Thursday, October 7, 2010

This Blog Has Moved to

I am big time now. Check out my new, very spiffy website at

Visit and "like" me on facebook also at The Best Brain Possible.

See ya there!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Carrot on a Stick

As every manager or parent knows, if you want to motivate someone to be more productive, you dangle a prize, a reward, a bonus or something else which you think will make them salivate in front of them. That is what bonuses and allowances are for, right?! Hold on! Not so fast.

In their book, The Winner’s Brain, Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske tell of studies done at Harvard that actually show that productivity and external rewards are inversely related after a certain threshold. Yes, inversely!

External rewards, such as money and other material things, encourage people to focus narrowly on a task, to do it as quickly as possible, and to take fewer risks. The focus becomes the prize, not the process, and, people begin to feel as if they are being controlled by the reward. This causes them to become less invested and less determined which, in turn, causes the creative juices to dry up. Focus on extrinsic rewards erodes intrinsic interest and motivation.

Motivation is the second strategy outlined in their book that anybody’s brain can develop and use to achieve success in life. They define motivation as the ability to translate potential and intention into action.

The research shows that, while external incentives do work to get people moving and give them an extra push to get them over the initial, short term hump, they do not motivate long term. For someone to stay motivated over the long haul, personal meaning and intrinsic value have to kick in.

Surprisingly, staying motivated and achieving long term goals boil down to the kinda new age-ish concept of staying in the present moment and celebrating the small victories. Framing everyday, ordinary tasks positively towards an outcome and finding inspiration in them causes the amygdala in your brain to stay active and gives your brain a dopamine bath as a reward which helps keep you going in the right direction. Achieving in the here and now allows you to succeed later.

I remember in the first winter of my recovery from a brain injury, I went to a “jump and pump” aerobics class where you work out with jump ropes. I could not jump rope to save my life. It was sad. I ended up just having to hold the rope and jump up and down in place. I could do that. I bought myself a jump rope soon thereafter and vowed that I would jump rope again like a third grader, dammit! – minus the pigtails. What a goal. I remember how happy and proud I was when I could jump 20 times without getting all tangled up. Imagine that!? A grown woman feeling good about being able to jump rope. Now, I still can’t do the double dutch bus, mind you, but I wouldn’t get laughed off the playground either.

You can develop motivation and reinforce this trait in your brain by celebrating the minor accomplishments and by practicing finding the positive in the mundane situations. There really is some scientific basis for this “feely good” stuff. Plus, when you approach the small, every day events with optimism and appreciation, it makes the journey so much more enjoyable along the way.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Love ya. Mean it. Miss ya already.

This is a special post. Today is my brother's birthday, Chris. He would have been 48. He died 15 years ago of AIDS at the age of 33. Yes, he was gay...and fun, and hilarious and lived full out while here. He was also my best friend.

The below was written by a good friend of his, Mike Mason. It perfectly captures Chris' spirit and energy which I wanted to share with you today.

Chris Hampton was a man with a genius for living. He knew what clubs to go to, what CD's to buy, which thrift stores were cool, which gym everyone was at, where to get a custom 50's swimsuit, who to call, who to insult, when to arrive, when to leave, how to go all weekend without sleep, how to keep the boss from suspecting on Monday morning.

Over the years, I saw him on a hundred dance floors, a small whirlwind pulling friends into a joyous orbit, and today I cannot bring myself to understand that the center of so much has collapsed.

Here's the first thing I learned about Chris: He was not a guy to shrink from battle. Ten years ago, he worked as a waiter at a restaurant on Peachtree Street called Cafe Society. It went bankrupt suddenly, and one of the first conversations I had with Chris concerned his determination to sue the owners for back wages. This was not to be an exceptional conversation.

For as long as I knew him, there were disputes - dramatic, almost Shakespearean - involving car accidents and rent deposits and breakups and jobs. Chris was quick to draw his sword, sing a war whoop, and charge the enemy. I loved that about him.

He was restless. I suspect that he hated silence and emptiness, that he cherished noise and furor and friends and a full Filofax. For the last few years, he insisted to me that he'd become a homebody. I never believed it. This was the guy who dragged me to a Christmas party where a leather-clad woman with a bloody nose let her Doberman eat his way through the buffet. This was the man who showed up at a Halloween party looking like a cross between Peter Fonda in Easy Rider and Liza Minelli in Cabaret, with just a dash of Pee Wee Herman.

To this day, there is a ball of crumpled metal underneath the front bumper of my car because Chris said something, I can't recall what, that made me laugh so hard I drove over a parking curb at 4am at the Cove.

I remember Chris rising out of the Chattahoochee River, a laughing tangle of love beads and algae, yelling as our raft sailed past: "love ya, mean it, miss ya already!" Somehow he was waiting for us at the end of the race. That much was typical: I often felt he was waiting patiently for the rest of his friends to catch up.

Here is what AIDS wants: It wants us to stop living as fully as Chris lived. AIDS is a dark angel passing overhead, and it reaches for the brightest of us, like Chris, because it hopes that by extinguishing their stars, it may also snuff the spirit of an entire community. It hopes that those who are left behind will lead compromised lives, perhaps lives not even worth living, because of the losses we have suffered.

Today, I think the dark angel has lost a battle and Chris has won. The sicker he got, the more we learned from him about living fully, and drawing our swords, and refusing to compromise. Imagine the mortification above. The dark angel of AIDS looks down upon us now and instead of seeing a light extinguished it sees scores more burning brighter.

Occasionally, I have a dream about the day a cure is found. On that day the dark angel comes crashing to earth and I am there when it lands, miraculously, in Piedmont Park, among rows of gay men lying on the grassy hillside. We are not pleased. I find I am holding the love beads Chris Hampton used to wear. So, I walk over and wrap the necklaces tight around the monster's greasy neck. Before long, the fallen angel is flapping angrily along the ground, toward the sewer, unable to fly again because the crowd has ensnared it in love beads.

Goodbye Chris. Love ya. Mean it. Miss ya already,

Friday, September 24, 2010

If you like where you are, you can't complain about how you got there.....

It was a whimpering sound like a wounded animal would make. It was something in between a wail and a moan. It came from way down deep. I couldn’t not do it or suppress it. It was like an involuntary gag reflex. You don’t want to throw up and you try really hard not to, but it just comes rushing up to the top of your throat anyway.

I sat outside the courtroom on a wooden bench. The air became very thin. I couldn’t breathe and gasped as the pitiful sound continued to heave up from somewhere inside me. They told me to put my head between my knees. There was a very real, visceral sensation of pain somewhere in the depths of my gut. It was like the queasy, hollow feeling you have when you have drank too much the night before and you just feel all empty and inside out the morning after, but much more immediate and intense.

The judge had just announced his decision to take custody of my two sons away from me and give it to their father. Not only that, he had also decided that he was allowing my ex-husband, who lived in the same city at the time, to move out of state with them.

I had tried to commit suicide three months earlier and was brain damaged and still emotionally unstable even though I tried very hard, not at all convincingly unbeknownst to me at the time, to put on a charade of being neither. While I definitely did not think so then, it was absolutely best for the kids and myself.

I could not and would not have devoted the energy needed to heal from my brain injury or focused on my emotional healing had the kids stayed here…even living with their Dad. Being without the kids has allowed me to mature emotionally (about time), determine who I am and what I am about other than being a mother, find and develop strength I did not even know I had, and, among other things, learn to be comfortable with solitude. I even prefer it now. Go figure.

The children, on the other hand, have gained an invaluable opportunity they would not have had otherwise to get to know their Dad. Teenage boys need their Dad. I cannot teach them how to be a man. He has also modeled for them a whole different way of life than I would have and exposed them to a vast array of things. Great for them. They have even had the experience of gaining a younger brother. So, my youngest, has gotten to be both the youngest and the middle child. Interesting. I think he kinda likes being the older one now.

Funny, how what scares us the most and what we try to flee from like a bat out of hell, oftentimes, proves to be the most beneficial with the most growth and wisdom for us if we relax and allow ourselves to move through the experience, let things just unfold, and not tense up and resist.

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, in her book When Things Fall Apart writes:

We regard discomfort in any form as bad news. ….feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy and fear instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we are stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s wherever we are.

When something “bad” happens, don’t be so quick to judge the situation. Nothing is good or bad in and of itself. “Good” and “bad” exist in your thoughts, in your perspective, in your brain, and you have the power to change and control this.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Without a Word

Years ago, I had a blind date set up by one of those expensive, exclusive match making agencies where rich men turn to find arm candy. It was not a good match on any level. This guy showed up looking like some gangster straight out of a cheesy movie with pounds of gold around his neck, a bad suit, and his shirt unbuttoned way too far. In North Carolina?? I could not stop staring at the hair plugs half way down his forehead even though I kept telling myself not to. While my mouth was saying cordial things, I am sure my body language was saying something very different.

It takes your brain mere seconds to interpret what someone is saying, but the brain takes about only 200 milliseconds to gather information from facial expressions. Quick, huh!? The amygdala responded vigorously in test subjects even when researchers flashed photos so fast that people couldn’t tell at what the heck they were looking. The amygdala is the reptilian region of the brain associated with sounding the danger alarm. Assessing stimuli here really quickly would be a good thing in order to not be something’s lunch.

According to Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske, in their book The Winner’s Brain, a person constantly, unconsciously makes “micro-expressions” which are so fast that they don’t even register them and cannot control them.

