Category Archives: Mental Fitness

Singing Trumps The Pain

Naaman and Elisha
Namaan, cured from leprosy by a seemingly simple act, offers payment to Elisha, who refuses to accept. Image by Pieter de Grebber [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There is evidence that singing can be used to alleviate pain and can also be used therapeutically.  Some of this evidence is reviewed by Deb Preachuk, a Chronic Pain Relief, Posture Restoration and Athletic Performance Enhancement professional, on her blog.

I have experimented with this myself and have found it effective in the past.  There is no guarantee that it will work for you, so check with your doctor before trying therapeutic singing.    I don’t know of any negative side effects from singing, but even a glass of water can be harmful to some, therefore it is best to consult with your medical authority about the information you read on the web.

On several occasions singing has been my therapeutic agent.  On two incidents where I was feeling nausea,  I was determined to avoid the seemingly inevitable outcome.  I thought to myself that it would be impossible to eject stomach contents and sing at the same time, so I grabbed a Seventh Day Adventist Hymnal from my bookshelf and began singing at the top of my lungs.  Sure enough, the nausea dissipated preventing the anticipated volcanic event.

Luckily, it is not often that I feel nauseated and so several years passed until the feeling recurred.  This time I remembered the singing tactic and tried it again.  The effect was the same, negative feelings dissipated and my spirit was uplifted by rhapsodic singing.

Recently, I had some tooth sensitivity pain and was not a happy camper.  As I was driving home from work, I decided to try the singing tactic.  I figured that It wouldn’t bother anyone else on the noisy highway and so I unleashed my voluminous vocals, with improvised comical lyrics.  To my surprise the tooth pain vanished after about 5  minutes of singing.    Several days later the same situation arose and again the singing trumped the pain after a few minutes.   The pain has not returned since.  Pain trumped and vanquished by singing .  Go figure.

But surely,  singing cannot be the solution to everyone’s pain.  Some would never even consider singing while in pain.  “Foolishness,” they say.     This reminds me of a bible story where the commander of the Syrian army named Namaan is asked by the prophet Elisha to bathe in the Jordan river 7 times in order to be healed from leprosy.  Namaan refused to perform this foolish act.  However, his servant convinced him by reminding him that had more difficult and expensive tasks been required he would have happily complied.   Namaan performs the simple tasks and is healed.

Many people would happily spend thousands of dollars on surgeries or expensive treatments that “make sense” rather than trying a simple approach that seems silly.  But what have you to lose?

The healing power of singing may be magnified when performed in groups.  Listen to the Virtual Choir orchestrated by Eric Whitacre and be inspired to sing for healing, rejuvenation and social bonding.

How Singing Does It

There are several mechanisms that may explain the healing and pain reducing effects of singing.

    1.  Endorphins –  Singing may trigger endorphins, the bodies natural painkillers.  This is especially true if you are elated by singing.  That is, singing songs you love or songs that bring back memories can trigger tears of joy or emotion.  These tears can have a cleansing effect on the mind and the endorphins released can reduce the sensation of pain.   Other similar activities that trigger endorphins are laughter and aerobics.
    2.  Gate Control Theory –  this theory is based on the idea that the nervous system can only process a certain amount of sensory data and that certain pathways when activated will, therefore, suppress other pathways.  The theory was developed in 1965 by Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall.  This theory is discussed by Kelley A. Lyons in a master’s thesis published in 1988.
    3. Relaxation –  This concept is also discussed in Kelley A. Lyons’ master’s thesis.  Relaxation reduces stress and allows the immune system to function better thus inducing healing.
    4. Vibration –  The voice is a powerful source of energy for the body through vibration.  Vibration may be essential for the function of the immune system just as movement is necessary to move lymphatic fluids.  That is, vibration may serve as a natural pump for the body to allow the body to realign with healing.

What to Sing

Find songs that you can sing with gusto.  Songs that inspire you.  For example,  many years ago I sang in a local Rhode Island quartet named the Kings’ Men, and we performed a version of “What a Mighty God We Serve”  that allowed me to bellow out with full vocal majesty.  Today I keep this song in my medical music file.  Find songs that are meaningful to you and give them your all.

Prions, Misfoldings and Bears! Oh My!

Vacuoles caused by Prions
Background image shows the presence of vacuoles in brain tissue of a cow caused by a prion disease (BSE- Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). Original image by Dr. Al Jenny [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There are many instances of diseases that are caused by a slight variation in the normal harmonious dance of cellular dynamics.  Take cancer as an example.  All healthy individuals have some malignant cells in their bodies inclining towards the cancerous state.  However in the everyday dance of cellular activity, these malignant cells are contained or destroyed by the immune system, and other harmonious cellular dynamics.  Only when the orchestrated cellular dance is off beat can these malignant cells evolve into full-grown tumors.

