Category Archives: Brain 101

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.


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:


  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.


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.”


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]


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.


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.

Our Nervous System, explained

I am taking the online course Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga, which partially explains why it has been two years since my last post on this blog. During the first half of 2016 I was studying for my 200-hour yoga teacher certification and blogging at my other web home, Yoga ~ Dance ~ Music ~ Movement. And for large portions of 2015, 2016, and the summer of 2017, my son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren were living with us. Spend time blogging here or with my family; easy decision!

My yoga blog has been the recipient of all yoga-related writing and below is a cross-post of my most recent post, written earlier today. It deals exclusively with the nervous system and how stress impacts and is dealt with by the nervous system. The post is reprinted below.

The lectures by Catherine Spann and Stacy Dockins from Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga have explained the basics of what happens when stress manifests in the human body. A little bit of stress is manageable; a lot of stress begins to break down our capacity to effectively deal with the stress, and that in turn can manifest in the malfunctioning of other body systems.

Our nervous system consists of two parts, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. I use the word “central” to help remember what the central nervous system consists of – it consists of our brain and spinal cord, the part of our nervous system that runs center or central in our body from our head to the bottom of the spine and is housed in our axial skeleton.

The peripheral nervous system is the communications conduit between the central nervous system and the rest of the body. The word “peripheral” means outlying items or those not centrally located. Again, this helps me remember what the peripheral nervous system deals with – the parts of our nervous system peripheral to the brain and spinal cord, the parts of our nervous system that run through our appendicular skeleton.

The peripheral nervous system consists of the somatic nervous system, which are our voluntary actions, and the autonomic nervous system, which are our unconscious actions such as our heart beating (though we can control that to some extent), and the regulation of digestion, respiration, to name a few of the systems.

Finally, the autonomic nervous system is further composed of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two have alliterative words to quickly and easily describe their functions. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight, flight or freeze response, which Catherine likens to putting a lead foot on a gas pedal.  The parasympathetic nervous system invokes the rest and digest response, which Catherine equates to putting on the brakes. All of these systems interact with the hypothalamus in the brain, which along with the pituitary gland and the thalamus are part of the endocrine system.

The last piece of this puzzle is the vagus nerve, the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system. Its role as part of the parasympathetic nervous system involves regulating the heart, lungs and digestive tract. You can read more about this intriguing nerve in 9 Nervy Facts About the Vagus Nerve.

Now we come to stress and how it impacts our nervous system. Stress can be of a short duration, known as acute stress, or it can be chronic stress meaning it is ongoing over a long period of time or simply recurring over and over and over. Our nervous system has a “set point” where it is relatively in balance; this is called homeostasis. Each time our body undergoes some form of stress, our nervous system makes adjustments to return to homeostasis. This adjustment process is known as allostasis. If we are frequently engaged in allostasis it leads to allostatic load, which is the wear and tear on our body systems that often leads to an autonomic imbalance, meaning our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are out of whack.

Eventually allostatic load causes a cycle that over time makes it difficult to reset our nervous system and find our way back to homeostasis. This is where yoga comes in! Yoga can calm the nervous system and strengthen the ability to self-regulate. A calm nervous system can begin the process of allostasis and correcting for the growing internal imbalances.

One way of calming the nervous system is by stimulating the relaxation response as described by Dr Herbert Benson. Deep, slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which then positively triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. As noted in a prior post, the combination of movement (the physical part of yoga), breath, mindful attention, and relaxation lead to improved mental health. This combination makes for a powerful self-regulation tool that lets you consciously partner with allostasis to reset your body in homeostasis.

Brainy Henry Markram!

I have just watched this fascinating TED Talk: Henry Markram builds a brain in a supercomputer. (The link goes to a high definition version of his talk.)

Markram is the director of a project that runs on high intensity IBM computers and is called Blue Brain. (Hmm, does the Blue refer to  IBM’s also being known as Big Blue?”) Blue Brain is “a supercomputing project that can model components of the mammalian brain to precise cellular detail – and simulate their activity in 3D.” The graphics, let alone the math and science, are incredibly striking. And after listening to Markram, I couldn’t help but think of a tenth grader at my school who recently attended the Singularity Summit that took place in New York City over the weekend of October 3-4.

The Singularity represents an “event horizon” in the predictability of human technological development past which present models of the future may cease to give reliable answers, following the creation of strong AI [Artificial Intelligence] or the enhancement of human intelligence.

You can read about the Blue Brain Project, also described as “the first comprehensive attempt to reverse-engineer the mammalian brain, in order to understand brain function and dysfunction through detailed simulations.” Or check out this SEED article by Jonah Lehrer, Can A Thinking, Remembering, Decision-Making, Biologically Accurate Brain Be Built From A Supercomputer?

What reaction do you have to this possibility? To the stunningly vibrant images?

Pictures at a Dissection

Well, last weekend I dissected a preserved sheep brain. The previous week a colleage (a Science teacher with whom I co-teach the elective “Frontiers in Science”) brought me a fresh-from-the-butcher sheep brain, and we spent 20 minutes exploring it. The brain was soft and squishy. Having been partially frozen, as it melted it became almost like goop. Wish I had my camera, as it was easy to pick up or point out individual parts.

