Since April 2007…

This year has me doing a bit of writing at various blogs (Goodreads book list/reviews, Yoga ~ Dance ~ Music ~ Movement and here). Occasionally something I write refers back to a prior post, and in reading the prior post I discover a typo or a link that is no longer active. So, I’ve made it my goal that periodically, for as long as it takes, I will check one month of Neurons Firing posts at a time, starting at the beginning, and fix typos and links that no longer work.

That’s when I realized it’s been 14 years since my first Neurons Firing post! I have learned a tremendous amount about the brain, seen my interests spread to other areas, taken time off, returned with interest, taken time off again, returned with a bit more zest, till finally it is April 2018.

I have seen how my interest in the brain and my love of practicing (and now teaching) yoga are intricately entwined. During my years of volunteering with people living in both skilled nursing and assisted living I have seen how music, song, and movement temporarily stimulated movement, memories, and liberated their brains.

I have seen how my blogs provide a creative outlet, and are a wonderful resource for when I want to look up something for clarification or as a reminder of an idea or information that is not currently on the tip of my tongue.

Happy 14th birthday Neurons Firing! And, since it is by far my oldest blog, happy blogging birthday to me!

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Remembered Wellness

I have just completed reading Timeless Healing – The Power and Biology of Belief by Herbert Benson, the founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. This is the third book by Benson that I have read in the past month, and definitely the most compelling. About two-thirds through the book I took a break to read the Relaxation Response (also by him) and found that book and this one to be excellent complements to one another with each illuminating the other. If you opt to read one, I heartily recommend reading the other and within a short time period of one another.

REMEMBERED WELLNESS – What it is

What drew me to this book was wanting to understand “remembered wellness”, which many of us might know as the “placebo effect.” The placebo effect is the belief a person has to heal based upon projecting “our intense desire for wellness onto the medicine we take” even if the medicine is just a sugar pill with no medicinal chemical ingredients. In addition, as Benson states “…all of us have the ability to “remember” the calm and confidence associated with health and happiness, but not just in an emotional or psychologically soothing way. This memory is also physical.” Hence, Dr Benson’s conclusion that the placebo effect should be renamed and thought of as “remembered wellness.” To me, the simple act of conjuring remembered wellness is more powerful than the thought of taking a pill called a placebo. As marketers know, there’s much to be said for how something is labeled!

In the late 1990s I was diagnosed with a Stage 1 breast cancer. I vividly recall the conversation with Dr Josephson, the breast surgeon who would operate on my left breast.

Me: Will I die.
Dr J: No.
Me: Will I lose my hair?
Dr J: No.
Me: Okay then, let’s do it!

It is important to know that up till that time I was generally a hard core optimist about most things in life, that I had a head of long, curly, thick red hair, and – most important -– I was the mother of 7 and 14 year old sons.

I didn’t give the conversation much thought again till recently, upon reading this book. Early in the book Dr Benson states what is necessary for remembered wellness:

THREE COMPONENTS OF REMEMBERED WELLNESS

  1. Belief and expectancy on the part of the patient
  2. Belief and expectancy on the part of the caregiver
  3. Belief and expectancies generated by a relationship between the patient and the caregiver

As per my conversation with Dr Josephson each of those items would have a big checkmark next to them. And number 3 was surely impacted by my knowing Dr Josephson as the warm, funny, kind mother of one of my older son’s soccer teammates. (Heck, I knew she went to circus camp as an adult!)

None of this was a placebo – I did have surgery, I did have treatment in the form of radiation, and I did take medicine for five years. However, the surgery and my recovery went smoothly and, after reading Benson’s book, I am convinced that my desire for “remembered wellness” played a major positive part in the process. As the book title suggests, Dr Benson spends a large portion of the book discussing the importance of and science behind the impact of belief.

REMEMBERED WELLNESS – It’s opposite

Turns out there is the opposite side of remembered wellness, the “nocebo” effect. If the placebo effect results in a person believing the best about their treatment, the nocebo effect results in a person believing the worst about their treatment. And what the mind believes, the body does; the body responds to the beliefs we have.

