Archive for March, 2014

Our Future Brains: Forbidden Planet?

March 29, 2014

My favorite science fiction movie is Forbidden Planet. In the movie human space explorers traveled to a planet in a distant solar system 16 light years from earth. They were looking for what had happened to another expedition that had not been heard from for many years. Before they land they are warned by Dr. Morbius, a member of this previous expedition, to stay away. Nevertheless, they do land and discover Dr. Morbius, his daughter, and Robbie the Robot. Dr. Morbius tells them that this planet had previously been occupied by a highly intelligent species, the Krell. The Krell had become extinct due to some mysterious force. Shortly after the human space explorers arrive they experience attacks from an invisible force that kills them. Apparently they are defenseless. One member of the crew undergoes a brain boost using a device developed by the Krell. He comes to understand the source of this deadly force, explains what it is, and then dies from the brain boost. In turns out that this force is the same force that resulted in the extinction of the Krell.
Understanding the nature of this force requires some understanding of Freudian psychology. According to Freud, there are three mental entities, the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the source of all our primal desires and emotions. The ego is the means for dealing with reality on a rational basis. The superego works as a moral force overlooking both the id and the ego. Unfortunately for the Krell, they learned how to use their mental powers to kill and destroy. So their ids overrode their egos and superegoes resulting in their own destruction. Dr. Morbius was using this same mental force to destroy the visiting humans. Eliminating Dr. Morbius stopped the death and destruction.
So allow me a to take a new science fiction journey. This one with a species that masters the Triangle of Well-Being through mindfulness. The mind develops the brain using neuroplasticity for beneficial synaptogenesis, myleinogenesis, neurogenesis, and epigenesis to an extraordinary degree. The mind uses these enhanced capabilities of the brain to develop and grow beneficial interrelationships. Moreover, mindfulness practices have influenced executive function to include emotional regulation and the focus of attention, as well as emotional and social intelligence. Included here are the anterior and posterior cingulate , the orbitofrontal cortex, and both the medial and the ventral aspects of the preftontal region, including the insula and the limbic hippocampus. People become empowered to work for the benefit of all. Crime becomes extremely rare, and wars are no longer possible. This fantasy is Forbidden Planet with a happy ending. Let us not go the way of the Krell.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mindful Awareness

March 25, 2014

This post is based on Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology who describe mindful awareness as a form of awareness in which we are alert and open to present experience without being swept up by judgments and prior expectations. This implies discernment or a moral stance that is one of positive regard for others, and a nonjudgmental awareness that is imbued with acceptance at its core, of compassion towards oneself and others.
A direct quote from 6-3 of the Pocket Guide follows: “Studies of those with mindful awareness using a broad application of these features reveal that it is of benefit to the health of the mind, in terms of balanced emotional regulation, flexibility, and approaching rather than withdrawing from challenging events. Being mindful makes you more empathic and improves the health of relationships. And being mindful improves the health of the body in terms of enhanced immune function and increased telomerase—the enzyme that maintains the telomeres at the ends of chromosomes and thus enhances cellular longevity. Mindfulness also helps you have more resilience in the face of chronic pain. Mindful awareness helps minds, relationships, and our embodied lives.”
Mindful awareness practices are available for children and adolescents as well as for adults, so mind-training practices have the potential to promote well-being and resilience throughout the life span. According to the annotated index mindful awareness practice is skill building training that focuses attention on intention and the cultivation of awareness of awareness. Repeated and regular practice has been shown to strengthen to regulate emotion and attention, improve empathy and insight, promote healthy immune functioning, move the electrical activity of the brain toward a “left shift” of approaching challenging situations and increase the activity and growth of regulatory and integrative regions of the brain. Examples of mindful awareness practices include mindfulness meditation, centering prayer, yoga, and tai chi chuan. More examples of mindfulness and meditation can be found by entering “mindfulness” or “meditation” into the healthymemory blog search block.
These practices have affected the integrated areas of the brain that link the cortex, limbic area, brainstem, and social inputs from other brains. These areas influence executive function to include emotional regulation and the focus of attention, as well as emotional and social intelligence. Included here are the anterior and posterior cingulate , the orbitofrontal cortex, and both the medial and the ventral aspects of the preftontal region, including the insula and the limbic hippocampus.


March 22, 2014

My views regarding attention have changed somewhat after reading Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. But my views regarding the importance of attention have been further strengthened. According to Siegel, “Attention is the process that shapes the direction of the flow of energy and information. Attention can be within consciousness, so that we are aware of the object of our attention. Attention can also be nonconscious, in that energy and information flow is being directed, but we are not aware of that flow. The formal terms for these are focal (conscious) and nonfocal (non-conscious) attention.”

