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The cells that make up living tissue essentially die in two different ways. One is an organic developmental process that takes them fully through a life-cycle until a programmed death sequence – called apoptosis – gets activated. The second way living cells die is through a process called necrosis, often associated with injury or trauma. You can see a graphic depiction of the two processes HERE. Apoptosis is physiologic; necrosis is pathologic.

Necrotic Poop Neurons

Dying Brain Tissues Produce Waste

Because necrosis generates inflammation, it has the stink of death associated with it. If you’ve ever smelled a dead rat or an infected wound, you know the unmistakable smell of necrosis.

As you might suspect, brain cells are subject to these twin dying processes as well. Concussions or other physical trauma to the brain replace the physio- logical processes of organic cell death with the patho- logical processes of necrosis. The brain has its own glymphatic system for removing the waste and inflammation caused by such trauma, and that system operates mostly at night while we sleep.

I believe something else operates in the realm of necrosis in the brain as well – unexpected or traumatic loss. We’ve long known of a whole host of adverse impacts to health associated with grief, but not much is known about how grief and loss impact our neural networks.

What Unwires Together Turns Necrotic Together

In neuroscience, Hebb’s Rule states that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Neurons fire and wire together every time we encounter or learn something new. The more we learn about a person, place or thing, the more cells in our brain make connections. Primary or important relationships in our lives make new, robust connections day in and day out through the process of give-and- take feedback loops – contingent communication. Over time, substantial amounts of neural real estate come to be devoted to meaningful people, places and things in our lives. Meaningful also includes pets.

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Archie’s on the right

When we lose meaningful people, places or pets in our lives, the brain networks devoted to them, no longer receive inputs – the contingent feedback loops no longer activate dynamic activity in those networks. Very soon they begin to die and unravel – if you don’t use it, you lose it. The organic, apoptotic processes that these cells would normally progress through, give way to necrotic processes, elevating stress hormone levels, activating cytokines (signaling proteins), C-reactive proteins and inflammation in the brain and body. Simply stated, loss stinks.

April is the Cruelest Month

April’s been a pretty cruel month for our family up here on Whidbey Island. At the beginning of the month our prized housecat, Archie snuck out of the house and ended up becoming coyote breakfast. He’s no longer there to greet me in the morning, jump up into my lap as I read email, or come whining when I’ve let his food supply run low. I miss him and his cloudy right eye terribly (his sister clawed that eye when he was a kitten).

Berner Pup.jpgThen a difficult puppy birth process had to be aborted, and our Berner mom had to be taken in for an emergency C-Section. Ten puppies in various stages of birth trauma made it back home with us, but over the next several days one after another after another ended up dying. Four died in all. Needless to say, April has been filled with an extremely painful 30 days. Making and burying little foot-high wooden coffins is not my favorite Spring activity.

In response, I decided to put together a short Powerpoint collection of things we wish we’d known going into this puppy-birthing process. These safeguards we unfortunately had to learn in the most painful way possible. If you know anyone – veterinarians, breeders, dog lovers – who, together with their dogs, might be able to benefit from this information, I hope you’ll take the time to pass it along. Help others unnecessarily have to confront and endure The Stench of Loss.

… or must it enlist the heart?

Love to Love #1Love to Love #2

What are the obstacles in your life impairing your journey from brain to heart?

Virtual Embodiment Creates The You You Could Be

Virtual Embodiment technology allows you to find out what it actually feels like to walk around as say, an enlightened being, or racist for a day, or to live as pure awareness operating completely outside a human body. Too cool for school, right! And this is a technology in its infancy. Where it will very likely end up taking the human race, ideally, is on a journey to spiritual maturity. The world could certainly use a great big helping of that right now.

Up Your Dopamine Response Times Four (X4)

hannibal-lecter

“Hello, Clarice.”

… and become a psychopath. Turns out that’s one of the significant ways that psychopaths are different from you and me: when they pursue and attain goals, the neurobiological high they obtain as a result is up to four times greater than for you and me. Is that necessarily a bad thing? It depends, right? If your dopaminergic bonanza results from energetically working to reduce suffering in the world, you’d probably be channeling your inner psychopath to the best use possible, yes?

