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Okay, here are 5 places this week’s brain train has taken me. Possibly a bit off-track …

Cognitive Astrobiology

Well, finally scientists have moved beyond the self-centered notion that humans on earth are the only possible place for “advanced” life forms in the universe. To that end, there is now a field of study one can take up – cognitive astrobiology. rigellian.pngIt essentially invites us to consider what forms alien life might actually take, given a wide combination of star system possibilities; and then how humans might actually go about communicating with such life forms. Some of you may already personally know a few aliens and you can probably testify to just how difficult communicating clearly with them frequently is.

Noticing, But Failing to See

Having been the victim of this brain vulnerability – a woman turned left right in front of me years ago while I was riding my motorcycle – I found it particularly interesting. I also found the phenomenon something to be acutely aware of and important to monitor in myself, lest I end up being the inattentionally blind person responsible for others’ injury and suffering.

Sleight of Hand Shows Limits of Perception

One of my longtime interests is how magicians take advantage of our brain’s significantly limited capacities when it comes to consciously processing sensory energy and information. In this brief demonstration of close-up card magic, astonishing Spanish magician Javi Benitez makes it more than obvious that seeing in no way should ever be sufficient to confirm believing.

Intelligence and Neural Connections

IQ-homer.jpgThe researchers in this area could use a few more neural connections themselves. A sufficient number that would take them beyond simply identifying the experimental correlations, but to come up with creative procedures for actually increasing those connections. I’m happy to give them a hint: begin early in childhood with safe exposure to lots of stimulating, contingent learning activities while keeping the body in coherent motion. Feel free to begin experimenting prenatally. In utero mixed martial arts – I’d like to see it become a Thing.

The Elusive Backfire Effect

It’s hard to change people’s opinions once they’ve come to believe a fact or taken a position. Or so we used to think. It turns out that even that belief is not necessarily true, and I may want to consider changing my beliefs about it. You may want to as well after you read this recent research.

Journeying Down the Erotic Road Less Traveled By

Given all the sex abuse scandals in the news these days, I thought it might be useful to re-post this blog I wrote 6 years ago. What’s missing from a lot of the media coverage are the unconscious orchestrations – the body’s and brain’s impulses toward healing taking place in BOTH participants. What were the relationship dynamics before the abuse happened? In what context did the abuse take place? What unconscious processes were driving BOTH participants? My guess is that very little healing happens in response to most of the abuse or in the events that unfold in the aftermath. (Blog Note: Tori and I are still friends).

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It’s Not Enough That You Love, It’s How Your Love Gets Excited or Inhibited

I’m guessing this game-changing research will have HUGE implications. As researchers refine their approaches to affecting cellular inhibition and excitation, I can imagine medicines and non-pharmacological interventions becoming more and more precise in their application and their effects. I can also easily imagine the plasticity of the brain allowing for creative experimentation with increasing the pleasure of love-making far beyond what our parents, media or popular culture has ever even hinted at.

My Favorite Woman Neuroscientist

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Dr. Susana Herculano-Housel

There’s a lot of gender bias and discrimination in science. Men get most of the money and most of the fame and first-author glory. My personal preference, however, leads me to follow women in neuroscience much more closely than men. This NYT Magazine story profiles one of my favorite neuro wonder women – Susana Herculano-Housel. I love the fact that she brought a collection of simple home ec skills to bear to overturn some longtime neuro dogma.

The Pain and Passions Lab

Some forms of pain actually are all in our mind, or more precisely, our brain. Pain activated primarily in sensory regions – the ones that would cause you to yank your hand or foot out of harm’s way, shows up differently in the brain than chronic pain. Chronic pain activates the prefrontal cortex and the limbic regions of the brain. In those who had suffered for five years, both the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex were structurally transformed, sacrificing 5 to 11 per cent of their grey matter density. When that happens our pain-relieving networks are significantly compromised.

Peace Through Justice

Compelling presentation about the REAL potential value of Bitcoin and Blockchain technology … Andreas Antanopolous. He starts at: 1:45:31 in. Listen to it and get a glimpse of the safe and private world your children will ideally live in. Then extrapolate to how rich and interconnected the world’s collective neural networks will evolve to become.

The Minds of Plants

Plant ConsciousnessPlants can think. In ways we are only slowly beginning to understand. They can learn and form memories, they can sense and integrate information about different environmental conditions, and they can recognize whether nearby plants are kin or unrelated. And that’s just what we know about them from recent research. I can easily imagine plants becoming much smarter as we become much smarter in creatively attending to and understanding them.