These nonverbal cues convey emotions and ideas, oftentimes, more powerfully than words. This is the first form of communication learned and used by infants. There are about half a dozen facial expressions that are recognized universally across all cultures. I mean, we all know what pissed off looks like, right? There is no mistaking it.

Even after we learn to speak and understand language, the brain’s right hemisphere reads these nonverbal cues. Being able to accurately interpret this information and respond authentically and appropriately is crucial to a good sense of self awareness which is one of the key ingredients to a winner’s brain according to Brown and Fenske.

In their book, they cover eight traits great minds use to achieve success. “Win factors.” Rather than just recite the usual, positive thinking fluff, these attributes are backed up by neuroscience. They are traits anyone can develop to create a “failure-resistant” brain. This is my kind of stuff. I know, I am such a dork.

Possessing a highly evolved sense of self-awareness allows someone to assess interactions with others more accurately and to be perceived as more confident and authentic. It also allows a person to take advantage of their talent and honestly understand their limitations. They define self-awareness as the ability to “know thyself.”

All of us maintain a public persona to a certain extent. It is absolutely necessary. An example would be putting on a happy face at work when you feel anything but happy or being nice to a blind date when you really want to run the other way. In a winning sense of self-awareness these two selves are pretty similar most of the time or, at the least, there is a conscious understanding of how, why, and when they are different. Also, a winner’s brain tends to have a very stable sense of self regardless of the present circumstances.

These two selves used to be quite different in me. I used to have one self I showed to my significant other, to my parents, and the public. She was the people pleaser and did not make waves. However, the other me was always fuming because she never was authentic. It was so tiring keeping that mask on all the time. Now, what you see is what you get…like it or not.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Nothing To Hold On To

There is an anonymous saying that, in order to live the life that is waiting for you, you have to let go of the life you have. Three years ago, when I swallowed handful after handful of pills and tried to commit suicide, my life as I knew it ceased to exist from that moment on. OK. That is taking it a little too literally.

In the months that followed, I lost custody of my children as they moved with their Dad to a different state. In the following year, I gradually lost all friends and became isolated as I did not return phone calls or socialize. I couldn’t. All I could do was take care of me and exist.

The things which had been so important like the latest, killer clothes, a flawless appearance at all times (even did the Botox thing), and having a house which looked like it came right out of some magazine complete with the sparkle and fresh smell, were not a consideration anymore. Not even on the radar. I used to pride myself on my yard never hinting at the fact that a single woman lived here. It was all I could do just to keep it from looking run down and unkept. I think I even saw a few tumbleweeds blow through.

After an initial period of shock and anger, came a profound stage of sadness and grief. In truth, the Debbie that had existed did die. Slowly, gradually, came acceptance and taking responsibility for the life I had lived thus far, the big mess I had created and the life I was going to live from that point on.

At this time, I started putting my energy into me and improving myself and my life. I knew I did not want to stay in the condition I was in, and I was the only one who was going to make it better. I have not stopped since. I have only gained momentum. You know what? It has worked. Yipee!

If a fortune teller had looked into their crystal ball and told me that I would be living without my kids, without a significant other, without a career, with a speech impediment, and basically with the same issues as when I tried to kill myself, but I would be happier than ever and be very optimistic about the future, I would have told them their ball must have a huge smudge. Yet, it is true.

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty says that:

Wanting to find a place where everything’s OK is just what keeps us miserable. Always looking for a way to have pleasure and avoid pain is how we keep ourselves in samsara. (the vicious cycle of suffering) As long as we believe there is something that will permanently satisfy our hunger for security, suffering is inevitable. The truth is that things are always in transition. ‘Nothing to hold on to’ is the root of all happiness.

Things may not be perfect, but I am OK…great even. I have come to know that in uncertainty lies all possibility. Peace and joy are not found in having no wrinkles, a spotless house, or yard of the month. It is in my brain.

Friday, September 3, 2010

From Here to There

There is a sport called orienteering where participants receive nothing but a map and a compass and then have to find their way to locations on the map and back to the starting point. They are not limited as to how they can find the target locations except by their thinking. They can hike, ski, swim, or get creative. (I think using a vehicle of any kind is cheating.) They just have to get there. I have decided that life is a lot like this sport and, recovering from a brain injury has made me really good at it. Who would have thought?

In his book The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge tells of Paul Bach-y-Rita, a scientist and rehabilitation specialist, who has developed a “tactile vision device” which allows cognitively blind people to “see” by their brains interpreting sensations from their skin. He has also developed a glove for NASA astronauts with sensors on the outside allowing them to “feel” and perform delicate movements. He has even developed a condom that allows males with spinal cord injuries to have orgasms. No lie! It is all based on the premise that these experiences occur “in the brain” and are just the brain’s interpretation of stimuli. If one way doesn’t work, the brain can reroute the signals - from the skin to the visual cortex for example.

He was inspired to develop these because his father, Pedro Bach-y-Rita, had stroke at 65 which left him paralyzed in his face, and in half of his body and unable to speak. He was given no hope of recovery by his doctors and was advised to be institutionalized. Instead, he was brought home and Paul and his brother, George, worked to rehabilitate him.

As is often the case I have found, not knowing anything and not listening to the “experts” was a good thing. They used the way a baby learns as their model for rehabilitation. Pedro first learned to crawl, then stood, and then walked. They played on the floor with him with coins and marbles. They turned everyday experiences into exercises. Washing the dishes became rehabilitation. He relearned to speak and to write and to do everything – even mountain climbing. He made a full recovery and went on to resume teaching at a college and even remarried. Go, old Geezer! He died at 72 of a heart attack.

This recovery and all Bach-y-Rita’s devices are possible because of neuroplasticity which is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself based on the input it receives. If one route is damaged or blocked in some way, the brain can actually grow new pathways based on consistent, repeated incoming stimuli.

Life is exactly like this. We have to develop a nueroplastic attitude towards living. A reader, Dr. Mark Langer, suggested the idea of this in a comment. I love it. Never thought of it that way before. He is exactly right.

Like the orienteering sport, we have to use what tools we have on hand right here, right now, and our creativity, our ingenuity, our guts, our determination, and our heart to get to the next checkpoint location or goal in life or just to the next day sometimes…whatever the case may be.

If the easiest path is not feasible, find a different way. Make it work. Even an inch is progress. It doesn’t happen nearly quick enough for most of us, (me included!) but it will happen. You can and will get from here to there.

Tell people where they are going and they may get there; inspire them with why they are going there and they will move mountains.”
~Christopher Novak

Friday, August 27, 2010

What Color Is Your ... Cantaloupe?

If someone were to give you a magic wand, and to tell you it really had the power to instantly transform your world, you would use it, right? You would have to be crazy not to. Well, you do have one, but it is shaped more like a cantaloupe than a sparkly long stick. It is your brain.

Since our interpretation of all experiences in life emerges from the brain, any change in our brain, in turn, changes our reality. Reality, after all, is your brain’s unique way of making sense of what happens around you.

Merely by changing your thinking, you can change your world. It is that simple. Through neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change its’ physical form and function in response to actions, perceptions and even thinking and imagining) whatever you do repeatedly becomes the default pathway in your brain. Any situation, any person, can be seen from many perspectives. You can choose your view and, with enough consistent practice, this becomes the norm in your brain. Ta da!

Take, for instance, someone in your life who is a royal pain in the ass. I can think of a couple really quick with no problem. Yes, this person may provide lots of situations inviting grief and aggravation. You can see them only from that point of view or you can back up, broaden the view, and look at them more objectively. Acknowledge the attached emotions, but do not let them color your thoughts. This person can also be seen as a teacher. Yep. You read that right.

I am used to living by myself. Recently, I not only had my two sons here, but also another 19 year old male. Boy, I thought I was this serene, centered, enlightened being…until then. I found myself getting agitated at stupid, petty things. I found I am really sensitive to the sweaty boy smell in a not so good way. Instead of pointing the finger at them, I had to look at what this activated in me and what this experience had to teach me. Patience. Tolerance. Compassion. Working on it.

On a much bigger scale, while I have been divorced for around 6 years, my ex-husband finds far too many reasons to continue to disagree. Stupid me! I thought divorce was supposed to put an end to all the bickering. It just makes it much more expensive because, now, we have to do it through lawyers and can’t just scream directly at each other. He has been and continues to be one of my greatest teachers. Seriously. He has provided me with countless growth opportunities. I have grown in strength, courage, and self confidence tremendously each damn time. One day soon, I am gonna graduate.

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun philosopher, gives the unique advice of going directly into the situations from which you want to instinctively run in her book “The Places That Scare You.” Therein lies the opportunity for the biggest personal growth.

According to her, we always have a choice. We can let the people and circumstances of our lives harden us and make us increasingly angry and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us more compassionate. This wisdom (or magic wand) is always available to us. We tend to block it with habitual reactions and unconscious living.

So, pick up your magic wand, wave it in the air with a big “Whoop!” and get busy. This does not mean that *POOF* you can make everything just as you want it. It means that *POOF* you are able to find peace, joy, and acceptance no matter what happens.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Into The Fire

I love the myth of the phoenix. Do you know it? In it, the giant, beautiful, colorful bird builds a nest and sets it and itself on fire. (Don’t even ask me how the hell a bird sets a nest on fire. It makes for a good story. OK?) The bird emerges from the ashes a totally new, reborn bird. The phoenix has become my symbol over the past 3 years.