Young or Old – Neurogenesis Doesn’t Care

What’s interesting about this study are the implications. If new cell creation is equal and vascularization accounts for a lot of the difference in functioning between young people and old people, that’s something that can be intentionally beneficially modified. Scientists are already busy at work with regenerative medicine and tissue engineering aimed at substantially increasing vascularization in humans.

How FLEs Accelerate Aging and Death

It’s not just the good who die young. It’s also the old and in-between whom Fate deals a bum hand. FLEs are Fateful Life Events. Things like auto accidents or a tornado that blows your house down and leaves your neighbor’s houses standing. All these stressors and more contribute to premature brain aging. And it appears to affect men more profoundly and it accelerates as you get older. My suspicion is that a primary underlying cause is the feeling of helplessness that results. As we’ve discovered from Polyvagal Theory, helplessness is bad for the brain at any age.

Love Me, Love My Rostral Dorsolateral Pontine Tegmentum

Together with the left, ventral, anterior insula (AI), and the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC). those structures appear to be what makes me able to wake up and get out of bed in the morning. Those brain structures very likely do the same for you as well, as these Harvard researchers think they are areas central for activating human consciousness. The question I ask in response to these findings is: what happens when we increase connectivity in these areas? More human consciousness?

And finally, I’ve gotten around to doing another Enchanted Loom book review. This time it’s on Mark Epstein’s new book, Advice Not Given. We could all use a little bit of that.

“Optimism is a moral duty.” ~ Karl Popper

Several weeks ago my toilet backed up. For those of you who don’t know, sewage makes me nervous. When you live in the country, there are no city sewers or massive processing plants dedicated to transforming human waste. Everything you excrete stays in your neighborhood, specifically, right there underground on your own property for years and years. Trying to get things to flow, I frantically plunged and plunged the bowl to the point of compromising the wax floor seal, forcing waste water out onto the bathroom floor. Yuck!

overflowing-toilet-when-you-start-to-see-the-water-level-rising-in-your-toilet-it-can-be-alarming-when-you-are-unsure-what-to-do-it-makes-this-situation-all-the-more-fix-overflowing-toilet-without-plu.jpg

“I probably should bite the bullet and call a plumber,” was my next thought. That one triggered a ton of dread as the following narrative reactively self-generated: “He’s going to tell me that all my sewer pipes need replacement. Not only that but I’m going to need a new septic tank, a new drainfield, and I’m going to now need a sewage pump, since the new field will have to go uphill from the house! It’s going to cost me more than the $20,000 it just cost my next door neighbor! Woe is me and my poop and pee.”

As soon as I recognized my brain had activated its negative bias networks in response initially to the stopped up toilet – but then even more powerfully to the subsequent narrative mushrooming in my mind – I took a timeout. I phoned a friend, a sanitary engineer as it turned out. While not exactly nurturing and reassuring – engineers often struggle with such responses – he did suggest an iterative plan of action. I could feel my stress levels drop by half. I was no longer in the shit all by myself. Literally.

Uplifting My Negative Brain Bias

Stressors tend to compromise the 5-HT receptors and neurotransmitters in the brain. For those of you who care, 5-HT refers to the serotonin produced by the enterochromafin cells in the gut and in the raphe nucleus in the brain. They accomplish that compromise in several ways. One is to sever the adherence proteins that keep the precise connections needed for the cell network to function. Another way they do it is by activating inhibitor neurons which change the 5-HT cells from positive to negative. Still another way they do that is by attacking brain cells where they are most vulnerable: at the transition from gray matter to white matter. When the charge is negative little energy flows. When the energy stops flowing, depression soon follows. Not to mention lack of clarity in my thinking.

Neurotransmitters as Force Multipliers

Lots of things can act as force multipliers. Force multipliers can be anything that multiplies the effects of physical force, thoughts, or attention. Pry bars and wheel barrows are force multipliers. They help us accomplish tasks using much less energy than we ordinarily might. My engineer friend served as one – in this case a more organized, less stressed brain (his toilets were working just fine) – helping to organize and direct my momentarily significantly less organized brain (The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience). There is some evidence that meditation can serve as a force multiplier where creative thinking is necessary (although not as much as we might think, as we found out in an article I published several weeks ago).

