How We Can Live Together…

More than 30 years ago, an Egyptian-born Dominican monk, Bruno Hussar, wanted to create a place where people could learn how to live together – so he founded a new village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel.

This new community was named Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam – Oasis of Peace, and here people of all religions were welcome to come and live and work together. Thirty years later, this is a thriving village with a waiting list of applicants wishing to join the community.

Abdessalam Najjar, an Arab Muslim from the Galilee region of Israel, was one of the first people to move into Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam.  Najjar says of Bruno Hussar’s intentions.

“His interest was to deal with the conflict. Why do we have a conflict? How can we influence the dynamics of the conflict and how can we change it for dynamics for peace building?”

Rabbi Ron Kronish of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, works alongside people of all religious backgrounds in trying to establish peace and unity.  Together they work at building relationships between people because this is what they believe will lay the groundwork for real and sustainable peace.  Rabbi Kronish says,

“We don’t invite people to our dialogues to solve the problem. We invite them to get to know one another, to be in place, to do what you can, to mitigate violence and hatred.”

The people of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam know how hard it is to achieve this deceptively simple goal but many of them believe they can succeed if they approach the work in a specific way.  As Abdessalam Najjar explains,

“I believe, and there are some others believe, that peace education and the peace actions in the absence of the spiritual factor will be not complete, and if we will use the spiritual factor, we will be more able, more courage to do a peaceful action.”

This video – Interfaith Village in Israel – gives a very interesting account of life in Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam.


*Photograph – Waverly Place by James Jowers – 1968.  George Eastman House Collection –
Accession Number: 2007:0275:0038

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Two’s a crowd

dichotomy – a division into two mutually exclusive or contradictory groups or entities.

Two things can be true at the same time. 

In order to create harmony within our societies we need to first create harmony within ourselves. This is not the airy-fairy concept that it might appear at first. It’s a practical proposition just as avoiding using only one leg might be a practical proposition.

How many internal and external struggles have existed because we try to style ourselves as entirely one thing or another?

On the one hand we might see ourselves as totally rational beings, devoid of a ‘higher nature’ and motivated only by narrow self-interest – homo economicus, as this materialistic view of ourselves has been called.

On the other, humanity has a long history of people who disappear into their non-material side to the extent that they deny – or at least don’t entertain – their physical/material selves.

From Descartes to Dawkins, it’s been one dichotomy after another. Maybe it’s time we dropped the dichotomies, recognising them as the unhelpful and fragmenting conceptual constructs that they are and instead tried to see even ourselves as coherent, united systems of diversity?

You Are What You Write – The Alphabet Effect.

漢字 / 汉字 "Chinese character" in Hanzi...

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct types of writing systems – logographic and alphabetic.

A logographic system is one in which the basic units of the written language are symbols that represent words and syllables. Examples of logographic scripts are Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Cuneiform, Sumerian and Vietnamese Han tu – all obsolete now.  There are, however, many living languages which still feature a logographic system – for example, Chinese Hanzi, Japanese Kanji and Korean Hanja.

Alphabetic script has a system of writing where the words are composed of symbols that represent both vowel and consonant sounds and are combined to form full words.  Amongst alphabetic languages are many ancient scripts like Avestan – which was the script and language used in Zoroastrian scripture. Many African languages are alphabetic, as are Arabic, Egyptian Coptic, Cyrillic (which forms the basis of Russian and most languages of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia like Mongolia), Latin and Greek (giving us most European languages), Hindi and ancient defunct languages like Etruscan and Ogham.

OK – that’s all very interesting, I hear you say, but who cares?  What difference does it make?

Well, there is a theory called, the Alphabet Effect, that argues that the type of script you use promotes certain skills over others.

The Toronto School of Communication – Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, Walter Ong and Robert K. Logan, believe that the use of alphabetic scripts have promoted certain skills – such as abstract thought, deductive logic, encoding, decoding, analysis and classification – in the West.   They suggest that cultures with logographic scripts – like the Chinese – tend to be more holistic and practical in their inventions, while cultures with alphabetic scripts tend to be more abstract.

