Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sandra Blakeslee's articles

I've added a link to Sandra Blakeslee's articles in the list to the right of this blog. There are about a dozen among them that are about neuroscience in one way or another. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Power of NOT-Doing

I've been thinking quite a bit about yoga of all things, lately. It's been in the context of thinking about neuroplasticity in general, on the Neurotonics blog, but in the process I think I may have been practicing my own advice over these last few weeks, not so much a form of letting go, rather a deliberate taking of the reins of life (gently) from the hands of the person who ordinarily drives the cart that makes the ruts in my own brain; she is Working me, not Just-veging me. Just veging-me practices staying out of old ruts by creating new context.

In line with the tenets of neuroplasticity AND yoga, the steps I've discovered so far for navigating personal change are:

1. Recognize that something is trying to change.
(For me, this is usually a feeling of being weighed down and struggling. I really dislike that feeling and am sensitized to it, but others may have to actively learn to recognize it.)

2. Stop reinforcing old behavior by repeating it, make some temporal space for some new behavior, then wait for it to emerge on its own.
Stop making every day cart ruts even deeper than they already are. Just stop. See how it feels. (In my case, it always feels like a void, something neither good nor bad.)

3. Practice breathing slow and deep.
Conscious breathing can help one navigate/dispel any associated void-related anxiety. Be kind to the animal part of the brain. (Read the last paragraph here.) Give your brain a job to do, and accompany it while it does its job.

Maybe this seasonal retreat is my yoga-esque way of "practicing" the inevitability, the eventuality of retiring and adapting to lack of outside pressure. Maybe it's a version of Matthias' "metacognition".

Just-veging me actually has a Happy Retirement fantasy it loves to show Working-me: I picture having moved to a sunny place, a drier climate with more distinct seasons but still mild, lots of fruit growing in nearby fields and sold in stands along the road. I buy a little place to live, drenched with light pouring in from skylights and windows in all seasons. I paint all the walls a clean stark white color, white walls against brightness and green and azure blue from a nearby lake reflecting a deep blue sky framed by sage hills that are several other colors of blue.

I maintain a few comfortable/comforting pieces of furniture but tolerate Absolutely No Clutter. Instead I enjoy spaciousness, tidy bookshelves, a clear desk, and a distinct lack of dust smell. I still have a computer, but spend less time at it. I have clean wooden floors (make that cork or bamboo tile), and I spend a few hours every day lying upon one or another of them, feeling supported by its perfectly flat coolness, breathing, feeling my body, practicing moving it, enjoying how well it supports its own as well as my life. I take walks outside, around the clear blue lake that will be in the middle of town (no remote wilderness for me, thanks..).

In early mornings I paint pictures, large canvases full of riotous color that externalize the kaleidoscopic images my mind commonly comes up with to show me (raw neural function, I'm pretty sure). I don't know yet if these productions sell or just stack up in the garage (which is empty because I prefer to ride a bicycle, no longer care to own a car). I can't see that part. Probably it won't matter much either way by then - being ecstatically in every moment will.

In the evenings I watch wide screen hi-def TV.

Surfacing from SAD

I think I'm back up from the depths of my own brain now.

I'm still in metaphoric deep water; haven't quite gotten myself hauled up onto the metaphoric dock yet, but my emotional nose is at least above the waves, and it feels like oxygen is available/abundant and that I can breath in an ordinary way again. I feel like me again. Hurray for the light box. I look forward to the post-season burst of physical energy I enjoyed last year. It could hit any day now.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

SAD progress report

I'm muddling along pretty good here in the quiet, the dark. I'm reading "Kent's Life" today, enjoying it a lot. Someone my age. The gender and culture and trajectory and outcome are somewhat different, but he's from the same continent and has been alive as long as I have. Kent wrote to me about knee pain awhile ago, let me know he reads this blog. He left a comment on the last blogpost and some others.

By reading about the trajectory through which his life has hurtled itself, and with which he has grappled/is grappling, he no longer seems a complete stranger. I'm up to somewhere in Sept. '06, and just found this quote:
"Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. You've got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight." --Bruce Cockburn
Yup. That quote is just about perfect for this retreat of mine. Maybe for this age of ours. Thanks Bruce. Thanks Kent.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Rage Against the Dying of the Light": A Survival Plan for SAD

"Rage Against the Dying of the Light" is Dylan Thomas' famous poem for his dying father, of course, but it evokes something quite different in me, a survival battle of a different sort.

In his Mindblog, Deric Bownds wrote about seasonal affective disorder. (SAD; who came up with that clever but misleading acronym? I'd like a word ..)

Apparently as many as one in ten have this in more northerly latitudes... I certainly have it.

Let me tell you a bit about where I live, Vancouver BC; in December, it rains. Non-stop. For days and days and days on end. Now, this is coastal rainforest climate, and therefore rain sprinkles/drips/falls/pelts most of the time all year long; however, I find December non-stop rain especially emotionally invasive, accompanied as it is by other important factors such as:

1. Shortest days of the year in a latitude above the 49th parallel

2. No snow to reflect whatever feeble amount of skylight there might be even on days when there is a break in the rain. Nature's winter colors here are wet dark grey or wet dark green (take your pick). I've seen it so dark here that the street lights hardly take a break all day.

3. My birthday happens to fall between solstice and New Year. Happy Birthday to me.

4. It is generally regarded as the season to act jolly even if you don't feel it, for the sake of the troop.

My nervous system finds this combination of factors so stressful that if I don't "manage" my passage through this season, I could tip over into despair. Which I refuse to let happen. Instead, I walk straight into a social abyss, into social "dark", retreat to let my system work through its impasse, free of outside stress. I retain my right to feel inwardly sane and on even keel for whatever the next year might bring.

I've written about having this little affliction, once before, here. I've let go of jigsaw puzzles since then, however, in favor of sitting at the computer with a 10,000 lux sunlamp blazing for a few hours every morning from October on, drinking coffee. Therefore "November" has been less of a "problem" in the last few years; I've learned to confine the disorder to a shorter period, in December instead. Hurray for neurogenesis, neuroplasticity.

Someday I may alter the overall Survival Plan to include travel away to a sunny clime, but these years I find even that nice idea too daunting. Here's the current plan - I offer it freely to whoever wants to read it, this solstice day, 2007:


1. Sun lamp
2. Fireplace (real or fake, doesn't matter)
3. Computer, internet and online life, TV, access to DVD rental near by your house
4. Enough clean clothes and food, etc., to last a few weeks
5. Enough control over your life to take a sizable time out without financial damage to the rest of your year.
6. Ability to say "no thanks" to invitations from other people. They may never fully understand why you would rather be solitary, but after awhile they will simply stop asking you to be social against your own inclinations or natural preference.
7. No need to feel obliged to try to explain yourself.
8. A willingness to be alone, in your body and in your own life, completely off-clock, so everything can reset itself naturally, as best it can.

You've arranged your few weeks off work, one week on one side of winter solstice (today) and one week (and a bit) on the other side, having found there's no point in pushing yourself to go against your own inherent need to retreat. Do not feel bad for acting anti-social. Most of the year you are social enough. Do not apologize for doing something you need to do to retain your own capacity to steer your own mind through life. Unless you are a mom or dad with young children who need to be reassured by emotionally available contact and/or programmed with (or deprogrammed from) culturally appropriate activity, the on-going social impact of you not being part of any "scene" that involves other human primates will likely be vanishingly minimal. Let others do whatever they need to do, and take your right to do what you need to do, for you.

Congratulate yourself if you've planned ahead, if you've withdrawn naturally by stages, by graded exposure/graded withdrawal. One year, just stop sending greeting cards. See how that feels. If it feels ok, move on: next year, try stopping your attendance at all (meaningless to you) social outings. See how that feels. If it feels good, move on. The year after that, add (meaningless to you) gift-exchanging to the "things to let go of" list. The year after that, have a yard sale in the summer and, in addition to regular yardsale-type clutter, get rid of accumulated decorations, wrapping paper and fairy lights. You will feel "lighter" and more free, and the person who buys it all will feel lucky. Win win.

- This part is up to each individual.
- Make it up as you go along - you've already done all the hard work of creating a retreat space for yourself in which you can be free of others, off all clock & culture constraints.
- Reap all the benefits. Integrate them. This is recharge time. Plug yourself into yourself for a change.

This year I find I'm sleeping better, much much better. In bed by 10 and up at 6 or 7, usually without waking in the middle of the night, something I thought I'd have to forever more endure.

Last year at this time I was seized by a rare need to exercise, and spent three months being on a treadmill 30 minutes a day. This year, no such need has seized me yet, but the treadmill is here, just in case.

