Sunday, March 26, 2017

Stuff I Learned; staycation

This past week I reveled in the joy of the staycation. While the days were relatively full, I enjoyed longer workouts, time with family, and even a quick trip to Minneapolis. I am happy to report that I'm starting to feel ready to resume my UW coursework tomorrow morning. Yes, there are a few pages that I should read this afternoon, along with the omnipresent voice in my head that recommends working on my academic writing... though by and large, I'm feeling ready to bring it on in terms of the remainder of the Spring semester.

This semester has been dominated by Systems Neuroscience (Systems), which has been one of the most interesting courses that I've ever taken. This 4-credit course has required 20-25 hours per week of studying. Despite the significant time requirements, Systems has opened doors to the universe that's within our brains. I often feel like a little kid that's just starting to see the big-ness and wonder of the world when I learn more about the brain. I'm just scratching the surface in neuroscience, and already, I'm feeling drawn into the vastness of this field. While I feel self-conscious using the term universe within, I cannot think of a more apt term in describing the field of neuroscience.

Purkinje cells of the cerebellum by the great scientist/artist Cajal.

What did I learn? As I reflected on writing this blog posting, the material that I learned over the past nine weeks doesn't lend itself all that well to a descriptive treatment. For example, the class spent a good deal of time on neuroanatomy. If you give me a slice of a brainstem, there's a pretty good chance that I can identify the various parts and pieces. But try as I may, I could not arrive at a pithy (and yoga-related) discussion of the blobs, pyramids, olives, ambiguus nuclei or the calyx of Held. (yes, these are all real terms for real parts of the brain).

With the technical details of neuroanatomy as a foundation, it does seem as though Systems is going to pivot a direction that more directly lends itself to interesting discussions in this blog. The next two weeks will be spent studying brain structures that are related to movement (the basal ganglia and cerebellum), followed by one month studying learning, memory, motivation and emotion. I am very excited by the forthcoming material, and much of this afternoon's reading will involve getting a head-start on the coming week's discussion of movement. I look forward to sharing what I learn!

Sorry for the long gap since I last wrote - I hope to write more regularly over the remaining 6-weeks of Spring semester.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Stuff I Learned - 2nd Semester, Week #4

Initially I had returned to school to explore the interface of aerobic exercise and contemplative practices, though my personal interest in joint laxity quickly subsumed my other research questions. While I still hope to explore how aerobic exercise may (or may not) facilitate the recognition of Yoga (Union), I've found that the subject of joint laxity has fully drawn me in.
Hyperextended knees are common with joint laxity
(Image from

As a quick review of past blog postings, joint laxity is a trait that some people are born with. Loose joints are not something that you acquire through yoga practice... joint laxity is distributed via the birth-lottery. Interestingly, the yoga community does seem to be disproportionately populated by people with joint laxity. I'm guessing that this over-representation of hyper mobile people within yoga is based on a self-selection; yoga may be more interesting when loose joints allow you to move more deeply into poses, and for those without joint laxity - yoga may not be as interesting and/or rewarding.

Joint laxity has been shown to correlate with many conditions, such as chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and a greater incidence of autoimmune disease and anxiety. The latter, in particular, deeply interests me. Why is anxiety positively correlated to joint laxity? What are the mechanisms? What, if any, physical activities may help manage the challenges of joint laxity? And more relevant to my proposed research questions - what physical practices may offer the most relief for those that live with anxiety?

As part of my graduate studies, I've been reading a lot of academic papers about joint laxity, its incidence, and the various conditions that are related to joint laxity. Earlier this week I read a paper from France that I found interesting.

In this paper, the authors evaluated the joint laxity, affective state and body-awareness of a randomly selected group of undergraduates at a French university. There were several results from this study of join laxity concerning anxiety and internal body awareness, though I personally found one result the most interesting... the incidence of joint laxity within this cohort!

The prevailing view has been that joint laxity occurs in 10-15% of the population, with a greater incidence in females than in males. I've suspected that the incidence of joint laxity may be increasing, though I have not had much evidence to support this view.

While the rigor of this study left much to be desired, the authors found that joint laxity was present in almost 40% of the students that were tested! While I think it's premature to stand on the rooftops and shout that the incidence of joint laxity is increasing, I think that this study provides some initial evidence that the incidence of joint laxity may, indeed, be increasing.

And with the strong connection between joint laxity and anxiety, it seems like the reports of an increasing incidence of anxiety and the possibility of an increasing incidence of joint laxity may be related.

