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A Dream Within a Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

This has always been one of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poems. It goes well with questioning the nature of reality, the nature of the self, the passage of time in that reality, of life. We structure all these in our perceptions from our own nature. We have a beginning and an end (at least in this plane of existence) and a structure that we feel we perceive accurately based on our existence in our reality. But even our concept of time in everyday life -for example linear time or sequential time or synchronous time – comes to us from our culture and beliefs.

amelia-island-march-2011-049Some philosophies see no beginning or end of time, no boundary to the universe. Infinity is a difficult thing for our minds to conceptualize and comprehend. A few weeks ago, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “Star Talk” discussed “Is Our Universe a Stimulation?” Perhaps we are all just part of a computer program similar to “The Matrix,” except it is just a machine with a programmer somewhere writing the code. We would have no way of proving of disproving the assumption. There could even be an infinity of universes or multi-verses. Whenever any decision is made, a timeline is created. That would theoretically make time travel a possibility since new timelines would create the logical possibility for paradoxes. I love reading counterfactual history. The speculation is always intriguing. What if Churchill had died when hit by a car in New York City in 1931? In some timelines, he would have.

An interview with Donald Hoffman called “The Case Against Reality” is a very interesting read. He uses physics to argue that the world is not hereas we see it. You can read it here or here. Even the concept of universal mind and the oneness of eastern philosophy is possible in his model.

I will end with these words from Alan Watts in his “Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking“: – “The world that we see is a creation of eidetic imagery. We select the human concerns as the significant areas. In a way, this is our answer to the cosmic Rorschach test. So, in that manner we have performed maya, the world illusion. But maya also means “art,” and it also means “magic.” Therefore, the magical evocation of the world of things from the formless world – which means from the world of pure Tao that simply wiggles – that is the real creation of the world.”

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Since 2008, Massive Online Open Courses have been providing free or low cost high quality college courses.  There are several sites that offer outstanding courses from universities around the world.

EdX.org is based in Cambridge, MA and governed by Harvard and MIT. You can read more about their principles and goals at https://www.edx.org/about-us.  As with most MOOCS, you can take courses live, or you can audit an archived course that has ended but stored online and still available. More about EdX later.

Coursera’s mission is to “provide universal access to the world’s best education,” and has partnered with major universities all over the world. Like EdX, it has apps for your Android and iPhone as well, to make it even easier to take courses.

iVersity is a European based MOOC with a variety of courses. EdX, Coursera, and iVersity all offer courses in languages other than English if you also want to practice your other-than-English language skills.

You can also use these as resources for students, and there are some geared just to students with resources for teachers and parents.  Khan Academy is a good resource and also has test prep for the SAT and other tests. If you, or someone you know, are interested in tech and coding, there is the Code Academy and Udacity. The World Wide Web Consortium also has classes with certificates you can earn for learning various computer languages and coding.

For a long list of free courses, MOOCS, and other free learning sources, take a look at Open Culture.

I hope you check these out and find something to stretch your mind. The course you take may be work or career related or just something you are interested in and take for fun. The most recent course I took on EdX was called “Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science” taught by Edward Slingerland of the University of British Columbia. Slingerland did an excellent job of looking at Chinese philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and others and using modern neuroscience, psychology, anthropology and sociology research to examine the ethical models of human behavior that each philosopher espoused.  Do expect to spend time on courses. There are lectures (the EdX ones I have taken are not classroom lectures but more like very well made documentaries), reading assignments, message boards for class participation, tests, and papers. There are certificates for passing. Be sure to read the details on the site where you sign up.  Give your brain a work out, and keep learning and growing your entire life.

