Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Discovering Lawrence Krauss

This morning on Facebook I found this less-than-a-minute-long video, posted by DJ Grothe:

Best video of the last week of the first decade of the twenty-first century I have ever encountered.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nucleus Accumbens

There is not very much written about this particular brain region, nucleus accumbens, in any of the four volumes of the massive Encyclopedia of the Human Brain.

It seems to be a bit of brain involved, importantly, in staving off depression, or as Heller notes, in the PNAS open access paper (6-page pdf), Reduced capacity to sustain positive emotion in major depression reflects diminished maintenance of fronto-striatal brain activation,
"While up-regulating positive affect, depressed individuals failed to sustain nucleus accumbens activity over time compared with controls."

Any structure that can help stave off "Major Depressive Disorder" is one I want to know more about. There was a look taken at "the fronto-striatal network in anhedonia" also.
"These findings support the hypothesis that anhedonia in depressed patients reflects the inability to sustain engagement of structures involved in positive affect and reward."

"Our study examines the ability of depressed patients to sustain engagement of the NAcc while enhancing positive affect in response to positive images embedded within a stream of stimuli that included both positive and negative images."

Sounds like depressed people can kind of fake it for a little while, but their/our nucleus accumbens tuckers out easily, can't continuously rejoice over life's simple pleasures. From the paper:
" everyday life, individuals do not generally encounter uninterrupted positive stimuli. Negative experiences often intermix with positive ones, and the ability of individuals to heighten and maintain positive affect in the face of negative stimuli is vitally important for health and well-being."

Sheesh, you can say that again. Mine feels as though it is perking up fairly well with the help of increased photons in the suprachiasmatic nucleus. Still a fairly long way to go however.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Boxing day 2009 - I think I've finally achieved this elusive state. In order to get here, I had to spend nearly 30 years in the dark cave of Vancouver, going with low photon levels in exchange for useful tools and skill sets that are coming in very handy as I navigate life with mom, life in a small city where boundaries are very different than what I became used to, yet eerily familiar at the same time. Who said you can't go back home? I did, and feel much better for it.

Yesterday, I went to my mother's condo at her invitation for a Christmas dinner and present exchange. I gave her, she who loves Christmas bling, a Christmas floral arrangement, professionally produced and delivered locally, way last Monday, on Solstice day. This was my way of spreading the festivity out a bit more so that something important to me (solstice, photons etc.) would be symbolically included in a gift extended by me to her; so that the connection, the buried verb lying within my reach outward to her through a present, could be meaningful to both of us. It was a low montage of cedar and other coniferous greenery, red and white carnations, with a tall red candle sticking up out of the center. She thought it was beautiful and was glad to have it come a few days before Christmas so that she could enjoy it as part of her anticipation of the whole event. Win win.

We ate turkey breast cooked in the oven in a casserole dish, nestled in a bed of stove-top stuffing, to which she had added mushrooms (real, not from a can, she pointed out), onions, butter (not margarine like they put in the stuffing at the Wheatland, she pointed out); it was tasty for sure. Baked potato, half an acorn squash. Ice cream and apple-pear crisp for dessert. Some chokecherry wine. A lovely meal. Over the meal she reminisced about trips she had taken, funerals she had attended, music she liked, a cremation ceremony she'd been to recently. I noticed something in my brain not just nodding along dutifully, politely, but actually listening for subtext from her. "Do you want to be cremated?" I asked. "Yes," she said unhesitatingly, and laughed. "The church lets people do that now. None of this cold six-feet-deep needed if you're just ashes. At the graveyard the undertaker and the daughter together lowered a little square box into a shallow hole in the ground and put a piece of turf over the top." This led into a long side-topic about how dad used to tease her about how she parked. "He used to say, "You always like to leave a way out for yourself, don't you?"" And then she laughed again at the memory. Her way of parking is to leave a huge space beside her and whatever big four-by-four she has to park beside, even if her car sticks out a foot into a laneway, over-riding, or even parked squarely on top of, do-not-obstruct yellow hatch marks in the parking lot. She simply ignores yellow hatch. When it comes to parking, she appears to be yellow-hatch blind. And ticket-proof! The woman takes her space. Always has. I think she feels a touch claustrophobic at the thought of being in a coffin, buried...

