All posts by tom

On being animal

Unless we wilfully close our eyes, we may, with our present knowledge, approximately recognise our parentage; nor need we feel ashamed of it. The most humble organism is something much higher than the inorganic dust under our feet; and no one with an unbiased mind can study any living creature, however humble, without being struck with enthusiasm at its marvellous structure and properties.

[Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871]


He was often ridiculed at the time, but Darwin is now celebrated as the father of evolutionary biology. He even has his own statue in the Natural History Museum, an appropriate reminder of the relevance of natural history to human beings.

Because we are part of the animal kingdom. The human genome is 99% similar to great apes and 95% to pigs. Genetically, humans can be seen as only slightly remodelled chimpanzee-like apes.

This relation becomes frightening in the context of the global extinction crisis:

Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago… Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day… Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans.

[Center for Biological Diversity]

One Health

The ‘One Health’ movement has responded to this situation by stressing the interrelationships between the health of humans, animals and ecosystems:

The convergence of people, animals, and our environment has created a new dynamic in which the health of each group is inextricably interconnected. The challenges associated with this dynamic are demanding, profound, and unprecedented. While the demand for animal-based protein is expected to increase… animal populations are under heightened pressure to survive, and further loss of biodiversity is highly probable.

On top of that, of the 1,461 diseases now recognized in humans, approximately 60% are due to multi-host pathogens characterized by their movement across species lines. And, over the last three decades, approximately 75% of new emerging human infectious diseases have been zoonotic. Our increasing interdependence with animals and their products may well be the single most critical risk factor to our health and well-being with regard to infectious diseases.

[American Veterinary Medical Association]

Although focused on the spread of disease, the implications of ‘One Health’ are important. Because we have always lived alongside and depended on animals. In thinking about health we might be able to learn something from them:


On blue light and David Bowie

David Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’ offered this commentary on television:

Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue

Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
Blue, blue

I will sit right down, 
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision
And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
Drifting into my solitude,
over my head

Sony used the song in a highly ambiguous advert for its Xperia Z smartphone in 2013:

Blue light and circadian rhythms 

Whatever Bowie may have meant by his reference to blue – the eery blue glow of electric screens, the general down-feeling of the blues –  he probably didn’t have circadian rhythms in mind: 24-hour cycles that tell our bodies when to sleep and regulate other physiological processes. But research has shown how artificial light can interfere with biological time:

Until the advent of artificial lighting, the sun was the major source of lighting, and people spent their evenings in (relative) darkness. Now, in much of the world, evenings are illuminated, and we take our easy access to all those lumens pretty much for granted.

But we may be paying a price for basking in all that light. At night, light throws the body’s biological clock—the circadian rhythm—out of whack. Sleep suffers. Worse, research shows that it may contribute to the causation of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, [depression] and obesity.

[Harvard Health Letter, 2012]

Blue light in particular has uniquely harmful effects. By suppressing the release of a hormone called melatonin, it keeps us alert during the day and awake at night:

Blue wavelengths—which are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood—seem to be the most disruptive at night. And the proliferation of electronics with screens, as well as energy-efficient lighting, is increasing our exposure to blue wavelengths, especially after sundown.

[Harvard Health Letter, 2012]

There are various mitigation strategies to consider if you are interested in better sleep. How about turning off the TV and your Xperia Z smartphone and listening to David Bowie instead? Ideally for 1-2 hours before bedtime.

‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’

An anxious and evocative exploration of the hedonic treadmill, ‘Satisfaction’ scandalised the 1960s establishment with its sexual connotations and anti-commercialism. According to Paul Gambaccini, ‘The lyrics to this were truly threatening to an older audience. This song was perceived as an attack on the status quo.’

I can’t get no satisfaction 
I can’t get no satisfaction 
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try 
I can’t get no, I can’t get no 



Stoic wisdom #1

Stoicism was for centuries the most influential philosophy in the Graeco-Roman world. Designed as a way of reaching the summum bonum, a life of supreme moral qualities, Stoicism enabled a man to become ‘self-sufficient’:  immune to suffering, superior to the injuries and upsets of life. Even a slave so armed could be called ‘free’, since even a king could not touch him.

