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Archive for the ‘brain’ Category

Can we see reality as it is? Beau Lotto’s optical illusions point us in the direction that the brain did not evolve to see the world as it is but the way it was useful to see it in the past and the brain is constantly learning. There is no inherent meaning in information we receive from the world. Our brains create meanings based on the patterns they detect, comparing the new information to something we learned before and this is what matters in the end.

If anything, this can give some of us who are a bit too certain something to become uncertain about.

The brain does all this enormous work and I haven’t even asked for it! It’s like I move forward by relating to the past all the time. How do I learn anything new? Introducing some uncertainty, something that was not part of the past experience. Another question: how can I experience the world differently even when I see what appears to be the same thing or the same person? How do I not get stuck in the old interpretations of the world?

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The door makes no promise

Have started listening to the  program “Meditations that can change your life” by Rick Hanson and Rick Mendius that they recorded for Sounds True. Both are interested in neurology and Buddism. It appears our brain is biologically biased towards negativity to ensure our survival and we tend to remember and overestimate the importance the negative experiences over the positive ones.  This brain of ours proved to be invaluable when we lived close to other species that could be a threat to us. We separated ourselves from nature and chose to live behind the walls so we would feel safer yet are we more relaxed today about our lives? The same incredibly smart and complex tool that served us now contributes to our suffering: while very seldom our physical survival is under threat the biological programming remains the same. We tend to react (overreact!) to many life situations and even just thoughts about them as if we are under threat which costs us a lot of energy, not to mention that it diverts our attention from experiencing life.

“Hope undermines efforts because it takes us away from the present. By coming back to what is right here in front of you right now, you see that meditation and internal transformative work are the best and most direct paths toward being present in life. Energy flows into practice because you see that you have no choice”.

Ken McLeod, Wake Up To Your Life

As the initial enthusiasm fades after a couple of months of meditation (once again, the mind tends to bring to focus the things I have not yet accomplished rather than a noticeable and positive shift in attitude towards life experiences – also a result of biological conditioning), the question arises: “What is the point of all this?”. But as Ken points out, what choice have I got?

I’ve been run by those habituated patterns for most part of my life and missed a huge chunk of it fighting the monsters in my head so I am pretty determined to try a different path for a change like finally getting real about life. Being at war with myself and the world costs a lot of energy and never ever made things better anyway. Yet even if there are no assurances in the practice itself  I see no other choice but to keep going.  At the very least it will keep me busy for the rest of my life – am blessed with the enough internal material for a few lifetimes.

The door makes no promise

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.

Prospective Immigrants Please Note, by Adrienne Rich

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Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying –
Lady make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

-Dorothy Parker

I don’t share Dorothy Parker’s pessimism when it comes to the matters of heart but have noticed that many times it is exactly following the heart that brought trouble onto my head. You know what I mean? In the beginning it all looks right and feels right (hopefully it even smells right 🙂 ). Then how come one day you wake up and “right” is the last word that comes to mind when you think of that very person that used to be your own center of the universe? As Käbi Laretei asks in her recently published book,  “Vart tog all denna kärlek vägen?” /”Where did all this love go?” .  The acclaimed pianist shared ten years of her life with the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. The book is a collection of their correspondence.

Some try to answer the question by writing books while others draw the conclusion that the only way to avoid this endless circle of disappointments is to simply run for their life from any relationship that brings up those butterflies in the stomach – they are convinced there is no “right”, it just feels that way for a while and they think they can choose  choose safe over  sorry.

For starters I would like to understand what it is that makes my brain see someone as very attractive and therefore desirable,  leaving the where-did-it-go question for later. What happens when I am drawn to another human being and my heart starts beating faster at the very thought of his smile? How does love chemistry work?

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Although not a mega meditator, with time I noticed some effects of meditation and got curious in what exactly happens in the brain when I sit on the cushion and watch my mind jumping around,  patiently learning to bring attention to the intention and stay with life itself instead of the virtual reality my mind entertains me with.  How do these changes in the brain influence how I relate to everything and everyone around, including myself?

I  am now more aware of what is going on inside my body and my head which means that a lot of junk that earlier went unnoticed gets caught in the net of awareness.  When catching a little thought that gets lots of attention  and suddenly swells up to the size of a huge mountain,  in this more awakened state of mind I can trace how it leads to a lower state and starts stinking. I find this little self-observation more valuable than all the years I spent in college as it opens the door to liberation from the years of  being a slave to the small, hungry and jealous mind.  There is little joy in noticing how easily the mental trash can start nesting inside the head but on the other side this is my chance to clean up the house and ensure I do not start unloading it on others.

Here come a few podcasts that answer some of the “hows” about the ways meditation rewires our brain and subsequently influences who we are.

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So what was happening in my brain that night?

The picture gets clearer as I read about how information my brain receives through eyes and ears travels inside the brain. It is first transmitted to the auditory and visual thalamus and from there it takes two different paths. The first one goes to the cortex, where it till be integrated with other data and associations, the word “attack” and  memories I have of a similar situation, possibly a scene from some horror movie.

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Anyways, what all this brain science talk is good for on the day to dy level? How can learning about my brain mechanics help me better understand myself or why I act the way I do?

In “Mind wide open: Why you are what you think” Steven Jonson embarks on a fascinating trip inside his own brain and shares how the insights helped him see his behaviour from a different angle.

mind_wide_open

In Jonson’s opinion, brain sciences “…can help us see our interactions with a new clarity, to detect ling-term patterns or split-second instincts that might otherwise go unnoticed, sometimes because they operate below conscious awareness and sometimes because we’re so familiar with them that they’ve become invisible to us”.


It was the “below conscious awareness” stuff that got my attention. We don’t even know how little we know of ourselves or how little we actually decide on the conscious level. The question of free will is hovering on the horizon but I leave it for now…

While reading an account of a terrible accident in Jonson’s house I remembered a rather unsettling episode my friend and I shared about 15 years ago. We were visiting my parents who at the time lived in the Republic of Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Once we decided to we leave town for a long week end and went up to the mountains to relax and cool off. Within the next two days I learnt what drowning in the fast mountain river could feel like (not knowing how to swim), we were close to being traded for a box of vodka by a few local men and on our last night at the hotel…

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I got another one of those knitting fits that strike me now and then. In the last few years I noticed that I experienced the knitting itch not only when I had pleanty of free time but surprisingly also when I felt I had no free time at all. For example this last one came when the boarder line between work and free time was getting so blurred that I was practically working nonstop. At some point when I was in the city area running some errands my feet brought me into a knitting supply store. I had no plans for and did not think I had the time to knit anything but as I entered the store and my eyes took in the colors and textures of yarn from different corners of the world I knew this was what I had to do and that it was about something more than an enjoyable way of spending time.

tools

And for the last few evenings knitting I did for at least 20 minutes no matter how busy I thought I was.  I would remind myself that the to-do list can never really be exhausted, then I would shut down the laptop, pick up the started knitting project and let my hands do the work, my mind go blank. This was a survival mechanism at work, it appears.

Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert offers a well-grounded in scientific research explanation to why crafts are important for our mental health in her book Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power”. (An interview with her can be heard on “To the best of our knowledge” in the 2008 December show “Re-considering crafts” and devoted to this particular issue).

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