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Kona Hawaii 2013 116

I remember Dr. Peter Derks, my very first psychology professor, many years ago discussing a study in which people were asked to find patterns in flashing lights. Lights would flash in a sequence and participants were supposed to figure out the pattern so they could predict which light would flash next. What the participants didn’t know was that there was no pattern. The lights were programmed to flash in a random pattern. In every case, however, people found a pattern. When they were ultimately proved wrong, they would typically say, “now I see what you’re doing,” and would change their theory to a different pattern. No one ever figured out that there was no pattern, it was all random.

The NPR podcast, Invisibilia, recently did a story about patterns in the context of trying to predict behavior. One story was about a woman who had a history of abuse and arrests. She had turned her life around and was trying to become a lawyer in Washington state. Her appeal went to the state supreme court, and her attorney was a man who had convictions of bank robbery. Another story was about a Princeton study that used longitudinal data to try to predict outcomes in children. The researchers, despite massive amounts of data and coding efforts were not able to predict outcomes. You can listen to the podcast at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia (it is the March 18, 2018 podcast) or you can read the transcript here. People long for patterns and predictability and typically feel very uncomfortable with randomness. With randomness you can’t predict what will happen next. And life just has way too many variables to be completely predictable.Our brain takes shortcuts to give us the comfort that we can predict things. We inherently look for patterns. It enhances our chance at survival. It is part of evolution. It also gives us a sense of self, of who we are. We are those patterns we fall into.

Michael Puett, a professor at Harvard, and Christine Gross-Loh wrote a book called, “The Path: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches Us About the Good Life.” Rather than looking inside for our “authentic true self” we are urged to “recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. Our emotional dispositions develop by looking outward, not inward. They are not cultivated when you retreat from the world to meditate or go on a vacation. They are formed, in practice, through the things you do in your everyday life: the ways you interact with others and the activities you pursue. In other words, we aren’t just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time.” Every moment can be a moment of redemption or a moment of damnation. For all of us. Puett says that Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher of the Warring States period, said that labeling yourself is dangerous. It limits you. Saying you are an inherently shy person limits you to being that, you become stuck in that pattern. Instead, you can look at each moment for what you can become. We are not static beings.

That moment of becoming reminds me of solution focused therapy and narrative therapy. You start with small steps, like a small snowball at the top of a hill that gets bigger as it rolls down. The problem is outside yourself, and does not define you. Instead of staying with your past patterns and stories, you look at how you would like to be. It reminds me of flow – you become one with the moment you are in. But that takes practice. Humans tend to fall off the Way or Dao. We get caught up in thinking and patterns and ruts. Joseph Campbell, when interviewed by Bill Moyers on the Power of Myth, spoke about the Coptic Christians for whom the everlasting life was living forever in the moment – transcendence. Confucius used rituals to help us get there.

Chance life encounters with their randomness play a large roll in our lives, too. That can be for better or for worse. The better are situations like that if Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, who had given up on publishing his first book and planned to destroy it. That changed with a chance encounter on a walk home. You can read that story here. For worse could be an instance of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I remember years ago a man driving home from work, just as he did every week day, was killed when a car, driven by an adolescent girl and friends, went airborne with the front end coming down into his windshield and killing him instantly. Albert Bandura wrote an excellent article on chance life encounters in the APA Monitor back in 1982. You can read it here.

So in this life, with all its messiness and randomness and chaos, how can be live in a way of growth and loving kindness? How can we live in the present so that we are not captured by the past, but have a chance at a better future? How can we change our relationships into skillful ones? How can we flourish? The Path gives us some practical ideas from the Chinese philosophers whose ideas have been found to be supported by neuroscience.

I think a part of changing and just being in this life is to be comfortable with that randomness and ambiguity. We learn that going with the flow is being open to the results of that butterfly flapping her wings off the coast of Africa, and we adapt and adjust as best as we can. That may go against our nature of desiring predictability and a world of where everything is easily judged right or wrong, good or bad, and we always know what comes next. Rather than judge harshly and condemn or overly praise and think that something is solved for good, we look at how skillful we are and how we can improve that. We have a sense of curiosity. The Chinese philosophers all sought to teach us how to be decent people, each in their own way. It is a constant life long process, and our skill levels vary from moment to moment. The philosophers from Confucius to Xunzi all have ways of reaching a place where we automatically find and live the Way. But for all the teachings, there is an inherent paradox. The harder you try, the more difficult it becomes. In Chinese, the process similar to flow is “wu wei” or effortless effort. Edward Slingerland gives a good overview.

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Kona Hawaii 2013 116You may have heard someone say, “I can’t believe I did that, that’s not me!” And sincerely believe it and be baffled at what they said or did. You may have felt that way about someone else. “My son/daughter/friend would never do something like that.”

There are at least two versions of us – the one in the moment, and the one we construct in our story over time. In the updated edition of “Full Catastrophe Living,” Jon Kabat-Zinn cites research from the University of Toronto about these two versions of the self. The study looked at people who had completed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program and found “increases in neuronal activity in a brain network associated with embodied present-moment experience and decreases in another brain network associated with the self as experienced across time.” That second self is the narrative self or the self we experience as ourselves in the story we tell ourselves over time. The research findings encourage us to be in the present moment rather than caught up “in the drama of our narrative self.” “Non-judgmental awareness of our wandering mind may actually be a gateway to greater happiness and well-being right in the present moment, without anything at all having to change.”

Jeffrey Zimmerman in “Neuro-Narrative Therapy” goes a step further and cites the work of Dan Siegel. “Narrative therapy rejects the notion of a single, true self and instead embraces the idea of multiple identities or multiple versions of the self.” Siegel says that the notion of a unified self is “missing the point of the multiplicity of our normal, adaptive, ever-changing selves.” We need these multiple states to be able to adapt to the changing situations in our lives. We do tend to have states that we favor and see those override states or dominant style as our personality. Our brain is constantly taking short cuts so that we can cope with all the information we are constantly bombarded with internally and externally, and we see that dominant style as our self. “… (O)ur brain likes coherence, it has a bias for making the world appear solid and stable. To do so, it constructs an unbroken picture, giving us a continuous sense of self out of these multiple brain states.”

Mindfulness can help us be aware of those states, and to be with them in a nonjudgmental way and lessen the drama and the pain of everyday life.

I think it also helps to look deeper, even on the physical cellular level of the self. What we perceive, for example a chair, is not solid at the microscopic level. And we are not solid beings or even mostly made up of human cells, at the microscopic level. Take a look at this “Nova Wonders” called, “Nova Wonders, What is Living in You?” It not only tells about how in terms of numbers our human cells are vastly outnumbered by the bacteria, viruses, and other micro-organisms that co-habit our bodies with us, but gives some thought provoking ideas and findings about the function of our gut bacteria in illnesses ranging from C. diff to Parkinson’s to autism. You can find it at https://www.pbs.org/video/nova-wonders-whats-living-in-you-fnbfuy/. Fortunately, our human cells are bigger than all our fellow micro-organisms. Their total weight in our body is about three pounds – about the same as the weight of our brain.

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.”

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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