Posts Tagged ‘Robert Sapolsky’

Recently I enrolled, along with 40,000 other people, in a free, ten-week online MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course. It was offered by Hebrew University through the Coursera Program, and it was entitled: Synapses, Neurons and Brains. By the time the course ended, enrollment plummeted – as it does for many MOOCs – to roughly 4000 students. 85% to 95% of MOOC enrollees either fail or fade away by the end of all courses.

Professor Idan Segev

Professor Idan Segev

Essentially the course consisted of a weekly video-taped lecture on the topic by Professor Idan Segev, a neuroscience researcher at Hebrew University, who is also affiliated with The Blue Brain Project. During one of the ten weeks a video-taped presentation on sensory processing by Professor Israel Nelkin was included. A teaching assistant, Guy Eyal, facilitated the Discussion Forums.

To be given credit for the course, students were required to pass 8 quizzes for 20% of the grade and a final exam for 80% of the grade (I’d love to see the research that correlates the efficacy of learning with these percentage breakdowns, although I probably wouldn’t trust it if I did). Quizzes and the final exam could be retaken. The course ended on June 16th.

Attending to My Own Brain Throughout

On the first quiz I did reasonably well, since it covered material that I was already familiar with. But what I noticed first was just how conditioned my brain is to want to do well on tests regardless of their merit or their applicability to my own real life. On the next quiz I did less well. In the midst of taking it, a strong memory surfaced reminding me of all the times throughout early adolescence when I would be sitting in a classroom taking an exam and realized that I did not know the answers and would not be getting a good grade. An emotional swell of helplessness signalling I was somehow seriously defective arose in me, making it very difficult to fully focus on the remainder of the quiz.

In response to this feeling, realizing I had somehow been diminished by all those emotionally-disturbing exams like this one – exams that had little relevance to either my life or the real world – I got pissed off. So I took the quiz again. And again. Until I got over 90% on it … and every one thereafter. I couldn’t help but think how much I would have benefited as a young kid, not from ignorant, irrelevant tests and quizzes, but from the care of a real, live, compassionate tutor, like this guy: Clyde. In fact, 50 years later I still remember the two Yale Divinity School students, Dave Woods and Vic Weber, who tutored me one summer at the Yale Camp for Underprivileged Kids.

Dreading the Final

The Final Exam was published on June 2nd and could be taken anytime during a two-week window. I found myself not looking forward to it in the least. I finally resigned and steeled myself and took it on June 7th. It was made up of 40 multiple choice questions. Here’s an actual question from the exam:

Question 5

Mark the correct sentences about the following equation: V(t)=I∗R∗(1−e−t/RC)

O  The equation describes the development of membrane voltage responding to a step current injection to a passive isopotential cell.

O  The equation describes the decay of membrane voltage in a passive isopotential cell following the ending of the injected step current.

O  We can extract from the equation the minimal voltage (V=(1−et/RC)) that may be attained during the injection of a step current I.

O  We can extract from the equation the maximal voltage (V=I∗R) that may be attained during the injection of a step current I.

Blue FragmentedAbout half way through the exam I suddenly felt a great wave of depressive fatigue wash over me. Once again it made it extremely hard to focus and I had to read a number of the questions over and over several times just to understand what was being asked. It was as if the memories had triggered a biochemical reaction in my brain that had literally shifted the balance of excitatory neurons to the inhibitory side of the ledger. My brain literally diminished its capacity for propagating neural spikes. I became, in that moment, functionally dumb.

In the wake of that feeling, I found myself suddenly getting pissed off all over again. It became clear that many of these questions weren’t really designed to test my knowledge, or to actually facilitate my learning, but rather, to see if I could be tricked into giving the wrong answer. They also weren’t designed to afford me any possibility for applying them in the real world – my real world (I doubt they are even useful for applying in the real world for computational neurobiologists) – in ways that might accord with or improve my own real life. What they mostly wanted me to do was regurge data. But perhaps I ask too much. This is academia, after all.

Evaluation Makes It Not Happen

When Buddhist psychologist, Jack Kornfield asked his meditation teacher, Ajhan Chah, what one thing he might do to improve his own meditation practice, his teacher replied, “Give up all your opinions.” Opinions are evaluations. Every school I’ve ever attended has, in one way or another, required me to make all kinds of evaluations so that I could then in turn, be evaluated myself. But evaluation short-circuits curiosity. It also makes learning environments unsafe.

