The Nervous System

Memorizing Poetry

About three years ago, I read The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope, a read so savory you tend to inhale it in one gulp, but a few words of wisdom have stayed with me, among them, to copy other writers.  Basically, Cope says, if you're wanting to find your own voice, copy someone else's for a while.  Pick a writer you admire and write out their speeches and poems over and over again.  Commit their works to memory.  Eventually, their understanding of the universe, their way of working with language and sentence construction, the rhythm of their prose will inform your own mental patterns down to the cellular level, practically, and you'll be able to build off that foundation with your own style.  I've done that once before- I was so intimidated when I heard a recording of Don Riso and Russ Hudson giving an introductory talk on the Enneagram that I wrote the entire hour-long talk out by hand to get the clarity of their thought process embedded into my brain.  I'm pretty sure modern-day composers would corroborate the idea that playing the works of the great composers like Mozart and Beethoven calibrates an orientation to different styles and structures, helping them write their own unique pieces.

This morning I decided to finally act on this injunction and memorize actual poetry.  The poem I chose isn't a poem at all, but I have a bit of an aversion to the genre, so I just lump all thughtfully-worded literature into one big category.  It's actually an essay by Aldous Huxley that I came across in the dear Maria Popova's popular weekly digest of beautiful images, literature and philosophy, Brain Pickings.  Upon opening it, I fell upon the most irrisistable piece of writing and said to myself, "This is it.  It starts today."

For a couple years now, I've been noticing that my mind doesn't have the same clarity and focus as it did in my twenties.  The combination of stress over the last five years and the fact that I now own a laptop, an ipad, and a cell phone has contributed to a new scattered way of thinking that has me hopping from one task to the next, and clicking from one window to the next without completing anything in one sitting.  My job also has me interrupted every three minutes to the point that lately, I can't sit down and read one full page of a book, let alone an entire paragraph without checking my phone or making muffins because the clanging in my head is so much louder and busier than it used to be. That quality of concentration I had before internet 2.0 (2007-ish) is just gone.  I read differently now; I scan instead of letting myself sink into the experience.  I've had enough, but what can you do?  Do you get rid of your technology?  I've started meditating, I've resisted having my banking apps "remember" my account numbers so I have to practice retrieving them from my memory bank, and the other day, I bought a combination lock for the gym instead of one with a key specifically so I'd have another set of numbers to remember.  My next step is to bring back my old alarm clock instead of using the alarm on my phone.  When I wake up to my cell phone, I inevitably get stuck in reactions of all kinds to my e-mails, the news, and texts that I got (or didn't get) during the night that I lose that precious, ethereal opportunity at the beginning of the day to take the reins in hand and rationally plan my day.

I imagine that not only does the process of memorization improve focus, but I'm sure it also strengthens the hippcampus, the long-term memory processing centre of the brain.  When you create a new neuron connection, you have to maintain it in order to keep it, and the constant repetition of what you've memorized would help the neuron stick around and create connections with other neurons.  When I was at a brain workshop recently, the facilitator asked us to turn to our neighbor and tell them what our most valuable possession was.  Of course a lot of us said our house, our car, or whatever, and he interrupted with, "WRONG!!  It's your BRAIN!"  I was reflecting on that last week as I was driving down Albert Street and I realized it was really true.  Some of us have been blessed with parents who not only activated our brains, but showed us how to do it for ourselves, and we have a certain set of chances at success in life.  Others of us have had to do the activation ourselves because our parents weren't in a position to do so.  The almost incomprehensible mystery of being human is having the capacity to reflect our thoughts back on our own minds and improve how our very brain thinks, all for the cost of the occasional late fee at the library, to quote Will from Good Will Hunting.

Not only would it be good for your brain, but from the few times it's happened to me, it's nice being able to impress people at a dinner party by quoting a famous line or two that contributes in some way to the conversation.  I used to read the Aubrey-Maturin series (off which Russell Crowe's Master and Commander 2003 movie is based), and one observation from pre-modern life struck me: conversation skills are truly an art.  The series is about people riding ships between the old world and the new, and when you're on a ship, you're stuck with the same people every single day, and you have to eat in the same dining room with them three times a day, sometimes for months, and you want to be on a ship with interesting people who can carry a conversation.  The more well-read you are and the better your memory, the more weight you can carry in a conversation to take it on new and interesting turns, acting as a connector between ideas and leveraging them to lead the conversation into stimulating thought-territory.   Having the confidence to guide a conversation is pretty empowering- not to mention pretty important for your career.