Benson refers to Dr Arthur Barsky, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who “reminds us that paying attention to a symptom or problem amplifies it while distractions lessen our experience of it.” Barsky is quoted as stating “the mandate for self-discipline and self-control becomes so burdensome and so arduous that it begins to erode our sense of well-being and makes us feel increasingly insecure about [our] health.”

THE BIOLOGY

Regardless of whether a person believes in the placebo or the nocebo effect, in times of perceived stress the brain will cause specific hormones to be released. The hormones, in turn, cause physical responses within the body. The severity of those responses and how they are dealt with, using one or any combination of what Dr Benson refers to as the three-legged stool of medicine (Health and Well-Being is the seat supported by the three legs of Self-Care, Surgery and Procedures, and Pharmaceuticals) is influenced by the belief held by the individual. I found an interesting and information-packed TED Talk by Lissa Rankin from 2012, Is there scientific proof we can heal ourselves? that pulled together much of what I’ve been mulling over in Benson’s books.

Your thoughts and feelings about the daily experiences of your life both originate from and transmit signals to your body, neurologically and biochemically instructing and changing your health. [p 245]

RELAXATION RESPONSE and REMEMBERED WELLNESS

They seem to go hand-in-hand, these two, with the relaxation response preparing the mind – and hence, the body – for positive receptivity for remembered wellness.

We know that mental focusing techniques that elicit the relaxation response quiet the mind and the body to a more substantial degree and with greater speed than any other means. We know that the experience seems to clean the slate of the mind, making it more receptive and creative. And we know that the experience feels very spiritual to some people, and that spirituality agrees with them, producing better health. [p 213]

Spirituality is a highly personal feeling. People experience and seek out spirituality in their own way, in their own time, and to varying degrees. Spirituality is separate from  religious belief, though it can definitely be a major component of religious belief. It is not so much religious belief that impacts the magnitude of the impact of remembered wellness as it is simply a belief in something, in other words, some sort of spiritual belief.  For more about spirituality and health, visit the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing Taking Charge of your Health & Wellbeing website, which I found when doing a search for What Is Spirituality.

The Relaxation Response – part 2

My previous post introduced Dr. Herbert Benson and his work on the Relaxation Response. In particular, I wrote about the opposite of the Relaxation Response, the “fight or flight” response and its relationship to stress and how stress impacts the human body. Benson’s research illuminated what he termed the Relaxation Response, the body’s natural capacity to counter the stress response.

While both responses are inherent in our nervous system, the “fight or flight” response is involuntary, meaning it is automatically set into action by the brain, and the Relaxation Response needs to be consciously called upon.  RelaxationResponse.org lists the Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response. and you can also hear Dr Benson explain the steps in the video below.

What interests me about the Relaxation Response is how it relates to the practice of yoga. I have been practicing yoga since 2005 and teaching it since 2016, and have experienced as a yogi and a teacher how yoga can help calm the body, calm the mind, and set the circumstances for invoking the Relaxation Response. The reading I have been doing over the past two weeks (yippee for vacation!) has been to help me understand the underpinnings of why yoga can be a powerful entry to eliciting the Relaxation Response, and to guide my thinking as I plan and cue yoga practice for others.

Dr Benson begins by describing the ancient yogis and their meditation practices. As a scientist, Benson was not content to merely accept what history told him. He studied, measured and monitored monks practicing yoga in Asia (Hemis and Rumtek monasteries) as well as practitioners of Transcendental Meditation who came to Harvard asking to be studied because “they felt they could lower their blood pressure through” TM.

Benson’s research found that Yoga caused physiologic changes that elicited the Relaxation Response: decreased oxygen consumption, deceased respiratory rate, decreased heart rate, increased alpha waves, and decreased blood pressure in those with elevated blood pressure. [the Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, pgs 74-75.] In his book the Relaxation Response, Benson explains

Yoga meditation is concentration on a single point – for example, a physical object or a thought. By dwelling upon an object one may cancel out all distractions that are associated with one’s everyday life and thus achieve a passive attitude.

In my years of practicing yoga it has not been the meditation, per se, that appealed to me. Rather, it has been the physical practice of yoga – the flowing through the asanas, or poses, while moving with my breath. This breath-guided movement has calmed my body and, with it, calmed my mind, and has likely and unknowingly caused me to invoke the Relaxation Response. For the majority of my early years of practicing yoga I was not tuned in to doing any form of conscious meditation, focusing instead on absorbing the asanas into muscle memory and refining them thru subsequent yoga explorations. Still, I did practice forms of silent sitting as my various teachers each guided breath explorations during silent sitting or lying down.