I look forward to delving more deeply into the neural mechanisms underlying joint laxity, and have recently submitted a proposal for funding my first experiments toward this end. I'll let you know what unfolds!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Stuff I Learned - 2nd Semester, Week #3

I've long been familiar with the vestibular system, though my depth of understanding was more that of a dilettante than a scientist. In the past week I've been learning about vestibulation in my Systems Neuroscience (Systems) course; and now I have an even greater appreciation of what I did not know that I didn't know (avidya, again!)

I used to believe that posture
should be perfectly upright.
The vestibular system is made up of ten sensing mechanisms - five on each side of your head. Deep within each one of your ears are three semi-circular canals, and two otoliths. The semi-circular canals are sensitive to rotational movements, while the otoliths are sensitive to movements in the front/back and up/down directions. Together, these ten sensing mechanisms provide the information that among many functions; help us maintain upright posture, and keep our eyes focused even when our bodies are in motion.

On the first day's lecture, I learned an interesting point about the vestibular system's placement in the skull - the entire system is oriented at an inclination of about 30-degrees upward. What does this upward orientation mean? This orientation of the vestibular organs means that the bony structures of the skull are optimized for our heads to face slightly downward.

I found it interesting that our body's bony structure is based on the head being held at a slight angle downward. In my years of practicing and teaching, I've found that many people carry a stiff and rigid view of optimal posture. I've worked with countless people that are suffering from neck soreness and overall stiffness that's related to their striving to maintain a postural ideal that's too rigid and at-odds with gravity.

Learning that the bony structures of the skull are actually designed to be slightly angled forward was further evidence that my old view of posture was at-odds with gravity and the body's relationship to this fundamental force. Now, please don't misinterpret what I'm getting at - I'm not suggesting that we all slouch and let our heads fall into our laps. Far from it! But I am suggesting that the strictest head-held-high posture that many of us have been striving for may not be all that it's cracked up to be.

The horizontal canal's orientation suggests that
our head's baseline position is slightly downward.
I have come to believe that good posture should be easier rather than harder, and that most of us are not so far removed from our optimal posture. Rather than revolutionizing how we sit and stand, I think it's more appropriate for many of us to evolve how we sit and stand. What is your model of good posture based upon? Do the people that model this ideal of posture look at-ease in their bodies, or stiff? Is your ideal ideal?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Stuff I Learned - 2nd Semester, Week #2

This past week has been a blur of neuroscience. Sometimes a good blur, and sometimes the blur that has the soundtrack of what???

The auditory system is a marvel.
In my Systems Neuroscience (Systems) course, this past week's lectures have been focused on audition. While audition may sound like a subject within the Theater Department, the Systems class has been focused on the sense of hearing version of audition.

Sound refers to the vibrations that occur in the air. These vibrations surround our bodies, and we have special sensors that allow us to perceive and interpret some of these vibrations.

The vibrations that fall within a specific range (~20 to 20,000 vibrations/second) are what we call audible. Within these audible vibrations is a lot of information that can be useful; the sound of a familiar voice, a warning siren, locating the position of the chirping bird, etc. Our sense of hearing allows us to decode these vibrations into information that can help us relate to our world.

The process of decoding sound involves structures in the ear, its associated nerves, the brain stem and the brain. As the diagram indicates, the interconnected and crossing circuitry can initially look like a big bowl of spaghetti!

While the structures are complicated, there is a spare elegance that underlies the apparent randomness. To best perceive our surroundings, it's helpful to know the sound's intensity (loudness), its frequency (boombastic bass or singing highs) and where it came from (directionality). The criss-crossing of circuits is largely about determining these factors in the fastest and most efficient way possible.

While all the various structures and features of the auditory system go beyond even a graduate level neuroscience course, how about if I pick one of the previously mentioned properties of hearing to explore more deeply?

Locating sound, for example, is dependent on the sound, itself. That is, not all sounds are located in the same way. Lower frequency sounds (from vocals down to bomb-the-bass territory) are located by calculating the tiny time lag from when a sound first arrives at one ear before it arrives at the other ear. These are tiny time lags, though your nervous system can perceive them. And by knowing these tiny time lags and the approximate speed of sound, your brain can locate with a high degree of accuracy the source of a lower-frequency sound.

If lower-frequency sounds are located by their time lag (Interaural Time Delay, or ITD), then what about higher frequency sounds like a flute or a chirping bird? These higher frequency sounds are located by ILD, or their Interaural Level Difference. Sounds are louder in the ear that's closest to the sound than in the ear that's farther away from the sound. This almost imperceptible level difference is just enough information for your brain to accurately calculate where higher frequency sound is coming from.

