Episode #33 Feeling for the Edges of Ourselves – talking empowerment, neuroscience and societal change with Adam Hamdy
Adam Hamdy is a novelist, screenwriter, advisor-to-ministers (not that they necessarily listen, but that’s their loss) and soon-to-be author of a book on the neuroscience of empowerment – how we can do it and why it’s essential. Our conversation ranged from Phytoncides (yes, but trust me, it’s fascinating), to the neuroscience of love, and – as ever, what we can actually do, to make a difference in the world around us.
Health Benefits of Phytoncides:
Manda: My guest this week lives at that intersection. Adam Hamdy’s first degree was in law from Oxford, his second was in philosophy from London. Now he’s a screenwriter who works with teams on both sides of the Atlantic and a best-selling novelist. He’s been a management consultant, and as you’ll tell us, he’s on the board of Lyondell, a company striving to find an actual science-based treatment and prophylaxis for the coronavirus. Adam is an all-around polymath, and he’s also one of the best informed and grounded people I know. When I’m not clear where the sensemaking lies in the torrent of misinformation that we are fed by our political overseers, Adam is my go-to for common and uncommon sense. As you’ll hear, he is one of those people who goes to find out what the data actually are and how we can implement them in a way that is best for us. Oh, so people of the podcast, please welcome Adam Hamdy.
So Adam Handy, one of the most extraordinary polymaths I have ever come across, and we will have listed in the intro all of the very many things that you do very, very well. But I do want to congratulate you on Black 13 being recommended amongst the novel’s Crime Novels of the Year by Barry Forshaw. I will put the link in the show notes because that there is no higher accolade. Barry is the king of crime reviewers. So very well done and welcome to the show.
Adam: [00:02:52.97] Thank you very much, Manda. And I want to thank you for inviting me to be part of this. And what you’re doing with Accidental Gods is absolutely fascinating, bringing together a a wonderful collection of people to give you no insight and advice on how to improve life and improve our journey through the world for so many people. So this is really an honor to be part of it.
Manda: [00:03:17.69] Thank you. We are equally honored to have you here. So in our chat beforehand, we were discussing what is most alive for you in this moment. And you said that it was empowering people and I thought that sounded extraordinarily wonderful place to leap off from. So, can you tell us what you mean by empowering people and how we might go about it?
Adam: [00:03:41.40] It’s very clear that we are living through difficult and fearful times. People are very worried and concerned about the way the world is heading for a variety of different reasons. And the most pressing of this is obviously the Covid-19 pandemic. But fear and worry, anxiety shrinks people’s worlds. I believe that it’s something I’ve said to my children for a very long time. My my daughter used to be very anxious about going to friends’ birthday parties. And I said, if you allow that anxiety to take hold, you will have a much smaller experience of life. You will stop going to parties, you will have fewer friends. You will stop having those experiences. And that’s the nature of fear. It stops you, prevents you from doing things that you might otherwise do, things that might enrich your life.
This is something that I’ve seen throughout my life with people I’ve worked with before. I became an author, I was a management consultant, and I’ve worked with chief executives of huge organisations. And there are people who are ostensibly, on the surface, very confident and very capable. But actually, when you get to know them and when you understand their issues, they’re gripped by fear. And so one of the things that we often struggle with in life is that we live the language of fear. Everything that we experience from when when we are children growing up: our teachers, parents, people around us can reinforce this idea that we’re not capable, we can’t do things. We have failed. We have not achieved what you know, whatever we’ve set out to do. And actually, what we’re not taught is that failure is part of the journey towards success. And you’ll know as a creative that failure is an essential part of what you do.
Manda: [00:05:38.33] As a novelist, as you know, if we don’t get stuck down many Rabbit holes and crash and burn, then we’re not really finding our best work, I think.
Adam: [00:05:49.43] Absolutely. As a creative part of the journey, of becoming an effective creative is knowing that you’re going to experience failure, that you’re going to experience moments where everything seems to be going wrong. And one of the things that we can do as human beings is actually embrace failure and learn that it is just a step on the road to success: when you have a disaster, it could be something as simple as making a cake. You know, you’ve learned something from that that you can take out of it and improve the next time.
Manda: [00:06:25.70] With lockdown, I’ve got into home baking and now I’m making bagels, and proper Italian pizza dough, bread. And I was a bit hit and miss with the proving process. And I spoke to a friend of mine who is an authentic French baker who does specialize in sourdough and baguettes. And he told me to just touch the the water that I was using to try to mix with the yeast, and if it felt slightly cold to me, then I know I’ve got it at the right temperature. If it feels body temperature or warmer, it’s going to kill the yeast. And so my failures actually helped me get to a point now where I can make a good bagel.
Adam: [00:07:17.25] So – I think that we need to get out of this habit of talking about people as having failed. We all do it. It’s particularly noticeable in the press tha often the tabloids will relish over someone’s failure. And once someone’s been labeled as a failure, you know, life becomes very difficult for them.
