Category Archives: Design

Worship the normal curves

I learned a lot about the human spine this summer in the Experiential Anatomy online class led by the highly talented teaching team of Judith Hansen Lasater, Mary Richards and Lizzie Lasater. First of all, in fairness to Mary Richards, I need to get the nomenclature correct! As she noted, the vertebral column is a column or chain of vertebral bodies, whereas the spine is an anatomical term relating to a bony feature or ridge on various bones. Vertebra is singular; vertebrae is plural. There are some 33 bones in the vertebral column, most which move independently but several that are fused together and move as a unit.

The vertebral bones are arranged by size and shape, these being influenced by the curve in their respective part of the spine, and all of these attributes influences the function of that part of the spinal column. In order to bear more weight the bones get bigger from top to bottom of the column. In addition, the cervical vertebrae have less stability and more mobility, and progressing down the spinal column the lowest portion has more stability with less mobility.

Worship the normal curves 

is the mantra that began the study of the vertebral column, giving new meaning to the age old exhortation to sit (or stand) up straight. Years ago I was able to memorize the number of vertebrae in each area according to meal times: 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebrae, 5 lumbar vertebrae (breakfast at 7, lunch at 12, dinner at 5). I guess the snack is the sacrum, with 5 vertebrae fused into 1 bone, and the coccyx (aka tailbone) that consists of anywhere between 3 to 5 vertebrae.

The cervical curve is the neck area, and has as its first two vertebrae C1, the Atlas (named for the Greek God who held the heavens on his head), and C2, the Axis, which is responsible for head turning. The thoracic curve’s 12 vertebrae all attach to two ribs each, one on either side. The lumbar, or low back vertebrae are the most massive of all the vertebrae; think about how much weight they must bear, hence the need for their size. As noted in a prior post, there is maximum pressure on the vertebral discs when sitting, medium when standing and the least amount of pressure when lying down. Turns out this is why we are a tad taller in the morning.

slinkyEver play with a slinky? If not, that’s a picture of one at the left. It is a spiraling column of wire that can “walk” down stairs and any movement in it reverberates throughout the entire slinky. This is similar to our backbone, which is a kinetic chain – “a connected chain of moving parts” where movement gets transferred up and down the spine.

The trio summed up the vertebral column as the central organizing axis – a giant, curved, coiled antenna receiving signals from the whole body. This axis connects to the hip axis, which is the central axis of movement. The part that connects these two axes is the sacrum, part of the vertebral column at the lumbrosacral joint (the joint between the last lumbar vertebra and the first sacral segment) and part of the pelvis at the sacroliliac joint (between the lowest part of the scarum and the iliac bone in the pelvis.)

My next post will explore each part of the vertebral column in a bit more detail.

Plums & Discs, Plumb Lines & Posture

A really juicy plum is sweet and full. Prod it with your fingers (palpating it!) and you can  feel the give-and-take within the body of the fruit. With that image in mind, imagine your plumvertebral column, the curvy, almost “slinky-like” chain beginning at the base of the skull and continuing down to your pelvis where the lumbar spine meets the sacrum.

The vertebral column is made up of vertebral bodies, and between each vertebral body is an intervertebral disc (IVD). Think back to that juicy plum, the give-and-take as you gently prod it. The IVD works in a similar fashion by providing cushioning to the vertebrae and acting as a shock absorber. During the day the intervertebral discs  sustain the pushing and prodding of the spine as it moves in all directions. As a result of gravity, by day’s end the IVDs have become compressed. There is maximum pressure on the discs when sitting, medium when standing, and the least amount of pressure when lying down. Indeed, after a sound night’s sleep you are a tad taller in the morning because the intervertebral discs have become plump with water and are less compressed.

As for that sweet juicy plum, once you have bitten into it the plum no longer responds the way it did beforehand. Perhaps the flesh of the fruit comes spilling out via drips and small chunks, and maybe you even round your back, jutting your head forward so the yummy mess doesn’t wind up on the front of your shirt! While puncturing the plum is good for your palette, this equivalent action in an intervertebral disc would be counter productive for your spine. Protruded, herniated or prolapsed discs occur when the nucleus of the disc breaks through the area surrounding it, much like your bite into the plum lets the center break through the area surrounding it.

PLUMB LINE (or What are the normal curves of the vertebral column?)
Place a book on your head and try walking without having the book fall off. The walking rhythm with the book staying put is the neutral position of your head in relation to the vertebral column.

