Category Archives: Psychology

Making and Becoming

My last post was about going to Carnac as relief from the general feeling of doom and gloom that was pervading our household over the current state of the world and where it seemed to be taking 2016-10-08-12-40-22us. I didn’t mention that while eating our picnic near one of the sets of alignments I spotted an interestingly shaped bit of wood lying on the ground.  Both David and I were the sort of children who collected interesting things (feathers, stones, bits of bone, wood etc) neither of us have out grown the habit and with his 2016-10-08-12-40-09enthusiastic endorsement of it as ‘that’s fantastic looks like waves’. I tucked it under my arm and brought it home.

I photographed it on the tarmac outside the house when I got back so that I’d have a record of it in the state in which I found it. The piece of wood was pretty dirty and definitely not far off crumbling completely.

Found Art is one of my enthusiasms but ‘Found’ is one thing usually the ‘Art’ requires a little more effort. So I set to work cleaning, treating, sanding, oiling, polishing. A continuation of my Antidote to Doom and Gloom. The physical act of working on a piece of art is wonderfully absorbing. To begin with I had to pay close attention because it was extremely fragile and the last thing I wanted was for it to break into pieces but by the time it reached the stage of beeswax and polishing it had achieved its final form and the whole process became a meditation. Sitting in the October sun rubbing a piece of cloth backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards slowly bringing out the colours and the patina. While I was doing this I found myself pondering about the idea of making and the idea of becoming (in the sense of beginning to be). Making contains both the meaning of process of creating and the essential qualities needed for something. Michelangelo’s statement that ‘Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the sculptor’s task to discover it’ encompasses both meanings. But in the found art piece it seemed to me the wood itself played an active part. It transformed and emerged and the finished piece had its own identity. It Became. 

The ‘finished’ piece, and I use finished only in the sense that I stopped working on it, has its own definite character and energy. My hands picking at a bit here, sanding off a rough bit there and polishing it for hours merely allowed this creature to be caught in the moment of its transformation from one thing to another. Certainly not the waves we both saw when I picked up the bit of wood but an ancient and powerful beast. 

It seems to me that making and becoming are inseparable not just in the artistic process but in everything. If we make something without allowing it also to emerge than we have a flawed end result. Maybe that is most of what is wrong with the world at the moment too much making and not enough becoming.

Footnote to self – drink cider after and not before proof reading your article that way you won’t have the embarrasment of re-editing after you’ve posted.

November! – TTIP -Trick and Treat and Guy Fawkes

bed time

“Do not disturb until Spring – except for Turkey dinner”

November has arrived as dour and dreekit as you would expect.  I looked through my photo library for a picture illustrating dreekit a good Scots word for a day where the cloud ceiling is about head height and the small space between it and the ground is full of cold, driving rain, thick enough that you can’t see anything more than a few feet away.  I discovered that funnily enough I don’t seem to have spent any time taking photographs on those days.  Instead I’ve posted a photo of Dog’s way of dealing with it all.

I should be doing something useful like writing the thought provoking, insightful piece I’d planned about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership instead of which I’ve been munching chocolate, staring morosely at the rain and letting my Glia’s wander about down the cobwebbed corridors of  the Inifinite Brainstore.  Specifically investigating the difference between Halloween now and then and Guy Fawkes aka Bonfire night.  When I was a kid trick or treat was not even on our radar.  We had Hallowe’en – turnips, not pumpkins, hollowed out with a candle inside them to guide the spirits home and we laid an extra place at the table for those no longer with us.  This was my Grandma’s custom  and I believe it was originally associated with Yule rather than Hallowe’en.  Very different from dressing up and running round collecting sweets but today’s kids have great fun doing it though like everything else it seems to require having a lot of money spent on it.   Turnips, candles and apples dipped in clack (brittle toffee) cost pretty well nothing at all.

Our great collection was based round ‘penny for the guy’ and we started in October and kept it up until bonfire night.  We were as ruthless as any gang of medieval bandits in our pursuit of hapless adults shoving our straw stuffed dummies in pushchairs into their path so it was stop or fall over.  We scorned offerings of sweeties, we were after coin of the realm to be spent on such marvels as Thunderflashes, Whizzbangs and Jumping Jacks.  We were fully alive to the glorious possibilites offered by these tubes of black powder,   The effect of a jumping jack let off in school assembly could only be described as awesome.  The trick of course was to scream as loudly as everyone else and get rid of the matches quickly.   Sadly, but probably wisely, these instruments of mayhem and destruction are as extinct as the dinosaur, all banned on the grounds of health and safety.  In those less safety conscious days shopkeepers seemed unconcerned with selling explosive devices, single cigarettes and boxes of matches to seven year old brigands.

