Dai Sesshin, August, 2021

Tonight I head off to Sesshin and will be away from all email and phone contact until the 22nd of August. I will be doing a week of preparation then a week of Sesshin (beginning Friday week). I’ll post an update on how it went here.

Here is the approximate schedule we will be following. Zazen is meditation:

DAI-SESSHIN – TYPICAL DAILY SCHEDULE

First Night: Arrive by 6:30pm. Trainees to be dressed and in the zendo by 7:15pm

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7:30  Opening of sesshin (in zendo).

7:45  Sozarei (opening tea)

8:00  Daza (zazen)

9:15  Sosan (interview with the Roshi – mandatory for all present)

10:00  Sarei/Kaihan/Kaichin (tea/striking the han/formal lights out)

10:15  Group meeting in the dining hall. Optional snack available.

10:30  Yaza (mandatory solo zazen practice, inside or outside) until 11:45pm.

12:00am  Sleep or continue practice.

Typical Day 

4:30am  Kaijo (wake up)

4:50  Baito Sarei/Daza (umeboshi tea/zazen)

6:00  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)

6:30  Choka (morning chanting)  

7:15   Shukuza (morning meal)

8:00  Samu (work period, indoor and outdoor)

10:00  Daza (zazen)

11:00  Saiza (mid-day meal)

12:00pm  Suiza (free sitting)

1:00  Sarei/Daza (tea/zazen)

2:30  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)

3:00  Kaiyoku (wash)

4:15  Daza (zazen)

4:45  Yakuseki (evening meal)

6:30  Daza (zazen)

7:00  Kaihan/Kentan/Daza (striking the han/zendo inspection by the Roshi/zazen)

8:00  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)  

8:30   Teisho (lecture)

9:00  Daza (zazen)

10:00  Sarei/Kaihan/Kaichin (tea/striking the han/formal lights out) Afterward, optional snack followed by yaza (solitary sitting practice).

12:00am: Sleep or continue practice.

Final Morning

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4:30am  Kaijo (wake up)

4:50  Baito Sarei/Daza (umeboshi tea/zazen)

6:00  Sosan (interview with the Roshi – mandatory for all present)

6:30  Sozarei (closing tea ceremony)

[Clean up, group informal breakfast at 8am]

Quirky and enwondering things I’ve seen recently online – #2 [updated 1st August with a video of a very weird & cool animal (+ a submarine spider etc)]

Updated with this – how cool is this!

The follow up tweet explains: “This acts like a breathing device, extending its time underwater, possibly even drawing oxygen from the water, expelling carbon dioxide in a process known as diffusion, morphological adaptations like the shape of its head may make it easier for the bubble to cling”

Did some follow up scrolling on twitter and found this terrifying underwater spider that basically builds its own submarine:

This twitter account in general is very cool

How your days fill your dreams…

This used to disrupt my soul every week using the Oxford diary….

Nice to know I am actually comparatively sane.

Tech giants add an interesting wrinkle to the research policy field:

An old favourite:

Not sure if this is fake, but I like it if not.

3 Public Commitments – Dai Sesshin, Dancing, and Drawing

This blog is to make public commitments to do 3 things – not of interest to others, but if I don’t post it I’ll let these things slip so this is a trial in making myself commit to stuff, of fixing ‘distant stars’ as I wrote here. Hopefully by committing publicly, these will get done!

Zen meditation – Doing Dai Sesshin annually, starting this august (restrictions permitting)

I’ve long been fascinated by monks (‘Into Great Silence’ is one of my favourite films). I became very interested in zen buddhism in relation to my unusual visual disorder. I’ll blog on this soon.

I’ve visited a monastery but never spent significant time there – one of my dreams is to spend a few months in a monastery, and may do in the medium term. Over the past year I’ve been corresponding with Meido Moore, Roshi of Korinji Monastery in Wisconsin, one of the few Rinzai Zen training schools in the west. Sadly due to restrictions I’ve been unable to go to Wisconsin despite various trips being planned, but I’m hoping to become his student more formally.

I’ve got into a good habit of meditating 30 minutes a day. But for various reasons/motivations its a helpful challenge to do more. In a monastery, they work toward doing Sesshin, which is the most intense part of a zen monk’s schedule. Sesshin involves near continuous meditation for a week, with 5 hours of sleep a night. I figured if I am to go beyond ignorant babbling about this, I should commit to doing it myself. I recently got an invite to do this in August, and decided to go for it.

But I’m also daunted by it and worry I’ll make excuses. So to avoid wimping out, I’ve decided to commit publicly! It will probably be the hardest thing I’ve done but now I’m getting old I need to challenge myself to stay young!

There is an explanation of Sesshin here (wikipedia), and its also covered in this excellent documentary:

Meido has written two detailed and excellent introductions to Rinzai, available here.

Dancingposting a video of me dancing by December 31st 2021

Much of my work in neuroscience centred around movement, but it was only through my illness that I became very interested in the mind:body connection, and the role of movement in health. I’ll write elsewhere about the role dance played in learning to see in 3D. But I want to learn some more recreational dances, the kind done to music, so I will be posting a dance by the end of this year, which will doubtless be cringeworthy and embarrassing but its good to make a start…..

NB: There is an interesting chapter in Move! by Caroline Williams about how dancing affects the mind, and vice versa. Its an interesting book to inspire you to move more, I’ll post some notes later as part of a broader post on movement.