I'm finding this year (perhaps a result of the exercise last year?) that I can think more clearly, a bonus. I spend my time these days learning to give myself permission to think things through more carefully, slowly, from more different sides than usual, to forgive myself for feeling slow and thick and vulnerable and starkly mortal, to let things mull themselves around however long they need to. I want my mental compost to be rich and fertile, sufficient to get me through another year.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Ramachandran on the Topic of Conciousness

I surfed upon this video (about 54 minutes long) featuring a talk given by V.S. Ramachandran May 2006, on his favorite topics; phantom limb pain, synesthesia, mirror neurons/autism. It was Lecture 6 of 12 of IBM Research's Almaden Institute Conference on Cognitive Computing. The link has a link that can take you to the power point presentation given.

A Reprint of Alf Breig's book on Neural Biomechanics: Thank you Michael Shacklock!

If you would like to see what was in the book that helped ignite the neurodynamics revolution in manual therapy, pay Michael Shacklock's site a visit, and order the reissued book, just published. Why this book went out of print so quickly is a mystery, but that it did was a sad and frustrating fact of life, until Michael got busy and facilitated its reissue himself. Legions of current and future grateful manual therapists will remember you for this Michael..

I've ordered my own copy (the pay system is fairly straightforward, secure etc.). I expect the book to be everything I've ever imagined.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rhythms of the Brain: Part IV: Conference on Brain Network Dynamics 2007 video

I want to put a link here, to a video of Buzsáki's contribution to this conference that took place almost a year ago.

I'm watching it right now, for the second time, trying to follow along. We are asked to hear neurons (live cell assemblies) in a rat's brain (in its hippocampus) firing as it runs around.

An excerpt from the abstract:
"The lifetime of oscillating assemblies is internally regulated and can be accelerated by the locomotion speed of the rat and possible other gain factors. The internally generated assemblies can give rise to a perpetually changing composition of assembly membership even in the absence of environmental or idiothetic inputs. We hypothesize that the mechanisms underlying the intrinsically shifting assembly sequences is the substrate of episodic memory."

Welcome to the blog world Nick!

Nick Matheson PT, a regular on SomaSimple, has started his own blog, Strengthen Your Health. Nick is a careful thinker, a bit of a rebel, and a good, good writer. Mark his site and check it frequently.

Our pain science PT blog community is growing...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Rhythms of the Brain: Part III: Ideomotion?

By happy circumstance I found a good chunk of Buzsáki's book online this morning, which makes it easier for me to point the reader to the appropriate section which is p.18-22. Note the picture on p. 20 of the book. It depicts a time line measured in decades, between 1930 and 2000, and the various hypotheses of the behavioral correlates (kinds of movement or observable output) of hippocampal theta oscillations as they arose. To the right and left of the time line are photos of his two mentors, each of whom had their favored hypothesis based on impeccable reasoning and found themselves in seemingly opposing camps.

There is also "Oscillatory Heritage of the Grastyán School", which can be accessed by clicking on the instruction "open entire document", (in which the same picture appears on p. 136). and "Theta Rhythm of Navigation: Link Between Path Integration and Landmark Navigation, Episodic and Semantic Memory".

This material provides enticing clues about relationships among memory, movement, and theta oscillation. They are connected somehow, but apparently no one has been able to say exactly how, in 7 decades. One gets the impression that Buzsáki has spent his whole life trying to reconcile these two views into a third, sublating view.

1. The predominant theory linking the hippocampus and its theta oscillations to movement comes from Cornelius Vanderwolf, who was an advisor of Buzsáki's:

"theta occurs only during intentional or voluntary movement, as opposed to immobility and “involuntary”, i.e., stereotypic activity"

2. Buzsáki himself leans toward his original mentor, Endre Grastyán's idea:
theta is "orienting reflex, searching for stimulus with significance to subject"

From the first paper p. 135, and of interest to me because physical therapy is about restoration of functional movement, is this quote:

"Despite seven decades of hard work on rabbits, rats, mice, gerbils, guinea pigs, sheep, cats, dogs, old world monkeys, chimpanzees and humans by outstanding colleagues, to date, there is no widely agreed term that would unequivocally describe behavioral correlate(s) of this prominent brain rhythm. By exclusion, the only firm message that can be safely concluded from this brief summary is that in an immobile animal no theta is present, provided that no changes occur in the environment, and the animal is not “thinking”....
Processing environmental inputs requires “attention”, and so does intentional movement. With the introduction of the term “voluntary”, theta oscillation research unintentionally entered the territory of “intentionality,” a label that refers to the “substance” of all subjective mental activity (Dennett, 1987). Thus, an inescapable deduction from the behavior-brain correlation approach is that the “will” plays a critical role in theta generation. An alternative, and perhaps more sober, conclusion is that our behavioral-cognitive terms are simply working hypothetical constructs that do not necessarily correspond to any given brain mechanism."

My bold.

I confess not knowing the scientific background of either of these august hypotheses or what led to their two solitudes, but I did note that missing entirely from the debate (as near as I can tell), and certainly from the picture, has been any recognition of something called ideomotion, defined medically as
"Muscular movement executed under the influence of a dominant idea, being practically automatic and not volitional."


to discuss Ideomotion

That "not volitional" part could be important, because if, as Vanderwolf says, theta oscillation is present in only "voluntary movement", then presumably it would be absent in ideomotion according to the definition of ideomotion. However, in ideomotion, movement is occurring, although no "thought" in terms of conscious motor command or inhibition is directly involved.

Then there is this: immobilized animals do not produce any theta oscillation ("in an immobile animal no theta is present, provided that no changes occur in the environment, and the animal is not “thinking”"). Certainly in ideomotion movement occurs, but it's hard to say if "thinking" does... Certainly people who explore this movement are wide awake and perceiving, but their bodies are moving them, it is not they who are moving their bodies: yet they can interrupt the ideomotion if they choose. Is "perceiving" usually considered as "thinking"? What about the zen states of alert no-thought?

What about the proviso contained in this sentence:
"By exclusion, the only firm message that can be safely concluded from this brief summary is that in an immobile animal no theta is present, provided that
- no changes occur in the environment, and
- the animal is not “thinking

... what exactly does "thinking" mean? Attending? Being brought out of a reverie by an exteroceptive (environmental) distraction?

What if there actually existed a type of "no-thinking" "movement"? Would theta oscillation be present then I wonder? I'd love to know some day.

If ideomotion were entirely volitional, it wouldn't likely have become an adjective modifying a noun, "effect" as in "ideomotor effect". There would be no such "effect" if all the parts of the brain were simultaneously aware of the movement, and if the movement were being generated by conscious parts of the brain rather than non-conscious parts or at least slightly less conscious parts.

For more about all of this, see the essay by Barrett Dorko, called Without Volition. He has learned how to teach this form of movement, which seems contradictory at first - how can one consciously learn to produce movement that is non-conscious? Dorko says, it's already in there, in everyone. This is consistent with neuroscience, embryology, evolution, etc. - all of which say movement precedes sensation. A study has been conducted and others are being conducted to test the effectiveness of this approach on pain perception.

No learning is involved, just un-learning - of conscious inhibition of this deeper kind of "organism" movement.

The main "ideas" delivered to those wishing to experience ideomotion are:

a) It exists
b) It is possible to stop inhibiting this movement. Inhibition, after all, requires muscular contraction and can therefore be a waste of energy, or can create nociceptive irritation, may have become unconscious (as opposed to nonconscious).
c) One simply chooses to "go inside" and wait for a brief period of time for it to emerge,
d) One sits with eyes closed and waits for a few seconds. It starts up, all by itself (well, usually gravity helps a little), then one allows it to proceed without interference.

It emerges as though one never didn't know how it was "done". Slightly differently for each individual. Unique like a fingerprint, a movement output "signature". Also like fingerprints, different for each person but with recognizable characteristics in common, certain qualities that distinguish ideomotion from other kinds of movement.

Usually eyes are closed (they also tend to roll up) which seems to help focus to be retained within. The immediate first person experience of this form of movement is effortlessness, ease, surprise (usually pleasant), softening, and a feeling of spreading warmth. Dorko calls these "characteristics of correction", a throwback perhaps to his manual therapist past. Perhaps they should be thought of as characteristics of self-correction.

From the "observer" point of view, the movement looks eerie and beautiful at once, rather sea-creature-esque, long slow loops and circular patterns that come from the main vertical axis of the body. But don't "have" to..

What I like from the therapist perspective is that no physical effort is required from me, either, just light contact for the first few seconds, to help the patient orientate to something exteroceptive, however mild, for reassurance mostly. Simultaneously they are asked to go "inside" themselves; for many, it will be their first time consciously dropping their own conscious control of motor output in the presence of another.