Here’s what biophysiologist, Steve Porges points out: our bodies, through the unconscious process of neuroception – threat detection without awareness – respond to all evaluation with the feeling of being unsafe. When the feeling of being unsafe arises, adrenaline floods our brains and bodies. Cortisol then quickly follows in rapid succession in an attempt to regulate that arousal. Many research accounts, from Bremner’s Does Stress Damage the Brain to Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers recount the damage these biochemical processes, activated repeatedly, can do to body and brain. Which is exactly how I would describe the feelings that arose in me frequently while I was sitting in my office alone watching the videos for this course and also while I was taking the quizzes and final exam. And that feeling of being stressed and feeling unsafe – if I take myself as an N of 1 – contributes adversely to my brain functioning optimally.

I managed to pass the final exam for this course, barely, on the first try. For no reason other than my own satisfaction. But I think it’s ironic that instruction on how the brain works has left me feeling like my own brain has been seriously damaged somehow… unfortunately, long before I ever enrolled in this course offering.

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Two words: Eschewing Pococurantism

Some titles just demand to be written about. As soon as I saw these words in an article about resilience by Chip and Dan Heath in Fast Company magazine, I knew I would have to research and write about them. So here’s how they break down: eschew comes from an old French verb, eschiver, and simply means: to escape or avoid. Pococurantism is another matter. The first part, poco, comes from the same Italian word which means little. Curantism is from the Latin root cura, which means care. So, pococurantism means caring little; feeling indifferent or apathetic. Whatever.

When we eschew pococurantism, we somehow manage to avoid living the apathetic life. We refuse to live a life with little passion. What does that have to do with resilience? Everything.

Angela Duckworth, a positive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks eschewing pococurantism has a lot to do with resilience as well. Curious about differences between West Point candidates who survive “Beast Barracks” and those who don’t, she developed The Grit Survey (You can test your own True Grit by registering for free here). Turns out The Grit Survey is a very accurate predictor of success. It also provides some keys to developing increasing resilience.

Learning to Unlearn Learned Helplessness

Basically, I think of resilience as the direct opposite of what psychologists call “learned helplessness.” When I was a kid, I would have experiences over and over again that taught me how to be helpless, particularly in school. For example, if I couldn’t solve a geometry problem, what I unwittingly learned was that some math problems were too difficult for me; I simply didn’t have what it took to learn them (Unfortunately, it rarely occurs to kids that perhaps the teachers aren’t as skilled as they need to be to teach hard subjects to kids with learning differences!). The majority of my teachers back in the day operated under the assumption of what Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls a “Fixed Mindset.” To them it was obvious that intelligence was innate and you either had it or you didn’t. And by word, deed and belief, that’s what they taught.

Four Keys to Help Us (and our kids) Stick with the Hard Stuff

In order to stick with things when they’re hard – one strength of heart category – most of us are going to need help, and lots of it. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping for people to hold their hearts over a tempering fire. This is one place where the Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience applies: we need people around us who’ve walked ten miles in our shoes. People who “get” us and who can support us in putting one foot in front of the other to take the next small step, whatever that step might be – ruthlessly compassionate people we willingly give ourselves over to being accountable to. And it’s important that such people recognize and make room for us to fully take our next steps. Not necessarily the steps they think best for us, or the ones that have the most potential merit, or the ones that will bring the most social approval. We need the freedom and support to take the steps that are right for us.

So, that’s the next key … doing the small things we can do right now that move us incrementally further in the direction of some larger vision. Housebuilding is a great metaphor to illustrate this key (a metaphor that requires a profound understanding of applied geometry, btw). Through a whole series of thousands of steps, each cooperatively done one at a time in an ordered sequence together with other people, over time an inhabitable structure results. For those things of which we have no plan or model, creative endeavors that we or the world have rarely managed to take on and accomplish before, we need to necessarily engage in a lot of experimental trials and course corrections, done best with a curious and compassionate Learner’s Heart. Think Edison here, and his 10000 light bulb filament trials.

Grit and Gravy

This next key is where faith and trust in our ability to grow and change in positive directions comes in – Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset.  Recognizing the lifelong possibility for growth and learning can profoundly change our capacity for resilience, for grit. Which essentially means learning how to … stick with things when they’re hard. The reason things are hard is because we’re still learning, mostly how to grow the neural connections that will allow us to easily manage our limbic system so that it doesn’t highjack us at every emotional turn. Emotional upheaval, fear, disappointment and frustration are not the best environmental energies or skillful mindsets for learning things that require attention, direction, cooperation and sustained focus. That’s one reason we can learn to thrive with the help of others.

