Speak to us of Houses

Then a mason came forth and said, Speak to us of Houses. And the Prophet answered and said:

Build of your imaginings a bower in the wilderness ere you build a house within the city walls. For even as you have home-comings in your twilight, so has the wanderer in you, the ever distant and alone.

Your house is your larger body.

It grows in the sun and sleeps in the stillness of the night; and it is not dreamless. Does not your house dream? and dreaming, leave the city for grove or hill-top? Would that I could gather your houses into my hand, and like a sower scatter them in forest and meadow. Would the valleys were your streets, and the green paths your alleys, that you might seek one another through vineyards, and come with the fragrance of the earth in your garments.

But these things are not yet to be.

In their fear your forefathers gathered you too near together. And that fear shall endure a little longer. A little longer shall your city walls separate your hearths from your fields. And tell me, people of Orphalese, what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors? Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power? Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind? Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain? Tell me, have you these in your houses? Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house as a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?

Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires. Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron. It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh. It makes mock of your sound senses, and lays them in thistledown like fragile vessels. Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.

But you, children of space, you restless in rest, you shall not be trapped nor tamed. Your house shall not be an anchor but a mast. It shall not be a glistening film that covers a wound, but an eyelid that guards the eye. You shall not fold your wings that you may pass through doors, nor bend your heads that they strike not against a ceiling, nor fear to breathe lest walls should crack and fall down. You shall not dwell in tombs made by the dead for the living. And though of magnificence and splendour, your house shall not hold your secret nor shelter your longing. For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, whose door is the morning mist, and whose windows are the songs and the silences of night.

Amygdala regulation

Ain’t easy. Especially on low sleep. I recently stumbled upon some literature describing the relationship between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. Specifically it went over the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdalae. Will have to come back here & post the link(s) but wanted to jot this down here, as it’s timely & highly relevant to mood disorders.

Sleep is a fickle thing & it seems that quality and duration of sleep is related to one’s ability to keep their amygdala functioning well. The absence of good quality sleep of proper duration can lead one to experience impulsiveness, out-of-control distractibility and responsiveness to irrelevant stimuli, and immense irritability. Take it from me: the vast gulf between being contented & calm or being a murderous monster can be crossed, in part, by hitting the hay.

F&c% you, NAC

And no, I don’t mean N-Acetyl Cysteine. I’m talking about the nucleus accumbens. This devilish bit of brain tissue is one that seeks for its larger meat-sack the experience of reward and short-term pleasure. To be honest the NAC isn’t the only zone related to that tendency: the frontal striatum and a few other areas are instrumental as well. To finally reach the end of the fall semester a bit bruised and battered reveals to me that my own proclivity for pressuring pleasure to pop up in the present is pretty problematic.

So the quest now is to develop skills and habits that enable the delay of gratification. In order to conduct this oversized ganglion through larger and longer movements I’ll be getting in touch with some professionals in the area who focus on this issue specifically. How exciting! Will post updates as that moves along. Here’s some soul food for any of you mind-wanderers wondering what to read about to get a sense of the issue.

Delay of gratification in childhood linked to cortical interactions with the nucleus accumbens

Frontostriatal White Matter Integrity Predicts Development of Delay of Gratification: A Longitudinal Study.

Reduced delay of gratification and effortful control among young children with autism spectrum disorders

 

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

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