TOO MUCH NOISE

the rapidity with which the brain adjusts to circumstances is amazing. neuroplasticity is not the only far-out skill that nervous systems have, however: there are two extreme characteristics that somehow cozy up and find room together within our skull. these ubiquitous attributes are those tendencies of all brains that are at once coworkers and also contradictory:

brains are formless

the first extreme is the brain’s plasticity. this highly pliable, ultra-erasable, moment-to-moment functional wobbling of the teflon nature takes place at the cellular level. consider your conscious experience right now – it is changing, and changing rapidly. it would not conceivably follow from this observation that some stillness or lack-of-motion is present within your brain. far from it – movement in our experience must mean there is movement inside of your body. even the observation that our moment-to-moment experience changes immediately suggests an unseen organ operating that is as bodily as all the rest, and that must be undergoing minute and constant change. the colorful flickering of our momentary Right-Now-experience is simple proof that life is a film of many frames, and it by observing the bodies of others we can appreciate that underlying this is cellular mutability and impermanence.

brains are formed

the other tenant occupying the shadow of all experience, and the structure of your body, is regularity. your brain is shaped like [almost] all other brains. it cannot be understated how exactly similar your brain is in the overall sense to most peoples’ brains. there are no doubt anomalies – folks who have been injured, or born with developmental diseases, or other modifications. but we are mostly alike in our form. consider car engines. i’m no engine expert but do know that, like people, many types of engines are out there. so a brain is like an engine: unique, overall demonstrating commonalities so major they are almost forgettable. engines are regular in this way: an engine needs gas. it needs the oil changed every 3,000 miles. it needs a car with 4 wheels to roll well in order to bring itself to the dealership to get itself looked at, and if the driver is drunk shit might go poorly for the engine. engines will fall apart if they get too hot and they will absolutely turn to rotten caramel if you stick sugar inside of them. a brain has similar expectations and mandates that, no matter how unique the brain, must be met. things like heart rate, breathing, maintaining some muscle tone in your eyelids in order to observe the bear flying towards you – these are the basics expected of a working nervous system. it helps to have working hormones, air in your lungs, and maybe even a few simple movements in your limbs….and if you can’t choreograph an orchestra’s worth of complexity within your gut you won’t be digesting the bear meat from your hunt a moment ago. these are the deeply regular aspects of being a brain, and they somehow coincide with the plasticity aforementioned.

so brains are both extremely malleable and extremely regular. it distresses me on a daily basis that both of these opposite qualities occupy the same mess of tissue. the malleability [of our conscious mind] then takes place within a context and the structure of the brain shapes that regular context, our place in it, and somewhere down the line, on an irrelevant shelf: these both shape our conscious mind and day-to-day lives, relationships, and feelings.

there’s a little story from a children’s book that was special to me as a kid. it’s about a frustrated old man who lives by himself in a cabin and was written by author Ann McGovern. for anyone who has really fussed over concepts in sensation, perception, and neuroplasticity this story should be a silly one. most of us can relate to being frustrated by noise at one moment or another – it is a regular experience. but with a little help and a few sensory tricks we can get past it. Enjoy this brief little tale on frustration, patience, and change – in the meantime feel free to wonder what was happening in old Peter’s skull during this frustrating little story.

Too Much Noise!


 

Here are a few concepts (sorry for the watered-down sources) to play with when it comes to our rapid adjustment to novel or stressful experiences.

Habituation

Orienting response

Signal Detection & noise (R. H. Wiley)

Broadbent’s model of attention

Attenuation theory (Treisman)

Affective style, psychopathology, and resilience: Brain mechanisms and plasticity

Social influences on neuroplasticity

Shoutout to the wise man!

Exposure therapy

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Funky Feynman

 

In this video, Richard Feynman shares some thoughts that he apparently had while sitting near a swimming pool. What begins as a plain instance of body shaming quickly turns into a rant about the psychedelic and somewhat unbelievable nature of light.

Looking and acting like he had LSD for breakfast, Feynman leaves us younger viewers wishing that modern science had a single figurehead as entertaining or engaging.