In other words, little important happens absent attention. What is new for me is the notion of nonfocal attention. I have always thought of attention as being consciousness or focal attention. However, upon reflection, I found examples of non-conscious attention. In this blog I have spoken of being unable to recall some information. I try and try, yet remain unable to access it. Then, much later, hours, sometimes days, the information suddenly pops into consciousness. There are also cases of scientific ideas and problem solutions popping into mind, seemingly out of nowhere.
But they did not pop out of nowhere. Apparently they were the result of nonfocal attention continuing to search for the item or solution long after the conscious mind had given up.

Being able to focus our attention so that we bring mental energy where it is needed is critical to the functioning of a healthy memory. And we have the consolation of knowing that our nonfocal attention might keep on working and learning even after our conscious efforts have ceased.

I’ll conclude this post with an excerpt from Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. “From an interpersonal neurobiology perspective, attention is the “scalpel” that helps us remold neural pathways: Attention is to a clinician or teacher what a scalpel is to a surgeon. Individuals can be empowered with focal attention to move the neural proclivities of trauma into new states of integrative firing. Children whose teachers capture their imagination and inspire them to pay attemtion will be able to learn and build a scaffold of knowledge about the world and themselves. Attention is the driving force of change and growth.”1

1Siegel, D.J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobioloty: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Supporting Neuroplasticity

March 18, 2014

Neuroplasticity is our capacity to change, regardless of how old we are. Daniel J. Siegel’s superb book, Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind offers the following aspects of our life that can support neuroplasticity.

“. Aerobic exercise – when medically possible, voluntary exercise can support continued brain growth.

Good sleep – we consolidate our learning from the day when we get a good period of sleep with plenty of REM states for dreaming.

Good nutrition – the “soil” of the brain’s structure requires good food and water, including safe sources of omega-3’s in order to function properly and allow the “seed” of good attentional focus to work well.

Relationships – our connections with others support a vibrant and plastic brain.

Novelty – when we get out of a rut and expose the brain to new stimuli, when we are playful and spontaneous, we keep the brain growing and young.

The close paying of attention—when we avoid multitasking and distractions and care about what we are focusing on, we can actually stimulate the release of chemicals locally and widely support neuroplasticity.

Time-in. When we focus on our inner sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts, reflecting inwardly, we encourage the growth of regulatory, integrative neural circuits.

And, possibly, humor—some preliminary studies suggest that when we laugh we promote health growth of the brain.”1

My personal endorsement of the benefits of humor is less tentative and much stronger. Laughing entails breathing in healthy amounts of air along with what is frequently a healthy social interaction. Humor also involves the switch of contexts that implies the use of unanticipated circuits in the brain. See the healthymemory blog post, “Paraprosdokians and a Healthy Memory.”

1Siegel, D.J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. New York: WW. Norton & Company, pp. 8-8 to 8-9.

What is Neuroplasticity and How Does It Work?

March 15, 2014

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change its structure in response to experience.”1

What follows is a brief synopsis as to how this change is accomplished. We have an average of ten thousand connections linking an average neuron to other neurons. Given that there a hundred billion neurons, there are hundreds of trillions of synaptic linkages. Moreover there are trillions of glial cells supporting the effort. One type of glial cell is the oligodendrocyte. When we develop skills after many hours of practice the oligodendrocytes produce myelin. Mylein is a fatty sheath that coils around the neuron’s axon that sends signals to other neurons. When myelin is present, the speed of the action potential down the axon is 100 times faster. Myelin also decreases the time for recovery before the next firing, the refractory period. This refractory period is 30 times shorter. So the enhanced functoning of a myleinated circuit is 3,000 (30 times 100) faster than a non-myleinated circuit. This provides the basis for the phenomena performances we sometimes see.

Synaptogenesis is the process by which synapses are created or strengthened. Myleinogenesis the process by which these circuits become much faster. In addition to these two ways in which the brain changes as the result of experience there is neurogenesis. Neurogenesis occurs throughout the entire life span and involves the differentiation of neuro stem cells into fully mature neurons in the brain. This process may take from two to three months in contrast to the more rapid synaptogenesis that occurs within minutes to hours and becomes consolidated over days or weeks. Studies have identified this more slowly occurring neurogenesis in the hippocampal region, but it is expected that this will be found in other areas in the future. Of course, the hippocampus is important for its central role in memory. Research has also shown that physical exercise benefits hippocampal growth (see the healthymemory blog post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocakmpus.”)

Epigenesis is the process by which experience alters the regulation of gene expression by way of changing the various molecules (histones and methyl) on the chromosome. Understand that genes themselves are not changed. Rather the way that information is read out from the genes is changed. This is how experience and genetics interact.

