Tag Archives: COVID-19

On the impact of writing on well-being

Poster showing five ways to well-being: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning, giveLast week, the continuation until at least the end of March of the lockdown, which has been in place in England since the start of the year, was announced. Many people are feeling jaded and worn out by the constraints and hardships imposed by the lockdown and are struggling to maintain their well-being and mental health. While others are trying to cope with the direct impact of the coronavirus on themselves and their family and friends. I have written before about the power of writing to transport me away from the pressures of everyday life [see ‘Feeling extraordinary at ease‘ on January 8th, 2020] and to help me order my thoughts [see ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘ on May 2nd, 2018].  These posts were inspired by reading books by Natalia Ginzburg and Sylvain Tesson.  I have just finished reading ‘A Fly Girl’s Guide to University‘ edited by Odelia Younge in which Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan writes about ‘times when my mental health was bad…writing became a solace and a friend’.  In the context of institutional pressures, racism and exclusion, she describes writing about her feelings to help her to feel and listening to her own voice when nobody else would.  I was reading the book to gain an appreciation of the experiences of woman of colour in a university; however, I think Manzoor-Khan’s words are relevant to everyone, especially when we are locked away and can only meet with much of our support networks via our computers and phones.  Tim Hayward, in the FT in January 2021, wrote a deeply moving and insightful account of his experience of fighting coronavirus, including ten days on life support, and concludes by reflecting on how writing the article helped him handle the trauma.  Of course, you don’t have to write for a newspaper, a book or a blog; although writing for an audience does focus your mind, you can write for yourself or friend and in doing so you can keep learning, take notice of your surroundings, and connect with people which will hit three out of five of the ways to well-being.

Sources:

Lola Olufemi, Odelia Younge, Waithera Sebatindira & Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, A Fly Girl’s Guide to University, Verve Poetry Press, Birmingham, 2019

Tim Hayward, Covid and me: 10 days on life support, FT Magazine, January 22nd, 2021.

Life of the mind in a bubble

About four years ago I wrote about living in bubbles and rarely coming into contact with people outside of our bubble [see ‘You’re all weird‘ on February 8th, 2017]. This was in the context of our experience of the media and our surprise when electorates make apparently irrational decisions. Since early this year we have been encouraged to live in more literal bubbles in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19; so, for example, we have created bubbles of researchers using our research labs in shifts to avoid a total shutdown of research when someone tests positive for coronavirus.  For many people, the pandemic has isolated them in a bubble of one that has created concerns about the well-being and happiness of individuals living and working alone.  When asked about the place he is happiest, the artist Ai Weiwei responded ‘Every place is equal for me.  Even in detention I could still find joyful moments’.  He finds ways to connect to other people and their emotions by reflecting on who he is, which leads to moments of joy.  He believes that success in life is about finding yourself in way that ‘doesn’t need ambition or talent. It just needs a functioning mind, emotion and simple judgment.’  During lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that it has become more important to maintain the life of mind through reading and discovering new ideas. As Jarvis Cocker said in a recent interview: ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same things, rechewing the same thing. I find that really boring.’  I hope that these posts have brought you new ideas and ways of thinking during 2020; writing them has certainly kept my mind active and stimulated.  So, I plan to continue in 2021 and hope that you will continue to read them.  Best wishes for a happy New Year!

Sources:

Inventory: Ai Weiwei, Artist interviewed by Lilah Raptopoulos in the FT Magazine, October 31/November 1, 2020.

Evolve or fade away, Jarvis Cocker interviewed by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the FT Weekend, 14 November/15 November 2020.

Lacking creativity

detail tl from abstract painting by Zahrah RI feel that I am moving to the next level of experience with online meetings but I am unsure that it will address the slow down in productivity and a loss of creativity being reported by most leaders of research groups to whom I have spoken recently.  About a month ago, we organised an ‘Away Day’ for all staff in the School of Engineering with plenary presentations, breakout groups and a Q&A session.  Of course, the restrictions induced by the pandemic meant that we were only ‘away’ in the sense of putting aside our usual work routine and it only lasted for half a day because we felt a whole day in an online conference would be counter productive; nevertheless, the feedback was positive from the slightly more than one hundred staff who participated.  On a smaller scale, we have experimented with randomly allocating members of my research team to breakout sessions during research group meetings in an attempt to give everyone a chance to contribute and to stimulate those serendipitous conversations that lead to breakthroughs, or least alternative solutions to explore.  We have also invited external speakers to join our group meetings – last month we had a talk from a researcher in Canada.  We are trying to recreate the environment in which new ideas bubble to the surface during casual conversations at conferences or visits to laboratories; however, I doubt we are succeeding.  The importance of those conversations to creativity and innovation in science is highlighted by the story of how Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna met for the first time at a conference in Puerto Rico.   While wandering around San Juan on a warm Caribbean evening in 2011 discussing the way bacteria protect themselves against viruses by chopping up the DNA of the virus, they realised that it could be turned into molecular scissors for cutting and editing the genes of any living creature.  They went home after the conference to their labs in Umea University, Sweden and UC Berkeley respectively and collaborated round the clock to implement their idea for which they won this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  Maybe the story is apocryphal; however, based on my own experience of conversations on the fringes of scientific meetings, they are more productive than the meeting itself and their loss is a significant casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.  There are people who point to the reduction in the carbon footprint of science research caused by the cancellation of conferences and who argue that, in order to contribute to UN Goals for Sustainable Development, we should not return to gatherings of researchers in locations around the world.  I agree that we should consider our carbon footprint more carefully when once again we can travel to scientific meetings; however, I think the innovations required to achieve the UN Goals will emerge very slowly, or perhaps not all, if researchers are limited to meeting online only.

Source:

Clive Cookson, A dynamic Nobel duo with natural chemistry, FT Weekend, 10/11 October 2020.

Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.

Shaping the mind during COVID-19

Books on a window sillIf you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’.  It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland.  Although it is  short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it.  However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher,  Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology.  Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness.  Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’.  It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations.  I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.

Source:

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 2014 (first published in 1977 by Aberdeen University Press)