An autocatalytic process is one that catalyzes itself into a positive feedback loop so that once the process starts, even as a fluctuation, it begins to accelerate and build so that a new phenomenon emerges. The emergence of language and conceptual thought is an example of an autocatalytic process. A set of words work together to create a structure of meaning and thought. Each word shades the meaning of the next thought and the next words. Words and thoughts are both catalysts and products of thoughts and words. Language and conceptual thought is an emergent phenomena. It bootstraps itself into existence. (1)

It is, of course, a much disputed hypothesis, as it carries with it the idea that one type of development – or script – is superior to another.  While, I don’t claim to be an expert in the Alphabet Effect (or indeed any sustem of written language), it does strike me that perhaps the dominance of Western societies in science and technology has a lot to do with maths as well as language.

The idea of zero and mathematics as we know it was invented by Hindu and Buddhist mathematicians over two thousand years ago and developed by Islamic scholars (all alphabetic script cultures admittedly).  It strikes me that linear and abstract though it is, maths is similar to a logographic script in that it is formed of symbols and formulas ($, +, % – for example) that carry a complete meaning and are universally understood.

Western societies had the developmental benefit of training in abstract thought, deductive logic and analysis courtesy of their alphabet and they then were able to combine this with a logographic mathematical system.

Which would seem to me to have trained both sides of their brains more effectively and therefore allowed for more growth and development.

Or maybe not – that’s just my conclusion having read about these theories.  What do you think?


(1) Robert K. Logan, The Extended Mind Model of the Origin of Language and Culture. –

“Look at the bird…” – information versus knowledge.

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird…

So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts.  I learned very early the difference between knowing the nature of something and knowing something.

Richard Feynman (1918-1988)

Interesting Discoveries About the Brain (9)

Language and reading seem to us in our society to be interchangeable but while language exists all over the world since time immemorial, reading is a relatively new activity. The fact is that many people alive today, while fully endowed with language, will never learn to read. 

Learning to read is not the same in terms of brain activity as expressing yourself verbally. Though language is indeed a process that involves many areas our brains, it does have designated areas  –  language centres – that are clearly associated with language – Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area for example are both areas concerned with speech production.

Reading, on the other hand, does not have any clear ‘centres’ associated with it and it is not located in any one part of the brain.  Reading naturally is associated with the areas of speech and language, but it also requires us to use many other parts of our brains.

Brain imaging shows that when the brain is presented with a jumble of letters it reacts differently to when it is presented with a written word.  When the letters don’t make an intelligible word, only the visual association areas are activated.  In contrast, when presented with a real word, almost half the cerebral cortex lights up.

Could ordinary reading, then – for those of us lucky enough to be able to read – not only provide us with information and education but also be the ‘work-out’ for the brain that so many people are trying to sell us nowadays?

Sorry – brain-training companies…


Interesting Discoveries About the Brain (8)

Sleep and the Brain

When you are alert, your brain generates Beta Waves.  When you are awake and relaxed, these change to Alpha Waves. As you sleep, your brainwaves slow and deepen, becoming Theta and Delta Waves.  Someone in a Delta Wave sleep is extremely difficult to wake up – this is what all of us call, a deep sleep.

Three to five times during the night REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep happens, this is the dreaming stage of your sleep.  These REM stages can last between five and thirty minutes and make up about 25% of a night’s sleep. When you are not dreaming you are in Non Rapid Eye Movement sleep – or NREM.

We need both types of sleep.  Sleep is vital for the well-being of our brains as well as our bodies.

  • Growth hormone in children is secreted during sleep.
  • Chemicals we need for our immune system are also secreted during sleep.
  • Sleep gives the body a chance to repair muscles and other tissues, replace aging or dead cells, etc. (“Beauty Sleep?”)
  • Sleep gives the brain a chance to organize and archive memories. Dreams are thought by some to be part of this process.
  • Rats who normally live for 2-3 years, survive only 5 weeks when deprived of REM sleep.
  • Rats deprived of all sleep last only about 3 weeks.
  • We all know we do badly without sleep – some experts believe that this is because sleep gives neurons a chance to shut down and repair themselves. Sleep also may give the brain a chance to exercise important neuronal connections that might otherwise deteriorate from lack of activity.