So what role am I playing? Someone who goes deepwater-diving for the very first time will experience unfamiliarity, arousal, some anxiety, a need to have contact with someone who will stay on the vessel and handle the oxygen hoses, provide a tug line through which the diver can signal any problem they may be having. The all-important trust factor must be present. With any "first experience", human primates usually require accompaniment from someone else who's "been there" before and can reassure. My role is the same as ever, to construct and maintain a treatment "crucible" in which the patient can change him or herself.

Next to no technical expertise is actually involved. The movement is natural, easy to experience (because it's there anyway, all along), more preferable to feel than tension, and can rapidly become a familiar and reliable way to drop tension and discomfort - just by letting it happen. The sense of this is, "Ah yes, this is how my body really moves, once I let it.""Ah yes, this feels like "me"." "How nice to finally feel what my physicality and moving really feel like."

Back to Buzsáki and theta oscillation

The Grastyán definition of theta oscillation and the movement associated with it, sounds like it could be ideomotor movement:

What if the "orienting reflex, searching for stimulus with significance to subject" consisted of a nervous system or portion thereof, suddenly deprived of and looking for its own familiar input, i.e., conscious command of voluntary movement?

What if this 'inputter' part of the brain had an heretofore unused ability to stop issuing commands, withhold them, and take itself off line for awhile? Stop inhibiting? Inhibit itself instead?

What sort of "movement" might be in there, completely capable of inhabiting and operating, by itself, the macroscopic motor system? Unencumbered by human wishes, wants, and dictates? Ordinary internal chatter?

All that is apparent is that in that long list of types of movements on page 136 of the "Oscillatory Heritage of the Grastyán School" article, and page 20 of the book, ideomotion is notably absent. William James thought about and discussed it at one time (along with nearly everything else in existence in his day it would seem), and it was first defined by William Carpenter in 1852. It's been around for quite awhile. Maybe it was assumed to be one of those "behavioral-cognitive terms" that "are simply working hypothetical constructs that do not necessarily correspond to any given brain mechanism." Maybe it was simply overlooked, or missed completely, too obscure, too bogged down by the strange Victorian company it kept in its early days. To be fair, it never exactly achieved household familiarity.

Perhaps however, someday someone will have a look sometime to see if the movement known and defined as "ideomotion", might or might not have something to do with orienting behavior, memory, theta oscillation, non-voluntary movement.. all those tantalizing bits about which there has been disagreement, for over 7 decades of hippocampus research. Maybe someday, someone who knows how, will be able to untangle the "concept" of ideomotion from its "mechanism" (two different things as discussed in Part II), differentiate substrate from that which operates upon said substrate (.. maybe just some other substrate.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Rythms of the Brain": Part II

Way back in September I talked about "Rhythms of the Brain" by György Buzsáki, a book of great scope ostensibly about just three questions, according to the author on p. 5:
1. how are EEG patterns generated,
2. why are they oscillatory, and
3. what is their content?

I can assure you the book is about a great deal more than just some pat answers to these three questions, because to even begin to answer them, Buzsáki ranges far and wide, and brings back mountains of info to share.

As I looked the intro over again, I found this on page 17:
Hippocrates's view of the brain was that from it arose all "pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears." A century or so later, Aristotle asserted that the heart housed the soul and ran nervous functions, and the brain was "an organ of minor importance, perhaps necessary to cool the blood."

Buzsáki says, "Aristotle's linear causation managed to suppress the correct view for more than a millennium. His revisions were based on several deductive arguments" ... such as the heart is affected by emotion, all animals have one, it is warm, it is essential to life, it's in the middle of the body and well-protected, etc.

Buzsáki asks,
"How can we argue against overwhelming intuitive "evidence," such as the "logical" examples cited above? Surely facts are needed but facts are always interpreted in context... similar skepticism can be expressed within the framework of dynamic complex systems. What does it mean to conjecture that the brain is a pattern-forming, self-organized, non-equilibrium system governed by nonlinear dynamic laws, and how should we prove or disprove this?"
He goes on to say that many have tried, that it is not easy, and that it's important to distinguish between concepts and mechanisms. In an accompanying footnote he says,
"Concepts are substrate independent, whereas particular mechanisms always depend on some kind of substrate. Although concepts borrowed from other disciplines can assist in addressing a problem or gaining a new insight, understanding mechanisms always requires experiments on the relevant substrate (the brain, in our case). Concepts can be developed by introspection, but their validity can be confirmed or rejected only by confronting them with mechanisms. A general problem in neuroscience is that the same terms are often used interchangeably as concepts or mechanisms (e.g.., inhibition of memory as a concept and inhibition as a mechanism)."

This began to tie in with the thinking along I've been doing with Tree of Knowledge. In the next section titled "Scientific Vocabulary and the Direction of Logic", he talks about how language and meanings get squeezed, like living things almost, over into meanings not originally intended by the speaker. He asks,
"Are our top-down concepts, such as thinking, consciousness, motivation, emotions, and similar terms, "real," and therefore can they be mapped onto corresponding brain mechanisms with similar boundaries as in our language? Alternatively, do brain mechanisms generate relationships and qualities different from these terms, which could be described properly only with new words whose meanings have yet to be determined? Only the latter approach can address the issue of whether the existing concepts are just introspective inventions of philosophers and psychologists without any expected ties with brain mechanisms. I believe that the issue of discovery versus invention is important enough to merit illustration with a piece of neuroscience history."

More to come about this.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Virtual Back Pain Study Idea

In the Neurotonics blog I wrote up a post about virtual body experiments, and while doing so had a thought on how one might develop a study about back pain using the strategy of virtual movement illusion.

In that the back, unlike other areas of the body,
a) can't be "seen" as easily in a mirror or any other way
b) does not occupy much "cortical real estate" kinesthetically would definitely need kinesthetic input.

1. First the virtual body illusion would need to be firmly established. The researchers, Henrik Ehrsson in Sweden and Lenggenhager/Blanke in Switzerland have already figured out how to do that with their cameras and kinesthetic input (stroking the back with a pen, etc.). Apparently the brain finds this ridiculously easy to "believe".

2. It shouldn't require mirrors or camera projections of the "real" back, just a projected image as per Moseley with his paraplegics (see Matthias' blog post about that). Probably any "back" would do. Maybe fitted to the patient's size and shape and color of clothing. Just a film of a generic look-alike back might do, projected ahead of the patient's eyes.

3. Then the back in the movie (the "virtual" back that the patient's brain now feels it belongs to) would bend, lift its legs up alternately, rotate, extend, sidebend, whatever.. move easily.

4. The brain should be able to overcome its pain output to the physical back, because it can "see" the back it "thinks" it is embodied into (i.e., the back in the film), moving easily.

I think this might be a really really interesting study. Moseley, please consider doing something like this. Or Ehrsson. Or Lenggenhager/Blanke.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge" : Part V "On the Razor's Edge"

The authors want there to be no mistake about what they intend to convey about the observer role. They provide an analogy:
Imagine a person who has always lived in a submarine. He has never left it and has been trained how to handle it. Now, we are standing on the shore and see the submarine gracefully surfacing. We then get on the radio and tell the navigator inside: "Congratulations! You avoided the reefs and surfaced beautifully. You really know how to handle a submarine." The navigator in the submarine, however, is perplexed: "What's this about reefs and surfacing? All I did was push some levers and turn knobs and make certain relationships between indicators as I operated the levers and knobs. It was all done in a prescribed sequence which I'm used to. I didn't do any special maneuver, and on top of that, you talk to me about a submarine. You must be kidding!"

All that exist for the man inside the submarine are indicator readings, their transitions, and ways of obtaining specific relations between them. It is only for us on the outside, who see how relations change between the submarine and its environment, that the submarine's behavior exists and that it appears more or less adequate according to the circumstances involved. If we are to maintain logical accounting, we must not confuse the operation of the submarine itself and its dynamics of different states, with its movements and changing positions in the environment. The dynamics of the submarine's different states, with its navigator who does not know the outside world, never occurs in an operation with representations of the world that the outside observer sees: it involves neither "beaches" nor "reefs" nor "surface" but only correlations between indicators within certain limits. Entities such as beaches, reefs, or surface are valid only for an outside observer, not for the submarine or for the navigator who functions as a component of it.

What is valid for the submarine in this analogy is valid also for all living systems: (...) for each one of us human beings.
My bold.
This is second nature for physiotherapists, and others who work with human function, like sport coaches, trainers, etc. We are steeped in observation and evaluation of movement in a context. We can communicate with the person performing the movement, behavior, function we are observing, but we can never quite share their inner world, or see things quite the same way they do, or have quite the same feelings at quite the same time. And we cannot literally feel someone else's pain. We can only infer how they feel based on how their movement, behavior, their description.