 Aldous Huxley, British author of  Brave New World  and other works (July 26, 1894 to November 22, 1963). 

Aldous Huxley, British author of Brave New World and other works (July 26, 1894 to November 22, 1963). 

So here we go with the first few lines to Huxley's Music at Night, the title essay in a collection of essays published in 1931, a pristine treatise on the transcendental nature of music to connect people to emotional states in a way that words cannot.

Music at Night

Moonless, this June night is all the more alive with stars.  Its darkness is perfumed with faint gusts from the blossoming lime trees, with the smell of wetted earth and the invisible greenness of the vines.  There is silence, but a silence that breathes with the soft breathing of the sea, and, in the thin shrill noise of a cricket, insistently, incessantly, harps on the fact of its own deep perfection.  Far away, the passage of a train is like a long caress, moving gently, with an inexorable gentleness, across the warm living body of the night.  Music, you say, it would be a good night for music. [...]"

I know someone who grew up in Africa, and he checks his phone so infrequently, and when he does, it's very thoughtfully done.  When I observe him working on a task, I notice a deep quality of concentration and a clarity of focus that I've lost over the last decade- probably most of us Westerners have as technology insinuates its way into our lives.  Here's hoping we can work our way back to that level with a little intention and a little practice.

 

 

Why learning neuroscience is so hard

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a  model  of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a model of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

I've been reading about neuroscience these last four months, and I've really been struggling to integrate the material into my own words, hence the dearth of blog posts.

I decided to google why neuroscience is so hard, and while it's in part because only long-time meditators and intellectual heavyweights- of which I am neither- really comprehend neurophenomenlology enough to verbalize the subtle and complex processes in a way that laypeople can understand, there are few other reasons.

First of all, there is still so much even neurobiologists don't know about the brain, and parts we don't understand the function of.  There are 100 billion neurons- or nerve cells- and endless combinations they can connect with each other.  The connections between the neurons, called synapses- are shaped by both genes and life experience, but we don't know to what extent genes shape connections, and experience shapes connections.

  Nerve cell.   Image from bbc.co.uk. 

Nerve cell.  Image from bbc.co.uk. 

Moreover, neuroscience requires both objectivity and subjectivity.  If we're going to understand the phenomena of consciousness, on the one hand, we need scientifically valid observations of the brain; on the other, first person subjective accounts of peoples' internal experiences.  Because both the brain and the mind come together to form consciousness, scientists need to get creative and develop tests that measure and scientifically quantify mental phenomena. 

There is a complicated interplay between the brain and the mind: the mind and its attendant concepts and meanings is rooted in the activity of the brain, and the brain- due to its plasticity- is constructed itself by the mind.  As a result, the brain is turning its social circuits that normally attunes to others, inside out and is interacting with itself.  However, we know from the famous double-slit experiment (on the interference pattern of electrons being shot through a double-slit apparatus) that the mere act of observing electrons changes their behavior; just the same, mindfulness research has demonstrated a similar conclusion- that the mere act of becoming aware of your own awareness alters the form and function of your brain.  Your awareness is goes back on itself in a re-entry loop where the emergent process takes on a life of its own, improving memory, focus, and empathy.

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.
— Dr. Daniel Siegel

Some philosophers would say our consciousness is simply reducible to the chemical and electrical firings of our neurons, while others prefer to hold out for the discovery of the "self node" tucked away somewhere in the folds of our gyri like a pearl in an oyster shell that can answer for each and every one of our thoughts and decisions. 

To make things even more difficult, up until a few years ago, neither the field of psychology or neurobiology had a working, agreed-upon definition of the mind. 

Dr. Siegel, whom I mention a lot, only because I'm reading his book right now (The Mindful Brain), recounts how he has gone around the world speaking to mental health practictioners, and at every event, asked for a show of hands of who had ever had a lecture at any time in their training that defined what the mind was.  His finding- out of the 100,000 mental health professionals that he's taught- was that less than 2% had.  While it's true that philosophers and psychologists have been trying to answer that question since the ancient Greeks at least, what's cool is that we're actually at a unique time in history where we know enough to cobble a rough definition together.  Here is Siegel's own working definition:

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.

But there are other concepts that are still undefined.  Think about it.  Can you define consciousness?  Neither can psychologists.  What about self, or identity?