I downed over 90 pills in a very real attempt to kill myself. There are some things at which it is good to fail. They found me too late to pump my stomach. All the drugs went completely through my system. Mostly brain drugs – sleeping pills, tranquilizers, anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants (ironic, I know.)

At first, I was seriously mentally impaired. I had a hard time putting thoughts into words. It was a painstakingly slow process. I could barely talk. It sounded like a drunken slur. I shook uncontrollably. I did not know what to do with my arms when I walked. My balance and coordination were way off. With lots of determination, lots of hard work and discipline every day, lots of reading and learning, lots of self examination, lots of doing things differently, and through the miracle of neuroplasticity, I have emerged slowly from the chaos I created stronger, happier, and healthier than ever. I am a phoenix.

In her book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, Elizabeth Lesser calls such a transformation the Phoenix Process:

Surviving the Holocaust, enduring the loss of one’s child, learning to live with an incurable illness, witnessing terror, or experiencing trauma—these are Phoenix Processes of the tallest order. Come through one of them with an open heart, and you will light a path through the woods for all of us.

She goes on to say that a person must make the journey by themselves. They must go into the flames alone to burn away the illusions of the ego and arise from the ashes with their true, authentic, new self. A person can choose to go into the fire, through the unknown, through the darkness and do the gut wrenching work or they can choose to turn away and remain frozen in an empty relationship, a soul killing job, a difficult loss, a numb life or whatever. Should they go into the fire, they stand to emerge with a new level of strength, power, and courage and with an awakened sense of empathy and a softer heart.

My choice initially was to do neither. I just wanted out. Surviving the suicide attempt and the resulting brain injury flung me right into the fire. It put me in a situation where all I could begin to try to control was how I dealt with the reality of the circumstances psychologically. Therein is the magic for anyone in any situation. The whole recovery has been a transformative Phoenix Process for me and a blessing in disguise. I would not go back to being who I was before for anything — even though she didn’t talk funny and had much better penmanship.

As a symbol of all I have been through and the promises I have made to myself going forward in my life, I got a tattoo of a phoenix. My first one. At my age!?! It is small and in a discreet place. I just love it! It is my own, private badge of honor and courage. I am ready to fly.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mental Gymnastics

You can’t see your brain or anyone else’s for that matter. (Thank goodness!) So, we tend not to think too much about what shape it is in. It doesn’t have to fit into a bikini or squeeze into some tight jeans. So what does it really matter? If your brain is not in tip top shape, it can effect almost any aspect of your life. Believe me, it is one of those things you take completely for granted until something is not working right. Then you notice big time.

Brain fitness has to become a part of our culture just like physical fitness. It is already starting to somewhat. Brain gyms and brain fitness classes are popping up here and there. However, it is not necessary to go to a brain gym to keep your brain in shape. There is plenty you can do on your own.

Just as for your heart, breaking a sweat is about the best thing you can do for your brain. Exercise increases the oxygenated blood flow to the brain and promotes the birth of new neurons. A study at the University of Illinois found that something as simple a three vigorous, 40 minute walks a week over a 6 month period improved participants memory and reasoning.

Complex and diverse mental challenges are next on the list for brain fitness. Doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku are good, but they are not near enough. They ask a person to recall things already known. The brain stays healthy by doing new things and by being challenged.

The idea is to push your brain beyond its comfort zone. Learning new skills, hobbies, or sports, continuing to educate yourself, putting yourself in new social situations, and traveling to new places are great for the brain. Even seemingly simple things like taking a new route to a familiar place, sleeping on the different side of the bed, or brushing your teeth with your non dominant hand will give your brain a little work out.

There are many companies offering brain boosting products these days. Luminosity ( ), Advanced Brain Technologies ( ), and Posit Science ( are some recognized names in this field. Studies showing the hard, definitive results for such activities are still being conducted but are generally encouraging. Most are proving, just like with physical fitness, consistent practice over time does produce positive results.

I can tell you, from my own experience, such products have been an invaluable and amazing part of my recovery from a serious brain injury. I can’t say enough good stuff about Posit’s products. In doing their Brain Fitness Program software, I more than doubled my mental processing speed. This made a huge difference for me. I still do brain training consistently.

Last, but not least on the list is nutrition. All the same recommendations for a heart healthy diet work for a brain healthy diet. Eating lots of dark colored fruits, especially berries, and myriad of vegetables provides the brain with antioxidants and many vitamins and minerals. Including fish and nuts regularly and often will give your brain the omega-3 fatty acids it needs to be at its best. A highly intelligent diet would include lots of lean proteins, complex carbohydrates and good fats. Supplements are a great aid here. Water is SO important to your brain’s optimal functioning.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Older and Better!

I bought my first pair of reading glasses a couple of weeks ago. Red. I think they are kinda fun and funky. While, amazingly, I do not have any gray hair yet (just had to throw that in), the half century mark is looming not too far ahead for me. The good news is that it is not all down hill and doom and gloom for my brain from here.

Recent research is showing that our brain gains skills as we age - reorganizing itself and using more parts to problem solve and multitask. Barbara Strauch, in her book The Grown Up Brain , says studies are revealing that the brain peaks in middle age somewhere between ages 40 and 68. Yipee!

While the aging brain does lose 45% of the kind of dendrite spines responsible for learning and remembering new things (Where in blue blazes did I put my keys?), it does not loose any of the other kind of dendrite spines that are linked to core knowledge.

A myelin sheath coats nerve fibers in the brain, insulating and protecting them. Myelin continues to grow into our 60’s. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its functioning and to grow new neurons and synapses, continues throughout life.

The elderly brain is less dopamine dependent. Dopamine is the feel good neurotransmitter involved in the reward/pleasure rush as well as wanting and craving. This means the older brain is less impulsive and less driven to seek immediate gratification. Patience really does come with age. Hallelujah to that one!

All of this points to an older brain that is slower, for sure, but also wiser with some enhanced depth and abilities. There is growing acceptance of the idea of a “cognitive reserve” that builds as we age.

Younger people do score better on standard brain tests in the lab, but the older brain may fare better in real life. It really boils down to what exactly is being measured and what is defined as “better.” While a 20 something year old may be able to find the next letter in a sequence of letters faster, is that really going to help them to be a better CEO of a company?

Some of the long standing, bad news beliefs about what happens to the brain as we age are beginning to be questioned and debunked. A lot of the differences may have more to do with generational factors rather than mental decline. It is beginning to look like a brain that declines with age is becoming almost optional.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Second Act

My 47th birthday was yesterday. Man, how did I get to be that old already? I certainly don’t feel it. My perceptual age of myself just graduated recently to somewhere in my thirties. About time, huh? I like to think I don’t look it either. At the airport the other day, the guy at the security checkpoint could not believe the date on my license. OK, he might have been flirting a little, but, hey, I’ll take it.

My paternal grandmother, we called her Mawmaw, (this is the South) was an identical twin. She quit school after the third grade and stayed home with her mother learning all the domestic talents. Boy, she could make some yummy biscuits from scratch. They would melt in your mouth. Her coconut cakes were legendary. She made them from fresh, whole coconuts, and usually 4 layers high. Mmmmmm!

Except for a few very brief stints, she never really worked or drove. She preferred to stay home and watch her soaps and interact with a small, comfortable circle of friends and family. She lived her life within a short distance from where she was born.

Her sister, on the other hand, finished high school and never worked for money, but did volunteer work throughout her life. She drove a car. She was socially outgoing, active at church and in clubs, and lived in many states.

Both developed Alzheimer’s. My Mawmaw started showing signs of it in her late 50’s. She died at 77 after being in an assisted living facility for 14 years. Her sister developed Alzheimer’s in her late 70’s. She died a few years later at the age of 80.

This example, of course, is not scientific proof, but I do draw some pretty strong conclusions from it. I believe, the life my Mawmaw led contributed to her developing Alzheimer’s much earlier. Because her brain did not develop physically as much over her somewhat sheltered life, it was much more devastating earlier when Alzheimer’s started pruning it away. She had no extra.

Because I physically resemble my Mawmaw, I used to be very scared of developing Alzheimer’s. Not so much anymore. While having had a brain injury does increase my risk, I feel like I have already been there and back.

Many studies have confirmed that regular cardiovascular exercise and a diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and antioxidants has clear-cut, positive benefits in staving off the onset of the disease. There is also much evidence to suggest that keeping the brain stimulated, challenged, and alert, maintaining an active social life, and staying emotionally healthy lowers the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Recent studies have even shown that our brains grow in some abilities as we age. There is an overall net gain in middle age with wisdom, cognitive depth, and reasoning power increasing. Yipee! (More on that later.)

I know that, without a doubt, my future is going to be fabulous. I have learned the tools to make it so no matter what happens around me. I am in the best shape mentally, emotionally and probably even physically than I have ever been. I truly am better than ever and ready for the second act

Friday, July 23, 2010

You've Come A Long Way, Baby

If you read this blog regularly, I feel like I give the impression that before the growth period of recovering from my brain injury, that I was a complete neanderthal, totally unaware and unconscious. While this is partially true, it is not entirely. I was trying to grow, but was still planted firmly in fear, limitations, scarcity, lack and just plain “can’t.” I had good intentions. Doesn’t that count for something?

I liken it to having one foot in a boat and one foot on land. As stress and the events of my life piled up in unrelenting succession the distance between the boat and the land kept getting further and further apart. I am amazingly limber, but it soon became a comical straddle, and I fell into the water with a big splash. I tried to commit suicide.