Join or Die FlagThe Gadsen Flag seems pretty popular these days – the flag with a coiled snake and the “don’t tread on me” caption. It has become the symbol of the individual, the independent “me.” There was another flag with a snake on it during the American Revolution, one with the snake divided and the caption, “join or die.” Ben Franklin even said, “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall hang separately.” The individual as a separate self is a distinctly Western concept. But how does it stand up to empirical evidence? Aristotle once postulated that men had more teeth than women, but he did not look in people’s mouths to count to see if his hypothesis actually was correct. In Zen, there is an exercise in which you look deeply into your plate of food and you are able to see all the interconnections back to before the beginning. I use a sheet of plain paper when I do that exercise with people. You could even do it with the screen you are looking at. What is there? There are letters and words, but also whatever the surface is made from, whatever is powering it, all the people who made, sold, shipped, mined material, assembled parts and more to make it, those who worked to feed them, those who grew the food, and on and on back to star dust. Nothing and no one exists independently and all and everything are connected to some degree. Any action you take ripples out like the waves from a pebble tossed into a pond for better or worse with consequences intended and unintended.

Louis Cozolino’s book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain, is an extensive and remarkable overview of how our brains work, particularly with attachments. Within the first few pages he says, “individual neurons or single human brains do not exist in nature. Without mutually stimulating interactions, people and neurons wither and die.” He goes on to discuss psychopathy in chapter 20 and includes the following:

Think about the characteristics that make for a “good citizen.” We expect each member of society to be aware of and adjust to the needs of others, recognize and conform to shared values, and live by the rules. In most instances, the needs of individuals are weighed against the needs of others and negotiations are established to create the most good for the most people. Antisocial individuals, on the other hand, are a society of one who adhere to the more primitive mandate of individual survival. It is as if they have passed over the eons of social evolution that have selected cooperation, emotional attunement, and being part of a group mind. While thinkers such as Nietsche, Machiavelli, and Rand have extolled the virtues of the Ubermensch (superman) and society even lionizes those who gain prominence and success, selfish behavior has not proved to be a successful overall strategy for group survival. For humans and other social animals, noncooperation and a sole focus on personal survival does not correlate with evolutionary success. (page 339)

I think a more positive and constructive way to function is by showing respect for ourselves and also respect for others and the relationships we all share, and respect for our responsibilities. And unlike Aristotle, we need to count the teeth. We need to look for the empirical evidence and not rely on a paid pundit whether from talk TV, radio, Internet or elsewhere. Researchers found after 9/11 that those who watched less cable news were more resilient and less depressed. Do yourself a favor and turn off those playing to emotions to increase ratings to make sales. You can read about it here and here.

Cozolino’s work is a well researched and well written book that I hope will be widely read. It speaks to all of us on our relationships in this world. [It is also an excellent resource on how attachment theory works on a neurological level, and how we develop secure and insecure attachments.] One concept I have struggled with is the Buddhist concept of “no self.” Mark Epstein’s talk about the spatial versus the temporal self makes a lot of sense to me. We experience ourselves as spatial beings even though we are moving through time and the “self  I was a moment ago is different from the self in this moment. We are constantly changing.  Cozolino takes it further. In order to function in the world, first our brains constructed the concept of “other” and then the concept of “self.” Those constructs enable cooperation, but also competition and egos that fight for supremacy when we lose sight that we all are one and that the “self” is a constructed illusion.  I remember coming across studies in graduate school about how resources last much longer when people cooperate, but when they compete, resources are much more rapidly depleted. One person competing destroys group cooperation, and all are forced to compete to survive, but ultimately, the survival of all is jeopardized and ultimately doomed by that self-centered competition for resources. There is an inherent paradox in those concepts of self and other. We cooperate with those in our tribe and those we perceive to be like us, and compete with those we deem to be different and of another tribe. We tend to forget we are all one tribe and are all in this together. Sensei Corky Quakenbush has written an interesting post on facing conflict with love using the principles of aikido. You can read it here.

A few months ago I read The Myth of Alzheimer’s, by  Peter Whitehouse, MD and Daniel George, M.SC. Dr. Whitehouse gives two scenarios of meeting with a new patient who is worried about having Alzheimer’s. In the first, the physician orders many many tests then later meets with the patient to discuss the results.  The results indicate that the individual is in the early stages of dementia, and the physician recommends medication and paints a bleak future.  The second scenario is the same except fewer tests are ordered and a much different treatment is suggested. Medication may help, but there are things you can do.  Some examples are older people reading stories to youngsters and young people talking with elders getting their stories. Whitehouse was the physician in the scenarios at two different times in his career. His thinking about brain aging has changed over the years in a dramatic way.

