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Weekly Review Issue No.15
On how we heal through relationships and meaning-making, discovering the secret life of plants and finding ways to reproduce near-death experiences
Hello and welcome back to another Review. I hope you’ll at least one thing you find interesting, useful or enjoyable. If something particularly resonated, I’d love to know about it.
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What’s alive for me
We’re on the cusp. On the edge. The trees in London are starting to bud. There are different bird song in the trees and the grass is coming through the sodden mud. It’s starting to feel like Spring.
One reflection I’ve had this week is that I am fortunate enough to have grown up in a family home where Christmas was taken very seriously. As in, my mum would go to great lengths to bring a traditional German christmas to us, and our life as a family hinged on those dark winter days.
Those days, occasions, rituals, moments are far and few between. Which is one reason as we started our family, that I wanted my daughter to have a better connection to the year, its seasons, and our human rituals for them. So I’m very excited to mark this Ostera and Spring Equinox with my daughter and breathe in the new life, and seek some light to enter our wintery home, and warm us up a bit. I can feel new life in my muscles. I hope you can feel it too.
Onto the links!
Research on the edges
🌿 What Plants Are Saying About Us 2019 was a watershed moment for my relationship with plants. I saw Stefano Mancuso’s exhibition at the Milan Triennale. I read Richard Powers’ Overstory under a pine tree, and through a Montenegrin summer, I tended to an old grape vine, and we collaborated on creating a temporary structure. So this piece is a great way to re-visit and re-capture the wonder of plants. Enjoy!
Plants’ abilities to sense and respond to their surroundings lead to what seems like intelligent behavior. Their roots can avoid obstacles. They can distinguish self from non-self, stranger from kin. If a plant finds itself in a crowd, it will invest resources in vertical growth to remain in light; if nutrients are on the decline, it will opt for root expansion instead. Leaves munched on by insects send electrochemical signals to warn the rest of the foliage,2 and they’re quicker to react to threats if they’ve encountered them in the past. Plants chat among themselves and with other species. They release volatile organic compounds with a lexicon, Calvo says, of more than 1,700 “words”—allowing them to shout things that a human might translate as “caterpillar incoming” or “*$@#, lawn mower!”
Another incredible bit of published research exploring the relationship between psychedelics and the dying experience. There’s a lot in here but what I took from it was this: it looks like Ketamine, more than other drugs, can replicate the experience of people who have had near-death experiences. It raises questions as to the chemical processes in the brain, but importantly reveals a potential therapeutic benefit. Should we have to come close to death, to get a sense of what the dying experience may be like? A lot rests on set-and-setting (as usual) but pretty potent stuff.
We have systematically compared the semantic similarity of reports associated with the use of psychoactive compounds and NDE narratives, and found evidence that ketamine (and to a lesser extent different serotonergic psychedelics and deliriant alkaloids) can produce an altered state of consciousness resembling near-death.
However, our results do provide evidence that ketamine, as well as other psychoactive substances, result in a state phenomenologically similar to that of “dying“ (understood as the content of NDE narratives). This could have important implications for the pharmacological induction of NDE-like states for scientific purposes, as well as for therapeutic uses in the terminally ill as means to alleviate death anxiety. We believe that the development of evidence-based treatments for such anxiety is a cornerstone of a more compassionate approach towards the universal experience of transitioning between life and death.
Some wonderful research from my colleague, Emma Lawrance et al with a scoping review on the types of mental health interventions that are going on around the world, to support people affected by climate change. It’s really great to see a genuinely global overview here, and so heartening to read about how much of this is relational/group work that transcends just the narrow confines of ‘healthcare’ as a place to support mental health: it is done everywhere (communities, in nature…).
Overall, it appears that conceptual linkage for interventions at the intersection of climate change and mental health remains at a nascent stage, and most interventions are newly designed withscarce or anecdotal evidence. Most of the existing trials involve microsystem-level interventions (i.e., targeting individual emotions and behaviours) implemented in lower/middle income settings. Even then,t he interventions are limited to a single study or country, and the findings have not been replicated. While there are many mesosystem-level interventions that leverage group dynamics, the overwhelming majority are based in high-income countries and have not been academically evaluated.
There is, in general, also a lack of publicly available implementation information (e.g., training procedure of facilitators, implementation cost) for existing interventions, which would be key for scale-up.
This is a bit of a controversial one and has had a lot of responses created to challenge the premise. But one essential thing for me comes out: it seems the kids are not alright. It is smartphones? Or is it due to lack of independence? Or maybe the whole way the research is used by the media is the problem? (would not be the first time). Emily Oster does a good job of unpacking this in her Substack this week. However, what I do think is really important are some of the graphs that indicate that young people increasingly feel that ‘life often seems meaningless’ and ‘the future often seems hopeless’. This is not good. Part of me reflects: if a researcher asked me at 15 if I thought life had meaning, I’d probably sulk and so no. But I grew up in vastly different times from today’s youngsters. There is a lot going on. This needs more attention and I will personally be exploring how young people relate to meaning-in-life.
Something is going very wrong for teenagers. Between 1994 and 2010, the share of British teens who do not consider themselves likeable fell slightly from 6 per cent to 4 per cent; since 2010 it has more than doubled. The share who think of themselves as a failure, who worry a lot and who are dissatisfied with their lives also kicked up sharply.
The same trends are visible across the Atlantic. The number of US high school students who say their life often feels meaningless has rocketed in the past 12 years. And it’s not just the anglosphere. In France, rates of depression among 15- to 24-year-olds have quadrupled in the past decade.
Another piece of the puzzle for me in my exploration of meaning-making, and the importance of relationships. I love how these things can seem quite obvious in retrospect: the if we - with other people - try and find ways to make sense and meaning out of our lives, we will find greater solace, comfort, acceptance. But we are so diminished in our neoliberal, capitalistic, disconnected world that it may not be easy to contemplate how to do this. But its great to see further signals that “developing meaning is a central mechanism to the construct of healing” and we can do that together.
A common societal misperception of meaning making is that it is a personal, individual journey. The Presence of Meaning theory proposes that meaning is generated when individuals view their lives as significant and purposeful. This suggests that it is based on relationships with others rather than an individual pursuit. The participants in this study reported finding significance and purpose, when life limiting illnesses strengthens their relationships and they have what they felt as a valued place in that world. A possible explanation for this phenomenon could be the process of self-reintegration that takes place in the presence of a terminal illness. As a part of the self-reintegration, patients find it necessary to re-evaluate relationships, even in the absence of an end of life situation. During this examination, the realization of mortality prevails and relationships become important. This awareness brings about a sense of urgency to be a part of relationships, and reawaken in others the longing to create meaning.
As it will be the Spring Equinox on Monday, this piece is on my mind.
Nothing can express the promise of new life, gently emerging from the roots and branches, like Vivaldi’s Spring from his Four Seasons, recomposed by the great Max Richter.
If you’ve never listened to the whole album, please do. You won’t regret it.