To sit or stand with your vertebral column in its normal curvature you first need a sense of what that is within your body. In construction a plumb line is used to determine that something is vertical. In the body a plumb line is a vertical line that you can visualize on the outer side of the body. “It passes through the external auditory meatus of the ear (outer ear), the center of the shoulder joint, the hip joint, the center of the knee joint, and finally the lateral malleolus of the ankle (outer side of the ankle joint).” (From the online course Experiential Anatomy.) The plumb line touches upon body parts that, if vertically aligned, give rise to the normal curvature of the spine.

To find your plumb line ask someone to take a look at you from the side. Stand with your eyes slightly lower than the top of your ears, relax your shoulders, arms loose at your sides, feet and legs supporting your body. If you tend to tuck your tailbone, untuck it. According to Judith Hansen Lasater and Mary Richards in Experiential Anatomy, tucking the tail takes the body out of joint and inhibits the functional muscle patterns that support the core.

Ask your plumb line assistant to tell you what they see. If they note that your head is forward of the plumb line, and if this is not due to a structural issue, it is likely that the jutting of the head is due to sitting with a rounded back. Why might someone have a rounded back while seated? Think: driving, sitting hunched over a computer, looking down at a cell phone…

Sitting with a rounded back impacts the cervical spine and produces a forward jutting head (the head comes forward of the plumb line). When this happens, the weight is no longer being efficiently borne through the vertebral bodies. The result is flexion in the lower cervical (lower part of the neck) and back bending in the upper cervical, neither of which is beneficial to the spine.

POSTURE (adapted from Experiential Anatomy)
Come to your normal standing position. If you feel comfortable, close your eyes a moment and sense your body in vertical space. Reach the crown of your head towards the sky. Sense your normal curves within your vertebral column. If your eyes are closed, open them. These curves are what bear the weight of your body as it responds to gravity. Has anyone ever asked you to “sit up straight” or “stand up straight”? Physiologically it is impossible to straighten your spine because it just isn’t built that way; it is curved, not straight. The only “straight line” in the vertebral column is the line of force – the way gravity is carried through the column.

seated postureNow find a chair and sit on it. Not sure of the way to sit for optimal posture? The key to sitting is all in the pelvis! Once seated, roll slightly forward onto the pubic bone, feet comfortable on the floor or on a small stool if the chair seat is too high. The pelvis should be elevated above the level of the thigh bones, creating an approximately 120° angle between the torso and the thighs. (Not only did I learn this in Experiential Anatomy but also from Mary Bond’s Google Talk: The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand and Walk in the Modern World, where she suggests perching rather than sitting.)

To enjoy your posture as much as you (perhaps) enjoy your plums, work on keeping your posture in synch with your plumb lines, honoring your pelvis (pubic bone tilts forward in sitting, tail bone untucked in standing). And maybe take a yoga class!

My Husband’s Work

Good GreenHouse House7

My husband is an amazing 3D visualizer and artist. Using SketchUp he creates abstract art and designs architecture. Since the arrival of a 3D printer in our home, he has been printing many of his creations, including light sculptures made with LEDs and Arduinos. Recently he has been intrigued with the idea of a greenhouse space, and in this rendering of a home he has given me a yoga studio on the rooftop. Ah ommmmmmm 🙂

Imagination: Norman Doidge & Others

Norman Doidge writes, in The Brain That Changes Itself, “experiments have shown that we can change our brain anatomy simply by using our imaginations.” Using various methods for scanning the brain, researchers have discovered that “from a neuroscientific point of view, imagining an act and doing it are not as different as they sound.

Doidge discusses the topic of imagination in detail in chapter eight, and presents tantalizing evidence, based upon experiments, that “imagination and action are” integrated, “despite the fact that we tend to think of imagination and action as completely different and subject to different rules.” And he goes even further, stating “But consider this: in some cases, the faster you can imagine something, the faster you can do it.” This reminds me hugely of the process of visualization.

Karin Wells, of CBC Radio Canada, did an interview with Norman Doidge. You can read more about the interview, and even listen to it, on the Feldenkrais Manitoba blog in Feldenkrais ahead of his time: CBC Radio on Rebuilding the Brain. In the blog, Feldenkrais is quoted as writing that “…[Learning] is also the foundation of imagination…

In discussing what he is doing to stave off cognitive decline, Doidge leaves us with this message about new learning:

It’s really important to do something you enjoy, that you’ve always wanted to do….because….you turn on the same neurochemical system, the dopamine system, which both gives you the thrill of completing the goal and consolidates that network that led you to the goal. So it’s much better to do something that’s fun; fun and a challenge.

There is so much yet to understand about imagination. Take, for instance, the following two short films. In the first, author Neil Gaiman tries to answer a question from the audience about his imagination. The second is a Japanese commercial on children’s imagination.

Above: Neil Gaiman and His Imagination (4/13/08 – Just watched the 2007 movie Stardust, based upon Gaiman’s novel. If you are not familiar with his writing, this is a delightful display of his imagination. He also wrote the English translation of Princess Mononoke.)