Every child used to know “Remember, remember the fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot.  There is no reason why gunpowder and treason should ever be forgot.”  Like the cries of Old London you heard it on every street corner.  We chanted it relentlessly while mugging people for pennies.  Now it’s a custom that has run its course and is dropping out of popular consciousness. I doubt if many children these days have even heard of the rhyme.   Hallowe’en (Samhuinn) is absorbing bonfire night and reasserting its place as the festival marking the onset of winter.  Given that the 31st October was the last decent day of weather we had this year it has been extremely accurate in that!    The need to celebrate or mark the beginning of winter is remarkably persistent in the human psyche it has not gone away just shifted in form over the millennia.  When I was little no-one in our village still guised but my grandparents remembered the custom of dressing up with blackened faces and singing songs and insulting the household until food or drink was brought out.  In Wales the Grey Mare (Mari Llwyd) and in Ireland the White Mare (Láir Bhan) were taken from house to house by guisers.  The origin of trick and treat but done by adults not children.   My grandparents said the custom of guising at Samhuinn died out around the time of the Second World War.   Now the custom has returned via the United States in a different form to suit our times.  I rather like that though I do feel slightly guilty about the effect of the amount of sugar I handed out to the neighbourhood children.  They were probably hyper for days.

perception and reality – the mind and consciousness

Roger Penrose’s book ‘Shadows of the Mind’ was published some twenty years ago.  When it first came out I immediately added it to my reading list but one thing and another intervened including a career change and relocation from London to Mid Wales and it slipped down the agenda and wandered off into the infinite labyrinth of my mind.   My Glia’s, however, are equipped with roller skates and a sense of mischief.   Left to themselves they hunt about for interesting stuff and present it for my inspection and approval in the same way as Dog presents his latest wastepaper basket installation art piece to me, that is to say, hopeful but not certain of approval.   Anyway recently they tracked down this particular ‘to do’ somewhere between the mid-Palaeolithic and teatime and dragged it back up to the surface.  So after a shamefully long flash to bang time I am finally reading it.

Penrose, who is a mathematician, sets out to explore what modern physics has to tell us about the mind and to examine what we mean when we talk of ‘awareness’, ‘understanding’,  ‘consciousness’ and ‘intelligence’.   These questions go to the root of what it is to be human and also whether digital computers (in the sense of Turing Machines) can achieve conscious awareness.  In the intervening period I read Iain Mcgilchrist’s book ‘The Master and The Emissary’ which examines the same concepts but from the point of a neuroscientist.

Penrose takes the view that appropriate physical action of the brain evokes ‘awareness’ but this physical action cannot be properly simulated computationally (he argues against the argument that all thinking is purely computational and feelings of ‘awareness’ are evoked by the carrying out of appropriate computations – a position that, if correct would mean that a computer controlled robot which convincingly behaves as though it possesses consciousness must be considered actually to have a conscious mind).  His book is largely an exploration and argument in support of the proposition that we perform non-computational feats when we consciously understand.   The distinction between the two viewpoints has profound implications for questions of free will, determinism and what it means to be human.

Iain Mcgilchrist’s book examines the way in which the division of our brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence making possible incompatible versions of the world with quite different priorities and values.  He doesn’t expound the old left-brain-right-brain divide but looks at the functioning of the hemispheres as related to the type of attention we pay to the world.   My mind placed Penrose and McGilchrist’s ideas alongside each other and came up with a synthesis or at least the idea that the type of attention paid by the right hemisphere is the non-computational element of Penrose’s proposition.   The bit of our brain that allows us to understand intuitively that if Abraham Lincoln’s left foot is in Washington his right foot will also be there, or to gain from an early age an understanding of the concept of three from three oranges or dogs or whatever and from there to go on to understand the infinite sequence of whole numbers.   The left hemisphere’s attention more closely resembles that of a Turing machine and performs in a way that can be explained in entirely digital computational terms.  The right hemisphere, however, operates in a manner that is non-computational other than possibly on a quantum level.

I find this extraordinarily fascinating.  To me it explains much about the way we function as a species as well as on an individual level.   Why for example we would need to invent language and why we consider that because our  cerebellum controls things such as motor skills that have become ‘automatic’ it does not have ‘conscious’ thought but acts unconsciously.    Surrealism as a movement explored the idea of the unconscious mind to reveal it and reconcile it with rational (conscious)  life but I think what we are dealing with here is a different kind of consciousness bearing the same relationship to what we now classify as ‘conscious’ thought as quantum theory has to the Newtonian world of classical physics.   One of the most bizarre premises of quantum theory is the idea that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality.   I think here we approach a convergence of quantum theory and the Buddhist and/or Daoist philosophy of ‘mindful attention’, the concept of interconnectedness and ‘being’ in the now.

I would argue that the type of attention we pay to the world changes what we find there (the glass half empty or the glass half full being a simplistic example) with important philosophical, societal and technical implications for the future.    How we respond to climate change, whether our thinking is governed by labels that discriminate and separate, whether we collaborate or compete these all shape the world not only that we inhabit now but also the one in which future generations will have to live.

The ability to look at things from a different perspective, to fail to conform to stereotypes and to value diversity and difference; in other words to squeeze ourselves through the eye of the needle and follow the Fool out across the rainbow are all in my view necessary prerequisites for a healthy future for our species.