John Medina – a developmental molecular biologist says though there are many mysteries about the brain, there also are some ‘brain rules’ he believes we should follow.  These are well established scientific facts about our brains and the things that help it to function. One of these Brain Rules is the importance of sleep.  This is what John Medina says about sleep in his book (and on his web-site) Brain Rules: (1)

Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
– When we’re asleep, the brain is not resting at all. It is almost unbelievably active! It’s possible that the reason we need to sleep is so that we can learn.
– Sleep must be important because we spend 1/3 of our lives doing it! Loss of sleep hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and even motor dexterity.
– We still don’t know how much we need! It changes with age, gender, pregnancy, puberty, and so much more.
– Napping is normal. Ever feel tired in the afternoon? That’s because your brain really wants to take a nap. There’s a battle raging in your head between two armies. Each army is made of legions of brain cells and biochemicals –- one desperately trying to keep you awake, the other desperately trying to force you to sleep. Around 3 p.m., 12 hours after the midpoint of your sleep, all your brain wants to do is nap.
– Taking a nap might make you more productive. In one study, a 26-minute nap improved NASA pilots’ performance by 34 percent.
– Don’t schedule important meetings at 3 p.m. It just doesn’t make sense.
So, there is no doubt how important sleep is to healthy brain (and mind) functioning.
Here is an interview with John Medina that you might find interesting –

Interesting Discoveries About the Brain (7)

Though the biggest part of our brains are composed of structural cells called glial cells and astrocytes, in between these are the cells we all associate with brain activity – namely, neurons. The average human brain is said to contain about 100 billion neurons and each neuron is connected to approximately 1000 other neurons. This results in vast and complex neural networks.  These networks are the mainstay of the brain’s ability to control everything from walking to thinking.

Because neurons conduct electrical impulses as they communicate with each other, these impulses can be measured, and are what we know as ‘brain waves’.

Brain waves are measured in cycles per second. We identify brain wave activity as frequencies and measure them in Hertz. The lower the number of Hz, the slower the brain activity or the slower the frequency of the activity.

Our overall brain activity is a mix of all the frequencies at the same time, however usually some are in greater quantity than others.  In the 1930s and 40s, brain scientists identified four broad types of brain waves.  These are:

– Delta waves (below 4 hz) – occurring during sleep.

Theta waves (4-7 hz) – these are associated with sleep, deep relaxation (like hypnotic relaxation), and visualization

Alpha waves (8-13 hz) – which occur when we are relaxed and calm

Beta waves (13-38 hz) – happen when we are actively thinking, problem-solving, etc.

Since that time other brainwaves have been noticed but these remain the four large areas used for definition when we speak about brain waves.

Now you may have already known all of that, but did you also know:

  • In a study of seven terminally ill patients, the researchers found identical surges in brain activity moments before death. (1)
  • Nondirective meditation yields more marked changes in electrical brain wave activity associated with wakeful, relaxed attention, than just resting without any specific mental technique. (2)
  • Meditation can produce a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs.(3)
  • Theta brain waves are associated with high relaxation, drowsiness, and dreaming. They are also associated with dreaming sleep, creativity, reduced anxiety and effective meditation.
  • Children generally have considerably higher theta brain wave activity than adults(4)
  • In the 1960s, after the Second Vatican Council, a decision was taken to adopt vernacular language for worship.  In a move to become more modern, the Catholic Church decided to stop age-old practises like chanting in Latin.  This was a decision that had unexpected consequences.  In a Benedictine monastery in France, where the monks had a long tradition of chanting, the monks began to become lethargic and fall ill.   In February 1967, a French ear, nose and throat specialist, Dr. Alfred Tomatis, was sent to investigate.  After some investigation, Dr. Tomatis began a programme that enhanced the monks hearing, and he also recommended that they reinstate their chanting.  His belief was, that the tones produced by the monks as they chanted together, created reactions in their brains that energised them and helped them to remain healthy and happy.  Within nine months, the problem was solved.



Interesting Discoveries About The Brain (6)

Music to Our Ears

In his book, Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sachs says, 

Anatomists would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician – but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation. 

And it seems music is not just physically transformative for musicians – all of us are responsive to music. There is no doubt about it, our relationship with music is ancient, complex and mysterious. Both sides of the brain are involved when we listen to music which gives us a coherence that many scientists consider essential for both biological and social function.  This coherence promotes high level brain function and may possibly be one reason music has such a powerful influence on all of us – but important as that may be, it isn’t the complete picture.