Drawingposting a collection of drawings by June 27th 2022

I was inspired by ‘Learning from Leonardo’, a wonderful book by Fritjof Capra, to think about how drawing helps you think about problems. I’ve also always loved drawings, more so than other kinds of art, but I’ve been terrible at drawing despite some attempts in my teens to learn.

I wrote in ‘A Semi-monocular I’: “But double vision did not help me become a brilliant painter. In fact, I’m terrible at drawing: trying to visualize things on the page is very difficult, as the two eyes constantly jostle, meaning there is no fixed point of focus to imagine from. This outweighs any artistic advantages I could gain from seeing a flat world.”

I found recently that if I combine drawing with some of the meditations I’ve used to learn to see in 3D, its a wonderful way to train myself to see detail, as the close coupling of action and sensation provides a strong feedback signal. As double vision disappears, I’m finally finding I can draw. But I need to dedicate some time to it. I also need to learn to draw for a project I’ve been working on, currently paused.

I’ve bought various books on drawing to use, I’ll work my way through them and fingers crossed! Books include: ‘Drawing on the right side of the brain’, ‘Drawing Course’ by Gerald Ackerman, ‘Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters’, ‘Beginning Drawing Atelier: An Instructional Sketchbook’, ‘Lessons in Classical Drawing: Essential Techniques from Inside the Atelier’, and ‘Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice’.

My main focusses will be on anatomical drawing, particularly of the musculature and neural networks, for reasons I’ll post later.


I’ll flesh these out into blog posts at a later date, giving more of the background. I might make a few others also such as publishing a poetry collection, cooking, and swimming, but for now this seems enough for a few months!

Viewing Newton’s College notebook

In my twenties I became quite interested in the notebooks of Da Vinci and Newton, more interested than in their finished works, as a way to try and learn more about them and how they worked. I’ll blog a study of these later.

In 2016 I was allowed to see and handle the Fitzwilliam notebook for an hour, the first surviving mathematical notebook of Isaac Newton. it contains his early studies of Euclid, as well as a collection of his expenses and confessions of sins. Here are some photos I took. Newton was an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge at the time.

Note 1: I was told not to wear gloves by the curator – the oil of the hands is good for the paper, and the gloves make you more clumsy.

Note 2: there is an excellent facsimile available of another notebook at kroneckerwallis

The Notebook is very small.
This is a list of Newton’s confessions of sins, written in a code broken only last century.
A list of Newton’s expenses
Newton’s expenses continued – note the beginning of his interest in chemistry, and alchemy, in the top line.
Beginning of the mathematical section of the notebook

2019 The ThalamoSeq team project – an article about our research on how the centre of the brain is organised

Some of my thesis work was the subject of a press release article. It is in part this work (a team effort) that won me the British Neuroscience Association Thesis of the year award in 2020.

Copied from: https://www.janelia.org/news/now-we-know-how-the-thalamus-is-organized

Now We Know How the Thalamus is Organized: Janelia’s ThalamoSeq Project Team uncovers new details about the organization of the thalamus, a central control center in the brain.

Slowly, the thalamus is being uncloaked. 

The brain structure sits just above the brain stem and acts as a central switchboard, directing sensory and motor signals to the cortex. Different regions of the thalamus direct traffic to different areas, like the visual cortex or the auditory cortex.

Now, a Project Team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus illuminates this crucial structure’s organization in new detail. An analysis of RNA from neurons in the thalamus suggests that those specialized regions of the thalamus are built in much the same way as one another, the team reports September 16, 2019, in the journal Nature Neuroscience. This hints at surprising parallels in how different types of information are transferred around the brain.

Individual cells in the thalamus are highlighted in a rainbow of colorsA cross section of the thalamus reveals three main types of cells, marked here in different colors. Credit: James Phillips 

Based on measuring RNA, “there were three main types of thalamic pathways that repeated across essentially every system,” says study coauthor James Phillips, a graduate student at Janelia. 

Many structures in the brain send signals through the thalamus. Scientists at Janelia and beyond were studying some of those parts individually, but how those areas communicated with each other via the thalamus was largely a mystery. There just weren’t good tools to study specific subsets of cells in the thalamus, says Adam Hantman, a Janelia group leader who helped direct the project. And without the ability to isolate cells receiving messages from certain brain areas, it was hard to know exactly how signals were being relayed.

This project, ThalamoSeq, aimed to make the thalamus easier to study and understand. It built on techniques honed during a previous Janelia team project, which categorized neurons in mouse and fly brains by analyzing RNA from individual cells. ThalamoSeq adapted those techniques to take a deeper dive into one key brain structure, generating an online resource far more complete than one lab could typically accomplish alone.

Now, “we’ve redefined the cell types of the thalamus based on the pattern of gene expression,” says study coauthor Anton Schulmann, also at Janelia. It’s a more holistic and detailed way of looking at brain cells than simply looking at where they go or what kind of signals they send, and one that opens doors for future research into how the brain is built and organized.

By analyzing the way RNA transcripts varied between cells in the thalamus, the researchers identified three primary profiles of cells. That spectrum of cell types repeated itself over many regions of the thalamus responsible for transmitting different signals – each area contained the same subsets of cell types. That is, the part of the thalamus that communicates with the visual cortex has the same types of cells as the part that communicates with the auditory cortex, the motor cortex, or other brain areas.