If we treat pain, we cannot be so presumptuous as to think we have very much at all to do with its resolution. Instead, the patient will draw from their encounter with us what they need for self-resolution of their own pain. Let me be clear: they will take from the encounter only what they need. Whatever that might be. All one can do is offer up what one knows, and be willing to handle someone's skin and body parts in a boundaried, caring manner, learn to sense change that goes on inside that "submarine". Learn to sense when response has slowed, and it's time to move on, change position, change grip, change part, change vector..

Most of this "learning" to sense how and when, is in one's own "submarine". There is no way to really abstract it, test it, subject it to algorithms, define it precisely, dose it. It's a relationship - it's a bodily relationship more than it's a social relationship - yes, it has therapeutic value, but it is more in the realm of two nervous systems communicating than it is two people. It is as ephemeral and non-verbal and in the moment as pain itself is. And that big neuroplastic adaptive continually changing entity known as the patient's nervous system, will learn something from this encounter; if we are careful to set up the encounter right, it will move itself in a direction that is favorable.

Patrick Wall stated that he viewed pain as a "need" state that required a "consummatory movement" to quench it. The movement has to come from the patient. In order to create, to produce that required movement, their brain, their nervous system needs to find the right moment while assessing and adopting (learning from, neuroplasticizing around) the right sort of "input". This takes time. It can be provision of a movement illusion, as from mirror therapy, or it can be provision of a kinesthetic illusion, as in manual treatment of that midline zone without a great deal of sensory-motor mapping that we call the "back", for example. If someone can see an illusion of their painful body part moving freely in a mirror, great. The back is a bit harder to set up mirror therapy for, but some day someone might rig something up. Until that day I think manual therapy will never go extinct. There will always be people around needing physical contact from another nervous system in order to find that elusive mix required to create THE movement that can resolve their distress, and it seems to me there will always be some chunk of the population willing to become the next generation of human primate social groomer, capable of supplying boundaried human contact backed by some degree of understanding, be it conceptual or kinesthetic or both.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge" : Part IV "On the Razors Edge"

Maturana and Varela go on to explain the two conceptual, perceptual traps in a bit more detail.
"...on the one hand there is the trap of assuming that the nervous system operates with representations of the world. And it is a trap, because it blinds us to the possibility of realizing how the nervous system functions from moment to moment as a definite system with operational closure. We shall see this in the next chapter."
Maybe for the purposes of this blog we could call this idea, Representational-ism. As long as we know what it is, and how to use it properly, it is ok to use it as a conceptual tool. What is important is to avoid being "trapped" by it, or by any other singular way of viewing something as immensely complex as an organic nervous system/brain that has co-evolved within a complex living organism as part of its functional integrity.

"On the other hand, there is the other trap: denying the surrounding environment on the assumption that the nervous system functions completely in a vacuum, where everything is valid and everything is possible. This is the other extreme: absolute cognitive solitude or solipsism, the classic philosophical tradition which held that only one's interior life exists. And it is a trap because it does not allow us to explain how there is a due proportion or commensurability between the operation of the organism and its world."

The authors say,
"..these two extremes or traps have existed from the very first attempts to understand cognition, even in its most classical roots. Today, the representational extreme prevails; at other times the opposing view prevailed.

We wish to propose now a way to cut this apparent Gordian knot and find a natural way to avoid the two abysses of the razor's edge. By now the attentive reader has surmised what we are going to say because it is contained in what we said before. The solution is to maintain a clear logical accounting. It means never losing sight of what we stated at the beginning: everything said is said by someone. The solution, like all solutions to apparent contradictions, lies in moving away from the opposition and changing the nature of the question, to embrace a broader context."

Hegelian sublation, in other words...?
Here is what they propose:

The situation is actually simple. As observers we can see a unity in different domains, depending on the distinctions we make. Thus, on the one hand, we can consider a system in that domain where its components operate, in the domain of its internal states and its structural changes. Thus considered, for the internal dynamics of the system, the environment does not exist; it is irrelevant. On the other hand, we can consider a unity that also interacts with its environment and describes its history of interactions with it. From this perspective in which the observer can establish relations between certain features of the environment and the behavior of the unity, the internal dynamics of that unity are irrelevant.

Neither of these two possible descriptions is a problem per se: both are necessary to complete our understanding of a unity. It is the observer who correlates them from his outside perspective. It is he who recognizes that the structure of the system determines its interactions by specifying which configurations of the environment can trigger structural changes in it. It is he who recognizes that the environment does not specify or direct the structural changes of a system. The problem begins when we unknowingly go from one realm to the other and demand that the correspondences we establish between them (because we see these two realms simultaneously) be in fact a part of the operation of the unity - in this case, the organism and nervous system. If we are able to keep our logical accounting in order, this complication vanishes; we become aware of these two perspectives and relate them in a broader realm that we establish. In this way we do not need to fall back on representations or deny that the system operates in an environment that is familiar owing to its history of structural coupling.
My bolds.

So, what does that mean for someone like me, a human primate social groomer who deals with people in pain? Well, it means, at the very least that there will be a "solipsism" in the room in the form of the patient's subjective response to being in pain. Very few people can actively disengage from pain - it has this way of demanding the center stage of awareness. It means being aware of this and letting it exist, while simultaneously being an "observer" of the "organism" or unity that claims to be suffering pain, not allowing one's own mirror neurons too much control over one's thinking or behavior. Throwing a blanket over those mirrors. Staying cool but not cold.

It also means competently juggling at least five perspectives, as mentioned before.

In the end, whatever constitutes "help" will lie strictly within whatever the patient's nervous system is able to take from the relationship and make some new pattern out of. All I have to do, conceptually, is understand as much as I can about the problem (keep studying), be willing to offer this understanding as a possible new perception (to help move the process along, be a conversational and relational lubricant), be well-attached to my role as more of an observer than "hero" or "rescuer", then sit back, wait for the INTRA-relationships, those inside the patient, to sort themselves out. Be an effective mirror to the patient. Verbal and kinesthetic. Even use real mirrors on occasion. Keep the process moving AND not going off any rails.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Announcing Neurotonics

Matthias, the Neurotopian, and I have begun a new team blog called Neurotonics, to which we will invite other authors. The topics will vary but will all have as their common theme a scientific discourse on the nervous system and what that means to our work.

I picture it turning into a lovely long rambling conversation that will last for years.

Meanwhile, we will each keep up our own blogs, thinking out loud and talking to whoever cares to listen. :)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge" : Part III "On the Razor's Edge"

When trying to understand how we think, the authors say:
"..our first tendency to describe what happens in each case centers, in one way or another, on the use of some form of the metaphor of "getting information" from the environment represented "within"."

But, they point out, there is no one home in there. There is no "little man" inside the brain, operating visual mechanisms to see the outer world on a representational "screen" inside the brain. If there were, who runs the "little man's" "brain"? Another "little man" inside his brain?

The authors have already, for the first 128 pages, explained that life forms itself, that organisms as small as single cells, no nervous system whatsoever, still manage to conduct themselves and all the processes that are inherent to life - seeking food, avoiding predation, metabolizing, growing, reproducing, etc.

"Our course of reasoning (...) has made it clear that to use this type of metaphor ( i.e., the "little man" in the brain idea) contradicts everything we know about living things. We are faced with a formidable snag because it seems that the only alternative to a view of the nervous system as operating with representations is to deny the surrounding reality. Indeed, if the nervous system does not operate - and cannot operate - with a representation of the surrounding world, what brings about the extraordinary functional effectiveness of man and animal and their enormous capacity to learn and manipulate the world? If we deny the objectivity of a knowable world, are we not in the chaos of total arbitrariness because everything is possible?

This is like walking on the razor's edge. On one side there is a trap: the impossibility of understanding cognitive phenomena if we assume a world of objects that informs us because there is no mechanism that makes that "information" possible. On the other side, there is another trap: the chaos and arbitrariness of nonobjectivity, where everything seems possible. We must learn to take the middle road, right on the razor's edge."
My bracketed comment. My bold.
At this point the authors direct the reader to a figure showing a version of the sailing of a ship between the sea monster and the whirlpool, the Scylla monster of representation and the Charybdis whirlpool of overly rigid solipsism.

They are suggesting that the Razor's Edge is a Third Way.

So, what is a "third way"? Dorko's essay is good doorway into what a "third way" means for a therapist. A visual idea that can help us understand how to travel or think a third way, on a razor's edge, is to contemplate a mobius strip:
"If you put an ant somewhere in the middle of the strip and get it to start walking in a line parallel to the edge, then after travelling a distance that is twice the length of the paper, it will arrive back at its starting point — without ever crossing the edge of the strip!"