After all, nobody really knows why we can sing even when we can no longer speak.  Or why different parts of our brains react to different musical pitches.  And how can it be that babies in the womb – completely free of cultural influence – show definite musical preferences?

Our relationship with music is a mystery that continues to lead scientists to investigate and musicians to create.

So – what does music do to your brain?


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Interesting Discoveries About the Brain (5)

Our ability to focus is invaluable. It helps us to understand, to problem solve, even to invent.  However, like everything else, it has its downside.  This focusing ability – known as the attentional spotlight – is one of the quirks magicians exploit in their craft. In ordinary life, over use of our focus can result in what is known as change blindness, which causes us to miss important changes in our environment.

If You’ve Got it – Use it

An unusual way to productively use our attentional spotlight is recommended by neuroscientist Susana Martinez-Conde.

The concept of the spotlight of attention is something that we use, both in neuroscience and that magicians use in their art.  They actually both refer to the same thing: that when we focus our attention on something, that part of the visual scene gets enhanced and becomes more salient, and everything else around it gets suppressed, at the same time.  Now, this is a concept that is relatively novel in neuroscience, but, as it often happens, magicians knew about it for a very long time.

This is important from a neuroscience perspective, but it also has a very real application for life; and it’s in the field of decision-making.  So, when we are faced with having to make a complex decision—whether you should hire or fire somebody, or accept a job offer, or marry this person—there are often very many different factors, some of which seem very rational, and others are more like gut feelings.  And it’s often hard to know which facts to go with … the recommendation that we make in Sleights of Mind is that you simply make a list of all the facts—both the rational facts and the intuitions; all of them, no matter how small or how trivial they may seem at first sight—and then what you need to do is, one by one, focus your attention on one specific fact.  Just for a couple of minutes at a time, concentrate on that piece of information; then move down the list, and so on.  And your attentional spotlight will naturally enhance that fact and suppress everything else that may be a distraction.  When you reach the end of the list you will have the fullest picture you can have, and be able to make the most informed decision. (1)


(1) Brain Science Podcast interview with the authors of the authors of, Sleights of Mind – What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions, -here –  –

Interesting Discoveries About The Brain (4)

You see what you believe.  In their book, Sleights of Mind – What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions, Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde and Dr. Stephen Macknik – both neuroscientists – investigate the manner in which quirks in our brain function can be used by magicians to both fool and entertain us –

The spooky truth is that your brain constructs reality, visual and otherwise.  What you see, hear, feel and think is based on what you expect to see, hear, feel and think.  In turn your expectations are based on all your prior experiences and memories. What you see in the here and now is what proved useful to you in the past.  You know that shadows fall a certain way, depending on time of day, that faces are normally viewed in an upright position, and that gravity exerts a predictable influence on all things…

The fact that consciousness feels like a solid, robust, fact-rich transcript of reality is just one of the illusions your brain creates for itself. (1) 

Explaining more about their research in an interview on the Brain Science Podcast, Dr. Martinez-Conde explains the difference between special effects – which are optical illusions – and visual illusions.

…optical illusions are things that happen because of the physical reality outside. For instance, if you take a pencil and stick it in a glass of water and it looks like it bends in the middle, it’s from the refractive index of the water vs. the air.  It’s an optical effect; it’s not something happening in our brain.  Even a camera would perceive it the same way…

…visual illusions are incredible percepts that happen that don’t match reality, that are due to the way our brain processes visual information.  And by extension then, cognitive illusions are those cognitive illusions that happen because of processing in the cognitive circuits of our brain. So, that’s really the different types of illusions that you can have.  And magicians use all of these all at once…(2)

All of which suggests that many of things we believe are really true in an objective sense, may, in fact, be just what we expect to be true.  Like the ball under the cup in a magician’s act.  Food for thought?


Photograph – Harry Houdini – 1910-1915 – Bain Collection, Library of Congress, USA.

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(1) Sleights of Mind – What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions, Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde and Dr. Stephen Macknik.  Chapter 1.

(2) Brain Science Podcast interview with the authors here –  –