Manda: [00:07:46.63] Well, unless you’re Prime Minister when it doesn’t seem to touch you at all. Could we take a step back? Because I know you’ve done a lot of research into neuroscience and human behavior, and you’ve got a non-fiction book coming out looking at that. When I was writing the Boudicca books, I really looked into indigenous cultures and I came across a lot of old anthropological stuff, particularly with the first peoples of the North America. And one particular was a paper where a priest was feeling very proud of himself because he had taught the natives to beat their children, which previously was anathema to them.
I think we can trace the whole kind of catastrophe of us moving away from being in context with the Earth and moving away from a generative lifestyle where children were brought up believing that they were the best that they could be into a world where we were brought up believing that we were inherently broken and damaged and guaranteed to fail. And so I’m thinking that parents and teachers teach this to the kids because they believe it to be true, because it’s what they were taught when we could go back many hundreds of generations before we find the break where that happened. But have you any insight into whether there is any neurological benefit to teaching people that they are inherently failures? Because my feeling is people humanity doesn’t create behaviors that have no benefit.
Adam: [00:09:49.67] Clearly when you try and beat people out of failure, you create more fear. So all of these behaviors that we see parents and teachers and the people who form us exhibiting are very harmful. And there are a number of reasons for this. The first is that when you look at neurological studies that have been done on fear and anxiety, it always yield suboptimal results in terms of decision making.
And we know that we don’t need studies to tell us that. We know that from personal experience, if you’re afraid you make bad decisions, you can’t think clearly. Your anxiety kind of takes hold. And so, what you’re doing by beating or chastising children or just trying to shout them out of failure is you’re creating anxiety around failure. They become fearful of failure. And it’s actually so common that you find people not willing to take the risk because they are afraid that they’re going to fail. And this is one of the biggest if you’re working with executives in big businesses, it’s one of their big worries, is their fear of failure.
Manda: [00:11:05.66] And presumably this is what leads to the imposter syndrome that we hear so much about, of people who’ve got to be extremely good at what they do, but still are afraid that there’s at some point somebody is going to find out the secret, which is that they’re not very good at it.
Adam: [00:11:18.82] Yes, and actually, there’s no such thing as an imposter because the higher up you go and the more sophisticated in terms of technical expertise, people are, you realize that actually everyone’s winging it to a certain extent. You’re just pushing the boundaries more if you know more about your subject. So, you’re always going to feel for the edges of your life. So, I’ve worked with very cutting-edge scientists who probably know more about virology and immunology than many leading experts. But they still suffer from similar inadequacies and similar fear of failure. And the other one, obviously, is the fear of success. So, for the for the simple reason that you’re going to make people anxious around failure and therefore make them more likely to fail and also less likely to take risk, that’s not a good way to raise children.
But the other issue is, you know, if you try and discourage people from failure, you end up with a society where you get very little growth because we grow through taking risks, we grow through trying new things, we grow through experimentation, you know, and this is personal growth and growth in society and in business. So you don’t grow by not taking any risks. And what you’re encouraging people to do, you can’t you can’t say to someone, don’t fail.
Adam: [00:12:43.88] You can’t beat someone into not failing. You have to teach them what they can learn from that failure and what they can take from that and how they can do something different to improve or get a better result next time. That’s you know, that’s what we should be encouraging. That’s how I think how we will nurture children and and adults into delivering the best for themselves and for society.
Manda: [00:13:11.39] And also the animals that we work with, I spend a lot of time training dogs and horses, and we have discovered in canine agility competition – where the difference between getting a gold and getting nothing can be hundredths of a second – that if you don’t train with positive reinforcement, you are not going to get anywhere close because the dogs need to feel that they are free from consequences of failure, that it’s OK to experiment, it’s OK to go completely all out for everything because you will not be told that you did it wrong. And what we’re discovering with horses is that if you can produce that same mindset, you have a very, very different way of relating. And that’s that’s off on a different track.
Adam: [00:14:00.68] But it’s fascinating to learn. And I believe that you don’t actually need to reinforce the fact that someone has failed. You feel it within yourself. And actually, that kind of darkness that people feel, that sense of failure that people feel is a motivator. If left alone, people will try and improve on their own performance. But if you reinforce that failure, if you tell them they must not fail, you’re creating all the conditions for them not to try again.
Manda: [00:14:30.90] I also know from my own writing that if I were to label something as failure, just the fact that I had labelled it, that would be crushing. I don’t know about you, but writing always feels to me as if you’re walking along a tightrope over the Niagara Falls juggling flaming chainsaws. And it’s quite terrifying enough without me hammering myself for failure.
So I have to label the six weeks going down a rabbit hole that really wasn’t ideal as experimentation and the price of exploring other avenues. And then I come back and go, well, that was exciting and interesting and fascinating. And it’s taught me I’ve got this new bit of writing because you always generate something in it not being where the book needs to go. There’s a reason why it wasn’t. And the reason that opens doors to where the book does need to go and in the labelling it as something, that feels to me generative rather than something that feels to me destructive, then I have the inner capacity, to do that again.