Above: A Japanese commerical on children’s imagination

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

I have referenced Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain multiple times in past posts, and it is also noted in the Links section at the right. Thus, you may understand what prompted me to send the following email to Faculty and Staff at my school. As folks respond to my email, I will copy and paste their comments to the Comments at the end of this post, withholding names to keep the authors anonymous. Feel free to view the results of my participation in the workshop.



In the summer of 2005 RCDS financed, through an auxiliary grant, my participation in a five day drawing workshop, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Traveling to Soho everyday for a week, I spent hours under the expert guidance of Brian Bomeisler, immersed in learning to redraw.

At the time, I made the case that taking such a workshop would facilitate creative thinking, which would benefit me in my role as a teacher and someone charged with helping folks to make use of technology. I also believe that participating in professional development outside of one’s area of expertise is a phenomenal way to foster personal growth.

The act of drawing is also useful in helping with recall. Robert Greenleaf (our opening speaker this past August), shares research (pg 22 of the 2005 edition of Brain Based Teaching: Making Connections for Long–Term Memory & Recall) showing that when learners create illustrations they improve their recall by up to four times more than without the use of illustrations

Now an article in the Business section of Sunday’s New York Times, Let Computers Compute. It’s the Age of the Right Brain., by Janet Rae-Dupree,  describes how the art of drawing, and the art of being more creative and more right brain oriented, is taking center stage at a number of companies. Those of you who have read Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind know that this is an approach he considers crucial to succeeding in the post–Information Age.

It should come as no surprise to you that I wish everyone of us could participate in a Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain workshop. In fact, I’d love to see us have Brian come to RCDS for our opening meetings in August and guide us through the art of learning to redraw and discovering “an entirely new way to see.” I think our creative sides would feel nourished, and that, in turn, would nourish our teaching and mentoring, which in turn would nourish our students. 

Any takers?


My One Year Anniversary Post

Today (April 4) marks a year since Neurons Firing began firing. I continue to be fascinated by my brain, and how “the brain” functions. I would like to dissect a brain, and be able to take pictures and describe it from first hand experience. And I would like to attend grad school, or at least apply and see what happens.

We’ll just have to wait and see what the second year of Neurons Firing brings!

Above is a movie to celebrate the brain, and below is the picture, promised awhile ago, of the Hernando’s Hideaway girls in our colorful satin dresses. (And I thought we got dressed up to celebrate Neurons Firing turning one 😉 )


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.

Brain Imaging from a New Perspective

In this almost four minute talk, Christopher deCharms provides a peek at the technology available to look inside your own brain and use what you see to make changes! His company, Omneuron, is looking at ways to use this technology to assist “patients, physicians, researchers, and subjects to visualize and control the functioning of the brain using non-invasive methods based on MRI, and is exploring applications of functional brain imaging.”

And how did I learn about Christopher deCharms? Why, from a TED talk!

Response Essay – most of the second part

National Educator Workshop – Response Essay
Summer Session 2002 / July 8-12

A conversation with Catherine (colleague from my school who also participated in this workshop) after the first music workshop yielded these observations:

  • Everyone did something and was able to do something.
  • There was no “wrong” or “right” approach or answer.
  • Using our imagination it is possible to create something out of nothing, in this case just using our voices and bodies to make music.

Five days into the workshop I heard Tenesh (one of the group leaders) say that we are developing skills to focus, and that we try to go to the core of what the thing is all about. Being able to release our imaginations to focus in a multitude of ways and thereby get to the core of what we are learning…wow, very powerful ideas which this workshop modeled and helped me experience.

Eric Booth’s talk continued to model the ideas of the workshop and provided a more concrete framework for implementing those ideas. The brainstorming guide Entering the World of the Work of Art also provides a substantive model to use. And the two basic questions of the inquiry method: What’s going on? and Why do you say that? form the backbone of how to get started. Couple this with a work of art and you have a jumping off point. On the last day of the workshop I wrote the following notes in my journal. I don’t recall whose words they were but they sum up my feelings about this workshop experience, and the goal I have for my students (and myself):

There is excitement in experiencing something intrinsically. This experience makes you the expert; it empowers you and draws out your imagination. The result is self-confidence and a depth of knowledge.

It is more difficult to apply the concepts from this workshop to my work with faculty, not for lack of ideas or how to approach aesthetic education, but more because people tend to be protective of what they already do. Many faculty have invested time and energy in developing their curriculums, and those curriculums seem fine as they are. Tweaking those approaches ever so slightly to alter a lesson requires much conversation and modeling, and a willing audience/participant. But then again, that is the approach I have to take anyway when talking about technology!