What if we had that hypothetical ant walk on the edge of the mobius strip? It would be able to walk between the sea monster on one side and the whirlpool on the other.

I got this mobius-strip idea from Ramachandran. In his book, A Brief Tour of Consciousness, he says,
My own philosophical position about consciousness accords with the view proposed by the first Reith lecturer, Bertrand Russel, that there is no separate "mind stuff" and "physical stuff" in the universe: the two are one and the same. (The formal term for this is neutral monism.) Perhaps mind and matter are like the two sides of a Mobius strip that appear different but are in fact the same.

Friday, December 07, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge": Part II "The Razor's Edge"

The book is subtitled, The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. It was first published in 1987, an afterword by Varela was added in 1992, and the copy I'm holding was revised and published in English 1998.

I began to find the book riveting about page 129, when I got to this section:
"On the Razor's Edge
The most popular and current view of the nervous system considers it an instrument whereby the organism gets information from the environment which it then uses to build a representation of the world that it uses to compute behavior adequate for its survival in the world. This view requires that the environment imprint in the nervous system the characteristics proper to it and that the nervous system use them to generate behavior, much the same as we use a map to plot a route.

We know, however, that the nervous system as part of an organism operates with structural determination. Therefore, the structure of the environment cannot specify its changes, but can only trigger them."
Second bold mine.

There is no "little man" (or woman) inside the brain, running things from within. The whole thing runs itself, responds to and adapts itself to various external stimuli. If we want what we observe to make any sense, the "we" who we observers think we are, must each consider ourselves as only a "construct" of the nervous system within the organism that we actually are.

We as observers have access both to the nervous system and to the structure of its environment. We can thus describe the behavior of an organism as though it arose from the operation of its nervous system with representations of the environment or as an expression of some goal-oriented process. These descriptions, however, do not reflect the operation of the nervous system itself. They are good only for the purpose of communication among ourselves as observers. They are inadequate for a scientific explanation.
My bold.

It's good mental exercise to hold two or more ideas aloft at once, like juggling several balls; one's physicality as an organism, one's environment, one's nervous system, one's personal vantage point as a perceiver, one's social identity as an observer talking to other observers. That is at least 5 right there, more if you consider the nervous system as not monolithic but rather comprised of many levels of integrated function inherited from all "life" from simple sea creatures down through time, each level perhaps capable of "perceiving" a perturbation in its own way, and responding from its own "perspective", the ultimate unifying integration completely hidden from any outside observer.

Now consider and add to that the innocent expectation people have of you if you are their physiotherapist.
Think about it.
I, as a therapist, cannot "specify" changes in any patient. I have no power over someone else's nervous system. I cannot with any degree of legitimate or ethical or scientific certainty, say to someone, I will do x,y,z, and you are guaranteed to improve. No one can say this to anyone and still be honest. In general, maybe. Specifically, to any individual, no. You buy a treatment slot and you take your chances.

If you are a patient, you are juggling the same five ideas as I am, whether you know you are or not. I simply become part of your environment, from your nervous system's point of view. You have to do your own observing and perceiving, and your own nervous system will do its own observing, perceiving, adapting and stabilizing, in response to "changes" that I can help "trigger", in the combined "you", the organism or unity that you are.

More to come.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge" Part I : Intro

I am starting a new series of posts bringing forward some of the book, Tree of Knowledge, by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. They came up with a new term in biology, autopoiesis, in the 1970s. A short introduction to the authors is in order, starting with Varela.

In the comprehensive site about Varela's life and work appears this quote:
"Unless we accept that at this point in intellectual and scientific history that some radical re-learning is necessary, we cannot hope to move forward in the compulsive history of the ambivalent rejection-fascination with consciousness in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. My proposal implies that every good student of cognitive science who is also interested in issues at the level of mental experience, must inescapably attain a level of mastery in phenomenological examination in order to work seriously with first-person accounts. But this can only happen when the entire community adjusts itself to the corresponding acceptance of arguments, refereeing standards and editorial policies in major scientific journals, that can make this added competence an important dimension of a young researcher. To the long-standing tradition of objectivist science this sounds like anathema, and it is. But this is not a betrayal of science: it is a necessary extension and complement. Science and experience constrain and modify each other as in a dance. This is where the potential for transformation lies. It is also the key for the difficulties this position has found within the scientific community. It requires us to leave behind a certain image of how science is done, and to question a style of training in science which is part of the very fabric of our cultural identity."
Francisco Varela, Neurophenomenology : A methodological remedy for the hard problem, Journal of Consciousness Studies, "Special Issues on the Hard Problems", J.Shear (Ed.), June 1996.

As part of this vision Varela helped organize a series of nine meetings between scientists and Buddhist leaders including the Dalai Lama.

Maturana is an advocate of something called radical constructivism having contributed concepts supporting a Biology of Cognition. From Maturana:
"The Biology of Cognition is an explanatory proposition that attemps to show how human cognitive processes arise from the operation of human beings as living systems. As much, The Biology of Cognition entails reflexions oriented to understand living systems, their evolutionary history, language as a biological phenomenon, the nature of explanations, and the origin of humaness. As a reflection on how we do what we do as observers it is a study in the epistemology of knowledge. But, and at the same time as a reflection on how we exist in language as languaging beings, it is a study on human relations".

(I can almost hear his Chilean accent in this quote thanks to the spelling.)

I admit I don't understand even half of what he and Varela are trying to say or how, but I do get:
a) they are talking about life from single cell life on up, pointing out how life organizes itself

b) they are leaving out supernatural agency (of which I wholeheartedly approve)

c) they lean toward phenomenology, or first person "knowing", with which I am all too familiar.

Tree of Knowledge is a careful argument for how to think about the nervous system, perception and cognition. They begin to discuss the physical nervous system about half way through, which is where I'll pick up next time.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mirror therapy for central pain in paraplegics

Please check out Neurotopian's latest blog post.

What a gorgeous idea this is. Thank you Neurotopian. Your smashingly good idea (and of course Dr. Moseley's test, and future clinical trials on every continent) could go a long way to save future generations of paraplegics from a great deal of pain.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pain as aporia

One of my favorite article writers on pain, Dr. John Quintner, has a site, . He is one of the pain world's foremost deconstructionists. I admire his ability to cut through all sorts of erroneous nonsense about what pain is and isn't. I like that he prefers to regard peripheral pain as pain from nerves themselves, not from mesoderm of one sort or another, admirable especially in that he is a rheumatologist and one would expect, be all about "joint pain".

Anyway, if you read his webpage you'll discover that down near the end he states that pain is an "aporia". I became fascinated by the concept and spent a bit of time looking up what is meant by the term.

Here are some useful links to "Aporia":
1. Wikipedia
2. Literary encyclopedia
3. Postmodern terms
4. Grammar and Composition

The gist of "aporia" seems to mean, a way that is blocked; "poria" must be the "way" and "a"-poria, the blockage of that way. Note that there is a subtext here, of movement, frustrated in its expression.

I did my own little deconstruction, working backwards from the wikipedia definition, following a few of the links. I know beans about philosophical discourse, but here's what I think I found out. First, I clicked on the word "elenctic", attracted by the novelty of a word I'd never before seen in my life. It went to a page about some long-dead guy I'd never heard of, Elenchus. From there I looked up "dialectic", which seemed interesting, a word I had heard in poly-sci circles long ago..

There it was. Sublation. A way to get around, over, through, out of the "a" part of "poria", past the impasse. Go Hegel:
"Sublation is an English term used to translate Hegel's German term Aufhebung. The German word Aufhebung literally means "out/up-lifting."

But what does any of this have to do with pain, an astute reader might wonder?
Everything, I would answer. Consider this.
"...the term Aufhebung has the apparently contradictory implications of both preserving and changing (the German verb aufheben means both "to cancel" and "to keep"). The tension between these senses suits what Hegel is trying to talk about. In sublation, a term or concept is both preserved and changed through its dialectical interplay with another term or concept. Sublation is the motor by which the dialectic functions."

Just as continuing dialogue helps to move a conflict past its flash point, or an argument towards resolution, so does having a kinesthetic "conversation" - an inner dialogue, help a person in pain's brain move past pain. It is at least a three way conversation. The therapist supplies a small amount of kinesthetic input to help the patient's brain settle and focus. Most of the dialogue however, is completely internal, between the patient and the various levels of his or her own nervous system. Eventually the impasse is surmounted, sublated, and pain resolves. Or doesn't. Usually it will, but sometimes it doesn't.. so, no guarantees can be be ethically made....