Looking back, I now know that I was in a transition phase emotionally and physically. Emotionally, I was trying to grow and change for the better and be more mature and less dramatic and reactive. Goodness knows, I had read enough self help books! I understood it all intellectually.

Physically, through neuroplasticity, my brain was actually in the process of rewiring itself to make this calmer, wiser, more aware Debbie the default. However, for neuroplastic changes to take place there has to be consistent practice and the process takes time - not nearly quick enough for me. In times of anxiety, the well worn pathways were all too active.

The below quips were written before my suicide attempt. At rare times, I did have my moments of insight and was even able to see the wisdom and humor in all the crap swirling around me in my life.

When I read some of these, I can see how stuck in my story I was and am very grateful to be where I am these days. (If you like where you are, you can't complain about how you got there.) Some of the same hurdles are still in my life plus a few new ones because of my brain injury, but I am different. Thank goodness! Think the phoenix. I can see past obstacles now with a broader perspective. It is like looking through a wide angle lens. Nothing seems so large or insurmountable anymore, and I can see the alternate routes to get to where I need to go. Road blocked? No big deal. I’ll just go another way. I will get there.

I have learned that taking well timed naps is a viable, self defense mechanism. When you are asleep you don’t have to think, feel, worry or even exist on any level.

I have learned that little boys don’t value sleep quite the same way, and, if you zonk out on the couch one Friday night, they may stay up until 4AM playing video games simply because they can.

I have learned that you should not attend a wedding too soon after you get divorced or you will end up crying until snot comes out of your nose, and it will have nothing to do with the blessed union you are witnessing before you.

I have learned that you can be married to someone for 18 years and that you can look at them sitting across from you in some fancy lawyer’s office and realize that they are just as much a stranger to you as the girl who led you to the room and gave you a bottle of water because your mouth was dry.

I have learned that dogs make good cuddlers, but really sloppy kissers and they leave little hairs all over your sheets.

I have learned that a dog may leave little hairs on your sheets, but he is very forgiving about your toxic morning breath, your bed head, and the big wrinkle imprint on the side of your face.

I have learned that a cat rolling around on her back in a sunny spot on the driveway can always make you smile even when you thought you had nothing to smile about.

I have learned that a 45 year old man who has been married one time in his life for 13 months can accumulate the world’s most impressive collection of coffee cups and Tupperware from his multitude of old girlfriends…and will add many of your prime specimens to his collection.

I have learned that even though you might be mad at your dead brother for not intervening in your life according to your wishes, he can still let you know he is very much around one night at the grocery store which results in you sobbing uncontrollably in the middle of the canned goods on isle five.

I have learned that “good-byes” are just as much a part of life as “hellos”…and that you better get used to both.

I have learned that no one has the right to lie to you, treat you badly, and continuously hurt you…no matter how much you think you love them.

I have learned that it is much more important what you think about the person staring back at you in the mirror than what others think about them.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Your Brain Online

There is no question that the internet has greatly boosted any person’s ability to find a really good authentic Italian restaurant or to figure out where to get moccasins for a Pocahontas costume or to meet the person of their dreams specifically with red hair and green eyes (if you can believe the stuff they put on their bio) or to research how to make their car run on solar power or just about anything else you can imagine. Ever stop to think about what this is doing to our brains?

When culture changes the way we engage our brains, our brains, in turn, change. While this subject can get very in depth and many studies are being done and will continue to be conducted, the jury is still out. Like almost anything, there are proving to be both good and bad consequences to becoming a society of online addicts.

On the upside, all this information at our fingertips improves the brain’s speed and accuracy. Studies show that the brains of experienced web surfers have higher activity in the prefrontal cortex associated with problem solving and decision making. After just 5 hours online, people showed increased brain activity. Boy, mine must be buzzing.

However, even as the internet gives us easy access to huge amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers who are easily distracted, with weaker concentration and much less control over our working memories. Research has shown that people who read something the old fashioned way, linearly, remember more and learn more.

Our intelligence is largely dependent on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of the mind, to long term memory, the filing system. When we have information in front of us along with numerous links and advertisements, all screaming at us at one time, it leads to cognitive overload.

Short term memory is very fragile, and a break in attention can wipe the slate clean. I bet you have experienced this. Ever been reading something and an interesting link catches your eye? You click on it to explore and, when you go back to the original piece, you have no idea what it is about.

Our ability to focus is being attacked. Every time something changes or moves in our environment, a primitive, physical impulse to respond to immediate opportunities or threats called the orienting response is triggered - hence, all the flashing and moving internet ads. This stimulation results in a dopamine squirt. Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter which aids in making habits addictive and in making permanent neuroplastic changes in the brain.

Every medium develops some cognitive skills. Surfing the web strengthens brain functions involved in fast paced problem solving and and finding information. Playing Super Mario improves hand-eye coordination, reflex response time and visual cue processing. Our growing use of the internet and other screen-based technologies is weakening our capacity for deep processing necessary for analysis, complex thinking, imagination, and reflection. The gain in some areas is always at the expense of others.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Little Means A Lot

Did you know that our DNA only differs from chimpanzees by 2%. That is right. We share 98% of our DNA with those furry things that swing from trees, eat bananas and screech. So what is it exactly that makes us human and keeps them being chimps?

Scientists, as part of the human genome project, identified specifically which genes are different. Turns out one of them is the regulatory gene that determines how many neurons humans can make and when the process stops.

Human neurons are basically identical those of chimpanzee neurons and even those of a marine snail. Hard to believe, isn’t it? The big difference is in the total number of neurons each ends up making. Humans end up having about 100 billion neurons. Yes, billion. Chimpanzees stop a little earlier so that they have brains about one-third the size of ours.

Each neuron makes thousands of connections. This leads to the possibility of a staggering amount of neural circuits, a ten followed by a million zeros. This huge number allows the human brain to be so complex and to be capable of performing such a vast array of mental functions and behaviors.

This also explains how the brain is capable of massive change through neuroplasticity. Before the discovery and acceptance of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to physically change itself and it's function based on a person’s experiences and behaviors) it was pretty much believed the only way the brain could change its structure was through the long, painstakingly slow process of evolution.

Plasticity offers a new way for the brain to change and evolve other than genetic mutation. For example, when a person learns to read, it changes the biological structure of their brain. Reading is taught to the next generation and, subsequently changes their brain and so on.

However, this process of learning not only changes the brain circuits in one area of the brain, but also many modules that are connected to the ones actually used in reading are changed. Plastic change tends to “flow” through the brain. When areas of the brain are linked together in a new way by a new activity, the brain modules involved are changed by the interaction. This creates synergy and a new whole which has greater capabilities than it’s individual parts is formed.

This may explain how our hunter-gatherer brain and more cognitive-cerebral brain work together to make us “civilized.” Becoming civilized is basically a process of learning to restrain or channel brute predatory and dominance instincts into acceptable expressions such as contact sports, board and computer games, art and literature.

The basic instincts are still there, for instance, when a fan yells “Kill him!” at a football game. Yet, when the instinct to stalk prey is linked up to an activity with rules and acceptable behaviors, the neuronal networks are also linked and temper each other.

Civilization is a series of processes where the hunter-gatherer brain teaches itself to rewire itself. Because the plastic brain can always allow brain functions that have come together to separate, regression is always possible. Civilization is always, at most, only one generation deep.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Culture Shock Really Is Brain Shock

When Michael Angelo painted the Sistine Chapel, he had to work in a very awkward position for several months with his head thrown back looking up. In addition to a serious neck cramp which I am positive he had, his brain rewired itself to see in this kinda upside down way all the time. It took several months for his eyesight to get back to normal.

Not only does man’s brain shape and make culture, but a person’s culture shapes and makes their brain. Because of neuroplasticity (the fact that the experiences one has and behaviors in which one repeatedly engages physically changes their brain) the life you live and what you do in it uniquely shape your brain. Your culture and even the lack of it make your brain.

In Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself, he tells of a group of nomadic people who live on some tropical islands off of the West Coast of Thailand called the Sea Gypsies.

They learn to swim before they learn to walk. They live over half of their lives in boats and on the sea. They dive down in the water to great depths without any equipment. They have learned to lower their heart rates and can stay under twice as long as most people.

What is amazing is that their eyes have adapted to see under water clearly without goggles. Under water, light is bent so that it does not land on the retina where it normally does. The Sea Gypsies have learned to control the shape of their lenses and the size of their pupils to account for this. Really. In studies, others have learned to do this also. This is the nervous system and brain learning to rewire itself based on the demands of the environment.

Studies have shown that musicians who play stringed instruments, have larger brain maps for their active hands. Brain scans of London taxi drivers show that the more years on the job, the larger the area of their brain that stores spatial relationships. Meditators have denser parts of the brain which are activated when paying close attention.

This cultural modification of the brain makes for some trying and humorous situations when someone immigrates to a new country. Culture shock really is brain shock. The native culture is learned and literally wired into the brain. What seems natural in one culture – how close we stand to each other, how loud we speak, the pauses in conversations – are learned. So the creepy guy standing way too close who shouts at you when he talks may just be from somewhere else.

Immigration is much more than simply learning new things. A Japanese six month old can hear the English r-l distinction. At one year, they no longer can. It is a massive rewiring of cortical real estate. Even much smaller changes, such as moving to a different space or changing jobs, require new routines and brain rewiring.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The good news is your brain makes physical changes based on the repetitive things you do and experiences you have in your life. The bad news is your brain makes physical changes based on the repetitive things you do and experiences you have in your life. This works both ways…for you and against you.

Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its own structure and function through thought and activity, is an amazing, empowering truth of the last decade. It has implications and possibilities in almost every aspect of human life and culture. This same characteristic also makes the brain very vulnerable to outside and internal, usually unconscious, influences. Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself refers to this as “the plastic paradox.”

Think about it. The brain actually wires itself and forms neuronal connections based on what you do repeatedly in your life. Vegging out on TV. Getting a sugar fix. Sipping a soda. Drinking the morning cup of joe. Fixing a drink to unwind after work. Smoking cigarettes. Burning a joint to take the edge off. Having a hit of harder stuff. Biting fingernails. I could go on and on. We call them bad habits or addictions. They become wired into your brain.

Not all addictions are to substances. An addiction is any compulsive habit. People can be addicted to anything…exercise, facebook, pornography, shoes, negative self talk. All addiction involves neuroplastic changes in the brain. A person (addict sounds too hard core here, but that is what we are talking about) experiences cravings because their plastic brain has become sensitized to the substance or experience.

When the craving is satisfied, dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitter, is released. Dopamine is an essential component of neuroplasticity. The same shot of dopamine that makes someone happy also assists in making neuronal connections.

When someone kicks the habit – whatever the habit is, the addictive neuronal circuits in the brain become weaker and less active over time without the reinforcement of the behavior, but they are still in place. Alcoholics Anonymous insists that there are no “former alcoholics.” They are right! The pathways are still there and can easily be reactivated.

Recent research shows that it takes 66 days to make a new habit automatic. I could not find any definitive information about the time frame required to deactivate a habitual brain circuit. However, I would guess it is about the same as they are simultaneous processes and one is dependent on the other. Unlearning involves weakening connections between neurons through disuse and is just as plastic a process.

The same neuroplasticity that allows us to amazingly alter our brain and reality by implementing healthy, good for you habits conversely allows not so good habits to be unconsciously carved in the brain in the first place. What are you etching into your brain? This is one area in which you can really make a conscious choice and change yourself and your life. It is a use or lose it brain. Use it for you.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Oil on the Brain

I am going to take a bit of a divergence here, but not really, because it is something that has been weighing heavily on my brain for weeks. Let’s talk about the Horizon oil gusher. It is misleading, I believe, to even call it a measly “spill.” A hellish, nightmarish flood is more like it.

Last week, I was ready to drive to Louisiana and volunteer. As an animal lover, the pictures of the oil covered birds, turtles, fish, even crabs made me cry and hurt my heart. In addition, the stories of whole industries, communities, and ecosystems suffering utter devastation is just tragic and hard to even fathom.

In my typical fashion, but not as bad as I used to be mind you, I hyper focused on all this – clicking on every Facebook link and watching every YouTube video I could find. Too much. I felt totally outraged, overwhelmed, and helpless.

In an email to a friend, who works for a solar energy company BTW, I vented. Along with a bunch of other stuff, they responded with:

I appreciate your anger and frustration over the oil spill. I feel however, that your reaction stops just where most of us do, at the feeling of helplessness and frustration we experience from the ugly consequences of decisions we don't recognize as our own. I don't feel you are acknowledging your part in this.

What are YOU doing to stop the oil spill?

I'm not asking you to stop it directly. This is a systemic situation that is a result of my, your, our dependence on oil. There's no way we can all switch to renewable energy tomorrow, and we can't just turn off our cars today either. So you, I, we use oil to create refined products like gasoline, plastic etc.

You, I, we consume this stuff without caring where it comes from or how much we use or how inconvenient or dangerous it is to get it when we have already consumed all the easily extractable resources of it domestically. So, we resort to drilling a mile or two deep in the ocean to slake our black thirst so we can maintain our convenient lifestyles. We fly across the country and drive cars that get 20 mpg instead of 40 mpg and don't give a damn about CAFE standards, and vote for people who are even less conscious about this than we are to make decisions for us about environmental and energy policy.

And you know what? They are right. Instead of reacting defensively, their words made me feel empowered and brought me a sense of peace. There is something I can do besides going down to the Gulf and putting on one of those white suits. There is something we all can do in our own lives. We can start living more consciously and make reducing our dependence on oil a factor in the decisions we make every day.

Other headlines are already taking prime position. It is becoming old news. I was floored to find out from my sons that this was not even a topic of discussion in the halls or the classrooms of their schools. This is going to effect their and all of our futures.

In a small, good way as well as the obvious, huge bad, I wonder? I hope. It is our decision. If anything good is to come of this, we have to allow it to teach us and change us. I know I am going to. We can blame BP or Obama and look to them to fix this mess, but the solution has to start with each of us.

The earth produces all things and receives all again. ~ Spanish Proverb

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Heaven and Hell Inside Your Head

My brain injury, resulting from a pill popping suicide attempt, has actually been a blessing in disguise. I certainly did not think I would ever say such a thing. While the injury was global, my left side was more damaged than my right because I am physically right dominant and there was much more to damage on the left side of my brain.

Because a lot of my existing connections and pathways were wiped out, I got to start with a clean slate of sorts. I am not advocating this at all, but it has proven to be an amazingly good thing for me. Really.

Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist, experienced a massive hemorrhage on the left side of her brain. In her book My Stroke of Insight, she uniquely and knowledgeably describes the process she experienced as her brain shut down, and she lost the functions of speech, motion, and self awareness.

She tells of living out of her right brain for a while after. She likens the right brain to a parallel processor. It is all about the right here and right now and interpreting our experience of ourselves in the world through the senses. It thinks in pictures and connects us to everything around us through its’ consciousness.

The left brain is a serial processor. It interprets the world linearly and methodically. It is all about the past and the future. It picks out details of present moment and categorizes them and gives them meaning based on associations it makes with past experiences. It thinks in words and defines us as separate entities. It is also responsible for that ongoing brain chatter which, in my case, was incessant and not very nice.

With her left brain quiet, she tells of experiencing a kind of nirvana when she awoke. I also lived in this kind of bliss for months as my left brain functions gradually came fully back on line. For the first time in my life, it was quiet in my head. I was not haunted by the past. It was there, but it was not constantly, drearily encroaching upon the present and the future.

I also was not terrified of the future. To me, it might as well have not even existed and was not a concern. I lived entirely in the present. I liken it to the Mad Magazine guy’s slogan “What me worry?”

I can remember laying on the trampoline (makes a great place for a nap BTW) in the sunshine just watching the puffy, white clouds float by against the backdrop of a brilliant, blue sky and being perfectly content even though I had a pretty serious brain injury and had lost custody of my kids, blah, blah, blah.

Jill Bolte Taylor says this proved to her that anyone can attain this same state and make the choice every moment of every day to exist and operate out of either of the two cognitive minds.

In my own life, it has been a deliberate process to develop and maintain the glimpse of nirvana and to not allow the left brain to bully the right brain and take over. I do this through such practices as meditation, mindfulness, and more. Anyone can also achieve this. Brain injury not required. Heaven or hell? It really is your choice and is all in your brain.

Jill Bolte Taylor:

Friday, June 4, 2010

Go Jump!

Literally. Have you heard of the kind of rebounding that doesn’t require a basketball and a back board? It’s bouncing on a mini-trampoline. It is a superior form of exercise for many reasons, and it is fun! Weeee!

At the top of a bounce, you experience weightlessness. At the bottom of a bounce, your weight doubles or triples depending on how high you are bouncing. These forces of acceleration and deceleration maximize your effort. A half hour of rebounding is equal to an hour of other exercise. It is 68% more efficient than traditional exercise. It is truly a cellular, aerobic, strength training exercise which effects every cell in your body. Now, those are pretty good stats!

Unlike most other exercises which put extreme stress on certain joints, rebounding is considerably gentler to the body. It is not shock-less, but almost. Any body at any age, in any health, and at any level of fitness can do this. A person can even get benefits doing it sitting down.

Rebounding provides incredible detoxification results. The lymphatic system is the metabolic garbage service of the body. Lymph fluid bathes every cell, carrying good stuff to the cell and bad stuff away from the cell. Unlike the circulatory system, it has no pump and relies on movement of the body to make its rounds. Rebounding is reported to increase the lymph flow by 15 to 30 times.

The rebounding motion stimulates all internal organs, moves the cerebral-spinal fluid and is beneficial for the intestines. It causes immune cells to be 5 times more active. This directly translates into a stronger immune system.

The benefits of rebounding go on and on:
• Increased oxygenation of the body and lung capacity
• Combats depression and anxiety
• Prevents cardiovascular disease and normalizes blood pressure
• Increased activity of red bone marrow and red blood cell count
• Lowered cholesterol and triglyceride levels
• Improved digestion and elimination
• Improved sleep and mental performance

A gentle two minute health bounce frequently throughout the day will increase mental sharpness, focus and attention, strengthen the immune system and work in the physical benefits of exercise. For this reason, some people have mini-tramps at their place of work. Rebounding has proven remarkably effective in aiding everything from lymphedema to cancer.

A rebounder is portable and can fit even into the most space constrained places. You just can’t have low ceilings!

I have been rebounding for about a year and a half. I started by doing instructional cd’s to get the hang of it and learn the basic moves. You can do a lot more than just jump. You can jog, twist, kick, shuffle, or do jumping jacks. It is great for doing cross lateral movements, like raising the elbow or hand to the opposite knee. These type of movements get signals going across the hippocampus which is absolutely wonderful for any brain especially those recovering from a brain injury.