Her boundaries have always been thick and tough. My experience as her only child (for the first 3.5 years at least), with her as my mom, was that approaching her was like approaching a large invisible deflector shield, one I bounced off almost every single time I ever tried to get close. After awhile I didn't bother trying anymore. She was never as approachable as she tried to portray herself as being. She wanted contact only whenever she wanted contact, and I was forced to accommodate myself to her. I was treated as her project, part of her bling collection, something she could dress up and curl the hair of and take out and show off. The rest of the time I was to be quiet and unobtrusive. I learned nothing of how to be a truly social human from her, not really. Anyone reading this will be relieved to learn that I did my therapy time and that this is all "water under the bridge," a phrase she likes to use, and that I won't bore readers with too many details.... long ago I asked for, and received in writing, an apology for her physical abuse dished during my childhood, but to try to explain any maternal emotional dearth she might have also dished is something she would find totally incomprehensible. She is confident that she did just fine, thank you very much. I turned out OK, didn't I? Is that not proof? So we go on.

What can I say, except that I need photons, especially in winter? I did not really need to be around my mother. At least huge parts of me did not. However, that having been said, I'm not one to pass up any last chance to understand, maybe, in retrospect, how life came to feel so pointy and sharp my whole way through it. While I'm here enjoying the feeling of having my personal brain photon tank slowly filling up again, I am cautiously exploring this old, painful, resurrected relationship with the one person in the world to whom I owe everything and nothing, depending upon which side of myself perceives her.

Anyway, so far, so good. Exercising psychic integration could feel worse. Whether my mind frames it as dragon-slaying or merely as sedate familial adjustment, I'm sure it will all be of personal benefit at some point. Something in there is feeling successful about something, and just now that's all that matters.

I opened up a gift from her, a huge box, inside which was packed a slow-cooker. Perfect, because I usually get distracted and burn things when I cook, which is irregularly. Thanks mom. Also, she gave me a set of 24 Sharpies with fine tips. She had seen me admiring them in Walmart. I make a lot of doodle drawings. I go through a lot of Sharpies. So this was a great present.

I gave her a big shiny green gift bag full of edible things - a Christmas pudding, a box of Christmas cake, some candied ginger, some halva (which I remember her enjoying from when I was a child), some boxed truffles, and a set of one-handed salt and pepper grinders I have had for absolute ages, complete with little bags of extra salt chunks and pepper corns for refill. She thought this was all too much. Maybe it was. I've given her nothing but a card for years and years and years, and for a long time before that, nothing, not even a card. So it didn't seem extravagant to me, not for a first Christmas spent together in decades, and just her and me to boot. But I may have over-compensated. Maybe there is still a pocket or two of buried, unearthed guilt to deal with. I'll find and deal with it consciously, rather than continue to buy her too many Christmas presents after buying her nothing for decades.

She was anxious to open a large box from my sister that had arrived addressed to both of us. We opened it up, and it contained a necklace for her, a framed photo for her of my sister and her husband, and for me a large plastic recycle bin and some home-made chutney. On the card attached to the recycle bin, she had written my name and that it was one of the "plunge buckets" she had used to help her foot feel better, after fracturing a few bones in it last summer, at my urging to do contrast foot soaks. Mom called her, and we each talked to her for awhile. It had a nice connecty family feel to it.

About 9:30PM, the evening wound down, and I packed up my things for the walk home just up the block.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Light-hearted on Dec 25th

This was posted over a year ago, but it's new to me, and I like it a lot, so here goes:

This afternoon I'll be going to my mom's house, where we will have a day together, eat (she's cooking) and exchange presents. She plans to go kneel for awhile at her Catholic church this morning, whereas I sit here typing and adding a topical, a-religious video to my blog. Hey, we each have our own way to mark the day, and we still get along. That's what's great about having clear boundaries. Forward Hohoho.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Learned this new word today: Zeitgeber. My definition: a recurring clue from one's environment around which one's brain can develop synchronized optimized neuroplasticity.

So, this week is solstice, a week marked by collective yearning for more light expressed in many ways by many cultures, and often religiously.