Because every time this may just be me and my staff, but writing a book feels like climbing Everest, and if I felt that I had just fallen down a crevasse, I might just decide to give up and go and stock shelves and Sainsbury’s, which would both pay better and be less stressful. So – I think the labelling of it is quite important, too. So are you finding with your children or with the adults that you work with that we can learn? To not be hemmed in by fear.
Adam: [00:16:12.73] Absolutely. I sit on the advisory board of a genetic medicine company called Ligandal, and I’m working a lot with the chief executive there. And I’ve worked with chief executives, a lot in the past and people throughout different organizations. The message that I have for people is to be kind to themselves. We’re told growing up that the world is a certain way and that you have to conform and fit in with the system and that you need to get the house and the car and the two kids and the wife and this is what your life should look like. But actually, if you’re just thinking about the world in its free form native state, there is none of this. There is none of this. We’ve made this. We’ve created the systems and we’ve created the order based on actually some kind of heritage that’s been handed down, you know, through the generations that we may or may not like many components of.
And so once you accept that there are no rules and that life is a journey, I think it changes your perspective. And it comes very much back to what you were saying about your perspective in your work and climbing the mountain, that what you perceive as a failure, as a setback is actually just another step on the journey. And so the one thing that I talk to my own children about or when I talk to people that I work with, I just say be kind to yourself. Don’t be so hard on yourself. And that applies across every area of life. We can be quick to judge others, but we’re even quicker to judge ourselves. And we quite often see people will be so hard on themselves and not cut themselves any slack and they focus on all the negatives. And again, you’ll probably know as an author that you could have 100 really great reviews. But the one that sticks in your mind.
Manda: [00:18:09.88] Yes! That’s the one where you think they got it and you think they’re right and you’ll never write again. I think I have a very fragile ego.
Adam: [00:18:33.31] Yes, but we tend to discount the positive and focus on the negative. And that’s true in in life as a whole, not just for creatives. You will be really hard on yourself what you perceive as your failings. But what’s interesting is that people will often manifest that in behaviors towards others.
Manda: [00:18:51.91] So you’ll be at your most tetchy and aggressive and hostile when you feel that you failed the most because you’re projecting, yes, you have to project it out because otherwise the internal structures that you’ve created will crumble. What I’m finding with Accidental Gods because we’re spending quite a lot of time on this. I did a 10-hour workshop three weeks ago working on exactly this. We helped invited people to look at what is your default feeling. So, in the quiet moments or when you start work or when you’re just mulling stuff over, what is the feeling underlying that? And for almost everybody, it’s one of self judgment, responsibility, fear, all of the things that come around life being hard.
And then we ask – what if you were able to choose? What would you choose? And then how can we change that default so that your default feeling is something else? And in order to teach that, I’ve had to practice it. And I started at the beginning of lockdown. So, we’re talking eighteen or so weeks now and it’s a very interesting path to walk on. But changing that default is a daily work and I enjoy the work and I really look forward to meditating rather than meditation is something that I do because I really think that I should. But I was not expecting it to take as long or for the layers and layers of my own ability to go ‘Yes, but’ to be. Do you find this with other people or have you got a technique for attending that default feeling to something generative overnight? And please, if you have, would you share it?
Adam: [00:20:48.68] There are lots of different pathways to get to this point. And some of it is quite scientific. Some of it’s quite philosophical, some of it’s quite spiritual. But your end result is that you want to do exactly what you said, change your default setting, if you like. And the thing that works for me actually is just nothingness, emptiness. I don’t wake up with a particular feeling any day. I don’t wake up depressed. I don’t wake up happy. I don’t work. I just wake up content, if you like.
I would say the contentment would evolve and come through the day. I wake up with with really with nothing. And I think one of the ways that’s happened to me personally, is through a lot of adversity, actually, I’ve gone the painful route, so rather than actively seeking out spiritual understanding or scientific understanding, I’ve lived through a lot of different struggles and figured out through trial and error that actually most things that you encounter in life, you can get through most problems that you are confronted with, you can resolve, and that, you know, it’s not really worth being too judgmental of yourself or others and that it’s not worth worrying about the things that you can’t control and the things you can control, you could fix. It’s been a difficult journey to get to this point. But I’m glad that it happened because it’s enabled me to kind of, you know, deal with quite stressful situations that other people find, you know, stressful and challenging. But just look at them quite calmly and say, oh, actually, this is what we need to do to resolve it. And it’s a useful state of mind to be in. But in terms of other people reaching that stage sort of consciously, I wouldn’t recommend the painful route.
Manda: [00:23:09.22] One of my early teachers said we will we will learn through pain until we learn how to learn through love and choose to learn through pain and know that it’s a choice. Right?
