“#Sleeping, as we all know, is the most secret of our acts.”- #Borges and #sleep in #literature

I have blogged both here and on my other blog quite a few quotes from novels and other literature on sleep. I have found these passages capture a sort of phenomenology of sleep as effectively as any clinical text. In this post I use a quote from Jorge Luis Borges as the starting point for a more general, although ultimately quite personal, discussion of literature and sleep and other altered states of consciousness.

Séamus Sweeney

Sleeping, as we all know, is the most secret of our acts. We devote a third of our lives to it, and yet do not understand it. For some, it is no more than an eclipse of wakefulness, for others, a more complex state spanning at one and the same time past, present, and future,; for still others, an uninterrupted series of dreams. To say that Mrs Jáuregui spent ten years in a quiet chaos is perhaps mistaken; each moment of those ten years may have been a pure present, without a before or after. There is no reason to marvel at such a present, which we count by days and nights and by the hundreds of leaves of many calendars and by anxieties and events; it is what we go through each morning before waking up and every night before falling asleep. Twice each day, we are the elder…

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Michael Gove and the Science of Beauty and Emotion

This is yet another stimulating blog post from Finding Nature. I know where the author is coming from in the structure of the post – pointing out the falseness of the dichotomy between the affective attraction to nature Gove discusses and science.

However, I do wonder if an emphasis on “what science tells us about connection, beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion” does run some risk of unweaving the rainbow a little. One of the findings of Miles Richardson and others is that factual knowledge about nature – identification of species and so on – is not correlated with emotional connection. As knowledge based activity often underpins nature education, this can mean opportunities for connection are missed. But could something similar happen if we only value nature connection Because These Peer Reviewed Papers tell us its ok to do so?

Finding Nature

In ‘The Unfrozen Moment – Delivering A Green Brexit,’ Secretary of State Michael Gove sets out his vision on the future of our natural environment. In this speech, and at the Green Alliance event a week earlier, I was struck by the recurring themes of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion. Four aspects of our relationship with the natural world that our recent research has linked to improving our connection with nature – see my blog and the open access paper for more detail. It is great to hear the Secretary of State speaking from the heart. However, the speech, see excerpt below, infers a distinction between such themes and science. Having evidence based policy makes sense. This blog points out that there is science of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion and this should also form part of the evidence base that informs environmental policy.

“I grew up with an emotional attachment…

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When technology doesn’t take: Update on #EdoBlocks and #Flic

From my other blog, some thoughts on technologies that initially seemed cool and impressive and very much fun/useful…but months later haven’t really become part of life. Think of all those unused wearables and the graveyards of cool-seeming but underused technology…. and wonder why is it underused? It the fault in our stars, or in ourselves?

Séamus Sweeney

A while back, I blogged enthusiastically about Edo blocks. These are Lego-ish blocks made of cardboard. At the time, they had proved great fun to make. They seemed to be a wonderful addition to play. And yet, months later, they moulder unused by actual children, taking up space.

Similarly, I blogged about Flic, a “wireless smart button” which again seemed just wonderful initially. And yet, again months later, Flic is largely unused. In this case, Flics was all too attractive to small children who rapidly disassembled them. The user interface of the Flic app was very easy to use, and as my blog post seemed to indicated there were all sorts of exciting potential uses. And yet, and yet …

In the initial assembly of the Edo blocks, it was rather slow going, and my children were more attracted by the cardboard box the Edo blocks came in than…

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Information underload – Mike Caulfied on the limits of #Watson, #AI and #BigData

From Mike Caufield, a piece that reminds me of the adage Garbage In, Garbage Out:

For many years, the underlying thesis of the tech world has been that there is too much information and therefore we need technology to surface the best information. In the mid 2000s, that technology was pitched as Web 2.0. Nowadays, the solution is supposedly AI.

I’m increasingly convinced, however, that our problem is not information overload but information underload. We suffer not because there is just too much good information out there to process, but because most information out there is low quality slapdash takes on low quality research, endlessly pinging around the spin-o-sphere.

Take, for instance, the latest news on Watson. Watson, you might remember, was IBM’s former AI-based Jeopardy winner that was going to go from “Who is David McCullough?” to curing cancer.

So how has this worked out? Four years later, Watson has yet to treat a patient. It’s hit a roadblock with some changes in backend records systems. And most importantly, it can’t figure out how to treat cancer because we don’t currently have enough good information on how to treat cancer:

“IBM spun a story about how Watson could improve cancer treatment that was superficially plausible – there are thousands of research papers published every year and no doctor can read them all,” said David Howard, a faculty member in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University, via email. “However, the problem is not that there is too much information, but rather there is too little. Only a handful of published articles are high-quality, randomized trials. In many cases, oncologists have to choose between drugs that have never been directly compared in a randomized trial.”
This is not just the case with cancer, of course. You’ve heard about the reproducibility crisis, right? Most published research findings are false. And they are false for a number of reasons, but primary reasons include that there are no incentives for researchers to check the research, that data is not shared, and that publications aren’t particularly interested in publishing boring findings. The push to commercialize university research has also corrupted expertise, putting a thumb on the scale for anything universities can license or monetize.

In other words, there’s not enough information out there, and what’s out there is generally worse than it should be.

You can find this pattern in less dramatic areas as well — in fact, almost any place that you’re told big data and analytics will save us. Take Netflix as an example. Endless thinkpieces have been written about the Netflix matching algorithm, but for many years that algorithm could only match you with the equivalent of the films in the Walmart bargain bin, because Netflix had a matching algorithm but nothing worth watching. (Are you starting to see the pattern here?)