Special geeky overload:
What determines this crossover from ITD to ILD?
The difference in location strategies is related to the size of your head! Since the wavelength of sound is related to its pitch, a relationship exists between the way that sound passes by your head and its pitch. Wavelengths that are bigger than your head (~15cm) correlate to sounds around the range of human speech and below. Conversely, wavelengths that are smaller than your head correspond to higher pitched sounds.

Sounds that have waves that are bigger than your head tend to pass around the skull without losing much power (i.e. - very small ILD and greater ITD). Sounds that have smaller waves tend to be blocked by the head, and the ILD becomes more pronounced, while the ITD becomes less pronounced. As a result of these skull-dimension based differences, the mechanisms for locating sound varies as pitch varies.
OK - geeky overload complete

I'd best get back to studying, now. Systems class has moved from audition to vestibulation, which I'm finding to be every bit as interesting. The vestibular sense is interconnected with the other sensorimotor systems, and I'm eager to learn more.

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Stuff I Learned - 2nd semester, Week #1

The brain has a large appetite for
glucose and oxygen.
This semester I'm taking a course called Systems Neuroscience. As the name implies, this course explores the various systems of the nervous system, and how they all work together. Last week marked the beginning of the course, and we began by exploring the blood supply to the brain. It probably goes without saying that adequate blood flow to the brain is important, as it is for all of the body's tissues. As it turns out, the brain has its own unique set of circulatory demands, and an uninterrupted flow of blood to the brain is even more essential than it is for many of the body's other tissues.

The brain has a disproportionately hearty appetite for food (glucose) and oxygen. Unlike other tissues in the body, though, the brain does not store reserves of glucose. Because of this absence of stored energy, the brain's health is entirely dependent upon the uninterrupted flow of fresh blood. Since the flow of fresh blood is so important for the health of the vitally-important brain, the circulatory system has back-up plans in case something goes awry with the primary circulatory pathways.

Four primary arteries bring fresh blood to the brain.

In the adjacent diagram, you can see the blood flow to the brain. The central ring is known as the Circle of Willis (CoW), and this brilliant design allows blood to flow to most regions of the brain, even if some of the brain's blood supply is deficient.

There are four primary arteries that supply the brain with blood; the two vertebral arteries, and the two interior carotid arteries. These four arteries, in turn, connect to the CoW, as seen in the adjacent diagram. If one of the supplying arteries were to be damaged, there would certainly be a reduction of blood flow to regions of the brain, though there would likely still be sufficient blood flow that the organism would survive. Like many roads lead up to a traffic roundabout, multiple arteries lead to the Circle of Willis. Embedded deeply within the brain, the CoW helps distribute blood flow throughout the brain's tissues, even in the event of an interruption in normal circulation.

An interruption to blood flow to the brain can bring about catastrophic results (stroke, for example), though the redundancy offered by the CoW makes it less likely that interruptions to brain blood flow are fatal.

Later this semester I'll be learning how the brain adapts to damage, and I specifically plan to write more about strokes. While the brain is very sensitive to interrupted blood flow, it also has a remarkable capacity to rebuild and revise its circuitry.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Stuff I Learned - Week #0

Last week I was visiting Eugene, Oregon on a teaching trip. Over the past few years, I've been training teachers at Eugene Yoga, and along the way, I have made some good friends out there.

Over dinner one evening, the subject of luck came up. When I shared my view that I've been very lucky, a good friend turned to me with the arched-eyebrow that immediately preceded her what?? query.

As some of you know, I did have kind of an odd upbringing. I was adopted at birth, and my adoptive mother struggled mightily with a potent anxiety/depression combo. My adoptive mother's mental illness primarily expressed through narcissism, which made her forays into caregiving furtive and rather incomplete. Despite my relative lack of mothering, I persist in believing that I have been very lucky in this life.

In this recent article in the New York Times, the author refers to investor Warren Buffet's view on his good fortune on his winning draw in the Ovarian Lottery. Similarly, I believe that by dint of the conditions of my birth, I've been disproportionately lucky. Yes, I've worked quite hard to get where I am, though lots of people have worked far harder than I have - and not been as richly rewarded for their hard work.

How have I been lucky? Here are a couple of examples:

For one, I was born into the vast prosperity that envelopes residents of the United States of America. The prosperity that we take for granted in the USA is unheard of in the majority of the rest of the world.