Prions  and misfolded proteins are another source of cellular miscoordination that can apparently result in many neurodegenerative diseases.    Although prions are considered infectious they are made of prion proteins (PrP) that  can exist in a healthy form (PrPc) and an infectious form (PrPsc).  Stanley B. Prusiner of University of California, San Fransisco purified prions in 1982 and won a Nobel Prize in 1997 for his work on prions.

PrPc is normally found throughout the body on the surface of cell membranes and has mainly an alpha-helical structure.   Although the normal function of PrPis very complex it appears to be important for cellular communication.  It is interesting to note that PrPbinds copper ions with a high affinity and recent studies performed in 2016 at Iowa State University by researcher Chi Fu Yen, et al., have revealed that exposure to copper can cause the misfoldings to occur.

Once the infectious prions begin to form (PrPsc) they interact with normal PrPand cause them to also misfold resulting in amyloid folds that aggregate into dense β- sheets that cause tissue damage and cell death.  Known human prion diseases include Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, Gerstmann–Sträussler–Scheinker syndrome, Fatal familial insomnia, and kuru.  These diseases are relatively rare, however, it is believed that more common neurodegenerative diseases such as  Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal lobar degeneration may also be caused by misfolding in other mamalian proteins with prion-like domains.

The complex folding of proteins into elaborate configurations is a vital part of health and can be thought of as a highly sophisticated form of origami.  Prions act like a chain of dominoes in that a distorted molecule can become a template upon which the next normal molecule can become distorted.  The process can start with exposure to small number of prions that then replicate exponentially, that is, one prion creates another, then the two prions create four and the four create eight.  As we have seen in previous posts, exponential processes can initially go unnoticed but eventually have explosive consequences, and in the case of prion diseases ultimately lead to death.

How to Stop or Prevent the Prion March

If we knew for sure how to stop the infectious march of prions it is possible that many neurodegenerative diseases that currently have no cure would become reversible.  This includes ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.   Although scientists have not been able pin down a prevention strategy or a cure that would work for everyone with prion related diseases there are a couple of sources of evidence indicating the body has mechanisms for handling prions.  These sources are:

  1.  The progression of prion-like diseases such as ALS is not constant but rather appears to occur in spurts.  Thus there can be long intervals where there is no worsening of symptoms or in which symptoms improve.  This may indicate that processes normally used by the body to control the spread of prions are still functional.
  2.  There is evidence in the literature that spontaneous remission of symptoms in diseases with possible prion-like mechanisms has been observed by clinicians.   Spontaneous remissions of disease provide a wonderful ‘proof of concept’ that the body can unlock its ability to heal even diseases are said to be incurable.

One example of this is the case of Nelda Buss who was healed of ALS symptoms after progressing to a state of quadriplegia in 1985.  Her dramatic reversal occurred while being treated by a well-known Energy Healer named Dean Kraft.  Her case was investigated by ALS Untangled, an organization sponsored by the ALS Association  and the Motor Neuron Disease Association.

Dr. Richard Bedlack, Director and Neurologist at the Duke ALS Clinic in North Carolina led the investigation and found that Nelda Buss did in fact have ALS based on her detailed medical records and he states that today she has recovered at least 99% of her normal functionality.   In addition to her case Dr. Bedlack states in the video below that he has found an additional 15 cases of people who had ALS and appear to have been cured.

This video is a “must see” for anyone interested in understanding how unexpected disease reversals can be studied to provide insight into healing.  Watch the video for more details.

Currently Dr. Bedlack also has  a website that directly focuses on understanding ALS reversals.

Clearly there is hope for preventing and stopping the prion and prion-like march that may be leading to neurodegenerative diseases like ALS.

Happiness, Joy, Laughter and Fun

Laughtacephalus

Laughtacephalus, is a word I just coined to describe the idea of “joy on the brain.”  Laughtacephalus is a strategy for healing and health that taps into positive circuits of happiness, joy, laughter and fun in the brain in order to effect rewiring as an antidote to negativity and suffering, and as a pathway to a healthier brain.  When properly applied happiness, joy, laughter and fun can help reverse the downward spiral of health, and promote a robust recovery.   Oh, I should warn you to watch out!  Laughtacephalus  has contagious qualities!

Happiness and Joy

In “The Book of Joy” (pg. 14) Dalai Lama states, “I believe the purpose of life is to find happiness … The ultimate source of happiness is within us.”  He defines happiness (pg. 35) as “satisfaction”, and joy as “great  satisfaction.”

In his view, both happiness and joy can be of two types (pg. 53), one experienced through sensory pleasure (eating, sex, etc) and the other experienced through the mind (compassion, love, generosity, etc).  The sensory route to happiness is seen as fleeting and the mental route as more enduring and dependable.

Both sensory and mental forms of happiness and joy can be applied and shared for health and healing.  However, better ways are needed for monitoring and administering happiness and joy.  We have not invested enough effort into understanding how to apply them and often people go for days without experiencing laughter or joy.  We need to develop a diet of happiness and joy.