“I think the most attractive and intriguing part of this is that for a long time, there’s been a suggestion that the cortex, the seat of cognition, is organized in a similar way across its structure. But what this suggests is, this is actually true right at the core of the brain,” says Phillips. “By understanding the thalamus’s organization, we can get a great deal of information about how the rest of the brain is organized.” 

But notably, the boundaries between those cell types were somewhat blurred – not everything fell into a clear category. “I think that’s an important lesson that might be true for other parts of the brain,” says Hantman. “We love to split things into types, but these intermediates are interesting.” And without looking at the thalamus in this much detail, he says, that nuance might have gone unnoticed.

###

Citation

James W. Phillips, Anton Schulmann, Erina Hara, Johan Winnubst, Chenghao Liu, Vera Valakh, Lihua Wang, Brenda C. Shields, Wyatt Korff, Jayaram Chandrashekar, Andrew L. Lemire, Brett Mensh, Joshua Dudman, Sacha B. Nelson, and Adam W. Hantman. “A repeated molecular architecture across thalamic pathways,” Nature Neuroscience. Published online September 16, 2019. doi: 10.1038/s41593-019-0483-3

Photographs, 2018-2020 [updated July 18th w/Videos]

2018

I visited Emory University for a conference on learning and memory, and one of the additional perks was a visit to their Gorilla behaviour research program at the local zoo 🙂
A gorilla from the zoo we got up close to 🙂 He/She was able to play video games in return for fruit reward. I have videos of them juggling but sadly WordPress requests I pay for an upgrade to post it…
Fruitcake from a monastery in Virginia 🙂
My brother and I had an article published in the Telegraph
at my home town, summer 2018. down that road is my old victorian school
A view of the Somerset landscape from my home town highstreet
I wrote my thesis partly in the forests behind my parents house. I put a chair there, and one day came back and found the chair had gone….
Presenting my thesis work with Anton at SFN 2018
An image from my thesis. This is of Thalamus, with different colours showing different gene expression (blue is a nuclear stain)
Misha’s kid asked me to teach him to play chess…. I told him he needed to get the king out of the way, so he picked it up and moved it off the board….Video below
Christmas party, 2018

2019

We discovered that if we put a bin over an air vent, it turned into a ghost
Virginia, Chongxi and I rescued a snapping turtle from the road, but not before we tested if it could snap.
My terrible impression of Australian Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, with the snapping turtle!
Virginia snapped me reading in Misha’s lab
I found a nest of snakes in the forests near my work, and went back each day to handle them 🙂 Some of them were huge!
Our boat trip on a summer course for theoretical neuroscience
At the theoretical neuroscience course at the champalimaud

I visited Auschwitz with my father in winter 2019.
I visited Auschwitz with my father in winter 2019.

Anton + I’s paper made the front cover of Nature Neuroscience
My thesis work won a prize 🙂
Some of my reading list, in my book cave in my parent’s attic, winter 2019
With Alan Kay at the British Library after we went to a Da Vinci exhibition (back when I was fat)
Me after having eye surgery to remove a surgical stitch from the eye 🙂
With my cousin and grandpa at his 89th birthday. Sadly he had a fall a few days later but moved into a care home on our road so we could see him every day 🙂

2020

On a walk in my home town, which is twinned with Terry Pratchett’s fictional disc world, hence the strange street names 🙂
Early 2020
A portrait of a personal hero of mine, Witold Pilecki, that I had drawn
The spot in the fields behind my parents house where I made lots of phone calls in mid March prior to entering my current job, these calls would later turn out to be key!
My first day walking into Westminster
The Cenotaph being guarded by a man with a lightsaber
The Palace of Westminster, the oldest intact parliament at almost 1000 years old
The backdrop to mass at Westminster Abbey is Isaac Newton’s grave
Downing Street decorated in Union Jack flags

Leaving Downing Street after a long evening, Winter 2020
We got a Christmas tree 🙂
A portrait of Ada Lovelace
At an early birthday party, putting out my candles with a scarf to be COVID secure.
The bells in Westminster abbey returned during a lockdown lull 🙂
Selfie with my lockdown bubble Ginny – this is our compromise between us having a photo and my stubborn insistence on not having a photo before she left for America on a rainy very cold night….
A Downing Street Christmas bauble 🙂

Memoir: A Semi-Monocular I

An autobiographical piece about being born with a cataract, seeing double my whole life, and why I became a neuroscientist. Its the prologue to a book I am writing titled ‘An Emergent I’ (currently paused due to other projects).

‘Of the essentials of preserving life, nourishing the breath has no peer. When the breath is exhausted, the body dies, when the people are downtrodden, the nation collapses’
Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku, Letter to a sick monk, 18th century Japan

‘…To explicate the uses of the Brain, seems as difficult a task as to paint the Soul, of which it is commonly said, That it understands all things but itself;’
Thomas Willis, Preface to Cerebri Anatome, 1664

Prologue: A Semi-Monocular I

‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view… until you climb into [their] skin and walk around in it.’  

Harper Lee, writing as Atticus Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird

A Forbidden Experience

This is a book about the self. And since eyes are said to be the window to the soul, they make a good place for us to start. Eyes have also been a topic close to me since my birth. To explain this, I want to begin by telling you something about myself, about how I see the world, and thus something about the brain that wrote this book. 

I was born blind in one eye. Because of this, there is an experience that I have never had. Not only have I never perceived this experience, I cannot even imagine it. It is an experience that you, and almost everybody you have ever met, takes entirely for granted. Yet it is also profoundly beautiful, and this missing beauty in my own life captivates me. I know it is beautiful from the accounts of the few who lacked this experience, and then gained it later in life.