Whitehouse reviews how the label of Alzheimer’s came to be in the diagnostic classification work of Emil Kraepelin and the professional politics involved.  Even Alois Alzheimer, who worked with Kraepelin,  was not sure he had found a specific entity.  All our brains age and do so in different ways and at different rates. Some are outliers and have little deterioration and some have a great deal. Exercise and life long learning can help maintain brain function.  Having a sense of purpose is also a factor in maintaining brain function. The popular notion that Alzheimer’s can only be truly diagnosed at autopsy is also a myth. We all develop plaques and tangles in our brains over time.  Remember from The Secret Life of the Grown Up Brain how Sister Bernadette and the master chess player both  had plaques and tangles at autopsy that indicated advanced dementia, but neither had shown indicators of dementia before death.

Listen to an interview with Dr. Whitehouse.  You can learn more about his ideas at The Myth of Alzheimer’s.

Interview, part 1:

Interview, part 2:


Worried that you are getting more forgetful as you get older and that your brain is losing its edge?  The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle Aged Mind, by Barbara Strauch can answer your questions about how your brain ages and how you can keep your mind in shape.

Ms. Strauch is a health and science editor at the New York Times and author of a prior book about the teen-aged brain. She pursued work on the middle age brain in part to answer questions about changes she noticed in her memory as she entered middle age. She did this by reviewing clinical studies and talking to those who performed the studies.

First of all, older people today outperform those of the same age from years ago. A study at USC compared cognitive scores of people today aged 74 to scores of 74 year olds taken 16 years ago. The current group of 74 year olds scored more like the 59 year olds of 16 years ago.

Younger brains process faster, but older brains can and do outperform younger ones. Older pilots in flight simulators initially took longer to catch on to a specific test, but once they did, they consistently outperformed the younger pilots on the test. Experience counts. For any skill it takes on average about 10 years to get really good at what you do so that you can control situations rather than situations control you.

Our brains are not static. We add neurons and increase neuronal connections over the years. Our brains remain plastic, and we can continue to learn. Social expertise increase with age, and we tend to focus more on positive things. We see more shades of gray emotionally which mitigates impulsive acts.  There is an increased willingness to look at different perspectives. There are increased levels of sympathy and compassion for others, less self-centeredness and more wisdom. The older brain is more bilateral using both hemispheres for tasks that a younger brain would use only one. Older brains tend to be less focused which may make memory retrieval more difficult. Steven Johnson in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, discusses the phenomena of neurons firing alternately in phase lock and chaos in the brain. In children, brains spending more time in chaos actually added IQ points. The chaos part seems to act like background dreaming in which new creative connections are sought out. It would be interesting to see if this is the case in older adults as well.

Brains make remarkable allowances for damage as well. Ms. Strauch told the stories of Sister Bernadette, who died at 85 of a heart attack, and the Chess Player, a professor who had a similar story. On autopsy, both had all the tangles and plaque of advanced Alzheimer’s disease, but neither had shown signs of the disease while alive. The Chess Player did express concern that he could only think four moves ahead rather than his usual seven before he did, but that was about it.  Why would this be so? There are several factors that play a part in maintaining and continuing to build brain function.

First, education matters. The more mentally challenging and complex the job, the lesser the chance of dementia. Be a life long learner. And tutoring and teaching others helps as well.

Second, exercise matters. A crucial part of memory takes place in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. Aerobic exercise builds this part of the brain like nothing else. You build brain and cognitive reserve with aerobic exercise. Toning and stretching exercises do not seem to have the same effect.

What we eat – dark colored fruits and vegetables in particular – and how much – low calorie is better – make a difference as well.

There are other factors as well, including moods and social engagement. Check out the book and exercise your mind. You can always learn new things.

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