The next challenge is that the brain consists of more than just the pinky-brown organ in the head.  As the control centre of the entire central nervous system, the brain's nerves are routed through the spine and spread all the way to the soles of the feet.  The fact that this complex system works in concert to keep our bodies in homeostasis is nothing less than jaw-dropping.  As one scientist wrote, "If given the choice between having to pilot a plane without knowing anything about how to work any of the controls, and sitting at the dashboard of my central nervous system, coordinating the millions of outgoing and incoming processes happening every second, I'd choose the pilot job in a heartbeat."

Finally, because my purpose in studying the brain is to understand how brain form and function relates to different personality types, and that research is still in its infancy, there is little that can be said with objective certainty, although Dario Nardi (among others) have been doing some interesting research at UCLA, mapping the brain patterns of Carl Jung's legendary MBTI types, and is now starting to work with Enneagram types.  I'm sure more research funding will be forthcoming the more it becomes clear how brain research is important to our collective health, but in the meantime, we rely on anecdotal observations.  For example, during an informal study of brain activity and Enneagram types, Dr. Daniel Siegel noted in an interview with Russ Hudson and Jessica Dibb that Type Two's (one of the Enneagram's three image types) "have a lot of mirror neurons".  There is no book yet out there detailing what these observations could mean, but hopefully someone bright will pen the first one soon. 

 

Your Nervous System and Your Socializing Style

 A reaction you might get by a social/self-pres or a self-pres/social friend to some unexpected intensity. 

A reaction you might get by a social/self-pres or a self-pres/social friend to some unexpected intensity. 

The other day, I wrote about the woes of growing up sexual in a self-preservation or social family, where the need to concentrate the energy in the room into an argument, or drama, or a party is met with a look that says, "Whoa".  And sometimes, "Why?"

In Enneagram language, "sexual" is the name of one of three instincts that tells how we relate to social situations.  People can either prefer sexual, social, or self-preservation instinctual approaches to their membership in the global tribe.

People who prioritize the sexual instinct prefer one-on-one interactions because it's easier to contract the energy between two people, and they don't have to take too many dynamics into consideration, (which just gets complicated)The caveat here is that this isn't always about sex- it can be, because we all know that sex is the consummation of directed energy- but it can also simply be excitement about travel plans, a project, a cause, or an otherwise interesting discussion. 

Then there are those who prefer interacting with a group where the energy is a lot more spread out.  They're actually really good at reading the dynamics between everyone in the group-- they have an intelligence for it-- so for them, numbers aren't a problem, in fact, it's being alone that's the problem.  There's an itch to go find people to hang out with to get some relief from the suffocation after long stretches of solitude.  Nobody likes being alone too much, these guys just have a lower tolerance for it.  These are the people who prioritize the social instinct.  

Thirdly, there's a more subdued version of the other two.  They still have a preference for either the sexual or the social scenarios, but even more important than that to them, is their self-preservation.  How this manifests depends on the personality type, but there's generally a concern for preserving their energy so as not to run out of it.  Things that "cost" them their energy can be physical discomfort, or just simply being out of their element or away from home .  It can also mean financially- are their bills paid?  Is there food in the fridge?  Anything that is essential to what it means to feel "safe" for them.  Don't get me wrong- they also like socializing or being one-on-one with someone, they would just rather do it at home or where they're comfortable. 

(I'm not sure if that was the best description of self-preservation people.  Go here to read from the masters.)

Anyway, yesterday I found a study linking the instincts of the Enneagram to how our particular nervous system operates.  It's the digest version of findings by a therapist in Colorado, Elan BenAmi for Nine Points Magazine.  I just love the connection to brain science here.

We can think of the three instinctual subtypes (self-preservation, social, and sexual) as drives originating in the reptilian brain that revolve around survival.  The passion (emotional habit) of each Enneatype is lodged in the limbic center (Ohlson, 2013).  I think of the passion like the parable of the monkey whose fist is caught clasping food in the jar… If only he would release the food in his hand, he would be free!  Unfortunately, he’s mistakenly convinced that this food is what he needs for nourishment and so he keeps his hand clenched tightly.

Often (though certainly not always) a dominant self-preservation strategy presents as a parasympathetic response in the nervous system.  This is characterized by a low energy approach, and an over-reliance on the auto-regulation (as opposed to dyadically or in a group setting) of distress.  Those who over-rely on the sexual/one-to-one subtype tend to be sympathetically dominant, experiencing high arousal and increased emotional reactivity (especially in the context of love attachments). The social subtype generally appears more energetically split between hyper and hypo arousal.  If unchecked, the social subtype can end up feeling as though they have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes (Ohlson, 2013), (Ogden, 2006, p. 28-32).  [Source]

I don't understand the thing about socials with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes, though.  If someone wants to explain that to me, please do.