Adam: [00:23:22.51] Yes, I wouldn’t advise learning through pain. So, there are meditative techniques that people can engage with. And it’s about giving yourself time to reflect and to understand and to grow.
But there are also scientific techniques that people can read up on around to understand how their minds function and to understand themselves better and different people respond to different techniques. So some people will want spiritual growth and other people like to ground their development, in fact, and knowledge and understanding. So I had an instance recently where I was talking to a friend who has fallen for a girl who’s not interested in him or certainly is certainly expressing that she’s not interested. I don’t know whether she really is interested or not.
I then took him through the neurological neuroscientific manifestations of attraction and why it’s happening and how it’s affecting his brain.
Manda: [00:24:25.54] And can you do that for us, Adam, because this podcast really enjoys neuroscience geekery. Do give us the neuroscience.
Adam: [00:24:32.88] OK, so when you meet someone for the first time, your brain does a really quick calculation and it uses the olfactory receptors to assess the pheromones given off.
So what, what happens is your brain makes a quick calculation and it seems to look for the optimal immunological benefit that will be conferred by your reproduction and by optimal your immune profile can’t be too far away or too close to your parents in your potential partner. And it makes this quick calculation. And you’re also using your visual senses, so your brain is also assessing visually whether this person is an optimal mate. And it’s all happening really quickly, at the point when it decides this is an optimal mate, your brain is flooded with hormones and chemicals and your frontal cortex is shut down!
There’s been a lot of research into the science of love and it’s absolutely fascinating. And what happens is you lose the ability to critically reason around this particular individual. And it’s time specific and specific to this person. So, you’ll have judgment about everything else in your life. But around this one person, your brain literally shuts down. Your critical reasoning and your logical functions cease.
Manda: [00:27:02.20] So then you wake up in, you know, six month’s time when all of those things have worn away and you think what did I see in this person and now how do I extract myself from this. How long does it last?
Adam: [00:27:19.00] There’s some debate about this and there’s a theory that we go through an attraction stage, which is this stage, and then there’s an attachment stage where you get a different release of hormones that sort of build towards long term.
Manda: [00:27:39.61] More serotonin and less oxytocin.
Adam: [00:27:41.92] Yes, so there’s some debate over how long this attraction phase last, but it’s months to a year. And the interesting thing about it is that that mothers experience the same thing with their with their babies so that their frontal lobes shut down, and again, it’s baby specific.
Manda: [00:28:57.29] And so many of my friends who just are bewailing the fact that they feel they gave birth to their brain and now they can’t think for the first however many months is presumably because the frontal shutdown has happened partly.
Adam: [00:29:09.05] And also really interesting to know this happens.
Manda: [00:29:12.59] So in tribal societies, I was looking at this with the Boudica series – that there is no sense of ownership by fathers, so mating happens, the children are born, the tribe rears them, and it doesn’t matter who they were sired by. And I wonder if therefore the attachment phase is attachment within a tribe. You don’t end up with this bizarre one on one, you know, domesticity that the Romans brought in the kind of monogamy and 2.5 kids and a golden retriever.
It’s a whole different dynamic and I can feel studies arising in my head that probably will never get done because there aren’t enough really indigenous tribes surviving in ways that we would need to be able to work with. I wonder why it changed? Because monogamy is crazy on almost every level, except when you have ownership of land that needs to pass down some kind of patrilineal descent line, which was part of our removing ourselves from context with the Earth. I’m not expecting you to answer this. I’m just thinking out loud that the neuroscience must have changed at some point. Do you see attachment forming in the brain, in fathers? Is that something that you can measure.
Adam: [00:30:44.95] You can see the, you know, an increase in activity of the empathy centers and increases in oxytocin. But I think you’re absolutely right. This is complete speculation, but I think it is to do with property -the idea of the importance of setting yourself apart from the community that the child is property because it’s going to own your property and your property is going to pass to them.
Manda: [00:31:16.18] I think that’s the point at which we lost this community, although Miki Kashtan, the nonviolent communicator I spoke to a few weeks ago, said that when men are in the presence of young children, their testosterone drops, their oxytocin and progesterone, I think rises. And in a tribal setting, there would always be young children. And so that hormonal effect would be happening perpetually, whether they were specifically biologically your children or not. As that adult male whose job is guardianship, you would have guardianship of the whole tribe and of all the young people. So therefore, that would then be integrated in that. And at some point, exactly as you say, we shifted that more towards limited domestic units.
Adam: [00:32:09.91] That’s really interesting. And I think it comes down to where we set responsibility in society and what are you responsible for, and that’s something that I’ve been thinking about recently, particularly with regards to the pandemic, and how far can we go to help make things better? I don’t know what your thoughts are in terms of, you know, what is our obligation as people to help during this quite challenging time?
Manda: [00:32:42.10] This is something that Miki and I talked about and I thought about a lot in the intervening month. Can you phrase that question differently? Because I’m not sure what context we’re in.