One of the secrets of happiness and joy is that you can have it for yourself if you provide it to others.  Interesting how this works!  Usually one needs to choose whether to keep something or share it.  But with happiness and joy you can share it and keep it at the same time.  Of course, you can also make others happy at the expense of your own joy, but then you will become depleted.

Smiling, Laughter and Fun

The physical manifestations of happiness and joy are genuine smiling, laughter and fun.  Do you experience hearty laughter on a daily basis?  Do you have fun at work every day?  Are your smiles genuine or are they just a mask that you wear?  We have been conditioned to think that fun and laughter are luxuries when in reality they need to be placed at the center of life.  We need to work just as hard at adding fun and genuine laughter to our lives as we do for the sake of survival.

Once again,  social interaction is the key and the goal should be sharing laughter and fun in a compassionate and caring setting.

Challenge yourself to find the forms of social interaction that increase happiness and fun for all involved.  This is a big challenge since many social interactions have become too formalized to allow for the spontaneity that comes with joy and fun.  Often there are hidden agendas associated with formal social gatherings that hinder pure fun or joy.

If you have taken part in fun and joyful activities lately feel free to share them.

It surely helps if you have young children since they naturally understand the importance of joy and spontaneous fun.  For example, my daughter is teaching me how to do cartwheels.  Here’s a warning though – you may need to check with your doctor before trying to keep up with a child that is  having fun!

“Be the change you wish to see in this world.”  Gandhi

I would love to see more happiness, joy, fun and laughter in my life, therefore I must find ways to grow by applying  laughtacephalus to my own brain.

We must be willing to grow new connections in our brains if the world is to become a better place.  Start reconnecting with laughtacephalus today!

 

 

Music+Dance=Festive Fitness

When auditory hair cells vibrate in your inner ear you perceive sound.  But when auditory hair cells dance you perceive music.

The relationship between music and dance is rooted at the sensory level.   Both music and dance result when space and time form an intimate bond that takes on a life of its own.   The power of music and dance on the brain and body has a profound healing potential that is part of the future of preventive and restorative health care.

In 1905 Einstein introduced the idea that space and time are not separate but rather form a spacetime continuum.   In his new book, ‘Reality Is Not What It Seems’, Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli explains that the past, present and future exist together in an ‘extended present’ that is interconnected by timeless light beams.  I say ‘timeless’ because if you were traveling on a light beam time would stand still for you.  For example, the sun that we see in the sky is the sun from 15 minutes ago, because it takes 15  minutes for light to travel 90  million miles to the earth.  However, the light is not 15 minutes old!  In essence we are witnessing a direct connection through time and the sun’s past is directly connecting to our present through spacetime energy fluctuations.

In a metaphorically similar way, music and dance also connect the past, present and future in the brain resulting in powerful stimulation and regeneration of brain cells.   In the 2014 film, Alive Inside, by  Michael Rossato-Bennett, Dan Cohen of Music and Memory discusses how music awakens elderly people suffering from dementia by reviving brain circuitry from the past that has remained dormant for long periods of time.

The Alive Inside video shows dramatic examples of the power of music for combating brain degeneration resulting from illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.  One can only imagine the power of music, when used properly, to keep the brain vibrant, healthy, and free from illness.

Now consider that by combining music with dance we can magnify the beneficial effect on the brain in a way that is more than just the sum of the parts.  This approach is being promoted by a nonprofit organization named ‘Dance for PD.’   As shown below, this approach appears to trigger brain activation that allows Parkinson’s patients a greater degree of freedom to move.

Researchers led by neuroscientist Joseph DeSouza at York University in Toronto believe that dance can rebuild the brains pathways.  He states that dance is a very effective form of brain training because it involves complex brain functions associated with timing, movement, coding and decoding.

Participants claim that dancing helps them not only physically but cognitively as well.  In paper published in January 2015 by Prabhjot Dhami , Sylvain Moreno and Joseph F. X. DeSouza, it is argued that dance appears to be a tool that combines both cognitive and physical rehabilitation strategies.  The authors state:

“Not only does it incorporate physical and motor skill related activities, but it can also engage various cognitive functions such as perception, emotion, and memory, all while being done in an enriched environment.”

But of course, dance is not only a good tool for rehabilitation, and the authors also mention a study by Kattenstroth et al. (2010) in which elderly individuals with multiyear dancing activity were able to prevent cognitive decline when compared to non-dancing controls.

So what are we waiting for?  Let’s get our dancing on!

References

Kattenstroth, J. C., Kolankowska, I., Kalisch, T., and Dinse, H. R. (2010). Superior sensory, motor, and cognitive performance in elderly individuals with multiyear dancing activities. Front. Aging Neurosci. 2:31. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2010. 00031

The Rainbow Smoothie Fun Day

I wanted to make a rainbow smoothie because I thought it would be fun, and it was fun because I got to spend some time with my dad.  It is also a good experience for my e-book called the Colory Colors of the Rainbow (see below for more details).  Different fruits can be used to represent the rainbow’s colors in a healthy way.