My son keeps me well supplied with techno tunes. I just turn up the music and get creative and have a blast. I really work up a sweat in no time. The thump, thump, thump sets a great pace to work out to and gets the energy really revved.

Friday, May 28, 2010

It was an itsy bitsy, teeny weeny, yellow polka dot bikini.....

OK, I am showing my age here with this one. (I remember my Dad singing that song when I was little.) And for the record, the bikini had blue and purplish flowers. Whoever would have thought there was a profound “aha moment” waiting for me in my bikini in a bay in Hawaii?

It was 7 months after my brain injury. I was still mentally impaired, but trying very hard not to act like it. Just packing for the trip and navigating my way through the airport was a real challenge for me. It made my underarms wet. At times, I felt like a scared, little kid lost at the mall.

Then there were times that I told myself “You can do this. Dammit!” It felt great just to accomplish what most people would consider normal. Everything terrified me, but somehow I knew that I had to overcome the fear and push through it to regain any kind of semblance of a regular life.

I had gone to Hawaii with my brother and this was our first snorkeling excursion. Hanomolino Bay looked like something on a postcard. There were leaning palm trees complete with coconuts flanking a beach of black sand leading up to azure blue water rolling into the beach in gentle waves capped with white surf.

For a while, we were content to swim around the little bay and ooh and aah at the colorful sights under the surface. Not being nearly as physically coordinated as I used to be, it took me a while to get the hang of breathing though the tube. I used to be a lifeguard during the summers in college, so I soon felt pretty comfortable. I ventured out to where the bay opened up to the ocean. The current and waves had much more force here.

I kicked some rocks with my fin, and it came off and sunk to the bottom. It was probably about 20 feet deep. Without the fin, I was not nearly as strong a swimmer.

Just keeping my ahead above the water and fighting the waves was a struggle. I was really scared now. I swallowed big gulps of salty water. I had that urgent, panicky feeling I would imagine an antelope has when being chased by a lion. I managed to make it over to some rocks and to partially climb up on them cutting my feet and legs in the process. They were covered with coral and sliced my skin upon contact.

By this time, my brother had noticed my predicament. He yelled for me to stay on the rocks while he went and got my sand shoes. Never having been one to follow directions too well, I decided to swim to a sail boat anchored in the bay rather than just wait there.

After what seemed like the longest swim of my life, I reached the sailboat and managed to grab the top of the side of it and gasp out several times a squeaky, but urgent "help!"

A thin, scruffy looking man with long hair and wearing cutoff jeans – think stoner - came up on deck. He looked startled and surprised, to say the least, to see me hanging from the side of his boat in my bikini bleeding. He had that “WTF??” look -- like he was not sure he wasn’t hallucinating. After he got it, he rowed me to shore in a little boat. My hippie hero!

The experience scared me, for sure, but was also a very meaningful lesson. I was brain injured because I had tried to kill myself. In the months that followed, I did recover physically somewhat, but I was still unstable emotionally. I was undecided as to whether I wanted to live this life. I wanted to kill myself before, and now I was supposed to live like this - half retarded and sounding like I was drunk? I was not convinced.

I realized that instinctively, without me going through all the typical drama of weighing the pros and cons, something inside of me had just kicked in and fought hard to live. I could have very easily just slipped quietly under the water and finished what I had started months earlier. Eureka! Something inside of me wanted to live!

That was a major turning point for me in which I realized that I did not want to die. Since then, I have been acting like I want to live. I started taking responsibility for my recovery and my life. I have worked every day to get better and to make my life better. I have a few grains of black sand in my foot that remained after it healed to remind me of the valuable lesson I learned that day just in case I ever forget.

Friday, May 21, 2010

I'll take Door #2

Just what is this thing we call happiness? Go ahead. Try to define it. You will end up describing feelings or things or even circumstances. These will undoubtedly vary from person to person because happiness is a completely subjective perception and experience. It is a universal "you know what I mean" feeling, but to precisely pinpoint its components is impossible.

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert tells of two conjoined twins, who, fused at the forehead, have spent their whole lives looking at each other eye to eye, sharing every waking and sleeping moment. Can you even imagine? Most of us would think this existence rather abysmal, yet they are joyful, content, and optimistic...happy. They have no desire at all to be separated.

We may look at them and see only the challenges and the inconveniences. However, what if we consider the other possible attributes of this situation? It is a matter of where we place our focus. The idea of always having your best friend right there, someone who knows you better than any one else and who knows all your secrets, good and bad, is a pretty rich one. We might say "They only think they are happy because they don't know any different." That is precisely the point! They have found happiness within their current circumstances.

Happiness is a point of view, an emotional experience that is different for each individual. We can all pretty much agree that the sky is what we define to be blue. However, we can in no way be certain every one is looking at the sky and having the same experience of blue.

Happiness is roughly the same neural activity pattern in all human beings and within the same person. Yet, happiness is very different from person to person and has a wide range of manifestations within the same individual. While devouring some Ben and Jerry's Caramel Sutra ice cream, burying my face in the soft, furry belly of a purring cat, and getting jiggy to Train's "Hey, Soul Sister" may all activate the same electrical happy circuit in my brain, they are very different experiences.

Happiness may not be neatly defined, but I think no one would argue with its' mega importance in every life. Human beings are innately programmed to strongly desire and seek happiness - whatever that may be for them.

Happiness is therefore a personal pursuit and decision for each one of us. It is natural for someone to experience panic and anxiety when they find that the company is cutting expenses, and their job is one way in which they are accomplishing this. It is natural to grieve and be sad when your partner walks off into the sunset without you. These types of situations are an unavoidable and uncontrollable part of life. However, each one of us does have the power to move through these experiences and to choose to keep working towards happiness everyday. It is a choice. A decision.

It is like the Let's Make a Deal show. Remember that one? No matter what door you choose or what is behind it...the new car or the billy can choose happiness. You get to go home with something...even if it is a farm animal. It is all in your point of view and focus.

Friday, May 14, 2010

As good as it gets?

If I told you that you were a big, fat zero, would you say "Thank you" and squeal with delight or would you get in a huff and be insulted? If I were to ask you to rate yourself on a scale from negative ten to positive ten, would you put yourself happily at zero and be proud and content? I would think not.

If we score mental health on a scale from negative values representing mental illness to positive values with zero representing the threshold of the absence of clinical mental illness, "normal" is a zero. In the western world, the underlying assumption is that "normal," free from mental illness, is a healthy mind and is as good as it gets. Most of the mental health information and programs in our society focus on getting people to the zero line - not above it.

This "normal" mind still experiences many forms of mental distress such as anxiety, frustration, boredom, restlessness, unhappiness, and resentment. This is considered just part of life and how things are. As long as these are not chronic or disabling, that person gets a passing grade. Anything above "normal" is generally reserved for monks or saints, and it not thought of as something that can be cultivated and learned and certainly not expected.

Our society and our science focuses on the mental states below zero. In the last several decades, there have been thousands of studies on mental illness and a pitiful few on happiness, contentment, joy and compassion. We know almost nothing about the qualities that make life worth living and the accompanying brain states.

Many philosophies of today teach that which is focused on materializes. Paying attention to something feeds it and gives it energy to perpetuate. So, be careful what you focus on in your own life! Hence, worrying only brings what you are worrying about into your reality. Get it? As a society, focusing on the downside of mental health only brings about more of the same.

As individuals, we need to strive to rise above "normal." Aim higher than this baseline which is somewhere above depression but far below what is possible. Humanity does not have to be satisfied with this this minimal level of mental and emotional health.

Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to physically, permanently change based on repetitive experiences, provides everyone with the ability to improve and change their own mental and emotional functioning. As individuals and as a population, it is entirely possible to attain higher levels of attention, awareness, happiness, peace, empathy, compassion, patience, altruism, joy, contentment, etc. I could go on and on. It is possible.

We are coming into a brain fitness era where it will become standard for a person to exercise their brain regularly just like they do their body. Exercise for the brain includes such things as regular meditation, mindfulness practices, visualizations, affirmations, focused attention, and anything stimulating like crossword puzzles, sudoku, learning a foreign language, mastering a musical instrument, even visiting a museum or traveling somewhere new...anything that gets you out of your comfort zone and gets the brain learning and making new connections.

Science is confirming the reality that we can change our brains by studying "above zero" people such as Buddhist monks whose mental baseline is at levels most people only achieve briefly, if ever. What is being learned from them is the key to everyone raising their set point with mental training and hints at what is possible.

I know in my own life, I have gone from somewhere in the negatives to somewhere above zero. Let me tell you, I sure like the view much better on the other side.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Best Belly?

Remember a time when you had one of those strange, but sure gut feelings? You know, that eerie, strong, undeniable certainty of something you could not possibly know based on thinking and logic. I am sure there have been plenty of times when you had that unmistakable flutter of "butterflies" in your stomach or felt green and queasy sick to your stomach as an emotional response to something.

There is a valid basis for all this colorful, folksy speak. I have told you about a second brain in your heart, but did you know there is also a third brain in your belly? The Chinese have long known about this and refer to it as the "monkey brain." Hawaiians have traditionally referred to this as the na'au which includes the bowels, the mind and the heart.

Technically known as the enteric nervous system, this brain consists of a network of some 100 million neurons lining the gut. That is more neurons than in the spinal cord. It can function without any input from the central nervous system and sends information to it. While this brain down below is not the seat (pun intended) of conscious thought, it does exert a powerful influence on our physical bodies and emotional states.

