what is consciousness and how do we perceive it.
I know that when I write my books I am mildly surprised to discover all these characters and situations that have been “living in my head” for so many years without my knowledge of them. The more we study the brain the more intriguing and amazing we find it to be.
Inside each of our heads is a unique and parallel universe which we so often limit by constantly aping other peoples imaginations and other people’s ideas. We each have our own unique gifts, insights and talents which can be augmented and stimulated by reading, music, nature, other cultures, religion, meditation - the list is a long one. When we look at an infant in a cot and watch the sheer wonder in their face as they watch the sunlight through the leaves on a tree, that’s the sort of wonder that each of us still have within our own minds - it’s just that it’s been caked with layer after layer of other peoples expectations and fear of our own failure.
Reading such books, difficult as they sometimes are, helps expand our understanding of who and why we ‘are’.
Finally, earlier this week, I held in my hand the third book in my Renaissance Brothers series. It was such a good feeling. You should try it!