Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Neurogenesis Now

Neurogenesis is a big word for the birth of nerve cells in the brain. Nerve cells make the nervous system work, enabling us to think, move, and react in a glorious symphony of chemical and electrical impulses.

For a long time, scientists believed neurons stopped reproducing shortly after birth. In spite of this, we continue to grow and develop, neurally speaking, because new connections between existing neurons continue to form throughout our lives.

Recently (as of the '90s) scientists have conclusive research evidence that neurogenesis can continue into adulthood. What affect could the creation of new nerve cells have on our lives?
  • Improved learning, cognition, and better ability to access memories.
  • Stress reduction through better stress regulation, bolstering the function of the hippocampus (responsible for memory, cognition, and navigation) and inhibiting the amygdala (responsible for fear and stress).
Less stress, less fear, and more brain-power? Sounds like Total Body Happiness to me! Thus, the quest for neurogenesis begins!

Let's start by eliminating the #1 inhibitor of neurogenesis: sleep deprivation. We already know that sleep deprivation increases stress, disrupts mood, and even causes our bodies to hold onto fat.

Speaking of fat, we may be able to increase neurogenesis by increasing voluntary exercise, emphasis on voluntary. Studies show that when the beta-endorphin (which elevates mood) is produced during exercise, new nerve cells are increased and sustained in the brain -- though this is not the case in the absence of the beta-endorphin. No wonder it feels so great to find fun and engaging ways to exercise, but it feels so lame to push through a boring workout. 

Quick side note (since it's bad to be boring) another study I find relevant and interesting comes from the University of Saskatchewan (2005) where cannabidiol (CBD), the biggest property of the cannabis plant second only to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), was also shown to cause regeneration of nerve cells in the hippocampus. From procon.org:

 "Cannabidiol, the main component of the glandular hairs [of Cannabis] is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid; it exerts a plethora of pharmacological effects, including anti-convulsive, sedative, hypnotic, anti-psychotic, anti-nausea and anti-inflammatory actions. Cannabidiol is a potent antioxidant compound and it has been recently proposed to have a neuroprotective role..."

The many benefits of cannabidiol is why medical marijuana is a thing now. Get used to it.

Tools to use:
I was inspired to start playing more games after watching Jane McGonigal's TEDTalk, "The game that can give you 10 extra years of life" -- a must-watch. Check out the Lumosity app, or Lumosity.com. Lumosity lets you build a personalized brain-training program that focuses on memory and attention. I play 3 quick brain-games a day, and I've already noticed that my simple math skills, which were sorely in need of a boost, are getting just that. I also like to play Ruzzle, a word search game, and Lost Cities, "two player Solitaire with an extra portion of suspense" that helps me practice odds- and risk-calculation as well as quick addition. Do what's fun for you; fun is good for you. 

Another must-watch TEDTalk: Tony Horton's "Health, Fitness, and Happiness: Rules to give you all 3." He's the P90X guy, and he explains the brain-derived neurotrophic factor in this 10 minute video about the benefit of exercise. To see results and continue to grow, Tony emphasizes the importance of variety, consistency, and increasing intensity in exercise.

"Exercise should be like brushing your teeth, or eating your meals, 
or showing up to appointments, or making sure you go to bed at night. 
It should be part of who you are, 5 to 7 times a week, for the rest of your life."
--Tony Horton

The hippocampus, and in particular the dentate gyrus is the site of stem cell populations in the brain
(see Ming GL and Song H, Neuron 2011 70(4):687-702).

What can you do to strengthen your brain and your body today?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Thank God I can't have everything I want.

What do we see when we look upon all that surrounds us from the vantage point of our two eyes? There's my nose, the tops of my cheeks; my body sits below, arms and hands stretched out before me, fingers quickly typing these thoughts.

When I think about the astonishingly vast inner workings of the complex vessel that is my body, it makes it all the more ridiculous to believe that I am my mind and my thoughts. Try this thought on for size: the voice in your head, that of The Thinker, is just one among your brain's many functions. You don't call your iPhone "Siri" just because that's the function that can respond to you verbally and processes verbal requests. Nope, you know that your iPhone has an infinitely larger capacity to access the world of information. So do you.

Considering that our minds and thoughts are subject to change, and influenced by factors as simple, straightforward, and chemical as food and sleep, why then have I spent so much of my life hinged to something so discursive, passing, and transient as thoughts? What affect has identifying with my thoughts had on so many of my experiences and relationships?