Now that I am a bit more seasoned as a practitioner and as I learn to be a teacher, I believe an initial benefit of yoga is to calm the body. This is akin to Step 3 of how to elicit the Relaxation Response:

Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed. 

A good yoga practice is grounded in stretching, strengthening, and relieving tension in the body, the end result of which is often relaxed muscles. With that physical relaxation present, sitting to invoke the Relaxation Response becomes a natural next step, one that is often guided by yoga teachers as they cue breath explorations, and quiet or guided meditations toward the end of a practice. It is where I find the therapeutic benefits of yoga to truly kick in, and why yoga provided such solace for me when I initially began practicing and continues to nourish my psyche and, I hope, that of my students.

The Relaxation Response – part 1

I have concurrently been reading two books by Dr Herbert Benson: Timeless Healing – The Power and Biology of Belief, and the Relaxation Response. Dr Benson is the founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr Benson came into my viewfinder as a result of ongoing yoga studies with Jillian Pransky, and participation in last Fall’s online class Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga. I’ve written numerous posts here about the course, including a piece here about the human nervous system that concludes with information about the Relaxation Response and a video of Dr Benson guiding the response.

In doing the above searching it turns out I also wrote about the Relaxation Response in October 2011 after assisting in a workshop entitled Preventing Burnout. (I keep thinking perhaps that blog and this should be merged; it would be so much easier to track related posts!) In that post I included a link to the web site RelaxationResponse.org as well Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response.

You have perhaps heard of the “fight or flight” response. I have also seen “faint” added to the combo. “Fight or flight” is the body’s natural response when it senses a stressful situation. Back in the day, this likely meant a predator was present, and the human had to very quickly figure out what to do as a matter of self-preservation.

In that instance, when faced with a threatening situation, the beating of the human’s heart sped up, their blood pressure increased, they started breathing faster, and their metabolism sped up. To prepare for movement for running or fighting more blood flowed to the muscles in the arms and legs, and muscle tension increased. The signals for these bodily changes were brought about by the release of the hormones adrenalin (epinephrine) and noradrenalin (norepinephrine), which triggered the human’s brain and muscles into action. In perceiving a stressful situation the human automatically released these stress hormones, which in turn caused bodily changes in the human making it possible to react (hopefully with success!) to the perceived stress.

This is all well and good when a life threatening stimulus presents itself to a human. However, in this day and age many of the stimuli that we face are not life-threatening, yet our bodies respond to the stimuli as if it was life-threatening. This presents a problem for the individual because those same stress hormones are released whenever the brain perceives a stressful situation. Dr Benson provides a definition of stress in The Wellness Book: The Comprehensive Guide to Maintaining Health and Treating Stress-Related Illness (another book I recently read).

Stress is the perception of a threat to one’s physical or psychological well-being and the perception that one is unable to cope with that threat.

In The Wellness Book Benson distinguishes between good stress, which can have a positive impact, and distress, which is chronic or excessive stress. Positive stress will dissipate and leave minimal side effects behind; chronic stress does not dissipate and causes actual harm to the body. In particular, chronic stress causes high blood pressure, which is medically known as hypertension, and is considered a precursor to heart attacks and strokes.

There are many ways to respond to the sensation of stress, some that alleviate it in a more beneficial manner, and some, such as overeating or bingeing on unhealthy delectables, excessive drinking of alcohol, or reliance on  drugs that provide temporary respite while causing detrimental side effects. In Benson’s research he found that the Relaxation Response is a built-in, natural response that can be evoked to counteract the effects of the body’s automatic stress response. For more about this, please see The Relaxation Response – part 2.

 

the End of Old Age (a book, not a proclamation!)

[Over dinner this evening I was telling my husband about this book and my review. His response turned out to be the perfect succinct comment about Marc Agronin and this book. My husband said, “he has a growth mindset about aging.”]

In making his case for aging, geriatric psychiatrist Marc Agronin is first and foremost a passionate optimist. This book combines Agronin’s action plan for making the most of our lives as we age with interesting and often uplifting stories of people who are aging.