Neurotopian, would you concur? You are both German and a nervous system treater. Did I get the meaning of "aufhebung" correctly translated into Kinesth-ese?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Mirror therapy

It looks like the effectiveness of mirror therapy for phantom limb pain has been independently verified yet again.

Kent has sent a link to a video featuring Ramachandran.
He says, "This is a link to a TED talk by V.S. RAMACHANDRAN. In the middle of the half hour talk he describes stumbling on the mirror box as a means for dealing with phantom limb. It is a very engaging video. Thought you and your readers might be interested."

Thanks Kent. Thumbs-up.

Everything Oscillates

.... even the genome apparently. Scientists at Vanderbilt University have noticed that chromosomes contract in daylight and loosen their coils at night. Just a really interesting factoid - nothing to do with the gist of this blog. Except that everything eventually has something to do with everything else, in biology.

Anyway, the word "oscillation" in the article reminded me (yet again) of György Buzsáki's work.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Michael Merzenich, On the Brain

I've been exploring a site called On the, a blogsite hosted by Michael Merzenich:
Dr. Michael (Mike) Merzenich is the Francis Sooy Professor in the Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences at the University of California at San Francisco. In parallel with the landmark studies of his UCSF team in the science of neuroplasticity, he has worked with other scientists, medical specialists, psychologists, engineers and other technical specialists to develop training programs based on this science, and designed to improve the behavioral capacities and neurological abilities of children and adults in need of help. Almost a million individuals have now benefited from the use of these programs.

On his site I found a video about a man with traumatic brain injury whose cognitive function became improved via some mental exercises. I was impressed - thought I'd share it here.

Place cells and Grid Cells: Part II

You do not have to dig very deep to find good descriptions of place cells. (It is starting to become a bit more clear to neuroscientists how the brain works together as an entirety, to conduct "thought". No more dualism, please.)

It's interesting that both place and grid cells are at/in the hippocampus. György Buzsáki discusses hippocampal "theta" rhythm as fundamental to all brain function in his book "Rhythms of the Brain".

Grid cells were discovered more recently and are not quite as famous yet. Blakeslee discusses grid cells next: These map space too, but differently - they do not use external markers to orient you - they let you know where you are in space based on your own movements. These were discovered in 2005 by scientists in Norway.

The discoverers say,
Imagine coming up from an unknown subway station. You immediately look for a landmark to figure out directions and your position. The moment you find it, your cognitive map is calibrated, and things fall into place,” explain Edvard and May-Britt Moser. They reveal the secrets of memory.

Grid cells do this calibration. Blakeslee says,
"Located just one step higher in the cortical hierarchy from place cells, in a region called the entorhinal cortex, each grid cell acts as though the surface of your local environment had a triangular grid painted all over it... A grid cell is active when you are at the vertex of any of the triangles in the field in front of you but inactive for locations between the vertices. The grid persists like graph paper spread as far as you can see, or like the Holodeck on Star Trek before scenes are projected onto it. When you move through space, grid cells mark your position independent of context. Place cells "say" I am in the store, I am in my house, I am in a strange plaza. Grid cells keep track of where you are in all contexts, in all kinds of places, as if they were a property of the environment itself and not cells in your brain.... Moser, when asked, is willing to venture a guess that great athletes have highly developed place cells and grid cells. Yes, they need fast reflexes, trained muscles, great eyesight, and developed brain networks to compare different trajectories; but when Ronaldinho looks down a soccer field, he is mapping the entire field in his brain. He has an effortless, innate sense of where he is in space and time, thanks to how well his brain maps that space. Every time he takes a step, an entire new geometry of action is created within his brain. In ten seconds, Ronaldinho will see at least one hundred alternatives and will make choices that draw on cells and grid cells."

I've done some traveling, enough to know that I get lost easily, turned around, hardly know up from down, don't have a clue which way is west without a good map. I've traveled with others who effortlessly (maddeningly) "know" where to find a site. They stand in the middle of a foreign city, gaze around for about 3 seconds and say, "over there" - and take off toward the place we've decided to go to. They are almost always right. My strategy when alone is to use a map, and double check my progress by stopping local people, asking them, to "feel" sure I'm going the right way.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Place Cells and Grid Cells: Part I

I spoke of Sandra Blakeslee's new book, The Body Has a Mind of it's Own, here and here.

On page 128, at a nice little section called "A Sense of Where You Are". The authors describe the eerie way certain basketball players and other athletes have of knowing exactly where they are in space, how balls go through hoops precisely even with backs turned. They duly note the advantages top athletes are born with: fast-twitch muscles, long limbs, high anabolic thresholds, extraordinary hand-eye coordination, lightning fast reflexes, excellent vision (including peripheral). They describe how certain athletes look at everything, focusing on nothing until the last moment of commitment; due respect is paid to the thousands of hours of accumulated practice manipulating ball and body in space. Then they go on:

"But there is one trait among great athletes especially those whose game is played on open courts or fields (like soccer, basketball, American football, rugby, lacrosse and hockey), that has not been described on ESPN or elsewhere. It explains why some people have an extraordinary sense of where their bodies are located in space, as well as the fast-moving bodies of all their teammates and opponents. Namely, the very best athletes have really great "place cells." And maybe even more important, they have spectacular "grid cells.

Place cells and grid cells are space-mapping neurons linked to a memory-forming region called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is evolutionarily much older than the cortex. So despite the amazing power and flexibility of our cortical space and body maps, this ancient system of place and grid cells is still very much with us - you could say it was "grandfathered in." Instead of mapping personal space from an egocentric point of view, as your parietal and premotor circuits do, place cells and grid cells are what scientists call geocentric."

The rest of the section is what they are, how they differ. Place cells were discovered in 1971 by researchers John O'Keefe and John Dostrovsky, who studied the hippocampus and memory. They appeared to encode parts of a maze the researchers' rats explored. Thousands of place cells combined in millions of ways to give the rats endless place-learning capacity.

The authors remark:
"You have place cells too. When you walk into your kitchen, certain place cells fire when you are standing in front of your refrigerator. As you move toward the sink, a different set of place cells will mark your new position in the room. If you walk into your dining room or living room, another combination of place cells will mark your spot in space."
Place cells help you navigate around your home if the lights go off, help you find a candle. They internally map where you keep your objects in relation to one another, and in relation to your body as you move through space. Some keep track of where your head is turned and update you about your balance and your body schema. If you spin in place you'll be lost until you find an object you recognize - then you'll 'know' where the door is.
"place fields are calibrated according to fixed reference points - sofa, chair, table, window, door - that do not usually change. If you move your furniture around, your place fields reconfigure your map."

More to come on this. Much more.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Now back to function... Part II

2. UN-clear metaphor

In Part I, I introduced scenarios related to clear metaphors people use to describe pain. I used "icepick" and "fish hook" examples. When someone says they feel like they have a foreign object lodged somewhere, and it's perfectly obvious they don't, the comparison is at least acceptably clear as metaphor, even if the solution to the pain isn't yet clear.

What about if the metaphor used is not about a foreign object, but a body part that truly does exist inside the body? Suddenly comparisons are much less clear. Suddenly structures are blamed for misbehavior that is actually functional. Suddenly something that feels LIKE a "locked joint", becomes in a patient's mind, or in a therapist's mind, or a doctor's mind, a possibly 'real' locked joint. There are a million of these. Examples are, "I must have a bone out of place." "A muscle is cramped in my foot." "This tendon is too short - look". "I was fine until I lifted that couch, then my (whatever) seized up on me."

These are still metaphors, but now the issues the patient feels in the tissues are not clearly metaphoric at all. In fact, there has been nearly perfect reflection of metaphors like these, a verbal and investigative ping pong match of pain memes and memeplexes going on ever since humans have had pain and human primate social groomers have tried to help.


Slowly it has begun to dawn on some of us who are fascinated by all the little tricks of the brain and the habits it has of setting up simulations of reality, that pain is something of a perception itself. A great example is phantom limb pain. This is pain that an amputee feels vividly and to his or her consternation, in the missing limb. It can't be the limb hurting, because the limb no longer exists.


A representation of the limb does exist, in the brain. A brilliant neuroscientist/brain researcher named V.S. Ramachandran figured out that using a mirror box could help. The patient places the remaining limb in the box in a way that creates an illusion of a missing limb being present, and able to move freely. Even though the patient knows full well it's just a mirror image, moving freely and painlessly, some important part of the visual cortex actually will record this information and send it around the brain in such a way that pain is relieved in the "missing limb", the phantom of the missing limb, the virtual body part, the representational map of the part located in the brain. It's as if the brain thinks to itself, hmm, I must have made a mistake. It looks like that part can move ok.. Alrighty then, I'll take out the pain signal.