In addition to being born in a land of opportunity, I also had access to a great education. Even though my family life was sometimes Dysfunction Junction, my parents still made sure that I got a good education. Attending pre-school, for example, was one of my many lucky breaks. While pre-school may not seem like such a big deal, I had the good fortune of entering kindergarten with the skills that have been shown to correlate with increased success later in life.

During one of the Bush presidencies, I remember hearing the derisive comment he was born on third base and thought that he hit a triple. While I may not have been born into a situation quite as favorable as a Bush kid, I still believe that on the continuum of lucky breaks, I was born toward the Bush end of the continuum. I've worked hard, yes, though I've also been the recipient of lots of lucky breaks. As I begin my 2nd semester of grad school, I hope to keep in mind the sentiment expressed on the napkin - appreciating luck as a means of cultivating humility.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Stuff I'm Learning - Whole-Foods, Plant-Based

As an undergrad, I was often overwhelmed by the pace and process of learning. There were many extracurricular subjects that I found interesting, though I seldom found the bandwidth to pursue these subjects. It wasn't until my formal education was squarely in the rearview mirror of life that I felt the freedom to fully delve into studies of land-use, farming, bodywork and nutrition.

As I mentioned in a prior blog entry, I've become familiar with a not-insignificant tendency towards anxiety. While this recognition may seem like a bummer, the tools that I've learned in the intervening decades have freed me to multitask and juggle multiple responsibilities in ways that I didn't dream of in my youth. Yes, the anxiety is there, though I'm no longer held hostage when it pays a visit.

I haven't had much bandwidth the past few months, though I've enjoyed more unstructured time these past few weeks. Before I share the specifics of what I've learned with you, however, how about a little backstory?


The recent US presidential election was quite a shock to me and and my wife, Collette. In one-million years, we did not see a Trump victory coming (okay, so maybe Collette was a little concerned and I was blindingly overconfident, but still it was a surprise for both of us) and we're still kind of reeling from it. Shortly after we shook off the initial shock, we began earnestly asking ourselves - in the face of changing politics, how can we best support the causes that we believe in?

Prior to the election, we had both been interested in reading Matthieu Ricard's new book, A Plea for the Animals. Since A Plea for the Animals was already on our bookshelf and in the read-me queue, we both agreed that we'd start by reading this potentially disruptive book. It seemed obvious that Matthieu would be making a powerful case for vegetarianism, and prior to reading the book, we agreed that the vegetarian option was (literally and metaphorically) on the table for us.

Collette read A Plea for the Animals first, and quickly shared her view that reducing our meat consumption would be a positive step to reducing our carbon footprint, reducing animal suffering and potentially improving our health. While I haven't been a heavy meat eater for many years, now, the Sausage Plate was my favorite meal at my favorite restaurant - Sjolinds. Despite some initial misgivings, I also read Matthieu's book.

Reading A Plea for the Animals quickly spiraled into more reading and study of animal suffering, carbon footprint and nutrition. Independently, Collette and I have arrived at the same conclusion - we are ending our consumption of animal-based foods in favor of a plant-based diet.


Over the past few weeks, I've been studying more about sustainable approaches to a vegan diet. I was vegetarian from ages 18-30, and while I loved the lightness that I felt in the absence of meat, I did come to feel pretty depleted toward the end of that era. Once I resumed eating meat in the mid-1990's, I enjoyed more energy and stamina.

I am confident that I can maintain my larger-than-average body (for those of you that don't know, I'm 6'6") on a plant-based diet, though I believe it will take more than a catch-as-catch-can approach to eating. During my youthful foray into vegetarianism, I focused on not-eating-meat. Now I believe that my approach to vegetarianism will focus more on what I do eat, and less on what I don't eat.

For the time being, I plan to eat eggs now and then. I have concerns about Vitamin B-12 levels, and I feel comfortable with eating some local eggs every so often. Collette is now using coconut milk creamer in her coffee (cream in the coffee being her last vestige of animal product love), and taking B-12 as a supplement. We’ll compare our various experiments and to see how things go. My sporadic animal-food consumption means I’m not fully vegan, but Collette and I both hold veganism out as our possible future.

If I live out an average lifespan, I will consume almost 23-million more calories in this lifetime. From my limited research, I have come to believe that a plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways that I can reduce my lifetime carbon footprint. Even though the Spring semester at the UW begins in a couple weeks, I plan to continue expanding my knowledge of diet and nutrition. What if the simple choices and decisions that I make now can potentially contribute to making this world a better place?

What are your thoughts on eating a plant-based diet?