The body enables my life experience and all of my connections, yet it can separate me from my experiences, and from others if I identify myself as The Thinker. The Thinker would like me to believe that I am just a voice contained in my body, and that the way I see things is the way things actually are, because that reinforces its own importance and guarantees its own survival. 

But consider for a moment that you'll never be able to see your own face, with your own eyes, in all of its three dimensional glory! Who are you and why are you so sure of yourself if you never will, and never have, so much as set eyes on your own face? Our viewpoints are limited. We must respect that.

Lots of lessons come of all this mind-boggelry. One lesson that I've been trying to experience as much as possible is to see other human beings, animals, and elements of nature as subjects, not objects. There is boundless substance in everything we look upon. Nothing is simply "what meets the eye." 

When I remember not to take everything that I see at its face value, not to flatten anyone else into one dimension, it reminds me to react more slowly and with more compassion. This creates more time and space in my experiences with my surroundings and with others. It increases my respect for my own vast complexity, while increasing my respect for the complexity of every aspect of my external world. When I stop flattening myself into a one dimensional view and voice, I also pause before objectifying others in this way. I take what they say with less gravity; I make a greater attempt to acknowledge the whole of who they are.

When we are in this state of knowing, when the Knowing mind, the God mind, the Soul, succeeds in being louder than the Egoic mind, The Thinker, the incessant voice that's always coming up with perspectives, opinions, and contradictions, there is less static, less conflict, less irritation, and less neediness. 

It's the needs that get me. Need to be warmer, need to elsewhere, need to be understood, need to be right. Need to be cool, need to be liked, need to be loved, need to be forgiven. Need to be seated, need to be served, need to be needed, oh God! The list could go on for a lifetime -- and that's exactly what I don't want to happen. I want to practice counteracting this tendency to follow every little thing my mind says, and I want to practice it now, before I've followed a lifetime of perceived needs to all the shitty places they'd love to take me.

Because most of our needs aren't really needs; they're just wants. And thank God I can't have everything I want. I'd be an absolute monster if I could. I'd probably just trample everyone; spend my life endlessly showboating in anticipation of a resounding applause; justify every tantrum, every shitty mood influenced by too much sugar or too little sleep. I don't want to be that person: ruled and fueled by my ego. Whenever I remember to be aware of the limitations of my singular viewpoint and experience, my ego lessens in volume and prevalence. Those are better moments of a better me.

Happy birthday (yesterday) to the late and eternally amazing Alan Watts, and happy birthday (today) to my incredibly amazing friend Ben, who I admire so much. Ben linked me to the video that I'd like to share, below. I've become a YouTube subscriber of HDvids101, the creator of this gorgeous video illustration to accompany this Alan Watts lecture (and others on the HDvids101 channel). I'm thankful for the wealth of knowledge that is so easily and freely accessible to us here in 2014! Please enjoy this inspiring Watts talk that discusses some of this which I've written about today, plus so much more, more clearly and eloquently than I can yet, but aspire to someday!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Fight those demons, day in and day out.

This year, I resolve to be happy. I will continue to fight the demons whenever they arise, stand up after I fall, treat myself and others with kindness, and fill each day with as much positivity as possible.

So far in 2014, I'm off to a mixed start. On New Year's Day, I slept past noon, lounged for a couple hours and napped again 'til 5pm. Impressive! This is highly unusual party-time behavior, woo! But it's not a good thing for me. There's something about falling asleep when it's light out and waking up when it's dark that has often been the kiss of depressive death. More than once, I've woken up from such a nap and felt a deep sense of life-hatred. But, somehow this 5pm wakeup felt happy and refreshed. I needed that day of rest, I told myself. It was the first day that the cold I'd had since Christmas Eve finally let up, and hell, it was my last full day of vacation. Sleep it up!

My good mood lasted through dinner, which was delicious and totally unhealthy -- my first trip to Five Guys Burgers and Fries. A+ on the pig-out joint rating list. At home afterward, I put some vodka into what was left of my paper cup of Mello Yello, lost a game of cards, and at 9pm, I found myself strangely devastated. Specifically, crying about the objectification and hypersexualization of women on TV.

Whoah. Really? What happened there. Let me see...