A Train Without Rails

One way to really waste your time is reading on and on about mindfulness. And there is surely no end of long long long books books books offering a thousand lifetimes’ worth of answers about mindfulness. Complex, marketable, secular answers. Let’s set those answers and those long books on the shelf for now. When I was 18 years old, a scientist in Madison posed a question in the first half of a brief article. That question was Are questionnaire-based self-reports of mindfulness valid?

Now I’m 25 years old. Unresolved is ‘the questionnaire question’, but absolutely certain to me this morning was my own mindlessness. Here’s a small sample of the day’s distractions, brought to you from first-semester chemistry (via self report…validity to be determined):

 

11:15am Distracted by goal-flavored thoughts about writing a memoir of high quality, visualizing the steps associated with such a venture
11:15:30am Writing-thoughts bubbling up to account for the possibility or inevitability of memoir-thoughts
11:19am Anger-thoughts about institutional life, hot heated word-thoughts offering critiques of abusive power structures and their creations, which stemmed from thoughts about writing
11:24am What’s the best way to steal a lot of stuff from Whole Foods?
11:26am Anger-Argue thoughts about my old job, and the gross inability of my former boss to do her job (or live her live generally)

 

My intent for that 15-minute period was to simply write those thoughts that were most distracting for me. So when I noticed that my attention was unstable even for a moment, or that my mind’s eye had been occluded by some material other than coursework, I wrote down that material non-judgmentally and as it presented itself. It can be hugely valuable to understand and observe our consciousness without responding to or agreeing/disagreeing with it.

Do you have a wobbly attention span? Are you seeking more FOCUS? Go back to the shelf, pick up those conversations about secular mindfulness, and have some Mental Training™ today!

pictures, shapes and patterns <3

 

“Synesthesia” was a word that had never entered my vocabulary (or perhaps even my eyes or ears) before age 16. But the first time that the concept encroached on my consciousness it felt immediately familiar, to the point of utter, unquestioned normalcy. My sister was sitting next to me on the couch explaining that her friend at school had a bizarre tendency – an automatic habit of associating letters or numbers with colors, and quickly rattling off the sequence of colors associated with names or other words. I was struck (But Casey, you’re just blue-blue-red-green-yellow!) and a quick Wikipedia search showed both of us that I definitely had synesthesia.

2 or 3 years later during my freshman year in college I stumbled upon this documentary. If you’ve never seen it you really should- Daniel Tammet is a remarkable human being and a living window into the world of the brain. And he seems really nice too! I’d actually seen this film once in my early high school years and nearly forgotten about it. I watched this scene with Tammet’s magical description of his synesthesia on the very same day that I declared my neuroscience studies major at Macalester. It’s been 7 years and watching this still sends shivers up and down and back up my spine.

(and 7 years later, the example photo on the Wikipedia page – to roughly demonstrate the experience to non-synesthetes – is still the same! check it out below)

580px-Synesthesia.svg.png

field notes (9/24/17)

It’s worth questioning the distinction between the eater and the eaten. My sense of self is always adjusting in my head, and there are pretty much 2 assumptions that always underlie these feelings-of-me. The tight link between these two assumptions could most definitely be compared to an ongoing relationship. There is first the breadwinner: the thought of myself as a bag of skin. A self-contained, 3 dimensional bag of blood and bones, with a set mass and defined perimeter. This conception floats around in my head with a deep emotional attachment to another thought, which is a loving housekeeper and servant to the first. This is the thought of myself as something that eats. My separate-self must ingest or imbibe other objects in order to maintain the organization and mass of my bag of blood and bones, and this bag is comprised completely of these other objects. These beliefs – I exist in a bag of skin, and I consume various items to persist in this bag of skin – are wed in certainty, and forever monogamous. Right?

But every now and then these two concepts get separated during my thinking process, which opens the door to all sorts of extramarital troubles. This occurred just moments ago. At this morning hour my priorities are simple: coffee and cats. Getting some cuddle time with the boy cat, who is a quite the handsome fuzzy fellow, is always a plus. So here I sit with him. Moments ago I observed him become briefly entranced by the sound of a bird outside. Cuddle time interrupted. His head twisted towards the window, with an undeniable erectness and stiffness emerging in his spine, and his paws suddenly tightening. No doubt an image of killing projected brightly into his brain. This distraction-via-outside-stimulus got me thinking. Why was he looking out the window? Or, What compelled him to respond to the bird, but not to me? 