This experience is that of the ability to see depth. This depth perception occurs through binocular vision, called stereopsis, and it is a central part of how the normally sighted see and interact with the world. We commonly refer to it as three-dimensional vision.

Stereopsis comes from our forward-facing eyes, and therefore only some animals, usually predators, have it. It allows you to assess how far away an object is from you. It is what allows you to sense how far a balloon in the air is from you. When you intuit how far to reach for a glass, the sense of depth is at work.

How do we sense depth? There are multiple ways. Firstly, there are cues for depth that come from individual eyes: things that are closer to you move more when you move your head, and obviously they look larger than when they are far away. These are monocular cues. We can see this from the depth apparent in flat, two-dimensional works of art. Leonardo da Vinci in his notebooks made a detailed study of how such monocular cues can be used to create depth in art. But despite their usefulness, these cues lack a great deal of information compared to normal binocular vision, which I lack. This other, binocular kind is the one that is so elusively, beautifully different. 

Binocular vision cannot come from either eye alone. That is to say, it only comes from the combined use of two eyes as one. It is therefore in part a creation of the mind. 

The additional information used to create a sense of depth is the slight difference in viewing position between the two eyes, which leads to different images being formed and sent to the brain. To see this, try holding an object close to you, then close either eye, and see how the image changes. How much it changes depends upon how far away it is, and this information is used by the brain to estimate distance. For example, an apple held close to you looks much more different eye to eye than an apple far away. The brain uses this information to create binocular depth.

Without this estimation of depth, the world has a flatness that is obviously hard for me to describe. My brain has only ever had relatively minimal depth cues as it uses only one eye, and so my worldview is correspondingly flat. 

Interestingly, once stereopsis has been acquired, even closing one eye does not make it fully go away. Normal brains use their past binocular experience to ‘fill in’ and create an enriched sense of depth even when one eye is shut, a fact confirmed by studies showing that binocularists are better at judging depth with one eye than are monocularists. Even if you closed one eye, it would not give you this same flatness that I see. Susan Barry wrote a beautiful memoir of her own experience gaining normal stereopsis later in life, an experience so unusual she was profiled by Oliver Sacks in the New Yorker for it. She describes herself being ‘overwhelmed’, the experience being ‘remarkable’ and ‘dramatic’. It is a ‘distinct, subjective sensation’, quite unlike anything else.  She writes of how even films on flat screens gained depth for her upon gaining stereopsis, and of how she felt beautifully immersed in a deep, enveloping sense of worldly depth that she had never experienced before. A particularly haunting part for me was reading of her joy at being surrounded by and immersed in a scene of falling snow in winter, being herself part of this deepened world for the first time. She had been freed from a life of living through a flat television screen as I must do.

In her book, Barry quotes Frederick Brock (1899-1972), a pioneer in visual therapy who wrote ‘….Before stereopsis is actually experienced by the patient, there is nothing one can do or say which will adequately explain to him the actual sensation experienced.’ Like a colour that has never been seen before, it is beyond the imagination of monocularists like myself to conjure these sensations. Despite having ‘normal’ brains, our imagination is sharply constrained by our lack of experience. As no explanation of sound could ever satisfy the deaf, no explanation of depth could satisfy me. It is the invisible thing lying forever in front of me.

Neither is this imperception merely a sensory deficiency. Rather, this lack of depth pervades action also. Living in this flat land leads to a certain clumsiness, and a lifetime of odd habits built up to compensate. At a dinner with a friend in 2018, I reached quickly for a wine glass, misjudging its distance badly. My hand crashed into the newly filled glass, splashing red wine all over his white shirt. My explanation involving monocularity, stereoblindness and resulting poor motor control did not resolve the subsequent awkwardness.

I was aware of this deficiency from a young age, and I channeled this curiosity into a tendency to think about thinking, in order to try to understand myself. This in turn led to questions about the brain.

The birth of an I, and a blooming, buzzing confusion

Let us start with a ‘simple’ question: how do we begin to see? When thought begins in life is perhaps not a meaningful question. Most likely to me at least, thought gradually appears in the womb: we are not desktop computers with simple ‘on’ switches. But what is clear is that the opening of the eyes for the first time marks a dramatic change. Babies do not hide this fact upon their emergence, which is rarely a quiet process. What is not so immediately clear from watching babies is the marked challenges that seeing and doing present to the newborn, though the flailing of newborn babies hints at this. 

We imagine babies looking back at us clearly for the first time, but the reality is almost certainly quite different. Upon being born, we are met instead by what William James called ‘the blooming, buzzing confusion’. As we shall see, neuroscience has proven James correct. In the ‘great bath of birth’ a blaze of ever-changing lights storm into the fertile young mind. Everything is unexplained, the mind restlessly clutches for anything predictable, familiar. All sorts of regularities are identified and saved by the brain at this time, a process that we shall track later. Edges, shapes, textures, movements, all form a rising crescendo of complexity that is caught by the brain. From this apparent chaos we eventually learn to recognize faces, appreciate beauty and read poetry. Here the brain is forming the foundation upon which more detailed understanding will later be laid, a layer of perceptual lessons upon earlier perceptual lessons. In studying the brain, we are in large part studying the machinery for understanding this apparent chaos into which the newborn is so suddenly immersed. Brains thus exist to learn useful things about the world.