I must say, I feel pretty good this year. I've failed to note any of the usual drag on me and my mood, function, no urge to hibernate, no letdown, no dread, no anxiety... Nothing. I feel "normal". Back in Saskatchewan where my brain matured in bright sunshine year round. How it is enjoying its revel in photonic bliss, even while the rest of me still looks for ways to adapt to new surroundings and people and wonders what it will do with the rest of my life.

One thing I know is that the long rest and exposure to real light "cure" will help the rest of me figure it all out as time goes along. So I'm not particularly stressed about any of it. I'm content to just wait and see what reveals itself during the cold time fast approaching. Yeah, it will be shockingly cold, but I'm pretty sure I can adapt to it swiftly. I have marvelously thermo-efficient outerwear and a new pair of those wire rigs that provide increased traction to help people walk on ice - when it gets windy I expect they will help a lot.

Further reading:
Sensorimotor modulation of mood and depression: An integrative review.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

'Tis the season?

In a blog connected to an Australian osteopath I know of, appeared this post from almost a year ago. There was always something about pain and religion. It discusses a study in which a specific example of religious imagery was found to help the brains of those who had been imbued with those particular images to downregulate pain. The post is clear on the point that an entrenched belief system is at work, that the picture itself has no "power" over pain.

It seems an appropriate time of the year to consider the information contained therein. Personally I've always found religion to be more rather than less of a pain, but maybe that's just how I happen to be wired. That having been said, it makes more sense to me now why people are so "devoted" to acquiring, harbouring, growing, and propagating the memeplexes involved - it looks like they operate on the human population as a convenient drug-free pharmaceutical.

It's perhaps less of a mystery to me now why people can be so angsty when someone comes along to challenge said belief system, or maybe any belief system - how is this reaction not like that of a junkie threatened by separation from the next fix? I am reminded of Robert Burton's book, On Being Certain. Dopamine pathways are involved in the generation of the feeling of being certain.

I get an image in my head that's hard to shake - billions of human minds born free of nonsense, reaching up and waving like vine tendrils, hoping to find something to cling to, finding nothing, so inventing something (anything) to latch onto to help haul self through life as painlessly as possible. It fits with why religion seems to be so ubiquitous, still.

My own mind somehow ended up not needing to acquire this particular adaptation. I am definitely not free of belief, but I examine things I believe in to make sure they have foundation in fact, not fiction. Oh well. And about pain? I deal with pain in myself and others the old-fashioned way, one by one, by handling nervous systems and trying hard to not create more pain for the people embedded inside them in the process. I haven't bumped adversely into very many belief systems in other people along the way, in 40 years. However, I think I'm at a stage where all this personal life trajectory, how I balance my own against others', where my personal values stand now vis a vis my cultural context/current-entirely-changed social context, is up for retrieval and update. I expect the values are sturdy - I tried to build my "self" that way, but I have often observed there are surprises too - life is full of those. So we shall see.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

May your days be merry and bright

This has to be the most stressful time of the year for social and symbolically afflicted animals like us, when we are trying to change our way along. But I am pleased to be able to say that this year the stress is much less.

I went to a party last night, 16 people, a catered turkey dinner at the senior drop-in center where I go and volunteer, peel potatoes etc., the local good churchwoman (best friend of my mom) said grace, there was a party afterward in my mother's living room, most of the people there in their 80's, some corny games, some Christmas carols accompanied by one of the 80-somethings on a portable piano, a present exchange, three people (women) wearing identical red vests (- I was one - guess I'm blending in well around here, the kid of the bunch at not quite 60 yet). It all feels a weird combination of surreal (this is not my life, surely) combined with acceptance (really, it's not so bad, a bunch of older folk all living independently, manufacturing for themselves and apparently enjoying simple social pleasures, keeping each other going and cheered up in a safe, humble little prairie community). There were four men and a lot of widows. My own father checked out 9 years ago.

It's a nice gentle way to be passing time, hanging out with advanced seniors. Which is odd, because at younger ages I would have been bored out of my mind by this sort of repetitive socializing for the sake of socializing. I would have felt myself trying to burst out of invisible cages.