Adam: [00:32:52.84] Well, right now people are feeling quite scared and fearful, as we talked about before. And often I’m hearing people express helplessness. You know, what can I do? How can I make this situation better?
Manda: [00:33:09.52] Ok, so how far can we all go to help each other feel? Agency. Yeah, agency.
Adam: [00:33:14.05] How what can we do to to help, you know, improve the situation that we all find ourselves in.
Manda: [00:33:20.80] Yes. Which is actually the whole basis of Accidental Guards is giving people agency – also of Humanity Rising.
It seems to me that it is the case that the old structure is crumbling around us, which it certainly feels to me that it is. That there’s ever more frantic kind of clinging on by those whose imaginations have been hampered? I spoke early on to Rob Hopkins, who is founder of the Transition Town Movement, and then has written an amazing book called From What Is to What If? We recorded an entire podcast and the sound didn’t work, so it never went out. But as part of it, he was saying that the public-school system is a dis-imagination machine, it’s designed exactly to make people feel as if they have to fend off an inner inadequacy.
And we can see that in those who are, I would suggest, currently running the country and in the greater mass of those who are propping up what we might loosely call neoliberal capitalism. Trump apparently said this morning he was going to shut down Tik-Tok in America. And it’s sort of whatever you have to do to hold onto the structure that exists because it is impossible internally to imagine that structure not existing and a very fearful thing. Part of what those of us who feel the world would be better without that structure need to do is to help it not be frightening, that it would help people to be able to imagine how the world might be without that structure.
And part of doing that, it seems to me, is that we create a sense of agency and create the vision of exactly how a world could be differently, because we exist at the moment where it is genuinely and literally easier to imagine near-term human extinction than it is to imagine a world without the current structure, and that doesn’t seem to me either necessary or useful. And so for me, the first thing is giving people the capacity to imagine how it would feel if the world were different. Because my understanding of neuroscience is if we can build a felt template, the non-fossil fuel template, the template of a world that is generative and that feels good, whatever good is for the individual, then we can build the structures that get us to that. And I think Humanity Rising in a number of other endeavors around that are really working very hard to create imaginal structures of how the world could be to give people the agency to go there. Does that answer the question that you asked?
Adam: [00:36:16.54] Yes, it does. And I don’t mean to be asking you questions on your podcast.
Manda: [00:36:23.56] It’s a conversation. It’s this is this is the point of the podcast is to clear as imaginal spaces. So how does that sit with you?
Adam: [00:36:31.72] One of the things that struck me is that I used to consult in the medical industry. My wife’s been writing about pandemics for 15 years. I saw what was happening and it was my imagination that allowed me to project forward and see what that meant. And early in the middle of February, I got asked by a former cabinet minister to write a report for Matt Hancock, the UK Health Minister, on what I thought this pandemic was.
First of all, did I think there was going to be a pandemic and what I thought it would involve. And that was sent to Hancock on the 2nd of March. And I had sent it to a number of scientists around the world for review before I sent it to my cabinet minister contact.
And so I sent it to Professor Sir David King, who’s obviously now running Independent SAGE (the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group). And he wrote back and said, ‘This is a fabulous piece of work. It needs to be published in a national newspaper and discussed widely.’.
Because what I’d said, you know, there’s a pandemic coming. This is a serious virus and we need to lock down preventively as a precaution for four weeks to pull up a test and trace system, testing in airports, quarantine everything and then reopen once we have all the controls in place that we need to make sure that we can track the virus, we can reopen more or less as normal, which is essentially what New Zealand did.
Some of the scientists that I sent it to and I’m not going to name any names because, you know, it’s quite embarrassing what they said. One in particular wrote back to me and said, ‘I wholeheartedly disagree with you. This is no more serious than flu. And what you’re proposing would involve the shutdown of the 50 percent of the economy for four weeks. It would cause terrible damage.’
This scientist, not only because this was an extremely prominent medical scientist has since put his name to a letter saying that everything should be shut down until the virus is eradicated. So I actually emailed him and, you know, I didn’t rub it in, but I said, well, what has caused you to change your position?
But what struck me was that I was seeing what was going to unfold and you could you can read a summary of the research. It’s available for my sins on Free Market Conservatives blog because one of my friends edits the site and I wanted to reach the people who influence decision making in the government. It doesn’t reflect my politics, but it seemed to me a good place to try and influence decision makers.
But what happened was I got abuse from people around the Conservative Party and my recommendations were obviously ignored. And it was all because people couldn’t imagine. They couldn’t put themselves slightly into the future and picture what might be and how one could make changes now to prevent that or to make things better.
And I think you’re absolutely right. I think the old structures are failing and we’re seeing them laid bare. We can see the failures and we’re counting them in mortality. And what concerns me is that all the emphasis from those in power is to get things back the way they were.