We will discuss at length the challenges of something so apparently effortless to us as seeing. For now, I want to elaborate on seeing with two eyes.

We do not come into the world able to take the two images from both of our two eyes and make one single, hopefully unified worldview. But, at least for you, it happened. There is one self. A single, internal model of the world built from two eyes, two ears, taste, smell, touch, and even sensors that tell you where your joints are. From the cacophony of newborn experience comes our mental universe. This is not a passive process either: every experience comes to hint at, suggest, or even force action, which in turn changes sensation, and so the cycle continues. From all of this comes a whole, single world.

Well, at least for you. For me, things are more complex. When I, my self,  developed in the womb, a small layer of connective tissue remained in the right eye, blocking the light from entering and reaching the retina. I was thus half-blind. 

Being half blind did come with an advantage: for the first five weeks of my life, my baby self had no binocular problem, no need to combine the two images: I looked out upon the world with a single eye. All of those worldly confusions of vision were dealt with by one eye’s input to the brain. Things were relatively simple, and I, whatever this I was at that early age, could focus on other priorities in setting up my inner world.

Then, however, everything visual in my life changed. This aberrant connective tissue was removed at a very young age – five weeks – for reasons that we shall see. The second eye, lacking a lens due to this surgery, suddenly came into play, and the confusion blossomed into what I imagine was mental anarchy. A second image began flooding my brain – much blurrier, weaker, unable to focus at all as it lacked a lens – and this image needed to be dealt with.

What happens next in babies such as I was? The ideal outcome, of course, is to have two eyes see as one, ie., to be normal. Here, though, there are problems. It is much easier for the brain to simply continue to use one eye, especially when that one eye has much clearer vision than the other. What happens then, if left untreated, is exactly this: the brain blocks the image from the second eye, and so people use one eye only. This is a common reason for having a squint. The brain never learns to use the weaker eye, and so that eye simply lives on as a kind of vestigial sensory artifact, an eye without a brain. The eye gets forgotten, if it was ever truly known.

To prevent this abandonment of the weaker eye, children like me go through a rather time-intensive and laborious process of ‘patching’ or, more technically, monocular occlusion therapy. In this process, a patch is placed over the ‘good eye’, as my mother used to call it, forcing the child to use the ‘bad eye’. This patch is often worn for the majority of each day, and I used to make frequent visits to Great Ormond street hospital in London, where they sought to track my progress. In childhood photographs, I can be seen wearing this patch, peering out at the world through the blurry, weaker eye. I wore it during almost all of my time at primary, or elementary, school. My mother went through parental hell trying to coax her child’s brain into seeing. I repeatedly tore off this cumbersome, sticky object, and had to be bribed with sweets to keep it on. It became a bargaining chip in many a negotiation. I yearned for the hour when I could rip the patch off and see a crystalline world again. Every day, for the first ten years of my life, I went through this. It did not endear me to the school bullies: pirate jokes abounded.

With my mother during monocular occlusion therapy. I am being forced to use my right eye to ‘teach’ my brain how to use it.

The purpose of this treatment is to make the brain learn to listen to the input from the ‘bad’ eye, and it can be effective. For many who go through this, the outcome is relatively normal binocular vision. Some people’s brains still reject the ‘bad’ eye, remaining monocular once the patch is off. They remain unable to use the bad eye at all. Regardless, the normal outcome is almost always one worldview, whether it be from just one eye, or from successfully using the two eyes together. A ‘single’, obvious I that sees and acts, a centre point of the self.

For me though, something rather different happened, a compromise between these two extremes. I ended up seeing everything twice.

A doubled life: ‘imperfect’ partners

The task of fusing two eyes’ images was never accomplished by me. Doubtless my baby brain tried to make sense of the images together, but gave up the struggle. Instead, I have suffered from double vision all of my life. As I write, I see two pages, two sets of words, blending into each other. When I look at the sky, I see two suns. I see two moons, two lover’s faces, two horizons, two of everything. 

What is it then, to see twice? Which eye represents the experience of the self? Which image is reality? In truth, one image is more like a ghost, hovering over or under the reality. This ghost is almost always the bad eye: very blurred, legally blind, a little like looking through very frosted glass. I have been unable to wear contact lenses since an eye operation at age 25, but even when I could, I preferred not to. The blurriness helps me to keep those two images separate: one grounded, one floating. This is less confusing.

The relationship of the two images to one another is of particular interest. When I was a child, I almost always presented a ‘lazy eye’, my right eye would stubbornly not look straight, not look in alignment with the left eye. As I turned thirteen, this increasingly bothered me, because of how it looked to others.

I began to think long and hard about how to fix this problem of having an obviously lazy eye. I consulted doctors: there is a commonly used surgery that makes the eyes straight by subtly tightening or loosening muscles. However, this only works if the offset of the two eyes is constant. Mine was not. My right eye would drift in different directions, and so there was no fixed correction to make. Doctors said I was also too old to hope that my brain would learn to fuse these two dueling images from the two eyes(more on that duel later). The development of vision happens very young, they said, in a ‘critical period’ where the brain is especially malleable. Because of this, I would have to put up with being cross-eyed forever.

But I was stubborn. I persisted in trying to solve this problem without medical help. What was clear to me was that the fix, if it could be found, would not be found in my eyes, but in my brain. What I realized then was that the double vision was actually a secret blessing: it meant that if I concentrated I could tell when my eyes were looking at the same point or not. This is harder than it sounds, since I lacked the mental routines to do this check effortlessly, but over much time I learnt to do it through extensive trial and error, every time learning to make the relevant estimate of how far apart my eyes were. I learnt to tell whether the eyes were drifting or not, and thus whether I looked cross eyed.