Although the Stoics condemned ambition, luxury and greed as obstacles to self-sufficiency, this has not prevented businessmen and self-help ‘gurus’ from appropriating their aura in grossly misrepresented form. To combat such bollocks this series will provide extended, unadulterated (if translated) quotations from a uniquely terse and uncompromising set of philosophers.

To start: Seneca, a Roman who humanised Stoicism by recognising the impracticality of the summum bonum, his writings emerged rich with practical advice and cutting humour…

‘Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organises every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day… Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold.

So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.’

[Seneca, ‘On the Shortness of Life’, trans. C. D. N. Costa]

Seneca: white hair and wrinkles?
Seneca: white hair and wrinkles?

On hoping

When Pandora opened her box all the evil in the world poured out. Disease and poverty and misery and death. But according to some versions of the myth, Pandora let something else out too:

‘It fluttered from the box like a beautiful dragonfly, touching the wounds created by the evil creatures, and healing them. Even though Pandora had released pain and suffering upon the world, she had also allowed Hope to follow them.’

Hope is something usually reserved for fairy-tales and children’s books. A comforting delusion which leaves us gazing up passively at the night sky, humming along with Jiminy Cricket:

When you wish upon a star…

But if hope can be a dirty word in scientific circles, optimism is not. Psychologist and neuroscientist Tali Sharot has even suggested that the human brain is wired for optimism:

‘Most of us are optimistic. Although good things may transpire, on average our expectations exceed future outcomes. We are not necessarily aware of our bias… Nevertheless, science has shown us that our minds tend to engage in thoughts of sunny days. We think of how well our kids will do in life, how we will obtain that sought-after job or that house on the hill, how we will find perfect love and happiness.’

[The Optimism Bias, 2012]

Why are we optimists? 

Because optimism confers significant evolutionary advantages:

  • it protects us from accurately perceiving the pain and difficulties the future undoubtedly holds, thereby reducing stress and anxiety.
  • it is essential to progress, enabling us to imagine alternative realities and believe that we can make them happen.
  • it has even been linked to mental health and enhanced immune function.

We need to hope. It inspires and sustains us. But it must be the right kind of hope. A kind which does not turn us into victims, but invigorates us with energy and imagination.

A punk version of the Pandora myth?

How about a kind of hope where, instead of a cute dragonfly fluttering out of a box to comfort us, a studded panther emerges… lithe and rippling… It soon stalks off to hunt down all the bollocks set loose in the world, but only after it has whispered softly to Pandora according to the words tattooed across its chest: life is good.


‘Something Better Change’

A classic punk anthem which opens with a grunt, ‘Something Better Change’ attacks the status quo through a ferocious tirade against apathy. Released as a single in July 1977, it taunts established sensibilities by flaunting the new punk order.

Don’t you like the way, I move when you see me?
Don’t you like the things that I say?
Don’t you like the way, I seem to enjoy it?
When you shout things but I don’t care


Meet the iceman

‘Iceman’ Wim Hof is a Dutch daredevil with the ability to withstand extreme cold. He holds twenty-one world records including the record for longest ice bath at 1 hr 52 mins. In 2007 he attempted to climb Mount Everest in sandals and shorts:

‘Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest was a testament to human achievement; my climb of Mount Everest in my shorts will be a monument to the frivolous, decadent nature of modern society.’ 

He turned back at 7,400m due to frostbite. But he did manage to reach the top of Kilimanjaro in his shorts in 2009.

The iceman in his element.
The iceman in his element.
The iceman on display in Hong Kong.
The iceman on display in Hong Kong.

Madman or pioneer?

Hof claims that he is able to withstand the cold and actually feel ‘completely warm and comfortable the entire time’ by influencing his autonomic nervous system and innate immune response through breathing techniques and meditation. He claims that ‘What I am capable of, anyone can learn.’