Manda: [00:40:45.54] Because I speak as someone quite a long way along the Asperger’s scale, which I think I share probably with certain of those in power, particularly Cummings. And one has imagination and one has planned out one’s actions for the next several months, playing the internal multi-dimensional chess and seeing the moves that we’re going to make. And it takes quite a lot of internal flexibility to let go of that. And I think what I imagine in the people currently in power is that they had their grids all laid out, they had everything planned, they had the things that were their priorities. And it’s proved extremely difficult for them to come off that track and go into something that’s more unknown, therefore more challenging, and that requires different levels of thinking. Does that fit with what you understand?
Adam: [00:41:46.86] I think you’re absolutely right. It’s something that I struggle with because I’m very adaptive, I can see when a change needs to be made and pivot because that’s what’s needed. Coming back to your public-school thing, I went to a very below average state school. And we didn’t have much when I was growing up as a family.
I think it teaches you that you have to work hard and you have to be adaptive. You have to be ingenious. You have to try and find opportunity. And when you find it, you have to try and seize it. And that’s not something that you’re taught at public school, particularly if you come from the backgrounds that a lot of these people have come from, which is one of privilege and wealth and entitlement.
And so it doesn’t teach you to be creative necessarily in your thinking. It teaches you how to sustain systems, how to you might try and optimise systems, but you’re not trying to radically change them. I think you’re absolutely right. I think it even. Now you’re seeing it: two weeks ago, the Prime Minister was talking about everything back to normal by Christmas. And then yesterday he’s talking about the fact that this is going to be here for a long time and now sacrifices.
Manda: [00:43:06.30] And it’s all Europe’s fault. The second wave is coming from Europe. The narratives around this are extraordinary. The good thing is that I don’t actually know anybody who believes that anymore.
No, but it’s interesting, although I did also read this morning that James Murdoch has left Fox News, the entire empire, because of differences in the narrative. And as I understand it, of all the Murdoch scions, he’s the one who gets climate change. And if he were to set up a competing news network, that might be very interesting.
So I’d really interested in the neuroscience. And I know that you worked with a radiologist or neuroscientist who’s looked at neuroplasticity. And I would really like to talk about that, because it seems to me that I’m aware, even as we’re speaking, that I get back into my tribal judgmentalism. And having spent all of last week talking to the lovely Benjamin Ross about how not to be tribal, I’m still not getting it.
But there must be ways whereby we can maximise the ways of increasing our neuroplasticity, of enhancing our ability to change and of imagining generative futures. Can you speak to that at all?
Adam: [00:44:29.27] One of the myths that I was guilty of believing is that your brain stops developing when you sort of hit your 30s, early 40s. And that’s most definitely not the case. Your brain continues to grow. Your hippocampus continues to manufacture neurons until the day you die.
The rate of production decreases as you age, but you’re continually making new cells. There’s also an increase in the rate of neuronal death if those cells aren’t used for functional purposes within 72 hours of their creation.
So you have to keep using your brain. It’s like a muscle. You have to keep using it.And that will increase the rate of manufacture and the more you use it, the more you’ll keep of the of the neurons that are manufactured.
So, your rate of new neuron production declines. It slows as you age. But as long as you keep using your brain, you will be able to form new cells. Your brain starts shrinking in mass, roughly a rate of about one percent per year from the age of 40. So your brain is actually getting smaller, but that doesn’t necessarily impede performance provided you keep using it.
I was lucky enough to spend a week out at the Weissman Institute in Tel Aviv three years ago. And some of the stuff they’re doing, they’re studying neuroscience and longevity is absolutely fascinating. And they found a direct link between two things, social interaction and brain activity. So how much you are using your brain and the type of activity you’re using it for and longevity?
You will live longer if you are part of a community and you are using your brain for challenging cognitive function.
Manda: [00:46:40.43] So what defines challenging cognitive function?
Adam: [00:46:44.81] So what seems to what seems to create the most benefit in terms of increasing neuroplasticity and increasing neuron production is spatial challenges, spatial problems. So there have been studies done comparing, say, crosswords with Sudoku and Sudoku, outperforms crosswords in terms of stimulating activity.
The other thing that’s really interesting is a good friend of mine is professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Oxford, Dr Michael Woolridge. And he’s done studies looking at the benefits of exercise for improvement in cognitive function, in people who haven’t got any neurological conditions and people who have and exercise seems to be a benefit across the board. But what’s interesting is it doesn’t matter what kind of exercise and it can be walking. It can be running.
And his theory, and this hasn’t been tested, his theory is that it’s actually not so much the exercise which does improve blood flow and oxygenation and everything else – it’s being in nature.
He thinks that being outdoors and the outdoor stimulus of seeing so many things, your brain taking in so much data. Which brings me onto the thing that I think we talked about off air was Phytoncides
We’re kind of riffing now, which is moving from neural conduction neuroplasticity to immune system enhancement. So, there are these chemicals given off by trees called Phytoncides. It started in Japan with the forest bathing. And there have been numerous studies showing an improved immune response from exposure to phytoncides.