I then had to learn to move each eye independently to bring them back into alignment. This does not come naturally to anyone, not even someone with a visual brain as strange as my own. I began searching for the right mental lever, the right thought, to allow me to control the eyes separately. Over time, I gradually found the way to do it. I explored all kinds of abstract mental places before I found the correct one, the one that attached to the ‘move right eye’ or the ‘move left eye’ commands. Over months, I gradually taught myself how to correct each of the relative displacements between the two eyes, including testing myself in front of mirrors. I used the errors, the difference between the expected and the actual outcomes, to slowly calibrate my brain’s ability to keep my eyes straight. As a teenager, I did consciously what you have done effortlessly since early childhood. The images never fused, but they were relatively aligned. Most of the time, unless I am tired or distracted, my eyes are aligned.

I had created in my mind a habit based upon the close coupling of action and sensation. Each little drift in the two images was met by the necessary corrective action. I had not learnt to use my eyes as one, but I had created an illusion of having done so. Even now, several times a minute I notice a drift of the images that is big enough to need a conscious correction, but it is doable.

Recompense for monocularity

I wrote earlier that I ‘suffer’ from double vision, but this is only partly true. It is true that it is most irritating trying to read with this constant, shifting sets of two images. It is also difficult to become immersed in something while maintaining the constant corrective habits of keeping the eyes aligned. Following slides in a lecture is particularly difficult. I find it very hard to look at objects in detail, to fix my gaze upon an object for any length of time. The constant habit of correcting the drift is immensely distracting, like trying to think whilst balancing on one leg. 

In essence, I lack what the yoga masters called Drishti, an essential part of yoga involving steady, calm, yet concentrated gaze, that in turn settles the body and breath. I am in a constant juggling, shifting state of attention, unable to minutely examine precise detail. It makes eye contact especially odd, and I habitually avoid this discomfort.

But seeing the world differently in this way also has its advantages. I’ll begin with the beauty of the images I see. Because my ‘bad eye’ has no natural lens, the image it sees is heavily blurred. This means that points of light are seen as blazes of illumination, like car lights through a rainy window.  That eye’s world resembles a living impressionist painting, with blurs of colours and poorly resolved shifts of shapes. I sometimes sit and simply look out of the right, weaker eye, seeing the world in this unfocussed way. It gives an odd reminder of how distorted normal perception is.

But the real beauty comes when using both eyes together, as best I can. Through this, viewing the world becomes a kind of internal poetry, an impressionist painting dancing above the crystal, lens-given ‘reality’ of the good eye. A dancer’s precise pirouettes are illuminated in a bright, motion-filled blur. Reflections of light each have their own shifting halo. Nights are especially beautiful: on top of the precise points of light, the sparkle of the weaker eye floats, broader and more diffuse, like a glow from within each object. Or perhaps this glow is underneath the clear image, not on top. It is hard, even impossible, to work out which is the foreground. This double vision is more irritating in day: the brightness of both images becomes more of a fight within my brain, whilst the calmer hues of night allow a complementary co-existence. The real world is bathed in the warm glow of the weaker eye. 

But the benefits of seeing double extend beyond the aesthetic. How you see alters how you think. Studies have even shown that you can predict aspects of personality from the movement of the eyes. Changes in ways of seeing have been linked to great artistic ability: it has been speculated from self-portraits that Rembrandt, Picasso and even da Vinci had lazy eyes, and a corresponding flatness of worldview. This forced adaptation, compromise, a development of alternative ways of seeing and depicting the world.

But double vision did not help me become a brilliant painter. In fact, I’m terrible at drawing: trying to visualize things on the page is very difficult, as the two eyes constantly jostle, meaning there is no fixed point of focus to imagine from. This outweighs any artistic advantages I could gain from seeing a flat world.

Instead of leading me to art, it led me to thinking about thought. Seeing the two images competing, completing, complementing one another is to watch my own thought in real time. This is true for you also: the world you see is the inside of your head. When you open your eyes and gaze upon a sunset, you are actually watching your brain at work.

Your brain performs this illusion well. but in me it is far from perfect. When my attention changes between the two eyes, the images gain and shrink in relative vividness, even relative realness. I can see attention at work. As a child I used to sit and play with the two images, often in a futile attempt to achieve my dream of using two eyes as one.

That dream has not yet come true, and I increasingly wonder if it is such a dream at all. When I close my right eye, seeing with the good eye only, the world becomes still, static, even dull. It is like acquiring a newfound yet bland peace, like an ADHD sufferer suddenly finding calm and realizing they have nothing to do. Rather, my imperfect duet of the two eyes gives the world a living, breathing air, each glance birthing a new flurry of thoughts buzzing in this abstract, unfocussed theatre inside of my head, the theater that sees twice. Viewing can never be a quiet act for me. How much of my personality comes from this eccentric worldview I cannot tell, but I am inclined to be optimistic.

Whatever the answer, fate has given me at least one great gift. Through all of these moments, from long hours in hospitals taking tests, years wearing an eye patch to coax my brain into seeing, experiments in and frustrations with seeing double, a fascination with what I am and how I came to be was born, alongside the tiny speck of tissue that blocked the sight into my right eye. I became restlessly curious to understand this problem deep inside myself, a problem of myself and its partial doublement, and was drawn to reading and learning all that I could about brains. I went on to study neuroscience as an undergraduate, and then as a PhD student. 