The preserved brain I dissected over the weekend was quite firm, making it easy to cut and hold, yet because it was preserved the brain seemed more like a plastic model. On May 3rd the “Frontiers in Science” class will dissect sheep brains, and the brains we will provide will be half from the butcher and half preserved brains.

My next goal is to further study individual brain parts, and for this I am hoping to borrow a microscope from school.

Imagination: Ramachandran

Phantoms in the Brain is an engaging tale of individuals who have odd and curious brain quirks, often resulting from a malfunction in their brain such as a stroke, which display in sometimes unbelievable manifestations.

Ramachandran begins with an overview of the brain’s physiology, coupled with sharing how he approaches study of the brain. He likens the work to that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in the pursuit of solving mysteries. As a youngster, Ramachandran was intrigued by science, concocting unusual experiments with simple tools, and with “being drawn to the exception rather than to the rule in every science” he studied. He believes that “the odd behavior of these patients can help us solve the mystery of how various parts of the brain create a useful representation of the external world and generate the illusion of a “self” that endures in space and time.”

Once explained, the experiments that Ramachandran designed sounded deceptively simple and logical. What impressed me was his imaginative insight in concocting them in the first place.

Chapter Five describes patients who have discrepancies between what they visually see, and what they believe they see. Damage to some portion of the visual cortex can result in hallucinations, and depending upon the type of damage, the hallucinations can impact specific portions of the visual field, such as the lower half or the left half. As an example, there is the story of one patient who sustained damage to his eyes and optic nerves as the result of an auto accident. Greatly, though not wholly, recovered, he had visual hallucinations in just “the lower half of his field of vision, where he was completely blind. That is, he would only see imaginary objects below a center line extending form his nose outward.”

Ramachandran goes on to describe how the patient discerns between what is real and what is an hallucination. At one point, the patient says he sees a monkey sitting on Ramachandran’s lap. The patient notes that while “it looks extremely vivid and real”, “it’s unlikely there would be a professor here with a monkey sitting in his lap so I think there probably isn’t one.” The patient goes on to state that the images “often look too good to be true. The colors are vibrant, extraordinarily vivid, and the images actually look more real that real objects, if you see what I mean.” The hallucinations tend to fade fairly soon after being “seen”, and while they usually blend in with the rest of what is actually being seen, the patient knows that they are part of his visual imagination. He enjoys the surprise of what he conjures up, and is more concerned about his partial blindness.

By the end of this chapter, which has a number of other interesting and curious vision tales, Ramachandran hypothesizes that “all these bizarre visual hallucinations are simply an exaggerated version of the processes that occur in your brain and mine every time we let our imagination run free. Somewhere in the confused welter of interconnecting forward and backward pathways is the interface between vision and imagination. … what we call perception is really the end result of a dynamic interplay between sensory signals and high-level stored information about visual images from the past.”

What starts to emerge is an explanation of imagination as a combination of that which we have visually seen, processed and stored in memory, coupled with crafting something new based upon those conceptions. Interesting questions arise…

  • If we had no prior knowledge, would we be able to imagine?
  • Do we consciously conjure our imagination, or is it a subconscious process, or a little of both depending upon the situation?
  • When we are feeling stymied and need a nudge to get our imagination going, how do we do that under our own power?
  • When we totally zone out (like I do when getting in the groove of swimming laps), how is it that thoughts can just “pop” into my head?

Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran & Sandra Blakeslee

Phantoms in the Brain was listed someplace as one of the books that must be read by any serious student of neurology. Having quite enjoyed watching Ramachandran give his TED Talk, of course I had to snap up the book!

If you are like me, and found this talk entertaining, lively and informative, then you will not be disappointed in reading Phantoms in the Brain.

Phantoms can be approached from any number of angles. Read it for the science, and you will come away with a deeper understanding of how parts of our brain function. Indeed, Ramachandran’s approach reminded me of an exercise we did with Robert Greenleaf this past August. Designed to teach the concept of verbs, the exercise had us rewriting a fairy tale but we had to leave out all verbs. One way to learn what a verb is, is to have to write without using any verbs. And one way to learn about our brains is to study the oddities of the brain.

phantoms.pngRead it for the experiments and tinkering, and you will come away with an appreciation for how simple experiments can be used to find answers to complex questions. You are also sure to be impressed by the imaginative methods employed in devising these experiments.

Read it as a medical sleuth and join Sherlock Ramachandran as he attempts “to share the sense of mystery that lies at the heart of all scientific pursuits and is especially characteristic of the forays we make in trying to understand our own minds.”

Read it as a psychologist or philosopher to try and find neurological underpinnings for how we are who we are.

Read it as a novel filled with emotion, mystery, conflict, people’s lives, and pursuit of the unknown.

I appreciated it on all counts, and took note of his commentary on imagination, attention, left and right hemispheres, cognitive neuroscience, creativity, and the need for doing experiments, all of which will be covered in a future post!

By the way, no need to take just my word for it. On the amazon page for this book, there are 84 customer reviews; 67 folks give the book 5 stars, and the remaining 10 folks rate it 4 stars. The first three reviews (Matteson, Hills and Peterzell) provide an in-depth overview of the book’s content and style.