Manda: [00:48:44.66] So both in nature, but I mentioned the study where they had taken the chemical from the tree and just put it into a hotel room and saw if that gave any improvement. And it did.
These are the chemicals given off by the trees.
Adam: [00:49:04.04] They’re given off by trees, and they’re proven to give an immune enhancement to human beings. So those two things taken together: the idea that exercise in nature is beneficial to your brain – and being exposed to the chemicals given off by trees is beneficial to your immune system – these two point to the fact that we evolved to benefit from being in our natural environment.
So if I was talking about how to institute change and how to implement beneficial change, one of the things that I think we need to do is to recognise that the old system, the system that’s in charge at the moment is very resistant to change. It will do everything it can. We’re seeing it, as I said, with the pandemic, it would rather people died so we can go to the shops.
Manda: [00:49:58.81] So that’s an economic system that doesn’t work anyway, can be perpetuated. Because we don’t have a model for an alternative economic system that might give them a sense of a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card.
Adam: [00:50:11.07] But what we can do is we can use that economic system. We can use that political system. We can use that social system to further a different agenda. And so we were talking about why how can we affect change or how can we encourage people into new ways of thinking and new ways of doing?
And one of the ways is self-interest. And so if you want more trees, because it’s going to benefit the planet, the easiest way to convince people to plant more trees is to convince them that it’s going to benefit themselves. But it’s difficult in an economic system that is predicated on the idea that everyone has to make money every step of the way to get airtime for something as simple as being around trees improves your cognitive performance.
Manda: [00:51:09.88] And it improves your longevity. It improves your immune response, and it improves your mental health as well. So there are a multitude of studies that show that exposure to nature is beneficial in terms of fighting depression. The same Japanese team that did studies about hospital recovery and people who had could see trees from their hospital rooms recovered quicker who couldn’t.
Therefore, we need to look at the airflows and see, was it the phytoncides sides or was it simply being able to for them to be able to see them? And then get blind people also who are in rooms that have access to trees.
Adam: [00:51:49.85] I love the scientist mind immediately figuring out what controls you need. Then there was the other study we talked about, which is the Harvard School of Public Health, which surveyed 100,000 women across America and found the incidence of depression, heart disease, anxiety, were all lower in people who lived near or in green areas.
So it’s quite significant, but there’s no money to be made from it. We have to get the message out in other ways. And once people are cotton on to the fact that it is in their interests to have more nature around them, we might just have a hope of –
Manda: [00:52:35.69] Stopping them building HS2 (a new rail system in the UK), which is taking down ancient woodland, for instance.
Adam: [00:52:40.64] I don’t think there’s any chance of stopping that now.
Manda: [00:52:56.75] So we convince people that it’s in their personal interest to plant trees and it’s in their personal interest to have strong and powerful social systems. And it seems to me that one of the things that Lockdown taught us was a renewed sense of community. And in this strange, not-quite-post lockdown period that we’re in now, it seems to me that the community spirit sense is still there up to a point.
One of the reasons I think that the world governments who were so desperate to get back to ‘before lockdown’ is that they didn’t want there to be a new normal, that there is probably enough neuroscience done of how long a state obtains before it becomes the normal. And they didn’t want the new normal to be a sense of community spirit and a sense of people actually doing with their days something that felt generative rather than pointless and that consumerism needed to kick off again.
If we were able to construct a world in which economic growth were not the only indicator of success and social structures, social benefit and generative ways of living were the norm, then it seems to me that would be a step on the way to mitigating the chaos of climate change. You clearly have some extraordinarily good contacts in the system as it exists. Are you seeing any signs at all that the Powers that Be are looking towards this or are they all moving back towards what was?
Adam: [00:55:01.47] I’m laughing because I wish. Yeah.
Manda: [00:55:06.39] Can you write another paper for Free Market Conservatives that would change them? Because these are decent people. Much as I loathe some of them and they’re not they’re deliberately being evil. I think they are doing what they believe is right. How do we help them to see that there are other ways?
Adam: [00:55:29.72] Part of it is this lack of imagination that we’ve already talked about. Part of it is not being able to picture what an alternative looks like. The system always has been like this and it always will be is kind of the way that they perceive it, even though the system has never, always been the way it is. It’s always been changing. We’ve evolved through many different systems.
And actually, I think it’s almost easier to change things than it is to try and teach people how things can be changed, if that makes sense. I think it’s better to lead by example and to change things than it is to try and convince people. Because you’re fighting against so much fear of what is this alternative going to look like? What does it mean for me? There’s the lack of imagination, which is kind of tied to the fear. I can’t picture this. I can’t see how I fit into it. And there’s also comfort. There’s comfort and ease. You know, why should I change things? It’s working for me. It’s not working for billions of other people, but it’s working for me.