A Impoverished NeuronsSerotonin often acts as a force multiplier. Together with oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins, this collection of neurotransmitters and peptides tends to make us feel happy and optimistic. Optimistic people often are able to bring more neural resources to bear, since they tend to have fewer stress hormones and more network capacity generated by positive valences driving neural network flowering and connectivity. Consider your brain’s networks built from neurons in the left impoverished column or the right enriched column in the accompanying illustration. Which is going to produce and transmit more energy and information faster and more efficiently as you go about the business of living?

So, this is part of the work of being human: to learn to recognize when our neural functioning is operating at less than optimal capacity, and to then take whatever steps we might to get it back on track. Many of us know when such compromised functioning is occurring – what that feels like in our body, brain and bones – but what we haven’t learned or been trained in is what to do about it. Three things that often work for me: get my body moving; learn what I don’t know I don’t know; get help from people, living or dead (in books, videos, audio recordings, etc.) who do know what I don’t know and want to help me out. There are actually more people willing to help in the world than you might think.

In this case, a septic tank pumping company provided the help I needed. For $500 they pumped out 1200 gallons of sewage from my storage tank and restored my plumbing system and my peace of mind.

Butterflies of the Soul

In your brain, two types of neurons proliferate. Sensory neurons that run from your body to your brain (also called afferent neurons); and motor neurons that run from your brain to your body (also called efferent neurons – don’t ask me why they’re so close in spelling, making it hard to remember which is which). Buterflies of the Soul.jpgA third type of neuron only found in the brain connects efferent and afferent nerves. This “patch cord” neuron was discovered by the Father of Neuroscience, Santiago Ramon y Cajal. He called these fascinating cells interneurons and described them as “butterflies of the soul.” And for good reason, as you can see by the illustration on the right.

Poop and Pee: A Health Smoothie for a Tree

Molly Winter transcends a cultural taboo and delivers a delightful presentation about the potential super powers contained in human poop and pee. All we have to do is manage our own reactive squeamish responses to the Ick Factor such possibilities hold. As someone who just watched with fascination ten years of poop and pee being vacuumed out of our island septic tank, I found myself wishing we all had the processing facilities Molly encourages us to develop.

Could the Blockchain Rot Your Brain?

Many innovations come with an upside as well as a downside. For instance, social media addiction is a serious issue, the Internet spawned the need for instant gratification, and artificial intelligence developments promise to do away with thousands of jobs. Also, recent studies show that 90% of people suffer from this digital amnesia. Blockchain technology is intended to get rid of middlemen, e.g. brokers, agents, auditors, etc. With their decline, our mediation, negotiation, and project management skills might decline as well. What to do?

STFU: The Brain Restorative Power of Silence

I spend a significant part of my day in silence. I walk alone in the woods that cover our little offshore island and find it enormously restorative. Sometimes I’ll take Emmy, our quiet dog along with me. A Shush Baby A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice. The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.”

Roses in the Ocean

Disenfranchised grief doesn’t get a lot of press in the mainstream media. That’s part of what makes it disenfranchised. The formal description is “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.” Some examples include: the suicide of a sibling, the death of a secret lover, a miscarriage or abortion, death of an ex, personal bankruptcy, home foreclosure or loss of physical appearance due to chemo or illness. Mirroring American culture’s response to these kinds of losses is rarely a good idea – abdication is not integration. Better, as this article suggests, is to find ways to reach out for help.

A Whale of a Tale

What’s it like to reunite a lost baby whale with its mother when you’re a swimmer alone in the ocean in the wee hours of early morning darkness? maxresdefault-7-1024x576.jpgWhat has to happen in your body and your brain to not be so overcome with fear that your nervous system manages to keep from completely shutting down? Lynne Cox knows first-hand what that’s like as she recounts her experience in exquisite detail in this second episode in the podcast series, This is Love. Her story made me cry.

How to Defend Against Your Own Mind

Harvard Psychologists, Mahzarin Banaji and Olivia Kang want us to learn to outsmart our own brain’s mental processes. Recognizing the power of cognitive biases to compromise the quality of our thinking and our decision-making, Kang and Banaji have initiated the Outsmarting Human Minds Project. Once we learn and understand the many ways our minds are vulnerable to distortions and defects, we can begin to develop creative workarounds to help it operate longer, faster, stronger.

Where’s the Proof that Meditation Works?