SNAG is the acronym to explain how these processes result in neuroplasticity. SNAG stands for stimulating neural activation and growth. Add to this the expression that neurons that fire together , wire together. That’s how we learn, but this is also the basis for remembering. Neurons that have not fired together for a long time, can result in that memory circuit being difficult to find. The memory is likely still available, but not currently accessible. That’s why healthy memory recommends revisiting old memory circuits. When you can’t remember something, sometimes it is good not to look it up, but to keep trying to remember. Even if this attempt fails, your nonconscious mind is apt to keep looking for it, and it might suddently pop into memory hours or even days later.

Remember to use your mind to control, exercise, and grow neural circuits. This is the fundamental means of keeping a memory healthy.

1Siegel, D. J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. New York: Norton & Company. This blog post is based primarily on this reference.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Brain

March 11, 2014

Within the triangle of well-being (see the immediately preceding post) it is important to have some understanding of the brain, as that is the organ that the mind needs to control and grow. All of the following are estimates:1

  • There are 1 million neuronal connections formed every second.

  • There are 100 billion nerve cells in the brain.

  • It computes 100 trillion instructions per second compared to the 25 billion instruction per second done by a typical desktop computer.

  • There are 500 trillion synaptic connections in an adult human brain.

Moreover, there are trillions of glial cells providing support.

It is also important to know that neurogenesis occurs throughout the entire life span and involves the differentiation of neuro stem cells into fully mature neurons in the brain.

This brain is one tremendous device we have. Unfortunately, the brain frequently seems to have a mind of its own. And it requires dedicated focused attention for the brain to grow and fulfill its potential.

Transactive memory is a resource consisting of the memories of our fellow humans. These memories can be accessed through direct personal relationships or through technology. Technology brings us the wisdom of the ancients. It also allows us to profit from the mistakes of our predecessors.

Mindfulness and meditation help our minds control our brains including our emotions. They also develop our attentional powers so we are able to grow and achieve in desired directions.

Our brains are a terrible thing to waste. But our minds can prevent our brains from being wasted.

1Huang, G.T. (2008). Essence of thought. New Scientist, 31 May, 30-33.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Triangle of Well-Being

March 8, 2014

The Triangle of Well-Being is a chapter in Daniel J. Siegel’s superb book, Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. This triangle of well-being is a three pointed figure that is a metaphor for the idea that mind, brain, and relationships are each part of a whole. The notion is that this triangle is a metaphoric map that signifies one reality with three interdependent facets. The triangle represents the process by which energy and information flow. This process changes over time. Relationships are the sharing of this flow. The brain refers to the extended nervous system distributed throughout the body that serves as the embodied mechanism of that flow. The mind is an emergent process that arises from the system of energy information flow within and among people. A critical aspect of the mind is the emergent process of self-regulation that regulates that from which it arises.

So the mind can regulate and change the brain, which is the process of neuroplasticity. The energy information flow within us, our thinking and behavioral process, along with our communication with our fellow human beings can produce resultant changes in the brain for better or worse. The worse part is when maladaptive emotions, thoughts, and behaviors occur. The better part is when we acquire new knowledge, modulate our emotions, and foster beneficial and enjoyable relationships.

Siegel is a psychiatrist who is the Co-Director of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. He uses this conceptual treatment both in his treatment of psychiatric patients and in the development of healthy mindfulness. His pocket guide goes into great detail regarding the parts of the brain and how they are modified in the process.

Permit me to elaborate on this triangle using the lingo of the healthymemory blog. Interpersonal relationships are part of transactive memory, but transactive memory includes technology as well as live interactions among individuals. Books and other technical media allow us to establish relationships with humans who have long departed. Admittedly, these relationships are uni-directional, but they are nevertheless valuable. We can also establish relationships through technology with living individuals throughout the world, and these relationships are definitely bi-directional.  Relationships among groups are omnidirectional. Such relationships can be valuable, but they need to be distinguished from relationships in social media, such as Facbook, where “friending” can be largely superficial.

Interpersonal Neurobiology

March 4, 2014

The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind by Daniel J. Siegel is a valuable and fairly unique book. I find the text especially relevant as it fits well with the philosophy of the healthymemory blog. Dr. Siegel posits a Triangle of Well-Being, more of which will be written in the subsequent post. It consists of three components: a mind, a brain, and relationships. The mind is an emergent phenomena that emerges from the sophistication of the brain and is represented in our conscious mind. The brain includes not only the physical brain, but also the entire nervous system. Relationships refer to our relations and interactions with fellow human beings. In the lingo of the healthy memory blog, this concept of relationships is captured in the category of transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to the memories of our fellow human beings and to the memories resident in technology. But be aware that these memories available in technology are the result of memories of fellow human beings. Thanks to technology, we are privy to the thoughts of the ancient Greeks, as well as all the great philosophers and scholars throughout the course of recorded time. This also includes the memories of people from diverse cultures speaking diverse languages. The key concept here is that we can and should use our minds to control and develop our brains to best advantage. This is not always easy as the brain often appears to have a mind of its own. But mindfulness techniques are there to help us control and develop our thinking, as well as control our emotions. Using the mind in this way allows us to exploit the neuroplasticity of the nervous system throughout our lives. Similarly, our minds can interact with our relationships to foster those relationships so that they achieve maximum benefits.

