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

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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.


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.

The Drama of the Sensitive Therapist

Many people become therapists in a deliberate or unconscious attempt to address the pain and trauma of their own early beginnings. In this wide-ranging interview with trauma and addictions expert Gabor Maté we are afforded a clear picture of the human developmental cycle from birth through midlife and on into old age. Many of the possibilities that might be open to us at each stage will not come to pass unfortunately, unless we find skillful ways to address the inevitably disorganizing experiences of having had to navigate childhood with vulnerable, immature brains.

How to Be Smarter than a Monkey: Earn a Global Knowledge Certificate

More than 12 million people have viewed Hans Rosling’s TED Talk on how to present information in interesting ways.


Hans Rosling, Dataman

In this brief talk he teams up with his son and has the TED audience take a short real-time quiz about the current state of the world. A troop of monkeys score better than TED attendees. By the end of the talk, however, we learn four universal tips about how to think about human growth and development the world over that will actually allow us to be smarter than a monkey (unless the monkeys watch this talk, of course).

Neuroscientists Reverse Alzheimers

This is encouraging. I’m guessing this same enzyme operating in mice is also operating in humans. Removing it certainly does make a dramatic difference. It’s also interesting that the mice’s cognitive functioning improved. I suspect that, while we haven’t yet identified processes that regulate the BASE-1 enzyme, my bet would be that there are organic, natural ways for us to accomplish that regulation in humans.

Kitchens, Bedrooms and Bathrooms Across the World’s Socio-Economic Spectrum

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In this short TED talk, photographer Anna Rosling Rönnlund shows how so very similar we are to each other the world over, depending mostly on how much annual income we earn. There’s actually no such thing as Third World Countries when you compare income levels to income levels. Ethiopia’s rich live much like America’s rich. India’s poor live much like America’s poor.

Your Learning Brain Without a Middle Man

Interesting, creative application of blockchain tech. No more Stanfords, Sofias and DeVry Universities? Whether this creative effort succeeds or not isn’t the real issue. The real issue, from my perspective, is the increasingly expanding sense of “Disintermediation Consciousness.” Information wants to be not only free … but directly transmitted. Healthcare is also in the disintermediaries’ sights. From where I sit, it looks like every middleman taking a cut should be on notice.

Fierce Listening Grandmothers are Better Than Psychiatrists

“Dixon Chibanda is one of a total of 12 psychiatrists in Zimbabwe — for a population of more than 16 million. Realizing that his country would never be able to scale traditional methods of treating those with mental health issues, Chibanda helped to develop a beautiful solution powered by a limitless resource: grandmothers. In this extraordinary, inspirational talk, learn more about The Friendship Bench program, which trains grandmothers in evidence-based talk therapy and brings care, and hope, to those in need.”

Remembering Marshall


Dr. Marshall Rosenberg

I can probably count on one hand men I have the utmost respect and appreciation for. Marshall Rosenberg, the originator of NVC – Non-Violent Communication is one of them. He died at age 81 in 2015. He would not be surprised to see the turn to the Dark Side our country has taken although he was adamantly opposed to Domination Cultures like our current president is promoting around the globe. Marshall was generous and accessible and kind enough to contribute a chapter to one of my books. He is missed and fondly remembered on his recent birthday.

Are You Listening? Hearing: Our First Sense to Develop

Turns out the Mozart Effect may be real after all. Neuroscientists at the University of Maryland observed sound-induced nerve impulses in subplate neurons, which help guide the formation of neural circuits in the same way that a scaffolding helps a construction crew erect a new building. Very early in brain development, sound becomes an important sense. It appears that the neurons that respond to sound play a role in the early functional organization of the cortex. This is a new and exciting discovery.

Miles Davis is Not Mozart

Miles Davis

Miles Davis

A musician’s brain is different than that of a non-musician. Making music requires a complex interplay of various abilities which are also reflected in more strongly developed brain structures. Scientists have recently discovered that these capabilities are embedded in a much more finely-tuned way than previously assumed—and even differ depending on the style of the music: They observed that the brain activity of jazz pianists differs from those of classical pianists, even when playing the same piece of music. This could give insight into the processes which generally take place while making music and which are specific for certain styles.