I slept away most of the day, ate grease, and watched too much TV, including some dumb Miami crime show that mostly consisted of boobs and butts on rollerskates. Ads for other crime shows filled the space with headshots of missing and exploited women. I also watched one too many episodes of this trashy TV show called Hemlock Grove, which is addicting and the plot is good. It also features a lot of steamy teen sex and that part gets to be kinda blech after a few.

I have every right to engage in a rant about how women are portrayed in various forms of media. Our media-infused lives are filled with unreal images. There is abundant evidence that it greatly affects the self-image of the female population. Common knowledge. There is value in questioning it; if we don't, it infects us.

In the words of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "We see these images on TV and in movies and magazines all the time, and if you don't stop and think about it, it just sort of seeps into your brain and that becomes the way you perceive reality." Check him out dropping this feminist wisdom in an interview with Ellen.

This stuff is certainly worthy of examination, even scorn, but never forget that you have the option not to expose yourself to an excessive bombardment of media bullshit. There's power in that. I can fill my life with subjects that inspire and fulfill me, instead of provoking my angst. Yes, the media is pervasive, and it affects our society, but there are many ways to escape it, by choosing how we direct our time and minds. The despair I felt wasn't really the fault of this programming's very existence. Watching it was my choice, and letting it creep into the cracks in my spiritual strength... that was made possible by my own behavior, too. I put myself in a weak place.

I decided to indulge this feeling of despair in a way that I haven't since summer, since before I began meditating in an effort to stop exactly this kind of emotional turmoil. Misery loves its own company; it seeks to perpetuate itself. When a depressive mood takes a strong hold, it can be hard to shake. My higher mind knew that this was optional. It knew that I was essentially doing this to myself by indulging it instead of moving past it. I knew that if I dragged myself to a quiet spot, I could try to breathe my way back into the quiet, calm state that knows that totally body happiness is a choice, but I just didn't want to. Depression itself told me that meditating was stupid, that I deserved to suffer for this moment. It also said that those around me would just have to observe and hopefully understand my suffering -- if they couldn't understand, that was just proof that we are essentially separate and alone. Hello, ego!

In the past 6 months, I've taken more responsibility for my behavior than ever before. I've recognized that I control my body, my attitude toward my body, and my emotions, not the other way around. I've invested time daily in order to do this, and it's made me feel radically empowered.

In this moment, it also made me feel alone. I felt the urge to rely on someone else for a change, to lay all my pain on the table like I used to, and see if someone else could sort it out. I'm so thankful that I don't feel a regular compulsion to do that anymore. It has only ever compounded my problems and made me feel much worse.

I guess this happens. We're only human and sometimes we do need each other. Sometimes we even need to sleep all day, eat crap, and watch filth TV. But as the vodka wore off, so did my total bummer of a mood. It left me even more resolved to take good care of myself, and to (in the words of UK band Dry the River) "fight those demons, day in and day out." I'm thankful that those demons don't rage up daily, but I do believe that strengthening the spirit with daily positivity works like a vaccine against the poison arrows of spiritual devils like pride and self-doubt.

Spiritual strengtheners and spiritual injuries both add up incrementally. In each moment of our behavior, we cast a vote about what knowledge and experiences we are filled with. We can multiply moments of happiness, and we can eliminate doses of things we know make us feel bad. Maybe if nobody watched those TV shows, or bought those magazines, they would disappear from existence. But I doubt that will happen tomorrow. So, just know that in any given moment they can definitely disappear from your own life. It takes some effort to snap out of it, but that is always within your power.

That night, I slept badly, dreamed wildly, and by 5am, was wide awake. By the time my alarm went off, I had already:
  • Warmed up Dave's car 
  • Toasted us both an English muffin with almond butter, and eaten mine
  • Watched the weather/news while stretching
  • Changed the sheets/made the bed
  • Seen the sun rise
  • Had a conversation with a friend
  • Listened to an album and a 20 minute guided meditation
  • Washed/dried/folded a load of laundry
  • Retrieved the mail
  • Cleaned Moose's litter box
  • Taken out the trash and recycling
And that feels great. Maybe I needed a trip to the dark side to refuel my dedication to a peaceful and productive morning routine. Today, I am a master of this early morning thang, all I have to do is keep it up tomorrow... and tomorrow... and tomorrow... whenever possible. Best of luck to me! :)