For the color red we used raspberries, strawberries, banana and a little water.  Normally I don’t like raspberries but they were pretty good in the smoothie.

For the color orange we used oranges, carrots, bananas and a little bit of water.  My dad and I really liked the flavor of this combination.

For yellow we used bananas, pineapple and a little water.  Usually the pineapple stings my tongue but this time it didn’t.

For green we used kale, green grapes, banana and kiwi but no water because the grapes are very watery.

Blue we did not get to do because the blueberries turned purple.  I really like how the purple came out but I would have liked to have blue.  I am still bothered by that so let me know in the comments if you know of a fruit that turns blue when it’s blended.

Initially we had prunes that we wanted to use for purple, but they turned brown in the blender.  I thought it looked weird but dad liked it.  I didn’t let him use it for the smoothie!

For violet we used red grapes with banana and no water.

My favorite part was when there was extra smoothie left over for us to taste-test.

We didn’t precisely measure the ingredients so if you want an exact recipe check out Beth’s at  BETH @ THE FIRST YEAR on FEBRUARY 29, 2016.  She uses Greek yogurt in her recipes but we didn’t.  Maybe we should try the yogurt to see if it helps when blending the colors.

When we put it all together this is how it looked! It was absolutely delicious, I drank two of them and my belly was bursting with yumminess.

Putting it together was a little difficult because we had to freeze some things and some things were too thick so they would sink right through.

Eating healthy can keep you from getting sick.  I don’t like being sick because then I can’t go to school and have fun with my friends.  Being sick is boring because you don’t have enough energy to run around,  and I love running around.

I had fun doing this. It was the funnest day of the year because my dad was not stuck on his computer all day.

I am going to make an e-book called the Colory Colors of the Rainbow.  It will be a great educational book for kids about the colors of the rainbow and what they mean.  My dad will make an adult version too but it may not have the same title.    We will let you know when the e-books are available.

Your Best Attainable Health (BAH)

Image of nonviolent struggle
Your Best Attainable Health (BAH) requires a nonviolent redirection of outdated genetics through mindful practice. Photo by ManicMorff @ morguefile.com

Over the last several month’s the OnTierraHealth blog has focused on the big picture issues that limit the attainability of ideal health for most people. Today I will focus on the fundamental root cause of the poor health prognosis for our species (taken from an evolutionary perspective). The problem is a very basic clash of developmental time scales when comparing biological evolutionary change to technological progress. The essence is this, evolutionary behaviors that were well suited for survival in a jungle-like environment are grossly unsuited for survival of life on earth over the long-term given the rapidity of technological innovation.

Biological Evolutionary Behavior

Biological evolutionary behavior is genetically determined and as such can be viewed as a bottom-up organizational force. An example of this for a heterosexual person would be attraction to the opposite sex. A person is not attracted sexually to a worm. We take this for granted but must acknowledge that sexual attraction is created by the brain. There is nothing inherently sexier about a person unless the brain makes it so, therefore to a worm another worm is much sexier. We accept evolutionary behaviors as immutable and in many cases they serve us well.

However, warfare can also be considered a biological evolutionary behavior.  It is based on an evolutionary algorithm whereby “might is right” by virtue of survival. The fundamental principle is that one can determine who is right in a dispute through an existential challenge, with the survivor being right. Initially this behavior may have led to wrestling matches and fisticuffs resulting in the selection stronger individuals. However, as technology progressed the evolutionary algorithm of “might is right” has not budged resulting in weapons for destroying hundreds, thousands and then millions of individuals (i.e. WWII). Here we can see the problem clearly, technology has advanced too quickly for the evolutionary algorithm to catch up. An evolutionary algorithm that in the past helped natural selection to create stronger individuals now has become a liability that could result in mutually assured destruction of all life on earth.

One may think that this scenario makes the self-destruction of life on earth an inevitable outcome.  However, there may be a form of high-speed evolution that is attempting to bridge the gap.  There is no guarantee that this high-speed evolution will occur fast enough to rescue life on earth.

Evolutionary Neurodynamics and Memes

The idea behind Evolutionary Neurodynamics (Szilágyi, et al., 2016) is that the same natural selection algorithms that are at work in the ecosystem are also at work on a microscopic scale within each person’s brain  and that natural selection in the brain is critical to the discovery of open-ended evolutionary solutions that can take place within an individuals lifetime.  According to the theory, neural evolution takes place at high-speed as neurons and populations of neurons compete with one another in a parallel search for solutions to problems.  Successful solutions are then copied to other groups of neurons with some variability.  This process forms a type of heredity among neural connections that is constantly in flux, resulting in the possibility of novel solutions.

Combining the idea of Evolutionary Neurodynamics with the concept of memes (ideas that are able to be transmitted and reproduced between brains) provides a framework whereby evolutionary behaviors that have become liabilities may be replaced by self-evolutionary behaviors that can be reproduced in a large population.