That is what this book was originally about: neuroscience, and the brain: the instrument that I thought makes the mind. But since then it has expanded, as my own life experience showed me my own embodiment. I will not give away the narrative of the book, but this is me in April 2017, in an intensive care bed following surgery on my aorta:

The author in an intensive card bed, April 22nd 2017.

This, and two other experiences around then, fundamentally changed my sense of self, my thoughts as a scientist, and ultimately this book, which has become as much a memoir of a scientist’s life as it is a book about the brain: my hopes, frustrations, thoughts, experiences, discoveries, friendships, training, successes, failures etc. The core parts of this book were written, at least in my head, during the build up and recovery from this operation. We shall come to this question of embodiment and the mind:body link. 

Until then, to the fabrics of thought we go.

2020 – ‘Bunker years’ and the use of time: lessons from a year-long medical semi-isolation

Note: this was written originally in March 2020 for a different blog.

You are probably just beginning a long period of isolation.  I spent 2017 largely alone in my family home preparing for and recovering from a surgery to fix a serious illness, which ultimately took years to recover from fully.  I thought the lessons I learnt might be useful to others now.

What I found is that ‘free time’ vanishes like a pile of sand gathered through open, welcoming hands. You only realise it is gone when a few grains are left. Twitter consumes. 

Da Vinci’s words apply well: “Art breathes from constraint and suffocates from freedom.”. We may have dreams of how we will use our new found isolated freedom, but, if you are like me, your will will be captured by clickbait and the time will vanish without conscious countermeasures.

I suggest four simple habits and goals for the bunker:

  1. Create a virtual bunker: work via long-periods of deliberate isolation, not scattered, interruptible time (deep work).
  2. Create targets at different time scales, to provide milestones to move toward (distant stars) .
  3. Create a clear work/personal divide and ‘mindset changes’ via routines (organising the paintbrushes).
  4. Develop a non-work skill such as meditation to provide balance,  an escape from work, and fulfillment.

Create a virtual bunker: deep work

‘Evil is whatever distracts’
Franz Kafka

We structure our bunker time for maximum quality of effort. The divide between ‘personal’ and ‘work’ is unclear, and so we shift between the two modes both incompletely and briefly.

The Deep Work phrase comes from Cal Newport’s book of the same name. Deep work is a sustained period of isolated concentration, without distracting influences. Newport argues that we have lost the ability to do this, instead spending our time consumed by the ‘shallows’ of email etc, and our productivity has quietly collapsed because of it.

Newport tells of famous (and non-famous) achievements made by deliberately cutting oneself off from the world for a specified period of time: no internet, no email, no phone calls, no social contact. Historically, Carl Jung worked in a tower for almost the entire day, cut off from distraction. Mark Twain had an isolated hut for writing, and would be summoned for dinner by a horn. Today distraction is far worse than then.

The essence of deep work is that an hour of continuous undistracted work is worth 3-4 hours of distracted, fragmented time, or of eight 15 minute blocks of undistracted work. It gets you ‘in the zone’, keeps your mind on task. 

Crucial to deep work are two key things:

– Set aside deliberate blocks of time, say 2 hours, to work on something.

2 – Cut off all contact with the outside world during this time. 

This may sound simple (it is), but when did you last do it? Set your day to be composed of around 1-4 blocks of deep work, depending upon length (when I met Newport he suggested that sustained intense deep work of more than 4 hours per day is challenging, which matches GH Hardy’s advice in ‘A mathematicians apology’). When distraction comes, say you are in ‘deep work’ – a polite f-off to ‘whatever distracts’.

In my experience, this is far more important and useful than expensive productivity apps. It also acts as a ‘free organisational tool’, forcing you to  structure time and prioritise by picking your ‘deep work targets’ (see below).

To get a better sense of this, see this video which is an excellent summary of deep work by a youtube blogger who has interviewed Newport.

Something I have found very useful for ‘deep work’ is to play ‘coffee shop sounds’ – see this  example (on spotify/apple music).

Two useful apps – freedom & self control. Freedom shuts the internet off, self control blocks specific sites. It will educate you about how quickly you reach for the twitter dopamine hit. 

Note added 18th April 2021 – ‘E-mails ‘hurt IQ more than pot” – CNN

Create stars of varying distance: ‘compass-like’ targets at different timescales

“He whose gaze is fixed on a distant star will not falter.” Leonardo Da Vinci 

It’s easy to lose sight of the distant star indoors, especially for the infinite labyrinth of the internet at our single-click-away disposal. Deep work without direction will lead to piles of semi-finished things. Time becomes amorphous without targets at different timescales.  

This sensation only gets worse without active countermeasures. What I found in my bunker year was that without clear weekly targets, weeks blurred into one another, and nothing ever got ‘done’ – books were left half read, essays begun and half forgotten. I did many things, but never finished them: I was a slave to momentary wills. Weekly targets give you clear ‘weekends’.

Targets must be used to create a sense of timescale, a sense of time as a resource to be used. Targets act at different timescales. I was fortunate enough to be educated in the Oxford tutorial system. A ‘hidden routine’ in this system is the weekly essay, which gives you a target and a ‘focus’. The weekly essay gave you your ‘local purpose’, the ‘stepping stone’ to the exams and, more importantly, to being a scientist.