Emotionally Enhanced Vividness

It totally blew my mind when I learned just how little of the world around me my senses take in consciously (roughly 2%). The role that the ADRA2b gene plays in the ebb and flow of the brain’s norepinephrine neurotransmitters is equally mind-blowing in my estimation. Especially when you consider that brain cells are plastic and transformable and Emotionally Enhanced Vivedness – once you understand what it is – could probably be cultivated with practice.

I have a number of friends who are clinical psychologists. Any number of them tell me that for the most part, their clients don’t change until the pain of continuing to live their lives in the manner they have been, becomes greater than the pain of risking change.

Butterfinger-Cheesecake-Bars2-1024x682.jpgFrom a neurobiological perspective this makes perfect sense. Few of the pains that life brings us are constant. For example, I suffer many of the stereotypical pains of aging – achy joints, dry and wrinkly skin, bad teeth, bad hair, declining vision and hearing. Many of my conditions are undeniably associated with poor eating habits. But the pleasure I get from a short stack of butterfinger cookiedough cheesecake bars or a plate of blueberry streusel bars with lemon creme filling far outweighs any suffering that will unquestionably ensue. One of the vulnerabilities of my neurobiology is that it “future discounts.” Giving much more weight to feeling good now and worrying about the future later is currently a limitation of my brain. But not just mine. This functional limitation is a major contributor to morbidity and mortality the whole world over. Because I am consistently able to find recurring, intermittent, immediate small pleasures, life keeps on being worth living. Even though I know it’s not optimal in the long run. The piper must be paid. Or, as Buddha might say, “Because of this, that.”

Stop the Music; Time to Get Off

Piper payment seems to be upon me; the merry-go-round music appears to be stopping. To date I have now had hives for nearly four months. Their itchiness is interrupting my sleep and making it difficult to interact with people without constantly scratching my belly, my back and my butt. I am sure that, at least in part, it’s diet-related. It’s also stress-related, which is also diet-related. And vice versa. Pleasurable foods are a great nervous system regulator for me. They make me feel good, rather than anxious. In the short term; there’s that pesky future discounting again.

But a great remedy for what ails me can be found in an old Sufi Tale called, The Increasing of Necessity. Essentially, the protagonist agrees to fulfill a commitment with the penalty for failing being forfeiture of his own life. The good news is that we can arrange things in our lives so that our necessity is increased, but not necessarily to the point of our life ending. A recent example might serve to illustrate.

Weight, Weight, Don’t Weigh Me


Last year I agreed to reprise a course I offered in The Neurobiology of Weight Loss at our local medical school. In advance of the first course I managed to get my weight down to 212 pounds. For this second offering, it would be hypotcritical and make me a less-than-credible exemplar if I was to show up for the course (in my own mind, at least) weighing more than I did for the first offering. With my necessity sufficiently increased, I mindfully engaged in the activities and behaviors I needed to in order to be true to the claims I was making in the course. On the day of the course I managed to show up for the class weighing 206 pounds (As you might guess, a year later I’ve backslid somewhat, but I’ve now recruited a small army to help me return to “playing weight”). The central message of the course is: 1. Struggling with weight management is not a moral issue- it’s a neurobiological vulnerability; and 2. Successfully managing weight for many of us is an enormously complex, Wicked Problem. I am also an exemplar for those perspectives.

Increasing Necessity in Small Amounts

So, the good news is we don’t have to increase the pain or necessity to the point of sacrificing our life. We can do it in small, but effective ways. For example, we can enlist one or more “accountability partners” to hold us responsible for any growth and changes we want to make in our lives (this is sort of like the role Bakhtiar’s wife played in the Sufi story). We can make solemn promises to people who trust us. We can learn about many of the ways the structural vulnerabilities of our own brain work and come up with creative ways to turn them into “Antifragility Drivers.” Cognitive Biases (like “future discounting” already mentioned, and “confirmation bias” are a few of those structural neural vulnerabilities. Here’s a codex that shows more than 200 of them! Click several times to enlarge it). Realize none of us are at fault; we’re all doing the best we can.