The advantage  of self-evolutionary behavior is that unlike the relatively blind bottom-up forces of biological evolution, neurological evolution has both bottom-up and top-down components allowing it be guided by holistic intelligence.  This holistic guidance is necessary for the success of self-evolution.  Religion, philosophy and science play a role in providing sources of holistic intelligence and in particular the practice of mindfulness may be critical for self-evolution.  However,  understanding the evolutionary challenge is also essential.

Best Attainable Health (BAH)

The problem of replacing bottom-up genetically-determined dysfunctional evolutionary behavior with holistic top-down self-evolved behavior is at the heart of achieving Best Attainable Health (BAH) and long-term survival.   It appears that at the heart of this evolutionary transformation is the art and science of mindfulness as practiced and taught by the Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay).  The practice of mindfulness draws our attention to the beauty and miraculous nature of the present moment through breathing meditation, and in so doing causes the mind and the body to be reunited. This allows us to observe dysfunctional biologically evolved behaviors with a balanced non-judgemental perspective and to slowly rewire our brains for the next stage of human evolution.

Thay states, “The practice of meditation helps us to see things other people can’t see. ”  An example of this is the nature of inter-being.  The father is in the son and the son is in the mother,  the cloud is in the river and the river in the ocean, the tree is in the seed and the seed is in the fruit.  The spirit of nonviolence is born from this realization, that we inter-are.  Nonviolence is the antithesis of the “might is right” principle of biological evolution and it constitutes the only path towards the next stage of human evolution.  Thay states,

When we realize our ‘interbeing nature’, we’ll stop blaming and exploiting and killing, because we know that we inter-are. That is the great awakening we must have in order for the Earth to be saved.

Establishing and spreading the meme of nonviolence is the first step towards achieving BAH, because it is a direct mitigation of the self-destructive, biological, “might is right” directive.  Note that Thay warns us that we can never achieve complete nonviolence but rather, nonviolence is a direction that leads us away from complete self-annihilation.   Christ referred to it as  ‘turning the other cheek’ and though the seeds have been sown by religious figures such as Buddha, Christ, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, we are entering urgently upon the time for watering the seeds fully in order to save the world from madness, self-destruction and lost life.

Nonviolence is not a weak concept but rather a form of justice that substitutes “might is right” and warfare with reconciliation, forgiveness, and just arbitration.  It requires one justice for all people throughout the world based upon nonviolence.  However, as Thay teaches, it begins with nonviolence towards the self, achieved through mindful meditation.    From this practice will emerge the neural evolution required to reach Best Attainable Health individually and collectively.

Share the meme.

Breathing In Breathing Out

Breathing is something we take for granted.
Breathing is something we often take for granted but is deeply connected to a healthy mind, body and spirit. Photo by vickiayala @ www.morguefile.com

Thích Nhất Hạnh is a Vietnamese Budhist Monk who became 90 years old this past October.  In his book, “you are here,” Nhất teaches that there is a very profound power in the act of breathing, and that breathing meditation can bring us back into the present moment in a way that is powerfully healing.  He argues that our brains have complicated our lives so much that we have lost sight of how easy it is for a person to have complete happiness and joy. He emphasizes that human beings create heaven and hell within themselves and that heaven is reachable in this life for everyone through simple breathing meditation.

I have found his approach very helpful in my own life and have begun applying it to my marriage as well for improving communication.   It begins with these simple words:

Breathing in,  I know I am breathing in.

Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

These simple words hold the keys to a profound transformation and evolution of human thought and consciousness.  I have often wondered how society could transition from one of engineered scarcity in which individuals battle one another in fierce competition over artificially constrained resources, to a society in which everyone is wealthy and successful.

For example, consider an apple orchard in which every tree has access to water, sunlight and enough soil to anchor its roots.  These trees could be considered wealthy and successful.  But what does it take for a human being to be considered wealthy and successful?  Many people conjure up images of palaces, servants, expensive toys and thousands of adoring fans.  But Nhất has uncovered something surprising.  These ideas of wealth and success are all illusions.  True wealth and success begin with the freedom to breathe mindfully, and this is available to everyone right in the present moment!

Do you get what this means?  We have been led to think that we are sentenced to toil and hard labor as we seek to earn scarce moments of happiness.  But the reality is that we can have complete joy and happiness in the present moment at any time simply by practicing the beauty of breathing meditation.

 What makes breathing so special

The power of mindful breathing meditation is that it opens the doors to our true nature of miraculous inter-being in the moment.  Once we are drawn to a deep awareness of the present we can more fully appreciate that all things are present through each other and not separately.   For example, if I am eating an apple during breathing meditation , I become aware that the sun is in the apple as are the clouds that watered the orchard and the soil that nurtured the tree.  We are not isolated beings but rather inter-beings!  This becomes a deep realization through breathing meditation.