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So, here are 5 articles that got my excitatory neural networks firing as the year comes to a close . . .

1. What Swearing Off Sex Does to Your Brain

The jury’s still out on this one. The pros and cons seem to be in a dead heat. Probably the best way to approach the topic is through personal experimentation. We are each neurologically unique, and what may be one man’s ceiling, may be another woman’s floor.

2. Most Wealth Is Accumulated by Being Idle and Unproductive

protect-your-wealth-300x334.jpgBut obviously in smart and creative ways that produce accumulated wealth. And it’s not inherited wealth we’re talking about here, since the trope from wealth managers I know is that inherited wealth goes “from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Some people, for a variety of reasons, manage to accomplish it in only one!

3. Deep Mind: Artificial Intelligence that Learns at Super Speeds

In many areas where they’re being applied computers and artificial intelligence already perform far more reliably than humans – driving cars and flying planes are some recent examples. Until now, those applications had to be programmed by humans. That’s not the case any longer, as this article makes crystal clear. Machines can do it better and faster.

4. Halloweening Your BrainHalloween Brain

Too much dedicated focus is not so great for a human brain. We need to spend intentional time with our Default Mode Network chilling us out. The Default Mode Network is a network of neural circuitry that becomes activated when there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. Interestingly it takes about 4 times more energy to activate the Default Mode Network than it does to concentrate on a focused activity!

5. Effortless Thinking: Beware the Voice of Your Inner Child

The experiences we have and the meaning we make of them as children become part of our early conditioning. Many of those early experiences, especially if they frightened us enough to “take our breath away,” or “freeze us in our tracks,” ended up distorting the connections our brain makes in response. Nevertheless, large numbers of our early experiences influence present-day behavior without us ever being aware of it.

..… and finally, a bonus Enchanted Loom review of Brené Brown‘s book, Braving the Wilderness.

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Not even a year out of high school, I bought my first house. It was a ramshackle, two bedroom bungalow located in the heart of Sun Valley, California right in the flight path of the jets taking off and landing at Burbank Airport (now Bob Hope Airport). I wasn’t really in the market for a house, but the realtor – George Sarkis – was a convincing salesman. When I told him I wasn’t old enough to legally buy a house, he winked and told me that didn’t matter. And so, at the tender age of 19 I became the reluctant owner of my very first house.

housefallingapart.jpgLess than a year later I learned two things about the house. The first thing I learned when a city building inspector showed up one day and told me the house had been red-tagged for 11 building code violations and I was living in it illegally. I was also living in it illegally because I didn’t actually own it: I bought it from someone who bought it from someone who didn’t really own it either. There was no clear title to be found anywhere.

As you might guess, this discovery resulted in many stress-filled sleepless nights. Fast forward to the very near future. Were I to buy that same house as early as next year in some parts of the world, when a clear chain of ownership and inspections lives on a public, transparent ledger call a Blockchain, that kind of sleazy, dishonest transaction will not be able to take place.

Behold the Blockchain

Honesty and transparency in real estate dealings is only one area where Blockchain technology is in the process of being deployed. Here are 17 other areas that will likely be positively affected by the Blockchain in the very near future. But it’s not just the creative, disintermediating applications for Blockchain technology that have the people working in this tech area so excited, it’s the underlying principles and philosophy. Blockchain is technology designed to be completely trustworthy, uncorruptible, decentralized and reliable. It will eventually replace many governmental functions and when it is widely deployed and integrated into our everyday lives it will be technology’s best attempt so far to provide a resounding “Yes” to The Big Brain Question.

Many modern technologies already work to answer The Big Brain Question “Yes.” Take commercial aircraft, for example. For decades it has been far and away the safest way to travel from Point A to Point B. In 2014 there were 30 million commercial flights and only 21 fatal accidents. Odds of being in one of those crashes works out to 1 in close to a million and a half. This represents a statistical probability of dying while flying at roughly a 0.000007 chance. You’re more likely to die from being attacked by a bear or from a lightning strike than in a commercial airplane crash. Safe pilotless planes have already arrived before driverless cars.

Lowering Human Stress Levels

When the people, places and operations in our daily lives can be unfailingly trusted and deeply relied upon, our neurobiology benefits. In many ways, it’s already happening. When I make a purchase on Amazon, I don’t have any anxiety at all about my purchase showing up at my door. I’ve been ordering for 20 years without any fail-to-deliver incidents. The same with many other mail order retailers – J. C. Penny and Home Depot most recently.