Finally, those steps above will shrink in importance if the first three years of our lives have been ones that massively grow our early neurons and synapses and the connections between them all through our bodies. When that happens, especially in concert with Robert Sapolsky’s Four Neuroenhancers, secure attachment often results. With secure attachment, a Growth Mindset often unfolds from a brain and heart that are able to process increasing amounts of energy and information. The frequent outcome: resilience that uses strength of heart to fearlessly orchestrate some of our life’s wildest and wooliest adventures in learning.


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When I was eighteen, I invited an “older woman” on a water-skiing weekend up to Lake Mead outside Las Vegas. Dusty was a 22 year old single mother, the first woman I’d ever spent a whole night with, and she had a healthy shamelessness about sex. I, on the other hand, had nothing but … High Anxiety. Well, it didn’t take Dusty too long to figure out that I was a virgin. Our sexual exploits would be best summarized for her by the Rolling Stones song, I Can’t Get No ….

So that was my reason for having sex: it was time. And, I was very lucky. Dusty was patient and kind and willing to hang out with me until I got the hang of this thing supposedly on the minds of men every seven seconds. Working in mental health for a number of years, and hearing stories of how emotionally and physically devastating the First Time can be, was when I realized just how very lucky I actually was. A First Time that is forced or painful or results in abandonment or humiliation often produces Robert Sapolsky’s Four Neuroannihilators. First Time Trauma can take a lifetime to repair. Some people suffer permanent damage and never do fully heal from painful initial sexual experiences. And some people never even realize the extent of the damage they’ve suffered. Having little other than Hollywood fiction to compare it to, they don’t know what’s actually possible in terms of love and sex.

First Time, Best Time

So, a bad first sexual experience holds great potential for conditioning the brain in less than optimal ways. But what might an optimal experience look like in general? Since our kids are most likely going to be having sex whether we like it or not, what guidance might be good for them to get? I think by looking at the positive side of Sapolsky’s neuroannihilators, we are offered  some very useful guidelines, derived from his years of observing … monkeys.

First, when engaging in sex both people need to be able to control their own involvement. They need to be able to say “Yes” or “No” without penalty, and both need to be able to change a “Yes” to a “No,” and vice versa, without fear of abandonment or ridicule (remember, we’re imagining optimal here).

Ideally, there next needs to be some predictability with the relationship and some continuity with the people involved. Years ago I recall a book in which Rudolf Steiner, the originator of Anthroposophy, postulated that anyone we have sex with remains a spiritual part of our energetic field for an extended period of time. In the best of all possible worlds, we might want to exchange such energies with people who answer the Big Brain Question “Yes” for us. To simply end up as a notch on someone’s bedpost is probably less than optimal for brain development. I’m guessing it’s not an accident that many spiritual traditions advocate for either celibacy until marriage, or having sex only within a committed relationship. There are neural consequences involved for the brain (not to mention, the heart). Unfortunately, such traditions rarely creatively address the urges and unfolding needs of the developing body.

After predictability, Sapolsky would probably argue for whatever forms of healthy social support might be available. Thankfully, these days there is certainly a lot more support available than when I was a kid. A number of my own students, in fact, have become effective professional sex educators and counselors to teens, counseling them on topics ranging from birth control to disease prevention to sex and spirituality to Second Generation Virginity.

Sex Stress Test

One important thing it’s useful to remember: sex is stressful. Even consensual sex. But according to Jonah Lehrer, my second most favorite neuroscientist, consensual sex stress is good stress. The glucocorticoids that normally diminish the growth of new brain cells, actually appears to increase them when released during consensual sex. If this is indeed the case, then sex itself would qualify as an effective stress management technique – the fourth and final requirement on Sapolsky’s list of neural enhancers.

So, there we have some food for thought. Lest I forget, here is the research cited in my title, the 237 Reasons for Having Sex. I find the presentation both silly and fascinating. The normal adult brain has networked 100 billion neurons making an average of 10,000 connections each (you do the math), and many of those connections process energy and information outside conscious awareness. Such complexity and unconsciousness suggests we may be simplifying things just a wee bit when we try to boil down having sex to only 237 reasons.  Finally, if you want to discover some surprising ways we all unconsciously affect sexuality in children, click HERE.

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