Think of it, all along we only needed to learn to breath to be successful and wealthy.   Sort of how Dorothy always had the power to go home in the Wizard of Oz but had to find this out for herself after an arduous journey.  This underscores how the important things in life are not taught to us in school.  I find it amazing that I had never heard of Thich Nhat Hanh until recently when the book, “you are here,”  was discussed on an online LinkedIn group named Universal Quest.  

Breathing is also special because it lies on the boundary between voluntary and involuntary movement.  Breathing can be controlled automatically without conscious intervention, or consciously.  This allows it to  play an important role in connecting our mind and bodies harmoniously.  Thus during breathing meditation the goal is not to control our breathing but rather to allow the body to control breathing. During this meditation the mind focuses on simple pairs of thoughts such as deep and slow, calmness and ease, the present moment and its wonder. The links below provide some first hand information on breathing meditation.  The word ‘sangha’ mentioned in the links below refers to any group of breathing meditation practitioners that meet to support each other.  Enjoy!

Interview with Oprah Winfrey

Discussion of the Dharma-Body (Dharmakāya)
and the practice of mindful breathing.

Neuro-Genesis

morgue_file_jdurham
Your brain creates the world in which you live. Image by jdurham at morguefile.com.

Brand new baby brain cells (neurons) are crawling around inside your head as you read this!

This process, called neurogenesis, is very exciting because neurons create your world, and the birth of new neurons  is like a re-creation of the world taking place in your very own brain.  Let’s pause to consider this.

Most everyone is familiar with the account in Genesis of how the world was created.  In this account man was created on the sixth day.  But what is not mentioned is that once man was created, the whole world had to be re-created inside his head.   We cannot perceive objective reality directly.  In Kantian philosophy, this objective reality that is unknowable is referred to as the noumenal world.  Neurons are the living entities responsible for creating the subjective or phenomenal world which we can perceive.  The phenomenal world created by neurons is a simulation of the noumenon, and it includes everything that is perceivable through the senses, thoughts and emotions.

Thus each individual is the creator of a unique phenomenal world.  Although neurogenesis refers only to the birth of neurons in the brain, in reality we can extend the significance philosophically by thinking of it as neuro-Genesis, the re-creation of an individuals phenomenal world by the brain.

Unlike the noumenal world that is made up of objects, the phenomenal world is made up of memories.  It is very important to appreciate how our worlds are constructed by a constellation of living entities (neurons) each assembling memories like LEGO blocks to create a phenomenal world.

When neurons involved in this process die or malfunction our world shrinks.   This is why a patient with Alzheimer’s, though technically not blind, can forget how to see.  At first the patient may fail to recognize new acquaintances.  As the disease progresses, family members are not recognized, and finally even the concept of a face is forgotten as neurons continue to die or malfunction.

The Birth of Worlds

Research published this month by David Briley, et al., at the Mitchell Center for Neurodegenerative diseases, Department of Neurology, University of Texas Medical Branch, has shown that the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus may be responsible for preventing symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) in individuals with brain degeneration  that is normally associated with full AD symptoms.  These rare individuals were referred to as  Non-Demented with Alzheimer’s disease Neuropathy (NDAN).  This research shows the importance of promoting the continuous birth of neurons throughout life for retaining mental health in increasingly toxic environments that we are creating.

The perspective I am promoting is that the birth of neurons in the brain is like the birth of new worlds, because these cells directly create our phenomenal world.  This can work in two ways.  The first is that death of cells which would cause our world to shrink can be counteracted.  The second is that our world can continue to expand as these new neurons find their place in our phenomenal world of memories.

In her Ted Talk (see link below), Sandrine Thuret mentions the strategies we can employ to promote the birth of new neurons in our brains.  She discusses research showing that aerobic exercise (running) is is a potent method for stimulating neuronal birth when compared to sedentary behavior.

Her list of do’s and don’ts for birthing brain cells include the following:

Do’s

  1. Learning
  2. Sex
  3. Running (Aerobic Exercise)
  4. Omega 3 fatty acids, blueberries, curcurmin, resveratrol (skin of red grapes, etc.
  5. Intermittent Fasting (increased spacing between last meal and first meal the next day)

Don’ts

  1. Stress
  2. Sleep Deprivation
  3. Alcohol
  4. Vitamin Deficiencies (A,B,E)
  5. High Sugar

Ultimately the best strategy for keeping your world growing is to protect both your old neurons as well as promoting the birth of new neurons.  Some neuroscientists think the birth of new neurons is hyped by the media of wishful thinkers.  According to these researchers the best advice is to take good care of the neurons you already have rather than hoping to gain new ones.  However, mounting evidence indicates we are in for more budding heads in the future, as the stream of baby neurons explore their place in the palace of our memories, our phenomenal world.  Enjoy!

The Organ That Pleases Itself

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Intimacy releases endorphins and oxytocin resulting in bonding and improved health. Fraternal Twins By MultipleParent (CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Your brain is like a labyrinth that hides, deep within it, the Holy Grail of life. Simply put, your brain has secrets that it doesn’t want you to know!