A world in which technology facilitates increasing levels of trust and transparency is a world that will also serve to increase human health and well-being. It’s estimated that as many as 9 out of 10 visits to the doctor are stress-related. Work stress is a major cause, followed closely by relationship stress – it’s not for nothing that a number of spiritually mature wisdom teachers call relationships “the hardest yoga of all.” I can’t wait to put my wife on the Blockchain. 😉

blockchain.jpgPhilosophical Foundations

I suspect that the intent, the philosophy and the applications that eventually emerge using Blockchain tech – a social meeting site, Snap Interactive is already deploying it – will serve to collectively reduce the interpersonal stress that inevitably accompanies human interaction.

I like to think of the Blockchain as “Witness Bearing Technology.” The ability to observe ourselves – to pay close attention to the things we do, say and think is a developmental skill that appears correlated with a neural network that has achieved considerable integration. We see that witness-bearing capacity in the way brain scans of monks and nuns who’ve been engaged in contemplative practice for decades look decidedly different from the population at large.

The Blockchain “bears witness” to and records every transaction made on it to a ledger. Those transactions that are unskillful or incorrect (fraud, lying, errors), it simply removes from the block and replaces with an accurate ledger block. No judgment; no prejudice. If you’re faulty, you’re removed and given a chance to correct.

Not only that, but many creative Blockchain applications are currently in the works to empower individuals. Publica and Steem provide micropayments for creative written works. Bloom will decentralize credit scores and allow you to easily own and be responsible for your own scores. Medrec puts patients in charge of their own medical records. Cred allows your community to verify your reputation. You can go HERE and find over 1370 other Blockchain applications and discover some of the creative things people are up to (Pay little attention to the current volatility in the cryptocurrency markets. Prices and businesses will inevitably stabilize over time as more and more people begin to understand the technology and move into the space).

Are any or all of these emerging Blockchain applications going to be unfailing in their vision and execution? Probably not. But that question misses the point. The point is … there’s a new technology in town. And it aims to unleash a world of trust, safety and creativity unlike few of us have ever seen in our lifetime.

 

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Recently a friend suggested that since I’m immersed in the world of neuroscience research anyway, some of my blog readers might enjoy knowing what I’m especially drawn to and why. He suggested I pick out 5 books or articles (of the more than 400,000 published every year!) in any week that speak to me for whatever reason and pass them along to you folks. My lone reservation about doing that is infobesity – we’re all currently so bombarded by massive amounts of information every day – that it’s challenging to be discerning. But I can let each of you decide if and what you want to peruse further, if anything. And I don’t have to send something out every week if I don’t come across enough stimulating material.

So, with that brief introduction, here are five things that excited my neural networks most recently.

1. The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe

The first time I heard Stephen Porges speak I immediately went to the assistant director of the think tank where I worked and asked her to offer him a fellowship. She looked over his CV and immediately agreed. We both thought he belonged there, but for very different reason. She thought he was an exemplary scientist; I thought he communicated neurobiological concepts clearly and compellingly. This book is a collection of those communications in everyday language specifically intended for the general reader.

2. The River of Consciousness

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Oliver Sachs, MD

In my mind Oliver Sachs was an exemplary way-shower in how neuroscience might skillfully be approached and applied. It’s best served up warm with an eye toward being open and curious about how and what we might do to reduce suffering in the world. That mirrors my orientation for the last 10 years as well.

3. Why Your Brain Craves Infographics

There are lots of reasons, actually. This is essentially a meta-infographic offering up 13 reasons why your brain craves infographics. Much of is has to do with how screens have collectively changed the neuro-receptors in our vision centers.

4. High Stress Childhoods Blind Adults to Potential Loss

Not to mention actual loss. After following kids with early significant losses in their lives for ten years, neuroscientists discovered that their neural networks develop in ways that don’t process risks the same ways that kids who haven’t suffered such losses do. I’m probably one of millions of poster-children for such research. Such kids lose money in the stock market and often fail to put on their seat belts. When your brain really doesn’t work well and your market-trading losses become stressful enough, some people like this guy think it’s a good idea to study bank robbery on the internet and then apply what you learn in real banks.

5. Why Your Brain Resists Overwhelming Scientific Evidence

Adrenal-gland-and-hormones-744x640.jpgIt’s vulnerable, that’s mostly why. And it makes shit up all the time, very often as a way to down-regulate our adrenal glands and lower stress hormone levels. And then, in order to keep ourselves on the calm side of the stress curve, it goes about convincing us that the stuff we make up is true.