So, you know, that I had hoped that when you encounter something is as profound as this pandemic, I’d hoped that it would be an inflection point, a point for reflection, that there would be profound change. And what’s interesting is when you talk to people individually, a lot of people are saying, I am going to make a conscious effort not to go back to the way things were.
I was spending a lot of time and energy achieving nothing. I was stressing about things that weren’t important. I was worrying about things didn’t matter. I wasn’t devoting enough time to the things that do matter. I had my life out of balance. And it’s a common conversation that I’m having across the board because people have had time to pause and to reflect. I’m not seeing any evidence of that reflection in the corridors of power, if you like, but I believe that we’re going to be forced there anyway, because the simple fact of the matter is in America, they’re talking about 40 million people being evicted over the course of this year. Yes, right. You’re talking about mass unemployment. You’ve seen a 33 per cent fall in GDP.
Manda: [00:57:52.17] Yes. When the Great Depression was 11. It’s three times as bad as the Great Depression.
Adam: [00:57:58.35] So the system as it exists cannot continue with that kind of level of hardship because that loss will percolate up and it will touch the people at the very top, whether they like it or not, because even someone like Jeff Bezos, people are not going to have money to spend on Amazon. They’re not going to have money.
If you just let this ripple through, you get social disorder, you get crime. Eventually it touches people everywhere. So ultimately, I think we’re going to be forced into examining what our system looks like. You may end up in a situation where it is essential to have a universal basic income, something that I know a lot of people have been lobbying for a while. But actually, it comes about because of a crisis.
We’ve already seen a massive reduction in greenhouse gases because of fall in air travel, of transportation, use of the cruise ships and all of the things that have stopped now. And we’re actually going to be able to measure what this does to to the environment. We’ve already seen that the oceans are cleaner and very visible illustrations of the impact that we’ve been having on the planet.
And so we’re being given an opportunity now, I think, to re-engineer things. Well, we’re also being forced into it. So I actually am in a way, you know, this is going to be a very difficult time in human history, but I’m optimistic about where this is going to take us. And I’m also optimistic that despite the resistance that we’re going to face, change will be forced upon us. And so the things that people have been resisting in terms of the structural changes to society, I think they’re going to be forced to accept,
Manda: [00:59:57.45] OK, it’s such a shame we’ve got to the hour. I would love to talk to you about UBI. I don’t think we have time. I think that might be podcast number two. Because it seems to me that when things begin to crumble, the ideas that are picked up are the ideas that are lying around. And UBI is definitely one of those. UBS: universal, basic services is another. Each of these still is predicated on the economic system as it stands.
What I would like to see is that we have some very much more imaginative economic proposals worked out in a way that those who can make them happen can get their heads around them. Which is quite a big ask. But we can look at that in the next podcast.
Manda: [01:00:50.92] As a closing thing, if we are heading here, if the old structure is crumbling, if it is the case that people individually do not want to go back to the way things were. What can people listening do in their own lives, do you think, to help move us towards a generative future? What can we leave people with a kind of action points to do?
Adam: [01:01:18.20] The first thing is that it is in all of our interests to spend time in and around nature. It’s a really simple thing to do. Really simple. It doesn’t cost you anything and it’s really easy to do. It’s going to improve your mental health, your cognitive performance, your physical health.
But it’s also going to give you time to reflect. If you go for a walk, it’s not formal meditation, but it will give you time to reflect. And often I have my best ideas when I’m out either for a run or for a walk. And so giving yourself that space and time, whether it is through meditation or whether it’s through exercise, whether it’s through going for a walk or whatever to reflect is absolutely crucial – because that’s where you get imagination. That’s where you get rid of the fear and you get imagination from.
And then the other thing is connecting with people who are trying to make a difference, trying to bring about change. So, reaching out to networks like yours. And there are many of these communities springing up that are focused on trying to improve things. So, reach out to those and then look at where you can make small, practical differences in your own life and where you can help others. So it might be something as simple as planting a tree. It might be something much more complicated like, you know, developing a genetically engineered cure to coronavirus. As I am helping some people to do.
There’s a whole spectrum of activities that people can engage in. But I think it all starts with that moment of time and reflection.
Manda: [01:03:08.05] Yeah, thank you, that’s a very, very good place to end. So, people listening: moments of time and connection; get out into the natural world. And from an Accidental Gods point of view, that’s also the time where you can open your heart space and listen to the rest of the More than Human world, because there’s quite a lot of answers to be had there.
So, Adam Hamdy, thank you so very much for the depth and the extraordinary breadth of your wisdom. We’ve covered so many things on this podcast and there’s so much still to do. I’d really like to hope that we can come back for a second time at some point, perhaps later in wherever this Corona Virus goes, by which time you might have launched a cure, which would be very interesting. So thank you. That’s it for Episode one with Adam Hamdy.
Adam: [01:04:09.52] Thank you very much for having me. It’s been a really lovely experience.
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