“But why?” you ask, “would my brain keep secrets from little ol’ me?”

It boils down to this, your brain has to perform functions that your conscious ‘self’ may not like very much.  In order to accomplish its goals it is best if the conscious ‘you’ is left in the dark.

This strategy is an act of genius for survival of social organisms where the individual is important but secondary to the needs and survival of the group.  An example of this strategy is found in the cellular communities within our bodies where cells undergo apoptosis or programmed cell death.  There are two pathways for apoptosis, the intrinsic pathway in which a cell kills itself due to internal stress, and the extrinsic pathway in which the cell kills itself due to messages it receives from its neighboring cells.

It is estimated that in adults between 50 and 70 billion cells die every day as a result of this carefully orchestrated process of programmed cell death.  In a similar fashion, there is mounting evidence that the process of aging is orchestrated and programmed by the brain.  The brain doesn’t allow awareness of this orchestration but sometimes we catch a glimpse of the brain’s ability to control disease and aging. Some examples are:

  • The placebo effect – the brain is tricked by the mind into healing the body based on a perceived (but fake) external intervention.   This shows that the brain actively withholds healing from us in many cases.
  • Immunotherapy  –  a type of cancer treatment designed to boost the body’s natural defenses.
  • Spontaneous remission of diseases and cancer.
  • Neurochemicals of happiness – The brain produces or triggers the release of molecules such as endocannabinoids,  endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, seratonin, gaba and adrenaline,  that play a role in euphoria, contentment, affection, pain reduction, calmness, confidence, energy levels, healing and in slowing down the aging process.

The answer to the question, “Why does the brain promote aging”, may vary depending upon your viewpoint.   From an evolutionary perspective one rationale is that aging and programmed death of the individual allows the species as a whole to progress.   Regardless of how you rationalize death, it is pretty clear that the conscious ‘self’ wants no part in it and thus the brain has kept its involvement a secret, until now.

The Brains Secret Exposed

The brains secret is that it potentially has the power to make us healthier, smarter, stronger and younger than we currently experience and yet it proceeds with its implementation of programmed aging and ultimately death.  However, there is growing evidence pointing to a transitional period in the history of mind-brain interaction.  We can start making use of the brains secret today to improve our brain fitness in the years ahead.  Here’s how:

  • Re-evaluate habits that may simply be ‘giving in’ to the brains hidden aging agenda.  In particular, challenge your overall activity and social intimacy levels as these behaviors can trigger a flood of endorphins that have positive benefits for health and help postpone the aging process.
  • Give and receive at least 8 hugs per day.  A proper hug is deep, where the hearts are pressing together (my youngest daughter Mia is a pro at this).  Hugs boost oxytocin levels and oxytocin has been shown to increase regeneration of muscle.   You can even take this strategy to the  next level by giving and receiving a regular massage.
  • Try being a go-getter by setting goals and achieving them to trigger the release of dopamine.  Set goals related to social interaction for the biggest hit.
  • Practice yoga and meditation to trigger the release of gaba and thus reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Take on activities that challenge your comfort level and confidence, to trigger the release of serotonin and adrenaline.  These are the kinds of activities that keep you evolving as a human being.
  • Add laughter, singing, dance and music (LSD-M) to your daily schedule.  These activities trigger the feel good neurochemicals that may trick your brain into delaying aging.

All in all, remember that you can negotiate with your brain for health, youth and strength rather than just going with the flow.  Let us know what strategies you devise for peering into your brains secrets.

Brain Fitness and Self-Evolution

file000894312228According to the theory of evolution, billions of years of survival-selected changes were necessary for us to reach this amazing peak of human development. Whether or not one accepts the premise of evolution one has to admit that the perspective of evolution gives much to be thankful for.  Imagine yourself surfing on the cusp of a 4.5 billion year wave without perceiving all that has transpired to raise you up to this magnificent level.

Evolution and creation theories of the origin of life are not really at odds with one another.   In a sense evolution is a creation theory!  In evolution the creator is the constellation of the laws of physics which appear to be unchanging and eternal. In the “creationist” view the creator is the great “I AM”  who is also associated with unchanging laws that reflect his/her character. The debate is not about whether or not there is a creator, but about the characteristics of the creator, that is, is the creator conscious or not.

High Speed Evolution

As humans we each possess the crowning achievement of biological evolution / creation, our brains, with over 100 billion neurons and over 100 trillion connections. Our brains are conscious super computers the likes of which have not been found anywhere else in the universe (as of yet).  One of the marvelous abilities of our brains is the ability to change, grow and morph. This is very exciting because unlike biological evolution discussed above which can take millions of years, our brains can “evolve”, adapt and change in the space of years, months, weeks and in some cases even a single day.

