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.