This brought into my caffeine-soaked brain tissues a series of thoughts. A hungry cat is nothing special, but to wonder about it started to produce some strange thoughts.The formation of these thoughts was rapid, fleeting, and took on (as they normally do) a sort of dialectical and verbal nature. A common sense nature. Well, he’s a cat, so of course he looks towards the sound of a bird. Cats like bird. He’s hungry. If only he could stuff that bird into his mouth he could persist in his current form.

So immediately there was the image of my cat as an individual object, worthy of categorization and distinction – and also the image of it as an eating thing. Our long-term couple described above. These star-crossed assumptions comprised a sort of single, coherent reality. And yet there was a whispering and wondering – a suitor sitting at the end of the bar, asking – about why this cat turned his head. At first the circumlocution seemed without cause, and without direction: A cat looking towards a bird-sound is a natural thing. It is programmed into the cat via its experience and is therefore expected. Cats grow up experiencing birds, learn to associate them with pleasurable things, and then adjust automatically to the stimulus.

Then my thoughts stopped for a moment. They resumed.

But he has never clutched a bird – held a bird – caught a bird. He has also likely never seen this type of bird in the flesh: after all, he has been an indoor cat all his life.

Suddenly the two assumptions referenced above came to mind [Cat-as-separate entity, cat-as-an-eating-thing], and their union was threatened. The realization that my cat had never previously observed or experienced the consumption of one of these birds outside wedged itself uncomfortably in my mind, at first trying to be distilled and clarified in the presence of my presumptive framework. But soon it all fell apart – if my cat had never had this experience, one might think that cat-as-separate entity (and that eats) would not be motivated to respond to this stimulus. Surely if I feed and cuddle this cat morning after morning he would be more naturally inclined – based on his experience – to direct his attention towards me, bird-sounds notwithstanding. But he looked at the bird. The bird’s call, upon accessing the inside of cat’s brain, elicited a very specific response. Just for 1/2 a second. The bird was in him, despite never having been in him.

This is true of most stimuli. But.

There are roughly 13,109,553,920,105,377 stimuli that could have gotten this cat’s attention, and it was this single one that did it. So the existence of this cat in front of me must be presupposed by another thought, or assumption – that perhaps this cat can respond to birds without having experienced them. And these animals, remember, are assumed to be two separate objects. That means that this cat, in its essence – in its skull (which, remember, is contained in its bag of blood and bones) – comes pre-programmed with bird-ness inside of it. In the absence of any contact this one object still has a sharp and distinguishable resonance with the other. The cat’s behavior is non-distinct from the bird’s behavior.

Suddenly my two primary assumptions went from holy matrimony to a state of conflict and near-divorce. So if part of this stimulus, or some type of framework to respond to this stimulus, comes pre-programmed in the cat……then some inside-bit of the cat’s head is specifically and uniquely tailored to the bird-sound. And that bird-sound is only one of 13,109,553,920,105,377 stimuli surrounding the cat. So perhaps cat and bird are non-distinct, and the act of eating ought to be considered not a linkage of two separate objects, but a continual adjustment of one single object. The cat and the bird are a single object, and the void space between them is the hand that will soon serve a growling stomach.

The loose definition of a living being as being bound by a bag of skin had, as an assumption, offered no prescriptive value to my experience of watching my cat listen to the bird. But soon the loose definition of a living being as bound as a bag of skin had lost its value as a representative tale, and was replaced by ambiguity. Now I cannot tell if the bananas and Cheerios in the kitchen (yet uneaten) are truly separate from myself – after all, they will both be inside of my bag-of-skin in a matter of minutes. The breakdown of the separation between self-and-other offers no clear route ahead, and is more of a fancy folly than a scientific analysis. The circumlocution around these concepts has become tiring. Just ask yourself if it’s possible that the surrounding room-house-street-block-city might not be a part of your extended anatomy, and one that is as alive as you, rather than that you are a single bag of skin operating independently within that non-living framework. #EndRant