The process of change in the brain can be likened to the process of evolution because it is a competitive system in which neural connections are competing with each other for space in the brain. The connections that survive are fed through repetitive activation. These connections can then go on to reinforce other connections resulting in more new connections.  Unsuccessful connections are pruned away, and any existing connections that depended upon the lost connections may also wither away.

Thus the brain can be seen as a laboratory within which world simulation experiments can be performed at a high speed.  The potential of the brain when seen in this light is unpredictable, transformational and disruptive.

Self-Evolution

You are not limited to the you that you are now.  No one is. Your brain can grow or it can shrink today depending upon the choices you make.  It can also make positive or negative new connections.   Everyone knows they can learn new things, but what we don’t fully realize is that our brains create the world that each individual calls home.  Everything you perceive is a simulation being created in your brain.  Even the perception you have of yourself is only a simulation of the real self that remains hidden.   In order to grow your brain, you have to challenge its simulations.  Self-Evolution means you can change not only yourself, but also your brain’s simulation of the world.

Brain Wars

In his book, “Change Your Brain Change Your Life”, Dr. Daniel Amen, a clinical neuroscientist, psychiatrist and brain imaging expert, warns that we are in a war for the health of our brains.  Some of the forces that are working against our brains are listed by Dr. Amen as:

  • Brain Injuries (sports, accidents, sleep apnea)
  • Drugs (including many medications)
  • Alcohol and smoking
  • Obesity and lack of exercise
  • High blood pressure and diabetes
  • SAD (Standard American Diet – neurotoxins)
  • Environmental toxins (air pollution / pesticides / etc.)
  • ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts)

On the other hand are the weapons that we can use in the fight for our brain health.  Dr. Amen lists the following:

  • Improve positive social connections
  • The challenge of learning and trying alternate strategies
  • Brain healthy diet (careful reading of nutrition labels on foods)
  • Improving sleep quality and avoiding brain injuries
  • Exercise
  • A healthy level of anxiety to challenge our comfort zones
  • Meditation, gratitude and ANT killing

Dig deeper into Dr. Amen’s brain fitness strategies by following this link.

Cognitive Training

How can we do it?  How can we accelerate self-evolution?  Surely it is a good thing to begin with brain health.  Because of the extreme complexity of the brain its health requires a holistic approach that according to Daniel R. George, PhD, MSc, and Peter J. Whitehouse, MD, PhD must include increased social connectivity in the form of intergenerational relationships. The authors state the following:

“For decades, a widening evidence base of cross-sectional and retrospective research has demonstrated that older adults who volunteer in their communities may experience a range of biopsychosocial benefits from physical, mental, and emotional health to longevity.”

Thus getting involved in the community may be a primary factor for brain health.    Negotiating the obstacle course of other factors described by Dr. Amen (see above) is also necessary.   In addition recent research also shows that there is a role for targeted cognitive training to help protect the brain from degeneration and to even improve cognition.

Intergenerational interaction is good for brain health.
Intergenerational interaction is good for brain health.

This brings us to the self-evolution phase of brain development.  We all accept that we need to exercise our physical bodies to stay fit, but we fail to take our brains to task when it comes to strenuous goal oriented, expansive, mental workouts.  This keeps our brains from fulfilling more of its potential.  This is where cognitive training software and smart phone apps may be able to contribute.

In order to push further we need to challenge our cognitive abilities beyond our comfort level.  Excessive comfort is the enemy of progress.  The cognitive abilities that form the foundation of self-evolution are memory (working, episodic, semantic), concentration, reasoning, speed of mental processing, visual and spatial skills, and executive functions (organization, planning, decision-making, attentional control, inhibitory control, cognitive multitasking).  These capabilities keep our minds agile and ready for change.

Cognitive training apps like Neuronation, Posit Science and Luminosity have been designed to target brain fitness, and other apps and games available online also provide fun and useful ways to improve memory  (i.e. MemZy and Fun with Animals) and novel thinking (i.e. Cut the Rope).

Apps like these provide a means for measuring progress and establishing goals.  Just as we may set a goal of increasing muscle strength to achieve a bench press with 200 lbs, we should also be creating mental challenges to increase the size of our working memory, our autobiographical memory, our reaction times and other cognitive skills.  These skills form the foundation of an agile mind.  However, keep in mind that the goal is not to spend bucket-loads of time in isolation with apps and games, ultimately we need to use cognitive training apps as tools for enhancing social interaction at a deeper, more meaningful level.  In fact, cognitive training apps and games may provide a tool for intergenerational interaction.

As we find our brains capabilities renewed and refreshed, we will naturally seek to challenge ourselves further by looking at things from new angles, trying new activities (like Zumba or yoga), by innovating , and by improving the quality and depth our interaction with others.  Welcome to the domain of self-evolution!

At a minimum we should be establishing a baseline of our cognitive functions so that we can more quickly detect and correct mental degradation.  But ultimately the goal is not just to live long and be healthy, but rather to live long and evolve.  To move humanity forward.  Self-evolution is coming, don’t miss the wave!