Without this weekly essay as a PhD student, I found myself wandering. I lacked the productivity of my undergraduate stays, spending much time dithering. I only realised what I was missing in the final year of my thesis: clear weekly targets, very few in number. This is a difficult thing to do as cleanly as when a mentor sets them, but it’s a skill I have since consciously worked on. In essence, this is about being mindful of the goals you have, rendering them explicit, rather than simply aiming for vague notions of productivity.

The Oxford term system also provides a mental scaffolding of time – I can still remember what I was doing each term of Oxford, and I used to be able to remember individuals week (3rd week), because they were placed within the structure of 3 terms with holidays. Each term is 8 weeks, with long vacations, meaning you have a total of 6 divisions to the year. It is likely we will be bunkered for a year on-and-off: divide that time up. I follow the oxford system now using an Oxford diary.

Likewise, without clear daily targets, it is easy to find yourself at lunch having done nothing but ‘deep work’ on whatever came up in the morning’s emails. Setting targets is a simple way of prioritising. For this, ZenHabit’s MIT’s is very useful: Zen Habits on MITs – identify 1-3 of the most important tasks for the day and structure your time around it. Note that having a long conversation with someone often is an MIT – today I tried to sneak a call in and ended up with so much to follow up on that I had to schedule a deep work session on it. 

Your work time therefore becomes a hierarchy of targets. 

Pick daily, weekly and termly targets, and remind yourself of them daily. I put the weekly targets in my diary so I see them everyday. Think in the future – where do I need to be? 

A nice phrase is ‘a year is shorter than you think, 10 years is longer than you think’ – I read it on twitter some time ago and can’t find the source, but it is not original to me.

The painter tidies his paintbrushes: habits, routines, and the structuring of time

States of mind are something that we find ourselves at the mercy of in our isolation, as it is easy to get ‘stuck’ in a mindset without external cues to nudge us out of it, or even point out that we are in a maladptive mindset. We assume what 16th century zen master Takuan Soho calls right-mindedness, that our mind is free to deal with what it needs to deal with, rather than stopping in distraction. Yet our state of mind depends greatly on surroundings, and we usually only realise we have gone astray some time after it happens.

Monasteries use chanting, rituals, daily schedules to keep the monastic mind focussed upon its higher calling. They also use the physical environment, a topic for a later blog. Our work environment, for better or worse, sculpts this also. You may find, as I did, that the sudden removal of  the cruxes and stimuli of our work mind reveal the very existence of those cruxes and stimuli. Freedom reveals the benefits of constraints. The trip to work in the morning tunes the mind for what’s to come. Seeing the boss reminds you of the importance of deadlines. Travelling home at night helps ‘switch off’ – somewhat reduced by the curse of chronic connectivity.

In the eastern arts, the frailty of will is recognised and deliberately honed. In Zen in the art of Archery, Herrigel tells of a master of painting preparing for and executing a painting in front of pupils:

“A painter seats himself before his pupils. He examines his brush and slowly makes it ready for use, carefully rubs ink, straightens the long strip of paper that lies before him on the mat, and finally, after lapsing for a while into profound concentration, in which he sits like one inviolable, he produces with rapid, absolutely sure strokes a picture which, capable of no further correction and needing none, serves the class as a model. A flower master begins the lesson by cautiously untying the bast which holds together the flowers and sprays of blossom, and laying it to one side carefully rolled up.

………But why doesn’t the teacher allow these preliminaries, unavoidable though they are, to be done by an experienced pupil? Does it lend wings to his visionary and plastic powers if he rubs the ink himself, if he unties the bast so elaborately instead of cutting it and carelessly throwing it away? And what impels him to repeat this process at every single lesson, and, with the same remorseless insistence, to make his pupils copy it without the least alteration? He sticks to this traditional custom because he knows from experience that the preparations for working put him simultaneously in the right frame of mind for creating. The meditative repose in which he performs them gives him that vital loosening and equability of all his powers, that collectedness and presence of mind, without which no right work can be done.”

I can try to distill this down into two simplest parts: first, have strict work hours, and non-work hours. Second, when you are to work, try to have a consistent place for it, and a routine to start/end the work. For me, it is to shut everything else down, remove all distractions for the task at hand, and set a timer. Then I think for several minutes about what is to come, which acts as a ‘work meditation’ akin to the organisation of the painter’s studio Herrigel describes.

I also recommend spending 25 minutes in the morning on a planning/tidying session. For example, today I took out my small notebook, reviewed my projects page of my notebook, and identified three priorities. I then simply thought about those priorities, visualising how i would do them, what I would need etc. When it came to do them, my mind was ‘ready’.

Deliberate rest is an important concept, relating to the divide between personal and work. Being on an iPhone looking on instagram is not rest, it is a reward seeking behaviour and stimulating. I strongly recommend setting strict ‘work hours’ and ‘personal hours’. Experiment in the benefits of cutting yourself off in the evenings, deep-work style.

Develop a skill: meditation, drawing etc

The single most important thing I did in my year of isolation, except for having a huge operation and eating lots of food to recover, was to begin meditating. The meditation that I focussed upon is Hakuin’s Nanso meditation, about which much of my book is centered, as well as more standard ‘clear the mind’ meditation. 

An exceptional piece of writing on meditation comes from Dogen, effectively the father of the Soto school of Zen: ‘recommending zazen to all people’.  I say more about this in the long-form version.