In this case at least, the story has a happy ending. Since Netflix is a business and needs to survive, they decided not to pour the majority of their money into newer algorithms to better match people with the version of Big Momma’s House they would hate the least. Instead, they poured their money into making and obtaining things people actually wanted to watch, and as a result Netflix is actually useful now. But if you stick with Netflix or Amazon Prime today it’s more likely because you are hooked on something they created than that you are sold on the strength of their recommendation engine.

Let’s belabor the point: let’s talk about Big Data in education. It’s easy to pick on MOOCs, but remember that the big value proposition of MOOCs was that with millions of students we would finally spot patterns that would allow us to supercharge learning. Recommendation engines would parse these patterns, and… well, what? Do we have a bunch of superb educational content just waiting in the wings that I don’t know about? Do we even have decent educational research that can conclusively direct people to solutions? If the world of cancer research is compromised, the world of educational research is a control group wasteland.

Piece on cardiac surgery in Times Literary Supplement

In the current TLS I have a review of two books on cardiac surgery. One is Stephen Westaby’s  memoir of his career, the other is Thomas Morris’ historical perspective.

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The full text is not freely available online, so here is the bit the TLS have made available to tease you all:

It is tempting to place Stephen Westaby’s Fragile Lives, a memoir of his career as a heart surgeon, in the category the journalist Rosamund Urwin recently called “scalpel lit”; following Atul Gawande’s Complications (2002) and Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm (2014) and Admissions (2017), here is another dispatch from a world arcane even for the majority of doctors. To some degree, Westaby’s book follows the Marsh template. In cardiac surgery as in neurosurgery, life and death are finely poised, and even minor technical mishaps by the surgeon, or brief delays in getting equipment to theatre, can have catastrophic consequences.

Like Marsh, Westaby, a consultant at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, is jaundiced about the bureaucracy of health care and the mandatory “training” imposed on even the most experienced practitioners – “writing my personal development plan at the age of sixty-eight”. Now that death rates are published by the NHS,…

Makes you want to read the whole thing, does it not?

As it happens, Henry Marsh’s Admissions is reviewed in the same issue by George Berridge.

#WorldListeningDay, the silence of the organs, and the sound of health

It is World Listening Day

You are invited to participate in World Listening Day 2017, an annual global event held on July 18.

This year’s theme is “Listening to the Ground”
“Sometimes we walk on the ground, sometimes on sidewalks or asphalt, or other surfaces. Can we find ground to walk on and can we listen for the sound or sounds of ground? Are we losing ground? Can we find new ground by listening for it?”—Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)

 

The French surgeon René Leriche defined health as “life lived in the silence of the organs.” Of course, this can be disputed.

Leriche’s insight was expanded on by Georges Canguilhem, whose philosophical approach to health and illness I personally have found fruitful.

The sound of healthcare settings is a different thing. Gordon Hempton in his book One Square Inch of Silence refers to much literature on the relation between noise and health, and a literature already exists on soundscapes in hospitals.   Hospitals are noisy places

 

How Forest Bathing Keeps Us Well – from Finding Nature Blog

How Forest Bathing Keeps Us Well — Finding Nature

 

There’s been a flurry of attention on forest bathing recently. Originating in Japan, it is the practice of taking a trip into the forest for well-being benefits. Last year we completed a meta-analysis of 11 Japanese research studies into forest bathing, it was published open access in Evolutionary Psychological Science. The paper considered the results in the context of a ‘3 Circles’ model of emotional regulation that helps reveal why immersing oneself in the woods is good for health.

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A colleague at Derby, Prof Paul Gilbert OBE, has shown that that both our evolution, and research evidence, can be represented by three dimensions of our emotion regulation system. A simple way to do this is to represent these systems with 3 circles – handily represented here (in original blog post – Ed.) by a falcon, ash tree and wild boar warning! We can experience threat (the boar), drive (the falcon) and contentment (the tree). So, in more detail:

  • Drive – positive feelings required to seek out resources, and nowadays achieve success at work or in leisure. It’s about a wanting (that can bring joy and pleasure) as we pursue things (as a falcon does).
  • Contentment has an affiliative focus bringing different positive feelings, for example safety, soothing, affection, kindness and a positive calm with the way things are (represented by the ash tree).
  • Anxiety – feelings and alerts generated by the threat and self-protection system. Located in the fast-acting amygdala this system can be both activating and inhibiting (represented by the wild boar warning).

Each dimension brings different feelings (such as anxiety, joy, and calm), motivations (avoid, pursue and rest) – releasing various hormones in the body. For wellbeing we need a balance between the three dimensions – happiness and satisfaction comes through balancing threat, drive and contentment. For example, when our threat response is overactive, an unbalance caused by being constantly driven for example, our positive emotions are reduced and we can become anxious or depressed.

Returning to the forest bathing research, we focussed on those studies that measured heart-rate variability – an indicator of activity in the branches of the nervous system that controls the heart. Although these studies found differences in the responses to urban and forest environments they didn’t consider them in the context of emotional regulation – how nature links to emotion, physiology and well-being. Nor did they have compelling explanations for some variety in the results.

The results of the analysis supported the story told by the 3 Circles model. Finding that being in the woods was calming – activating the parasympathetic nervous system associated with contentment. Whereas the urban control environment they used stimulated the sympathetic nervous system associated with drive and threat.

As ever the story is a little more complex. Some people weren’t soothed by the woodland, others were stimulated by it. Again, the 3 circles can help explain this. Some people could experience threat in the woodland, feeling anxious about what lies in the undergrowth – is that a boar rustling? This would cause a spike in sympathetic nervous system activity. Those more in tune with nature could feel joy (rather than calm) at being asked to spend time in the woods – at any time an exciting falcon may fly past! Such joy would also raise activity in the sympathetic nervous system.

Some prior posts here on forest bathing:

A walk in the woods – the rise of “forest bathing”

Deer ears – more on forest bathing

More thoughts on forest bathing