It gets even more strange - it turns out we all have these maps - everyone has them. And we all can feel pain in them, just as amputees do. Ready for more strangeness? Pain is usually in the brain map part instead of in the actual part. I know - this is where "what everyone knows" bumps into new science. Such apparent heresy! But not so strange if you accept the idea that the brain is a great big simulation producer. It can make you have a pain in a part that is not at all "damaged", just because it senses a threat to that part. Yes, you read that right. Nothing has to have happened to the part for the brain to make a pain in it. From my blogpost of September 4th, "Rhythms of the Brain" by György Buzsáki:
The short punch line of this book is that brains are foretelling devices and their predictive powers emerge from the various rhythms they perpetually generate. At the same time, brain activity can be tuned to become an ideal observer of the environment, due to an organized system of rhythms.

I really want you to know I did not make this up - György Buzsáki wrote an entire book about how this is not just possible but likely.

What can decrease pain? Helping the brain sort, refine, redraw its maps. How? Create an illusion for the brain in regular 4-limbed people in pain that is as powerful as the mirror box is for phantom limb pain. How? Well, movement is the key here. The brain needs to perceive some kind of movement before it can get off the square it is stuck on, pain-wise.

One can create a kinesthetic illusion of movement, through skin stretch. Simon Gandevia is the researcher who came up with this while studying cutaneous receptors. He is a lot less famous than Ramachandran is, but no less important to those of us who work with new ideas on how to pare back erroneous metaphor in our own thinking about pain. True, Simon Gandevia hasn't linked his own research yet to pain relief itself, specifically, but he has provided a huge clue. Putting this clue together with Patrick Wall's idea that pain is a "need state", and that pain relief follows a "consummatory movement", and bearing in mind the success of mirror therapy for pain in limb representations, is it really that hard to draw a line connecting the dots? Treating people who still have all their parts is much easier because you don't need a mirror, you just need to get on their skin and give their brain a movement illusion.

To me, this cuts through all the confusing metaphoric mesodermal tissue based wild goose chases that practitioners go on, led originally by convincing descriptions of pain given to them by patients, which they then go on and foist on other patients, and all of which becomes some version of gravely mistaken treatment orthodoxy. I am fond of saying three things to patients on their first visit:
1. There are people who have things on x-rays like degeneration (etc.) who don't have any pain
2. There are people who have pain, and have no x-ray changes
3. Pain and x-rays (or, pain and body weight, pain and posture, pain and... [etc.]) don't necessarily have anything to do with each other

(Truth is, I'm haunted a bit by all the years I worked as a PT, diligently and inadvertently contributing to peoples' pain experience by choosing wrong words, like, "looks like a disc problem", "Sudek's Atrophy? You'll need to wear this brace to keep your fingers from curling into your palm", "This looks like a tendon rupture", etc etc... I'm haunted by a past filled with thousands of faces of patients who intersected with my life, in pain, with ordinary nervous systems and intact tissue, looking at me as some sort of keyholder of relief for them, me having official human primate social grooming status and license but no key, no clue!- to how to really help them at all, other than temporary accompaniment and a set of protocols on how to get them to move anyway, even if it hurt, social manipulation/motivation. Cheer leader stuff. It makes me cringe nowadays - if I were in a patient's shoes I would want to shoot some kid fresh out of school who had the audacity to think she knew the first thing about what my brain and body were going through. But apparent sincerity and earnestness kept me alive, I suppose... Plus, to be fair to my former self, there was not all this nice research available back then, in the 70's. There is no excuse for continuation of perpetuation of inappropriate metaphor in my profession (or the medical profession) anymore, other than pure ignorance/being too busy to read/relying on the schools to have taught what is necessary to know to do the job. The schools are only just learning about this stuff themselves! It'll be awhile more before they figure out how to do the requisite "knowledge translation".)

Certainly there will be some hips that still need replacing and some knees, and so on, but the pain felt in those parts which have been sacrificed might not be relieved by the sacrifice, might not have been from those 'parts' in the first place!

Does it not make more sense to deal with pain first, provide the simulating brain with a movement illusion, see if it really is cranking out pain for no particularly good reason? If the pain goes away, great! Show the patient a few exercises to keep pain at bay. Another knee or hip or (insert name of structure) saved from sacrifice. If pain doesn't go away/stay away, then think about replacing the part.

Now back to function.. Part I

In the Butler blog is a post about painful words, how they conjure up horrible imaginings in peoples' minds, create needless stress and worsen pain. A comment from a reader of this blog about his knee pain, knee replacement, his surgeon's words reflecting insecurities about not being able to "fix" his patient's pain, and the reader's battle to withdraw from heavy pain meds came to mind immediately.

...I realized after months of difficult recovery from my joint replacement that one of the key things my surgeon said to me was "I am worried about our ability to control your pain". He is a great surgeon, and meant well. But he played directly into strong fears that I had about the surgery already. I obsessed on the idea that my pain might be uncontrollable. I believe that contributed a lot to me winding up on 350 mg per day of oxycodone.
I'm doing much better now and have been off the oxycodone for 5 weeks.

A battle is being fought by a tiny group of people in lots of ways, including through blogs (like this one), comprised of practitioners (myself among them) whose main agenda is to deconstruct pain for the sake of having less of it around perpetuating useless suffering. We are fighting an abstract battle, one of memes: the mindless and needless enticement of persistent pain into permanent suffering, through simple correctable things like word choice. We are trying to change this by presenting, studying, arguing, pointing out current pain science, science which refutes an entire historical mind set not only guilty of permitting needless suffering, but also of giving rise to a professionally reinforced sense of helplessness and avoidable drug use in patients.

There are at least two layers to this:

1. Clear metaphor

Some of the metaphors patients use are easy enough to understand as such: when someone says something like, "It feels as though I have an icepick through my shoulder here and a fish hook stuck in it back here", it's obvious both to them and to the practitioner that they have no such thing really - instead they are explaining how their pain "feels" to them. The practitioner response is often a little smile at the colorful language; if the patient is insistent after a few treatment attempts (based on having diligently tried to find and treat the offending tissue) the practitioner rapidly begins to feel helpless and either refers on or else decides the patient must be crazy with all that icepick talk.

At least three scenarios can ensue from here:

a). With any luck the patient will be referred to a PT who understands pain, and can reassure the patient that perhaps that's really all it amounts to. A few little manual therapy maneuvers, voilá, some cranky neural tissue somewhere in the vicinity has more oxygen, the brain maps all overlap perfectly again, the protective motor reflexes dissolve, needless ion channels vanish, stress is gone, all is well, patient can move the shoulder just fine again. Metaphoric icepick and fishhook are gone as if they had never been there, even as "just" a feeling or sensation that was turned into an image in the patient's mind to help him or her communicate verbally something ineffable like pain that has no words of its own.

b). In scenario two, the patient may be referred for further imaging and possibly surgery. Diligent medical practitioners will diligently look for and usually find some aspect of the patient's body that they decide must be responsible for the pain, and will schedule a surgical intervention. They may be referred before or after to a PT who closely follows the medical tissue-based model for pain. The PT will do all sorts of things to try to help, but if their word choice is not careful, they will merely reinforce pain while trying to get the patient to do all sorts of activities in spite of the pain.

c). In scenario three, the patient is referred to a psychiatrist.

Stay tuned for Part II, Unclear metaphor.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

OK, back to structure for just a minute...

I'm so pleased to announce (with Michael Shacklock's permission and blessing) that he will soon be re-publishing portions of a classic text of great interest to all nerve-o-philes, namely Alf Breig's book, Adverse Neural Tension in the Central Nervous System, long out of print.

The new release will be called Biomechanics of the Nervous System Revisited. It will explain to all manual therapists new to thinking about this particular structure called the "nervous system", the physicality of it, how it slides around inside the body, how to treat it (respectfully, we hope). It will contain many of the original photos taken by Breig himself, during surgical procedures, and published in the original book in 1978, which clearly show how nerves move, especially nerve roots.

Breig's book, very scarce, out of print, attained near-mythic fame. The pioneers of neurodynamic treatment had obtained copies nearly three decades ago, but not many books had been printed, and no one else in later waves of interested neural treaters could lay hands on it, or on any of these pictures, much to our collective frustration. This sad fact created a bit of a dip in the understanding of nerve mechanics for a long time. Until now. Make that until soon. Until January 2008.

Michael made trips to visit relatives of this recently deceased surgical explorer, and the explorer himself before he died, and was able to obtain rights to reproduce much of the content. Thank you so much for this, Michael. What a gift you are bringing manual therapy.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Deconstructing and rehabilitating the concept "placebo effect"

We have the conventional definition of "placebo" versus the Patrick Wall definition, which is the same definition used by PTs interested in treating pain.