Instead I feel very welcome and nurtured by this group. Its members find lots of little ways to let me know that they like and appreciate my being there with them. I find myself open to accepting this without feeling uncomfortably vulnerable at the same time.

I have what I consider to be my "normal life," which to them is strange since none of them use computers, lived virtually, being online, studying, thinking, conversing by email/writing. The inner world of me.

I have this weird (to me) and yet oddly comfortable outer life now, my only peer group at the moment comprised of people my mother's age or close. Preferable IMO to living in an increasingly nasty urban jungle, full of darkness, lack of sun, fighting every day just to make myself stay there. I seem to have created a symbolic "child" world again, and my own mother is actually still physically present in it, part of it. I can feel long-lost parts of me lapping up this nurturing environment like thirsty camels lap up oasis water.

It slowly is dawning on me that it barely matters anyway, what I am or what I make or don't make of myself in the world. I never thought I'd see the day when personal existential angst would appear to comfortably recede or dissolve. Maybe it has to do increased light levels. Maybe with having managed to revisit "child" mode once again for a little while. Maybe a combination. Whatever. I remain acutely aware that one day I'll just slide right out of existence, but I feel detached about this in yet another new way for now, even as I anticipate attending many funerals in the coming years. Which won't involve fun probably. So for now it seems important to just relax, support these people and their gentle socializing for all the camaraderie and fun it seems to bring them, all I can, just for now. It's what is right under my nose at the moment. I can always go back to paid physical human primate social grooming, later.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Wheatland jigsaw puzzle mountain

In case anyone does not believe me...
Many of them not here - they're out, spread out on someone's dining table, being put together. Some people knit, I do these..

Winter blue and white in Weyburn

Here is why I moved back. So beautiful, what clear dry cold air does to moisture on trees. Taken today.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Winter, Neurevolution, and Nicolas Wade

This morning there was a definite cloak of white spread out on the street below, and resting upon branches and twigs. The day is Dec. 1/09, and the light level is fabulous - beautiful blue sky. So refreshing to be back in the land where winter colors are blue and white instead of dark grey and dark green.

I found two tweets today to bring here. The first one is from Neurevolution blog, Cingulate Cortex and the Evolution of Human Uniqueness. Apparently there is a small region in the human ACC not present in oft-studied monkey brains. The author, while refraining from making any direct claim, and acknowledging the difficulties inherent in directly studying human brains, suggests that neuroscience in general might want to not gloss over this issue. My interest in ACC stems from the idea that it's an area of the brain that come to be known as part of the "pain matrix" as it it usually lit up in people with persisting pain. It seems, metaphorically speaking, to be the zone in the brain that has trouble making up its "mind", the brain's worrier.

Deciding what I have to do is not something I ever found particularly hard - rather, determining the shape of the problem to be solved is something I've always found much harder. This requires a lot of time and examination, and is a very difficult thing to do when there is nothing actually concrete to handle or measure or weigh or consider or interact with, just vague feelings to deal with and try to sort, like the recent long climb back up out of a depressed state. I feel like my ACC has had a real workout in the last few years.

The other piece is an NYT story, We May be Born With an Urge to Help, by Nicolas Wade.

I really appreciate Nicolas Wade. Had he not written his excellent NYT article on Seth Grant's work, I wouldn't probably have picked up on it at all, and would not have become excited enough about Mo's interest in the topic and concurrent blogpost about it to have been able to interest Ginger Campbell of the excellent Brain Science Podcast into doing an interview with Seth Grant, and wouldn't know the first thing about synapse evolution. I feel I might have gained an IQ point just following along, attempting to grasp the enormity of what it might mean, as a real breakthrough...

But that is all history now - this new article by Nicolas Wade is about a topic also important to me but at a much different level - intrinsic helpfulness in babies and small children, practical suggestions on how to cultivate it instead of snuffing it through inadvertently bad parenting. Looks like we're here to help each other, helping shows up early, and frankly, I think we'll go on doing this as long as we continue to be a species. Personally, I do not like cultures or societal or religious institutions that have stifled this urge, have distorted or perverted it to meet more selfish interests or objectives - i.e., their own, but that is a whole other topic for some other time or place.