 

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My friend Kathleen died last month just in the nick of time. It came as a complete surprise to me. She and I taught together in one of the very first MOOCs before MOOCs were a thing. It was 1998 and Barnes & Noble was experimenting with a new way to sell books online. They would pay authors an honorarium to teach using computer mediated communication. The course would be free to students who bought the required textbook. In this case, the book was Kathleen’s, The Grace in Dying.

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Dr. Kathleen Dowling Singh

I had hand-written Kathleen a note in care of HarperSanFrancisco, her publisher. I told her of my avid interest and deep appreciation of her work. She was gracious enough to respond. We developed a corre-spondence and I ended up meeting with her at a course she was teaching at IONS to support the book. I chauffeured her to SFO and en route she extended me the invitation to co-teach with her and split the honorarium. Graciously. Kathleen was all about grace. In many ways she felt like the wise, big sister I lost when I was nine years old.

Fittingly, Kathleen died last month just two days before the publication of her last and latest book, Unbinding: The Grace Beyond Self. Clearly her work here on earth was complete.

An Uncommon Commoner

Among a number of things we shared in common, Kathleen and I were both born and raised in New England. We had a Yankee sensibility rooted in economy, practicality and simplicity. I tried and failed to transplant myself with those qualities to California; Kathleen successfully transplanted her expression of them to Sarasota, Florida, where for many years she was an active member of a small Buddhist sangha. That membership informs all four of her “Grace” books.

Something else that informs Kathleen’s Grace books is the notion that a spiritual life requires us to do the work necessary to cultivate space in our daily lives – physical, psychological and spiritual. Space requires pruning and forsaking – an unsubscribing from so many of the “half-loves” that clutter our lives. Unsubscribing is necessary to allow for something other than our ongoing self-concerns and daily incessant dialogue to dominate the inner landscape. Unsubscribing might then allow for something else to emerge. Kathleen repeatedly refers to it as Grace.

While I’ve read and reread and made extensive notes in each of Kathleen’s books, and even reviewed a previous one for The Enchanted Loom, it’s only been recently that I’ve deepened my appreciation and experiential understanding of what Kathleen was truly pointing toward. Reading Kathleen’s books awakens and stirs the possibility of Grace in me. The direct experience of Grace though, is considerably different than the experience of reading about it in her books. Kathleen knew that and said as much in our exchanges many times. Grace, like many expressions of depth and wisdom, seems to require ongoing daily practice. Or perhaps more accurately, ongoing daily course-correction keeping us aimed at Grace.

Gapping the Narrative

Many contemplative traditions and practices seem to have built into them an invitation to strengthen our capacity to attend to our discursive (rambling) thought processes. One reason for that seems to be that mental mind chatter removes us from direct, present-moment experience of the world around us. We miss much sensory life happening right in front of us. Words overlay our senses. Many contemplative practices train us to bring attention to something other than words – our breath, a candle flame, senseless syllables. Much of it is designed to hew a gap in the narrative, to carve out space in the mind that words don’t immediately rush in to fill.

stroke.jpgIt turns out there’s a quick way to shortcut practices intended to quiet the mind and gap the narrative – have an artery rupture in your brain and produce a golf ball size blood clot that puts sufficient pressure on your language networks to cause them to cease functioning. That’s essentially what happened to brain researcher, Jill Bolte Taylor.

While the many different elements that resulted in her recovery are enormously interesting and instructive and well worth studying in depth, what’s even more interesting to me is Jill’s description of how she experienced the world without language interfering. Here is a short paragraph describing only a small part of Jill’s language-gapped experience:

My mind was no longer preoccupied with the billions of details that my brain routinely used to define and conduct my life in the external world …. Those little voices, that brain chatter that customarily kept me abreast of myself in relation to the world outside of me, were delightfully silent. And in their absence, my memories of the past and my dreams of the future evaporated…. I was aware that I could no longer clearly discern where I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition of my being as that of a fluid rather than that of a solid. I no longer perceived myself as a whole object separate from everything. Instead, I now blended with the space and flow around me.

My friend Kathleen would call Jill’s stroke … Grace. And I like to think that’s very likely how she experienced her own dying as well.