For anyone who still doesn't know who Patrick Wall was, he and Ronald Melzack combined efforts to research pain for over 4 decades. (Tip: Read the paper linked to Ronald Melzack. It explains his neuromatrix theory of pain. It's the best pain theory in existence to date, in my humble opinion.)

But now, back to placebo. Placebo is a loaded word, charged with centuries of flimflam, misunderstanding, and exploitation. Patrick Wall figured out what placebo response really is, how that works, and worked together with PTs to determine how it could be harnessed ethically for relief of pain.

I count myself among this slowly growing cadre of PTs who are laying aside our old tissue-based belief system based on 3 or 400 years of ignorance about pain, in favor of instead understanding the science that has developed around pain. Patrick Wall said (paraphrased), "Placebo is not something administered TO a patient, it is something to be elicited FROM a patient." He went on to describe the perfection of a placebo response. It was something the patient's brain made by itself, a chemical substance, antidote, precise in dosage and specific to the problem, which went straight to the receptors in need of it. It was allowed to exist in the brain for only as long as necessary, whereupon the brain would dismantle it by itself. In other words, one sort of nature (placebo response) taking care of another kind of nature (pain response).

After a brief nervous system explanation, it's a lot easier to explain effects that are "placeboic" in a way such that people will be more inclined to think of "placebo" in a positive light rather than negative - at least they catch a glimpse that it will be good for pain, that you don't think it's undesirable, that you want to help them make their very own, and begin to see achieving it as a victory not a defeat. It must be reframed/ redefined as a treatment effect that is desirable and unique to them, something that is produced naturally as a consequence when a "team" (comprised of patient and therapist) develops a temporary third entity (the interaction of nervous systems) to help a fourth entity (the patient's own nervous system) wrestle with and overcome a fifth, the "foe" (pain output). When people have the Wall definition of placebo explained to them they are not at all disinclined to go for it. They are willing to set up a treatment improv mini-drama with you in which all these entities can exist on their own for a short while, and change places, play musical chairs until all the chairs are taken and pain has nowhere to sit. They become co-conspirators in the development of a "placebo" effect that will fix their own system, in fact they get that it is up to them, by doing very little except waiting patiently and tracking processes. The right frame around that charged concept, "placebo", is everything.

The team can be dissolved. The patient can go off with new strength derived from new cognition around the problem, a new understanding that while their nervous system includes "them", it is not "them" entirely. Instead it is something they can successfully interact with, as one might find oneself interacting with an unruly child or a screaming baby. Do not abuse the nervous system. Do not permit anyone else to abuse it. Figure out what it needs (usually some form of movement developed slowly and carefully, with close attention to a sense of timing), then supply it, and be patient. Do this for short periods of time (minutes), frequently (as one would feed a starving baby, perhaps every hour or two). It will take a good three days for abnormal and too numerous receptor sites (associated with pain sensitization) to dismantle and (hopefully better ones) to reform. Allow time for improvement to establish itself. Get on a better track and find ways to enjoy the rest of your hours per day while waiting optimistically.

Friday, November 09, 2007

More on Michael Shacklock

I've had Michael Shacklock linked to my website for years, and decided it was high time to link him to this blog, where I spend more time now.

I wrote about Michael a couple years ago ( see archives for November 2005). At the moment, he is working hard to get a book republished. It will be very exciting for all of us who are human primate social groomers of the "functionalist" persuasion, and wonder about what bits of "structure" we really need to bear in mind (thank you to Neurotopian Matthias Weinberger for clarifying the two broad camps of debate) ... you'll get a hint or two about this by reading his newsletters.

I don't want to spoil the surprise, so that's all for now - over and out.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Boiling the flimflam off human primate social grooming

Every so often something crosses my path which cheers me up. Recently I found this blog by an ex-chiropractor who no longer tolerates wool pulled down over his eyes or his mind. Good for him. Here's another.

The sooner hucksterism leaves my field of endeavor the sooner I'll be way more happy. To get hucksterism out of this field requires that individuals like this begin to save themselves from replicating it, and then talk about it.

Really, it comes down to just this: Someone in pain, Person A, goes to see someone, Person B, about it. Hopefully Person B has been trained to be ethical and scientifically respectful. Hopefully Person B does not take on a hero's role. Hopefully Person B has been around long enough to have discarded uselessness in favor of honesty. Hopefully Person B is current with pain science.

Person B will do what he or she can to provide a favorable no nonsense context for the patient to conduct his or her own exploration. There will be usually some provision of exteroceptive input of some kind. There will be no funny business - Person A will be told what is expected of them, taught what to look for, asked to proceed at their own rate. It will have been made clear, one way or another, in some way Person A can understand, that it's their job to get themselves better, and that Person B is a helper.

Person B will realize all along that he or she is nothing but a catalyst. Person A will be doing all the hard work of sensing and learning, changing their own nervous system (or rather, allowing their own nervous system to change itself) to something more optimal. The desired reaction occurs entirely within the patient, and the only reagent is the patient and all their inTRA-relationships. None of this is a simple thing to understand at a scientific level, but progress is being made and the science base is growing; maybe one day the physical contact aspect of human primate social grooming will be not only stripped of flimflam but will have vindicated itself.

Changes occur, usually in the direction of improved function and decreased pain. But not always, and not in any sort of predictable way or speed. All this depends on the patient, the context, and on the quality of therapeutic contact within a treatment room.

Let's discuss "crucible". On the surface it means a container such as the ones used in chemical labs, able to stand high heat etc. A deeper level of meaning (without being religious in any way) is "cross", an intersection or crossroads, a place where a change of direction can take place. Other words contain the same root, words such as "crucial", or something that is the "crux" of a matter.

A treatment room is, then, a metaphoric crucible. As such it should be able to stand the metaphoric equivalent of "high heat" - the patient should sense that the room they are in is safe for them to be who they are, express whatever they want. And they may well need to.

Not only should the room be designed to take the "heat", the therapist should be "fireproof" as well, able to tolerate whatever sorts of pain offerings a patient might bring, emotional or physical, without flinching. Flinching is a non-conscious, mirror-neuron, socially connective, social behavior. To NOT flinch and still retain good therapeutic contact is definitely a learned behavior. Here, I must confess, I am still working on getting the right proportions of non-flinch combined with solid connection during the interview. I'll never be perfect - no therapist will ever be perfect. It keeps one humble and honest. I would like to add, however, that not very many people are "high heat" people - most cases of persistent pain are very straightforward.

The therapist will have tried to eliminate as many distractions and noceboic elements as possible from the crucible. He or she will have made it as clear as possible that the pain issue is something the patient must permit themselves to work through. This needn't mean having to experience more pain. In fact, the less the process "hurts" the better. No point in reinforcing the pathways associated with the very thing the patient has come in to try to learn how to deal with, get rid of.

Eventually the time will come for the reaction. I usually spend a half hour or so, interviewing, examining, explaining, which leaves a half hour for the patient to experience a sample of what happens on the table. Subsequent visits are much more tabletime. Usually at least two visits, sometimes as many as 4, are required to complete the process. (A few of my patients come in long term for various reasons, but very few indeed. It is not encouraged.)

Hands-on is definitely involved - for most people who come. Anything that sounds like wind-up pain, I like to leave alone, at least in visit one. I've had people leave disappointed, people who just didn't get that they would require more prep time, and who didn't return. C'est la vie. Better they leave in the same shape they came in, than feeling worse. I'm happy to say this is so rare it's only happened twice. I learned my lesson with a patient one time whose pain flared suspiciously with the sort of hands-on I do, so I learned to spot the signs, and do not use manual therapy in the first visit with a patient who says something like, "I've always noticed, whenever I get an injury and it heals, even just a scratch, it always feels painful after that - the pain never goes away." Fortunately these sorts of patients (highly sensitized ones with abnormal pain processing) are pretty rare. Most people just have regular persistent pain, good processing, but need some assistance so they can connect dots within their own nervous systems.

Finally, the hands-on part is nothing more than contact with skin, at varying pressures and angles, but mostly lateral stretch. This does nothing TO a person's "body", or TO any of the mesodermal derivatives that lie within it, rather it sets up volleys of firing sequences that have been mapped and studied by neurophysiologists and other curious people, and documented scientifically (by Simon Gandevia and others). One can predict that if one has chosen one's patients wisely, and guided the therapeutic relationship appropriately, Person A will let their own non-conscious system take over all the heavy lifting, let it will change itself/its output into something easier to live with, something less mechanosensitive, less painful, with easier movement to follow.

Like any catalyst, the therapist will have added nothing to this reaction, will have only functioned to help speed it up, and will leave nothing of themselves in the final product.