He poses two sets of questions, the first being When do you think you made better decisions – when you were 21-years old or now? This question is designed to help the reader realize that with age comes wisdom.

The second set of questions are rhetorical, answered by Agronin, and based upon his description of five core strengths that I’ve noted below.

Why age? To grow in wisdom.
Why survive? To realize a purpose.
Why thrive? To create something new.

Agronin believes we have a repository of strengths, and his action plan is designed to tap into those strengths, some of which we may have forgotten we have, some of which we may have not realized we’ve tapped, and some which will be tapped or retapped in new ways. These strengths are:

Knowledge, the Savant that “learns, sows, and teaches”
Judgement, the Sage that “weighs and decides”
Empathy, the Curator that “cares and connects”
Creativity, the Creator that “imagines and makes”
and finally, Insight, the Seer that “accepts and communes”

This book is a practical and positive roadmap to taking stock on one’s life, no matter how abysmal it may be at the moment, and acknowledging who you were up to that point and who you want to be moving forward. This is all well and good but it presupposes that there are adequate resources available, be they monetary, people, treatment centers, and community. For the people in Florida who have the good fortune to work with Marc Agronin, this is likely a positive way forward for them in their aging.

My life experience with both my parents has shown me a different path through aging. I did not have access to some of the adequate resources that make a difference. For instance, I dealt with a doctor who cruised through nursing homes and did not establish relationships with family members, nursing home staff and rehab staff who were underpaid and overworked (despite both locations being known as “high quality”), and a basic ignorance on my part of where to even begin. Had a doctor been available or known to me with Marc Agronin’s apparent compassion and belief in positive aging, including in the face of illness, my skepticism about “the End of Old Age” might be non-existent.

[Reprinted from my Goodreads book review.]

Stroke of Insight redux (this time as a book)

[Not including the links below to blog posts I’ve previously written, the rest of this is a repost of my Goodread’s book review of Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight. ]

If you have yet to see Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, I urge you to watch it AND to then read her book. I have watched the talk multiple times in the years since it was first made available (my first viewing was described here in 2008), and each time am awed by what she has to say and how she says it.

Jill’s words are inspiring and humbling. This is so for her talk as well as for her book. Her book, especially, resonated with me on multiple levels. My mother had a stroke (which I wrote about here), and so Jill’s description of what happened to her, and her experience going through the immediate aftermath and ensuing treatment, gave me insight into what my mother may have experienced.

I was fascinated on the basic level of learning more about the brain. I find the thought of myself continually changing as I age. It used to be I was simply a human being. Now, having learned over the years more about the brain, and having come to understand that my human body is actually host to a vast variety of microbes, my concept of being human has evolved. Being human is an awesome entity and collection of entities!

As a yoga practitioner and teacher of other yogis, I particularly appreciated the latter portions of Jill’s book where she talks about what she has learned in order to be able to tap into her right brain bliss.

In this age of intense political discourse, where the news can sometimes color the tone of the entire day (and not necessarily in a positive way), the more we understand how to access the positive, healing, joyful parts of our beings, the more healthy and hopeful our lives and the lives of all of us can become.

An Alley Oop!

The 2012 article Happiness is in the Right Brain was shared by Jillian Pransky as part of follow-up resources to her workshop in which I participated last week, Guiding and Cueing Students to Deeper States of Relaxation.

I’ve written before about the right brain/left brain distinction, and the article referenced above focuses on the benefits of thinking in the right brain to promote happiness. What intrigued me about the article, however, was a simple visual puzzle about a quarter of the way down the page. There you will see a spinning dancer. The question is, which way do you see her spinning – to the right (counter-clockwise) or to the left (clockwise)? I saw her spinning to the left, clockwise. According to the author, the direction you see the dancer spinning tells you which side of your brain you tend to use more often. The author also states that you can switch your focus and get your brain to see the dancer spin in the opposite direction.

I want to know why the way you initially see the dancer spin explains which side of the brain you tend to use the most. Research has shown that while there are parts of the brain that get tapped more intimately for certain actions, in general the brain does not divvy up its processing by “side”, and instead multiple parts of the brain are involved in each and every processing action.

If anyone knows the answer to my question or can point me to some explanation, please do so in a comment. Thanks!