This gut brain uses over 30 neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin just like the brain above. A big part of our emotions are influenced by this brain. Recent scientific studies are linking this brain to stress, depression, autism and even osteoporosis and may have possible implications as to how these are treated.

Our challenge is to learn to listen to the perceptions and the information of the brains in our head, our heart, and our gut. To allow all of them to integrate and have input in directing our lives and creating our realities. In western culture, we are taught pretty much early on to solely rely on the brain in our heads and to totally ignore any other source of wisdom.

In my own experience in the past, the brain in my head greedily took over, running wild, chattering not so nice and anxious nonsense incessantly, until I got completely cut off from any other innate sense of knowledge. I have since learned how to calm it down, and shut it up long enough to let the others get in a word.

It is also our challenge to take care of each of brain in a healthy, respectful manner through diet and exercise. As you can imagine, the brain in our gut and hence, our emotions, are strongly tied to what we put in our bodies. Eat junk, feel like junk.

So the next time you have a gut feeling, give it a little more importance and attention. Your body has a many ways in which it communicates with you. Sssshhhh! Listen.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Turn It Around

A lot of people attempt suicide. In fact, someone commits suicide every 17 minutes in the US. A male is 4 times more likely to succeed than a female. What a thing to be better at! Poisoning is the 2nd most successful method overall, but is by far the method of choice for women.

Many people who use poison, get their stomachs pumped and go back to trying to cope and putting their lives back together with little lasting evidence. Because too much time had elapsed from when I took the pills from the time I got to the hospital, my stomach was not pumped. Over 90 pills - mostly brain drugs: sleeping pills, tranquilizers, antidepressants (ironic, huh?), some Tylenol, extra strength mind you, and other assorted chemicals went all the way through my system.

At the hospital, at some point, they quit even monitoring me so I am told. My fever went over 107, and my mother had to literally pitch a fit to get me a cooling blanket. (Eternally grateful, Mom) I was on a respirator. My heart stopped three times, and I had seizures for hours. I know that if I had not been in such good physical shape, I would not have survived. My Mother actually witnessed staff going back and filling in my medical charts.

I was seething mad about this for a long time. Yes, I had tried to kill myself. I was messed up but, once I got to the hospital, they had a responsibility to do everything to help me and, at the very least, do their jobs. There was a time when I wanted vengeance and to sue the crap outta that hospital.

In the past couple of years instead of pursuing a lawsuit I have chosen to put my energy into getting better and healing. Even if I did sue and win, would it really change anything? I'd have more money, but I'd still talk funny. I would have expended my resources towards something negative instead of bettering myself and my situation.

I have come to have compassion for the nurses and doctors on duty that night. It was a full moon and a busy ER. Gurneys lined the hallways. I choose to believe that the hospital personnel had finite resources and thought I was going to die. Therefore, they made the logical and understandable decision to put their efforts into people who had better odds. I can only imagine the "holy shit!" look on their faces when they realized I was going to pull through.

I have found that you can take any situation and put some distance between yourself and it emotionally and look at it objectively. I didn't say this was easy. It takes some effort and practice, but it can be done.

Over time, with repetition, because of neuroplasticity, this actually becomes the default in your brain. However, you do have to consciously make a disciplined effort at first. Reinforcing these pathways and activating this loop in your brain permanently rewires your brain.

Byron Katie has a process she calls The Work that teaches you exactly how to do this. You can take any situation and stop your struggling and anguish. According to Katie and many philosophies, all suffering is caused by our own thoughts and judgments about what happens, not by what actually happens. The goal is to change your thoughts. The Work consists of four questions and a turn around. The questions are:

- Is it true?

- Can you absolutely know that it's true?

- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

- Who would you be without the thought?

After you've analyzed your situation with the four questions, you turn it around. Each turn around is an opportunity to experience the opposite of your original statement and see what you and the person you've judged have in common. She says the turnarounds are the prescriptions for happiness. For example:

"The hospital workers should have done more to help me" turns around to:
- The hospital workers should not have done more to help me. They had to make a judgment call here.
- I should have done more to help myself before ever getting to the hospital.

This exercise can help to alleviate your anger and suffering about any situation and give you a new perspective. You can find a full explanation of The Work and even worksheets at Give it a try about some situation in your life and turn it around.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Seeing Thunder and Hearing Lightening

Whaaat? It was largely accepted until fairly recently that the human adult brain, was essentially fixed. This was illustrated in full color diagrams confidently mapping the regions and structures responsible for say moving the left pinkie or for processing the feelings of biting the tongue. Ouch! It was believed that every bit of neural real estate was zoned and assigned a specific function. So, it had to be true, right?

Wrong! Much research in recent decades has proven this to just not be the case. Many scientific studies have confirmed that the brain is plastic meaning it is not fixed, not static, and not hard wired. It is malleable, dynamic and capable of physical change all throughout adulthood.

I like to think of our brain like play dough. We are holding this blob in our hands and can shape it however we choose. We sculpt our brain with our environment, our experiences, the demands we place on it repeatedly, and, basically, the lives we lead every day. Works both ways - good and bad.

Plasticity was demonstrated early on in an experiment with ferrets, who have identical wiring to the auditory cortex and visual cortex as humans except for one important factor, the timing. Human basic wiring exists at birth. Ferrets grow this circuit after birth. Scientist interrupted this pathway in the ferrets with some very careful brain surgery so that nerves from the eye grew into the auditory cortex. The ferrets were then trained to respond to sounds and lights. The ferrets "heard" the lights with parts of the brain that would normally process sound.

In a later experiment, sighted adults were blindfolded all day, every day for 5 days. They spent their time learning Braille and performing various tactile and auditory activities. Their brains were scanned before and at the end of the experiment. Beforehand, their auditory cortex showed normal activity upon hearing sound. Their visual cortex lit up when seeing as expected, and their somatosensory cortex buzzed appropriately when fingering Braille symbols.

After just 5 days of being blind folded, their "visual" cortex became active when doing all these things. The "seeing" brain was now hearing and feeling. Even though it had spent all its years up until that point handling visual input, with no signals coming from the eyes at all, the brain reorganized itself to utilize the newly dormant areas for other functions - sort of like an industrious developer seizing some prime vacant piece of land and capitalizing on it.

This same amazing ability is the cause of phantom limb. People who have lost a limb experience a brain reorganization. The part of the brain that formerly received input from the missing limb is taken over by neighbors on the homunculus. Because the face and the hand are side by side, it has been documented that someone missing a hand actually learned where to scratch on their face to satisfy an itch on the missing hand.

Phantom pain has been shown to be caused in most cases by that being the last signal the brain received from the lost limb. In a confused loop, the brain processes this sensation endlessly. This phenomenon has miraculously been alleviated by utilizing neuroplasticity and tricking the brain and interrupting this cycle with mirrors which visually replace the lost limb and change the signals to the brain.

There is a catch to neuroplasticity. It only occurs when a person is paying attention and focusing on the input whether it be intentional or not. Hence with directed consciousness, a person has the ability to change their brain. Unfortunately, this is more often done unconsciously by most people.

The science of neuroplasticity is very new. It's limits are unknown. It opens up a world of possibilities. In a very personal sense, each individual has the power to change their life. On a broader scale, the same brains that now practice prejudice, hatred and warfare have the potential to be kinder, more compassionate and less aggressive. It can happen one brain at a time.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Alone.... but not lonely

For the past three years since my brain injury, for the first time ever in my life, I have been alone...completely alone. No kids. No man. Nada.

Pets don't count, do they? The number of cats has grown abnormally high over the years...six....and one dog. BTW - I think the "crazy, cat lady" has a certain charm.

After I tried to commit suicide, my ex-husband sued me for custody of the kids. He won, and then promptly moved out of state with them. It certainly was in the best interest of the kids at the time, and, while I do not think it was his intent at all, it was what was absolutely best for me too.

My boyfriend of three years had taken himself out of the picture rather unexpectedly for me at least. That was part of what prompted my suicide attempt. I was planning on a future with him whether he was with me or not. I had it all worked out nicely in my head.

So, here I was all alone. Even pretty seriously brain injured, my first instinct was to struggle against it and fill up the time and space with people, with TV, with emails to my kids...just general busy-ness. I slept a lot because my condition required it...I couldn't NOT sleep...but, also, because when I was asleep I did not have to think or feel or be alone. I considered getting a room mate.

I remember seeing the geese at the lake near my house. Ever noticed how geese always seem to be in pairs? Boy, I sure did, and I was jealous of them! It made me mad. I thought, "Why do they get to have a mate??...even if he does honk annoyingly as hell and poop green slime all over the place."

Over time, I grew to appreciate and even like my solitude. Being alone has been vital to my healing both physically and emotionally. I just barely had enough mental energy to exist and function at first. There were not enough reserves to worry about what others thought and to "perform," which I had perfected to the level of an art up until that point of my life.

I pretty much isolated myself and withdrew from everyone and everything. I could not be around people for any length of time. It mentally exhausted me. Still does somewhat. This gave me the opportunity to put my energy into myself. I had nothing else to do. Something I have never really done - ever. A man or the kids had always been at the top of the list. I was somewhere down near the bottom after the dog.

Being alone also forced me to grow up, finally, in my mid forties. About time, huh? I had to decide who I was without hiding behind the roles I played in life or by trying to be what I thought some man wanted me to be. All that was gone. So, I had to determine what was left and who I was then.

In her book "Why People Don't Heal and How They Can," Caroline Myss says that the fear of being alone lies at the core of many people's inability to heal. Not healing allows people to lean on others for assistance and play on their guilt to keep them around. There is a certain power over others in not healing.