Finally, we can embark upon a life course intended to make us increasingly open to the possibility of seeing and hearing and understanding the story of the story of the story of the Unseen World. That world might be found in this creative compilation I’ve put together.

This Week’s Neuro-Fiver

Your Brain Reveals Who Your Friends Are

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Well, now we have the neuroscience to prove it. Or, the reverse of it. By looking at your brain, we can tell what your friends are like, on average. Might it be time for your friends to think about expanding their circle?

The New Science of Daydreaming

A DaydreamerNot every prisoner placed in solitary confinement loves being alone with their Wild Mind. Unless they’ve had training, or come upon possibilities serendipitously, it’s not easy to choose peace over madness, consolation over despair, and turn isolation into solitude. Which is what Dr. Edith Bone had to do over 7 years and 58 days of imprisonment during the Hungarian Revolution. She managed to perfect the process of daydreaming and her brain was infinitely better for it. As our own can be, and we don’t have to be sent to prison in order to grow our own robust daydreaming circuitry.

How Our Brain’s Default Mode Network Thinks Us Up

Most of us spend a good part of every day daydreaming. We exert little effort to direct and inquire deeply into the people, places and things present before us. But it’s not something we have to be affected by forever. In this lengthy piece, neuro-philosopher Thomas Metzinger explores what happens when the Default Mode Network has its way with us, and what we can do to begin to shift the balance of control.

Let a Human Uber Live Your Life

A Human UberWeird, but I have little doubt this is a coming reality. Why? Because it’s a great way to go out into the world and not have to worry about regulating your body’s stress hormones. It might be somewhat challenging for your Uberganger though, but that’s what you’ll be paying him or her the big bucks for!

Can Your Brain Testify Against You?

Currently defendants in a number of criminal legal cases have brought neuroscience to bear as a reasonable defense to explain and justify their criminal behavior. This article explores the ethical implications for the use of neuroscience to establish guilt by state and federal prosecutors. What do you think? Should both sides have equal access? Should the rights of the individual to privacy, due process and protection from self-incrimination supercede the rights of the community to be protected from anti-social acts resulting from verifiable dysfunctional neurobiology?

Human Brains: Journey to Resilience

This little animated film by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (oh, those Canadians!) offers compelling support for my constant claim that “healing is always trying to happen.” They pack a great amount of recent brain science research into 7 minutes in a way that is both memorable and entertaining. I rate it 5 HBs (Healthy Brains):


Know Thyself: Well-Being and Subjective Experience

Consciousness research in neuroscience posits the basic idea that the brain has a variety of specialized processing modules that operate non-consciously, and that consciousness occurs when information they provide is captured by attention and brought into neural circuits that support higher-cortical functions.

This article by one of my favorite threat-circuitry brain researchers, Joseph LeDoux, suggests that successful mental health treatment might require us to view mental afflictions as arising “from a federation of systems that generate different symptoms and require different approaches….Although the involved systems have fundamentally different functions, they are highly interactive, and each must be addressed.”

Bedtime To-Do Lists Enhance Sleep

Some 40% of Americans had difficulty falling asleep last month. I was one of them. This study is interesting because it suggests a simple hack: offload worry using pen and paper. Chalkboard-To-Do-List.pngSince most of the things we tend to worry about often pose a threat of some sort, writing them down assures our nervous system that we won’t forget them. Unless, of course, we forget to look at the To-Do List. Better then, would be to set a phone alert for the morning to remind us to look at the list. 😉

This Is Your Brain Outdoors

Since brains are designed and intended to operate in whatever environments they find themselves in, it has long been clear to me that the findings from “controlled laboratory studies” are mostly only relevant in … controlled laboratories. Which is not where most of us live our lives. This study takes a look at a human brain operating out in the real world. Guess what: it operates differently than in a controlled laboratory.

The Science of Perfect Timing

In this RSA video, Dan Pink cites study after study, often involving Big Data, that underscores the wisdom teaching that “to everything, there is a season.” In this talk he mostly focuses on the “seasons” of a single day. Lots of interesting takeaways: don’t spend time with doctors in the afternoon, plan your daily activities according to whether you’re an Owl or a Lark, there’s an optimal, personal timing sequence to peak performance.