He has even gone some way to proving that through a book and in collaboration with researchers:

‘Hitherto, both the autonomic nervous system and innate immune system were regarded as systems that cannot be voluntarily influenced. The present study demonstrates that, through practising techniques learned in a short-term training program, the sympathetic nervous system and immune system can indeed be voluntarily influenced… This study could have important implications for the treatment of a variety of conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, especially autoimmune diseases in which therapies that antagonise proinflammatory cytokines have shown great benefit.’

[Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 2014]

Hof is an eccentric. But his self-developed method is equally interesting.


MS vs food

There is more to health than eating lots of organic vegetables. But it can be a good place to start.

Terry Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa. In 2000 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and by 2003 she needed a tilt/recline wheelchair. Her symptoms continued to worsen until she implemented radical dietary changes in December 2007.

Within a year she was able to walk through the hospital without a cane and complete an 18-mile bicycle tour… Go Terry!


Her food philosophy, now available in book form and online, is designed to flood the body with all the various nutrients it needs:

‘Your cells have approximately 4,000 different enzyme systems with more than 1,000 different chemical signals, performing trillions of chemical reactions every second. More than 250 different nutrients have been identified and likely there are thousands more that scientists have not yet identified that are important to enjoying optimal health. Are you getting them all? Probably not.’

[The Wahls Protocol, 2014]

Disease is not a simple cause-and-effect condition, and food can facilitate the body’s natural healing processes. Already the Institute of Functional Medicine is doing important work spreading this message around the world.

‘You don’t have to wait until all the proof comes in and is vetted by the medical community. You don’t have to wait until a “food prescription” becomes part of the standard of care in your conventional doctor’s office (which I believe someday will happen – it is the only rational course). You can have this information right now. Food is the bedrock of health. Our food choices can either lead to disease or create health and vitality.’

[The Wahls Protocol, 2014]

On being cool

She is cool.

Kate Moss

He is not cool.

Louis Walsh


But what does cool even mean? According to Joel Dinerstein, who has been teaching, lecturing and publishing articles about ‘American cool’ for more than a decade, it is the aesthetic of relaxed intensity:

 ‘In effect, the mask of cool represents a certain stylised suffering and compels wonder in an outside observer: Who is this person? What has she or he experienced?… It is a performance of emotional self-control that demands the suppression of a range of emotions. In its stylish stoicism there is a mix of hardness and vulnerability. Without the vulnerability it would be stone cold and unfeeling.’

[American Cool, 2014]

Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Madonna, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando: these are cool people says Dinerstein.

Physiologically cool?

Our attraction to these people becomes more interesting upon consideration of what ‘relaxed intensity’ might mean in physiological terms.

And the answer has unintentionally been supplied by the Institute of HeartMath, an internationally recognised  research organisation.

The results of the Institute’s research are that the brain is not the seat of all knowledge and being, but that it works in partnership with the heart:

‘Most of us have been taught in school that the heart is constantly responding to “orders” sent by the brain in the form of neural signals. However, it is not as commonly known that the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart! Moreover, these heart signals have a significant effect on brain function – influencing emotional processing as well as higher cognitive faculties such as attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving. In other words, not only does the heart respond to the brain, but the brain continuously responds to the heart.’

[Institute of HeartMath]

When this partnership between head and heart is functioning efficiently, it is called ‘coherent’:

‘Psychologically, coherence is experienced as a calm, balanced, yet energized and responsive state that is conducive to everyday functioning and interaction, including the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving, and decision-making, as well as physical activity and coordination.’

[Institute of HeartMath]

Does that sound like relaxed intensity?

Coherence has been associated with enhanced emotional clarity, immune function, focus and creativity. Why are cool people cool? Maybe we just envy their coherence.



Any Winehouse did not write this song, but it remains one of her most uplifting performances. Her absence in the video now has an affecting resonance, signalling how her music has and will continue to live on. As more and more Valeries are called on stage they each experience their friendship through Amy’s vocals.

Since I’ve come on home,
Well my body’s been a mess
And I’ve missed your ginger hair
And the way you like to dress
Won’t you come on over
Stop making a fool out of me
Why don’t you come on over, Valerie?