The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology does not have chapters. Rather it has numbered entry points with titles, but there is no requirement to follow the numbers. The guide is written so that you can enter at any numbered topic you find to be of immediate interest and start reading. Each entry point has several terms that are nodes in a larger interconnected network. There are 168 nodes in this nodal network. The nodes and other important general terms are italicized for ease of reference throughout the text. They can be found with brief definitions in an annotated index. The nodes serve as a bridge to read different entries so that you can interweave the conceptual framework as you move in and out of the different entries to satisfy your own personal interest.

How Mindfulness Meditation Helps Us Regulate Our Emotions

March 1, 2014

Recent research1 has helped us understand how mindfulness resulting from meditation helps regulate our emotions. First of all, mindfulness increases awareness of our internal states. So if something starts to anger us, such as an insult or an aggressive driver, the mindfulness person will recognize these feeling faster than less mindful counterparts.

The mindful person will also have greater emotional awareness. So should a mindful person encounter an aggressive driver, the mind sends a warning that this anger needs to be regulated. Similarly, when a mindful person starts to feel depressed, there is an awareness that this emotion needs to be controlled and that it can be controlled.

The following2 is a classroom exercise that is used to show the benefits of mindfulness. Students are each given a few raisins. Half of the class is asked to look at their feet and remain quiet for 4 minutes. These students serve as the control group. The other half of the class is the mindfulness group. The following phrases are shown on PowerPoint slides for 30 seconds each.

Holding: Take one raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand between your finger and you thumb. Focusing on it, imagine that you’ve just dropped in from Mars and have never seen an object like this before in your life.

Seeing: Take time to really see it; gaze at the raisin with care and full attention. Let your eyes explore every part of it, examining the highlights were the light shines, the darker hollows, the folds and ridges, and any asymmetries or unique figures.

Touching: Turn the raisin over between your fingers, exploring its texture, maybe with your eyes closed if that enhances your sense of touch.

Smelling: Hold the raisin beneath your nose, and with each inhalation, drink in any smell, aroma, or fragrance than may arise, noticing anything interesting that may be happening in your mouth or stomach.

Placing: Now slowly bring the raisin up to your lips, noticing how your hand and arm know exactly how and where to position it. Gently place the raisin in the mouth, without chewing, noticing how it gets into the mouth in the first place. Spend a few moments exploring the sensations of having it in your mouth, exploring it with your tongue.

Tasting: When you are ready, prepare to chew the raisin, noticing how and where it needs to be for chewing . Then, very consciously, take one or two bits into it and notice what happens in the aftermath, experiencing any waves of taste that emanate from it as you continue chewing. Without swallowing yet, notice the bare sensations of taste and texture in the mouth and how these may change over time, moment by moment, as well as any changes in the raisin itself.

Swallowing: When you feel ready to swallow the raisin, see if you can first detect the intention to swallow as it comes up, so that even this is experienced consciously before you actually swallow it.

Following: Finally, see if you can feel what is left of the raisin moving down into the stomach, and sense how the body as a whole is feeling after completing this exercise in mindful eating.

Next all students write a paragraph about their biggest life stressors. Then the students are asked to identify the emotions that these stressors cause. The mindfulness group should list more emotion words than the control group because the mindfulness group should be more aware of their internal states. Finally the students are asked the following question: “How upset are you right now, that is AT THE PRESENT MOMENT, about the stressful things you listed” using a rating scale from 1= not at all upset to 10=extremely upset. The mindful students are expected to be less upset than the students in the control group because they are better able to regulate their emotions.

Bear in mind that this is one of many types of meditation. Entering either “mindfulness,” or “meditation” into the healthymemory blog search box will yield many healthymemory posts on these topics.

1Reper, R. Segal, Z.V., & Inzlicht, M. (2013). Inside the mindful mind: How mindfulness enhances emotion regulation through improvements in executive control.

2DeWakk, C.N., & Meyers, D. G. (2014). Mindful Students: The Pain and Pleasure of Awareness and Acceptance. Observer, 27, 2, 30-31.