Tag Archives: brain

Forest-sized brains

A couple of years ago I wrote in the abstract about ‘Slow thoughts from a planet sized brain‘ [on March 25th, 2020].  I read on vacation in Suzanne Simard‘s book, ‘Finding the Mother Tree‘ that glutamate, which is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the human brain, is also transmitted through mycorrhizal networks connecting trees in forests. Mycorrhizal fungi live in the soil around the roots of plants in a symbiotic relationship with the plants transmitting water to, and receiving sugar from, the plant roots.  Fir trees have been shown to transmit information about threats, e.g., budworm infestations, to one another and to other species of tree.  The speed of this information transmission is fast enough that production of enzymes to protect the trees increases within a day of the appearance of the threat.  We have assumed that folklore tales about enchanted forests are products of our imagination; but perhaps they are based on a long-lost appreciation that forests possess a level of consciousness.  Consciousness seems to require different parts of a system to communicate with one another and form networks [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016], which Simard and others have demonstrated occurs in forests with the mycorrhizal networks being equivalent to the neural network in our brains.  The scale of a forest’s network is such that communication will be slower than in our brain but that is not necessarily an inhibitor of consciousness.  So, perhaps forest-sized brains would be intermediate between human-sized and planet-sized.


Space between the words

I am an habitual user of a fountain pen.  It is the only writing implement that I carry with me since I enjoy writing with a fountain pen and because I can keep track of one pen but no more than one.  I have used it, and its predecessors, to make notes in a series of forty notebooks that stretch back to when I started as a research assistant forty years ago.  I used to record laboratory results in my notebooks but nowadays I have a research team who perform all of the work in the laboratory.  I still use my pen and notebook to record meetings, ideas and notes on papers.  I find the process of writing notes by hand to be conducive to both remembering detail and connecting fragments of information into new thoughts and ideas.  I am not alone in having these experiences.  Researchers have found that taking notes by hand improves the performance of students in answering conceptual questions compared to students who use a laptop to take notes.  When you write on a laptop, it is easy to delete words and re-start a sentence, whereas to create a coherent set of notes in a book you need to craft a sentence prior to committing pen to paper.  Perhaps the latter process allows a more persistent assembly of neurons to be formed in your brain [see ‘Slow deep thoughts from a planet-sized brain‘ on March 25th, 2020]; or maybe it is just the irregular spacing between handwritten words which creates a more distinct pattern that can be more readily recalled than the repetitive single spaces in typed text.  I certainly feel there is a connection between recalling the image of a page from my notebook and remembering the content even though I cannot usually read the words in my mental image.

Crumb RM, Hildebrandt R & Sutton TM, The value of handwritten notes: a failure to find state-dependent effects when using a laptop to notes and complete a quiz, Teaching of Psychology, 49(1):7-13, 2022.

You can only go there in your head

“Inner space and outer space are similar, aren’t they really?  You’re never going to get to the edge of the universe in a spaceship.  You might as well try going on a bus.  You can only go there in your head.”  This is a quote from David Hockney in ‘Spring Cannot Be Cancelled‘  by David Hockney and Martin Gayford.  It’s a beautiful book.  Full of thought-provoking insights and recent artwork by Hockney painted in Normandy mainly during the pandemic.  I read it last month while in the Yorkshire Dales [see ‘Walking the hills‘ on April 13th 2022].  Hockney writes about his need to paint.  He finds it utterly absorbing and endlessly sustaining.  Gayford compares this need and experience to the work of American psychologist, Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi [see ‘Slow-motion multi-tasking leads to productive research‘ on September 19, 2018] who wrote about concentration so intense that there is no spare capacity to think about anything else, your self-consciousness disappears and you lose your sense of time leading to a deep sense of happiness and well-being.  I cannot paint but I can achieve something approaching a similiar state when I am writing.


Martin Gayford and David Hockney, Spring cannot be cancelled – David Hockney in Normandy, London: Thames & Hudson, 2021.

Dwelling in the present

Photograph of St Michael's Church, Stoke Gifford

St Michael’s Church, Stoke Gifford

I have been visiting the Airbus site at Filton near Bristol since the mid-1990s. It is where the wings for new designs of aircraft are developed and tested. My involvement has been in the developing of techniques for measuring strain in aircraft structures during static and fatigue tests. At the moment, we are working on methods to integrate fields of measurements with computational predictions of stress and strain [see ‘Jigsaw puzzling without a picture‘ on October 27th, 2021]. I frequently travel by train to Bristol Parkway Station and walk past the church in the photograph without even noticing it despite it being next to the station. To be fair, the view of it from the station entrance is obscured by a billboard. However, last week as I walked back to the station with a half-hour to spare, I noticed a gate leading into a churchyard. I slipped through the gate thinking that perhaps there might be an interesting old church to explore but it was locked and I had to be satisfied with a stroll around the churchyard. I was slightly shocked to realise the church, and the village green beyond it, had been hidden in full view for more than thirty years of walking within a few tens of metres of it perhaps once a month. I had always been too focussed on the research that I was heading to Airbus to discuss, or too tired at the end of a day, to notice the things around me. Our senses flood our brains with information most of which is ignored by our conscious minds that are busy time traveling through past memories or looking into the future [see ‘Time travel and writing history‘ on March 23rd, 2022].  However, there is pleasure to be gained by dwelling in the present and exploring the sensory experience flooding into our brains.  As Amy Liptrot commented in her book ‘The Outrun‘, “the more I take the time to look at things, the more rewards and complexity I find”.


Enuma Okoro, The Pleasure Principle, FT Weekend, 19 February/20 February 2022.

Mia Levitan, Descent into digital distraction, FT Weekend, 5 March/6 March 2022.