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I published my very first WordPress blog on October 27, 2007. The title was: “The Brain Change Business.” I essentially made the argument that since everything we learn in life involves changes to our brain, we might be well-served to meta-learn a little bit about how that organ actually works. I’ve changed my own brain and learned a lot in the ensuing 10 years. Since that first Sunday, I’ve managed to put out a new effort every single week to date. Except for a few times when friends approached me with great ideas and offered to write – photodune-5195365-serenity-xs.jpgJeanne Denney wrote on Circumcision and The Ritual Tribal Abandonment of Mothers, and a good male psychotherapist friend wrote on The Dark Side of Highly Sensitive People under the female pen name Sally Mynew- skin – I have researched, written, edited and illustrated every single Sunday offering. I never dreamed when I started that ten years later I would still be keeping that weekly writing commitment.

The Components of Commitment

Here are a few things I can tell you about what it’s taken to keep that 10 year string going:

1. Engaged readers. Having people out in the world receiving and responding positively (for the most part) to the things I’ve researched and written about every week has been a prime motivator for the duration. Contingent communication makes the world go around and the public and private responses I’ve received week after week have been great fruit for the creative juicer.

2. Passion for the subject I’m researching and writing about. Without ever consciously intending to, I have turned into a brain geek. I used to be a jock and a construction dude. Now I’m a … transpersonal neurobiologist.

3. Having the subject frequently on my mind … and using it to frame many of the odd, interesting or disturbing things that I encounter week to week.

4. Having Google, Wikipedia, Pubmed, various journals and the wider Internet available to do ready research. If I had to go to a library and ask the librarian to find me books, journals or research articles every week to support and inspire the subjects I’ve written about, the only way these weekly pieces would have gotten written would have been as part of a paying job.

planet-earth-space-sun-light-life5. Having a larger purpose in mind. I truly believe that knowing how my brain works makes it work better. I even wrote this column offering 10 reasons why I believe that. I also believe knowing how my brain works allows me to be not only more understanding and compassionate with others, but much more importantly, with myself first. Being that way with myself first, then allows me to more easily be kind to others. It’s been especially important as I’ve found myself aging and have had to come face to face with the reality of declining physical, mental and neurobiological capacities.

6. Forsaking half-love after half-love in order to make the research and writing a priority. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t find myself drawn to one alluring distraction after another: an invitation to lunch with a good friend; a movie matinee in town at our ’50s retro movie house to see a movie high on my watch list; a well-paid job offer that would put me on a regular, structured daily schedule (ugh); a weekend workshop with a neuroscience thought-leader that I greatly respect, etc. etc. To all of them I have to frequently say “No” as part of my daily One Hard Thing Practice.

7. Developing a One Hard Thing Practice. One Hard Thing is different than One Scary Thing. One Scary Thing would too frequently activate my stress hormones and be likely to adversely elevate their baseline levels. One Hard Thing is simply something that I’ve been procrastinating about doing or been simply tolerating in my life. For example, culling clothes from my clothes closet and donating them to Good Cheer. Or adding an extra day of cardio to my week. Or, instead of avoiding the prospect of having to write yet another blog post, simply sitting down and writing a single sentence. And then one more.

8. Having a day job to pay the bills.

Those eight elements are good for starters. Especially the last one. I’m sure you will find many more you’ll need to identify and practice for things you want to make and commit to long-term. But ten years now brings me to a crossroads. It is sort of like “The Crossroads Between Should and Must.” What has emerged into awareness in recent weeks is that what originally began as a “must” – writing and posting every Sunday without fail – has now, at this decade-late date, turned into a “should.” I’m no longer feeling what I write has the meaning I want it to. In part that’s because of the “deadline” element attached to it. I don’t have time to research as deeply as I’d like to, or write and edit with as much compelling clarity as I feel I really can.

Change Is a Foot

4fc144aeb8e419023dce801754c3ae72.jpgSo, here’s what I’ve decided to do. Going forward, I’m only going to research and write about things that have “great heart and meaning” for me; subjects that I feel “whole-hearted” about. What that means is I may continue to post something every week, or – which is much more likely – I may end up taking breaks between pieces as I burrow deeply into a subject and do my best to connect dots that require me to pull from a wide variety of subject disciplines. So, “that’s my ruling.” Going forward, I hope and trust it will serve me and each of you in ways that continue to enhance your life.

A Favor

Finally, if there’s been a post or two that you have found memorable and meaningful over the last 10 years, would you be so kind as to mention it in the comments below? Here’s a list of the ten years of topic titles. You can also enter Keywords in the search box on the right to find the actual title of the original posting. I will be most appreciative and forever in your debt.

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