Fifteen prominent psychologists and cognitive scientists caution that despite meditation’s popularity and supposed benefits, robust scientific data is woefully lacking. “Many of the studies on mindfulness and meditation, the authors wrote, are poorly designed—compromised by inconsistent definitions of what mindfulness actually is, and often void of a control group to rule out the placebo effect.”

A 2015 review in American Psychologist reports that only around 9 percent of research into mindfulness has been tested in clinical trials that included a control group. A review of 47 meditation trials, collectively including over 3,500 participants, found essentially no evidence for benefits related to enhancing attention, curtailing substance abuse, aiding sleep or controlling weight.

A Microsecond in the Life of a Fleeting Thought

A Fleeting ThoughtTurns out our prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the home of Executive Function is required to do the heavy lifting of integrative function. It’s that front part of our brain that acts much like an orchestra conductor, making sure that all the necessary neural instruments – first the sensory and then the motor neurons – play the right notes at the right time in the right sequence. Without a strong PFC we might be either exceedingly slow to respond to a stimulus – a “slow responder” – or we might end up constantly speaking without thinking – several national politicians come to mind.

Why We Love Tyrants

Why do we let people become the boss of us? They rarely have our best interest first and foremost as their agenda. Is it their charismatic authority? Their winning smile? Their implicit or explicit promise that followership will deliver us from helplessness? Or is it something about us, about the way our culture operates to condition and connect the neural networks in our brain? Rather than authoritatively dictate or spoon-feed you the reasons, I’ll invite you to read this piece and decide for yourself.

 

The Tyranny of Positivity

Susan David is a Harvard psychologist who lost her father at age 15 and learned first-hand how denial can wreak havoc with not just our own lives, but the lives of many in our immediate and extended circle. Pointing out how “rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic” and “emotions pushed aside or ignored only get stronger” and “life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility,” David shatters the cultural directive that it’s best if we all just don’t worry and be happy. Better is to get help to turn and face our own pain and suffering. And then make ourselves available to help others do likewise.

Warming Up to the Ice Man

A Wim Hof.jpg

Wim Hof on Ice

Wim Hof has developed a method to self-regulate his autonomic nervous system. As a result he has deliberately developed a super-high pain threshold, particularly to cold. In this article researchers at Wayne State University wired Wim up to their scanners and imaging machines and discovered how his brain operates much differently than yours and mine. What’s especially interesting to me is the speculation by the Wayne State researchers that we can very likely intentionally develop the capacity to positively affect our brain’s and body’s immune function.

Holding Hands Reduces Pain Through the Alpha Mu Band

There have been lots of studies that show how a more organized brain can help organize a less organized brain (The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience), but this study actually drills down into the neural depths and takes a close look at what’s happening when romantic couples hold hands when one of them is in pain. “Interpersonal synchronization” is the term they’ve given for the phenomenon. It appears that empathic touch is able to blur our interpersonal boundaries in beneficial ways. Imagine what might happen to the world’s pain if we inaugurated a planet-wide Global Hand-Holding Day every month.

The Strange Order of Things

Antonio Damasio is one of my favorite neuroscientists and one of the hardest ones for me to read.

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Antonio Damasio, MD

Fortunately, he’s not hard for everyone and in this review of his most recent book, The Strange Order of Things, Brainpickings blogger, Maria Popova does all the heavy lifting for me. So, are you now ready to learn the language of feelings, all 32000 of them? If we consider that learning the 900 English words commonly used in most everyday speech would make us fluent, imagine how feeling-fluent we would become learning about and learning how to discriminate between all 32000 of them. If so, you’re going to have to do a lot of work to reclaim the body sense you had as a toddler before the language of words took center stage.

Smartphone: An Extension of Your Mind?

I’ve never liked phones – of any kind: smart, dumb or even genius. I find them to be an annoying, intrusive technology, mostly used by people I don’t know to convince me to give them money to buy something I don’t need or want. If the police were to get a warrant to search my phone, their primary criminal finding would be that I like folk-country music. Oh, and podcasts like, Hidden Brain, Cerebrum and Brain Candy. That said, most people aren’t like me. Their phones hold more information about them than their parents or their best friends. This essay makes the argument that we might want to consider caring for our phones like we would ideally care for our brains and our bodies.