Being alone has allowed me to heal, become self sufficient and learn to like my own company. You know what? I am pretty cool to be around! It has allowed me to eat whenever I feel like it, play my music as loud as I want, and walk around with zit cream on my face. However, I can't say that it has done much for my table manners.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Gimme a break!

"You deserve a break today...So, get up and get away to McDonald's." Remember that? I know you youngsters don't. I agree with the first part, but the second part, not so much. You do deserve a break. I deserve a break. We all deserve a break, dammit!

This practice has to first originate with ourselves, to ourselves. I used to be terrible at this. I was my own worst critic although I have had some pretty enthusiastic cheerleaders over the years from which I could always draw fresh material. I do take responsibility for willingly playing the starring role. However, my brain injury has taught me how to be kind and compassionate with myself and others.

At first, I tried very hard to not act brain injured. Didn't work. With barely understandable speech and poor mental functioning, this was an exhausting effort, and I did not fool anyone although I was not even cognizant enough to know it for a while. I soon found that I could not even begin to keep this up, and allowed myself to be brain injured. This was the beginning of the crumbling of the wall that I had hid behind all my life, and the beginning of being authentic with myself and those around me.

I had to be very forgiving of myself when I drove around the neighborhood beside mine in a panic for thirty minutes because I couldn't find my way home. I had to be kind to myself when I threw my credit card at the cashier at the grocery store because my fine motor skills were lacking. Along the way I have learned to be gentle with myself and even laugh. Imagine that.

Thank goodness, I don't make anywhere near the blunders I used to, but, just this past week, I had a brain blip. I am doing some intensive neurofeedback called Brain State...more on that later....amazing stuff. I did 2 sessions a day for a week. When I went for my afternoon appointment on Tuesday the door was locked and no one was there. I figured they had gone to lunch. I sat outside the door reading a book for 30 minutes until they called me on my cell, and said "Did you forget your afternoon appointment?" I had turned in a different entrance and was at the building across the parking lot. Oops! In my defense, all the buildings are cookie cutter identical.

In the past, something like this would have mortified me and ruined the rest of my day as I replayed it over and over in my head kicking myself and calling myself not so nice names each time. Now, I chalk it up not only to the brain injury but to also to just being human and shrug and let it go. I actually can keep myself very amused at times.

I have often wished I had a big bandage on my head because, even early on, I looked "normal." I like to think hip and street smart even. Indulge me here. A (stupid and rude) person actually asked someone with me one time "How much has she had to drink?" At the airport alone once, I beeped when going through the metal detector. I had no idea why or what to do. The guy had to rather disgustedly explain it, in detail, to me until I took off my belt and put it in the little tray.

These experiences and this learning process with myself has allowed me to extend the same kind of compassion to others. It is so true that we never know what challenges someone is facing by their outward appearance. You just never know. My initial reaction may still be somewhat judgmental and assuming, but then I have learned to step back and look at the same scene through a filter of kindness. It is amazing how the view drastically changes. It also makes me aware of the many presumptions I make about something when I really have no idea.

Try it! Give yourself and the others in your life a break today and not the kind with cheese. We see things not as they are. We see them as we are.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The heart of the matter

While the males in our population have long been accused of having a second brain in their pants, every one of us has a brain in our chest as well as in our head.

Thoreau said "The intellect is powerless to express thought without the aid of the heart." Science is proving more and more that our experience of the world is first perceived by our heart, which thinks about it, responds accordingly and sends information to the brain for further processing.

Around 65% of the cells in the heart are neural cells, clustered in ganglia and connected to the neural network of the body through axon-dendrites just like in the brain. The heart is a specialized brain hooked into the central nervous system making and releasing its own neurotransmitters and with its own memory.

The neurons in the heart store memories. This is why when Grandpa gets a heart transplant from Julio Vasquez, he starts liking salsa afterward when he couldn't stand it before.

Wild, huh? This stuff completely blew me away and is from Stephen Harrod Buhner's book The Secret Teachings of Plants: In the Direct Perception of Nature.

These neural cells in the heart have a direct connection to the brain and are constantly chattering back and forth with the brain and the two, together, decide how to respond to incoming information. Neurons in the brain alter their behavior in accordance with the signals embedded in each heartbeat and send it to the central nervous system to make physiological and behavioral changes almost instantly.

The heart's ability to perceive meaning from the world even has a name: aisthesis which literally means "to breath in." It is that moment when the life force of one living organism communicates with and moves into another one. We live in a world that is alive with awareness and intelligence. It is up to us to acknowledge and allow this intimate exchange kind of like the Navi in Avatar plugged their tails into something to connect with it.

Even though we are trained out of using our heart as organs of perception early on, the skill still exists and can be developed. Think of seeing the Grand Canyon or any postcard worthy scene. There is a real, palpable reaction in the body as the energy, the power of the thing is felt.

The brain is an organic computer processing data and acting as a clearing station for central nervous system functioning. Unlike the heart, the brain is linear and to use it as the primary organ of perception reduces life analytically to a mechanical process with little meaning.

Because of my brain injury, I was forced to rely heavily on the perception and intelligence of my heart. I have learned to trust it and listen to it. You know what? It is much wiser than my brain ever was. Using this type of intelligence and perception, I truly feel connected and just know the right direction for me at each turn. I used to be hopelessly disconnected, lost, and did not have a clue. I was always looking externally to others and things to give me the answers here.

There is a great power and wisdom in the world around us. The challenge is to notice it, develop it, and invite it to play a bigger role in our lives. To begin to use the heart as an organ of perception and communication allows us as a species to become, once again, a respectful, integral part of the web of life of Earth and allows us as individuals to begin to live more fulfilled and authentic lives. The problem is our heart intelligence is in kindergarten while our mind intelligence has already graduated.

Friday, March 26, 2010

In a daze...on purpose

When someone says the word meditation do you think of a granola head sitting cross legged on a pillow with their fingers held daintily just so making a weird noise? While meditation can be a spiritual practice, it is basically about learning to consciously alter and control the brain waves. Done with regularity, it actually physically changes your brain. It has been a large part of my recovery from a brain injury. I do it every day, and, OK, I do eat granola.

Everybody already does light meditation even if they don't know it. It occurs when you are doing any activity in which you become so engrossed that you loose sense of time and you aren't thinking about the bills or your to do list. Your attention is only on the task at hand while experiencing a sense of calm and a laser beam focus. This can occur while gardening, taking a walk in nature, writing or even cooking - anything. I have a friend who says he experiences this while riding his motorcycle. This is an alpha state in the brain. It is the most relaxed a person can be while remaining awake.

Deep meditation takes this further into that half asleep, half awake state where a person is aware of their surroundings, but they are not actively conscious of them or interacting. Although, there are moving meditations such as tai chi, yoga, and labyrinth walking. At this level, the brain produces theta waves which are the first stages of sleep.

While in theta, the happy chemical, serotonin, is released and blood pressure lowers. Brain scans of people who practice meditation show higher activity in the frontal lobes which are basically the the parts of the brain that make us human. There is also increased activity in the thalamus which helps different parts of the brain talk to one another and is very involved in the processing of sensory information. This happens even when not meditating. Meditation literally changes how the brain works.

There is no right or wrong way to meditate. To put a lot of pressure on yourself to meditate "the right way" kind of defeats the purpose. There are many different flavors of meditation - some vanilla versions and some down right strange, but basically, all practices involve three essentials: 1) Focus on something simple and non thought provoking like the breath or a single word or sound. 2) Consciously relax the body. 3) Exercise a passive awareness of the mind.

I started meditating in an effort to reduce the extreme anxiety shown in my brain waves on a qEEG. I have to admit, at first, I had no idea what I was really trying to do. I read books and listened to cd's. I have tried it with my eyes open staring into space and staring into a candle flame. (did not work for me at all!) I have developed my own method of meditating/visualizing with my eyes closed while music is playing, and I kind of hum.

I like to feel the vibration of the music so it has to be loud. Drums, chants, Celtic songs, classical music with the chords of a piano or violin. Are you following me here? I even have some where Monks sound sort of like they are being strangled under water, but the vibrations of it are remarkably peaceful and transcending if you can imagine. I also hum on the exhale because I can really feel it in my throat and nasal passages. I have a lingering speech impediment due to the brain injury, and I can feel this healing and working on and sending energy to those areas.

The third one, "exercising passive awareness of the mind," I find ridiculously hard, but therein is the most beneficial work. The goal here is to become detached from your thoughts and just observe them and not get all wrapped up in them. I have heard it described as noticing your thoughts like you would a passing cloud. Just say "Oh, lookie!" and let it go on by. When this happens, and, it most certainly will, just label it as "thinking," and return your focus back to your breath or your word or sound.

This building awareness of and detachment from your thoughts is the goal. It is this manner of being consciously aware of your thoughts which you are learning and why it is called a practice. I have been meditating for two years and still find myself thinking about the crud in the dog's ear and wonder with a chuckle "How in the hell did I get here?"

The concept and understanding that I am not my thoughts was huge for me. I used to think I was an absolutely horrible person because of some of the thoughts I had. Now, I still have shocking and not so nice and wacky thoughts - we all do if we are honest, but I am just amused by them and do not define myself by them. I choose which thoughts I buy into and act on and, in turn, allow to define me. It is a choice. You can't choose what you think, but you can choose which ones you put energy into. Choose wisely.