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402 days. 402 (plus or minus… mostly minus) posts.

Tag: brain

Day 150: My Weekend with Oliver Sacks

Over the weekend, I attended Live Ideas: The Worlds of Oliver Sacks in New York. It. Was. Wonderful.

Live Ideas was a five-day festival of dance and discussion exploring the mind-body connection through Dr. Sacks’ work.  You may know Oliver Sacks as the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, or the semi-fictional doctor portrayed by Robin Williams in Awakenings. He’s a neurologist and writer known for his in-depth case studies of people with unusual neurological disorders.

I’ve read three of his books (I’m currently mid-way through a fourth—Hallucinations) and have been mildly obsessed with his work for the better part of a decade. The way he writes and thinks about his patients is fascinating, kind and brilliant. So when I heard about Live Ideas (thank you, Erin), I booked a ticket and signed up for the events in three minutes flat. Dance + neurology? Sold.

In the brief weekend I spent listening to Dr. Sacks, watching footage of his patients, listening to his publishers and peers, watching dance and generally being inspired, overwhelmed and delighted, a small window into his world emerged. This is potentially a much larger post, but in favor of sharing my excitement immediately, below are a couple of things I took away from the weekend and some quotes from the man himself.

Hospitals are non-narrative. They’re built to collect metrics and provide diagnoses. But as Lawrence Weschler, a panelist in Sacks the Writer: Process & Influence pointed out, neurology is all about narrative. “The brain secretes stories,” as he says, and tells the doctor how it is functioning and what might be amiss. Dr. Sacks’ way of collecting and recounting his patient’s stories is part of the treatment. He has somehow always understood that to know a person’s brain is to ask them how they are.

It’s possible to be empathetic and academic. Dr. Sacks’ care for his patients is compounded by his interest in the way the brain functions. The stories he writes read almost like poetry, but they are precise and based on systematic observation and careful listening. Dr. Chris Adrian, one of the other panelists, brought up the question of empathy within the medical field. He said, “Can one person participate in and truly understand another person’s suffering? In reading Sacks, I think the answer is no. But he shows us that we can—and should—surely try.”

Straight from Dr. Sacks:

“Human beings’ capacity to forget is very, very great.”
With regard to forgotten diseases, such as encephalitis lethargica, the “sleepy sickness” that attacked the nervous system and left its sufferers catatonic and mute in the 1920s. Dr. Sacks worked with survivors of the disease in the 1960s and, at the request of those who could speak, documented their stories in Awakenings.

“No one got more disappointed with the stem cell situation than my patients with Parkinson’s, who thought their lives were being sacrificed for fetuses.”
Reflecting on the way Parkinson’s disease kills dopamine-generating cells in the mid-brain, and that there is no known cause or cure.

“Any physical activity will work. Exercise of any sort calls on the executive functions of the brain, which takes patients out of dysfunction.”
Answering a question about how dance and physical activity can positively combat brain disease.

“What I did then I would surely be imprisoned for now.”
Telling the audience his experience with administering L-Dopa to catatonic patients in the 1960s and how he ignored the DEA’s mandate to perform a blind study in favor of treating everyone. 

“Oh, there’s nothing overwhelming about me.”
After I asked him for a photograph and nervously admitted being overwhelmed by meeting him in person.

Day 45: Two Sides to Every Story

Remember that post I wrote about Jill Bolte Taylor and her “Stroke of Insight?” (That’s okay—you can find the post here and watch her TED Talk here.)

Last Sunday, Robert Klitzman, M.D., Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University, posted a Huffington Post article inspired by Dr. Taylor’s remarks and warning against the tendency to simplify how we think about the brain.

I’m certainly no brain science expert, but I do find myself drawn to deconstructions like the below image, pulled from a Mercedes-Benz advertisement (it wasn’t directed at me; I drive an adorable little Hyundai).

Mercedes brain

Klitzman writes that the right brain has been romanticized as the seat of creativity and freedom, pitted against the logical and analytical left side. He says that in normal brains—in which the connection between the two halves is healthy—“the two sides work closely together.” So close, in fact, that our simplification of the brain into binaries “ignores critical intricacies, challenges and unknowns, doing ourselves, and our brains, a disservice.”

It will be exciting to learn more about the galaxies of the brain as science uncovers the mysteries. Perhaps Klitzman is right, and we are currently doing ourselves a disservice by creating a mythical two-sided brain creature.

But perhaps that’s just his left brain talking.

Day 41: Why Don’t We Dance?

I’ve always wondered why more of us (Americans, generally) don’t dance. It feels wonderful and it’s incredibly therapeutic. It’s nearly impossible to not smile during and/or after a great dance break.

Tiny Dancer

Every time I’ve veered away from it, dance makes its way back into my life, all sneaky-like. I am currently the proud holder of both a B.A. and an M.F.A in dance. But I firmly believe that a degree is not necessary in order to appreciate, love and use dance to make life better. That’s me on the right, a couple of years before college.

To me, dance is perfect. It connects our minds to our bodies in ways that are impossible to manufacture with other activities. Thinking about an arm, a knee, a hand or one toe so deeply that the owner knows his/her body—really knows it—awakens parts of the brain that don’t otherwise engage. It’s a beautiful thing.

So, I’ve always wondered why more of us don’t dance.

I do realize it can be scary and vulnerable. We get nervous around people expressing themselves with their bodies. Outside of the theater or the dance club, we don’t understand why someone would gyrate their pelvis or thrash their arms around. When a person enjoys a solo dance party on the street or in the park, we tend to see them as drunk, disturbed or out of control.

And maybe they are.

But maybe not. Maybe they just get it. Maybe they understand that one’s body is more than skin and muscles and bones, and it’s more than a temple. Our bodies are so deeply us. They’re our brains. Our souls. Our bodies are ours in ways that nothing else will ever be ours. And when they’re broken, or they don’t work how we think they should or they don’t look quite right, they’re still ours. They’re still amazing.

And we can always, always dance.

Day 39: Brains and Souls

It’s a dream of mine to meet Oliver Sacks. One day this year, I will write a blog about him as a “person you should know” but I have so much to say, I’m not quite sure where to begin.

For now, suffice it to say that he is a physician and neurologist who has collected incredible stories from people with neurological disorders and anomalies. I just started reading Sacks’ most recent book, Hallucinations, a series of stories about others’ and his own mind-altering experiences. It’s fascinating so far.

Yesterday, Sacks tweeted about an article written by Daniel Levitin, a cognitive neuroscientist and writer who is also on my list of people to know. (Twitter is so great.)

The article, “Amnesia and the Self That Remains When Memory Is Lost,” is about Levitin’s experience reconnecting with one of his former Stanford psychology classmates—Tom, a man who has an inoperable brain tumor in his temporal lobe. Temporal lobe tumors make long-term memories irretrievable. They do not typically affect a person’s general demeanor, but they block access to much of the fabric of that person’s life. The tumor carrier retains his/her intelligence, but basically has no prior history from which to contextualize and examine his/her current experiences.

Temporal Lobe

Levitin writes about going to see Tom, who was an acquaintance but not necessarily a friend. Tom had no recollection of his history with Levitin but was interested in hearing about how they knew each other and what they had each accomplished. What I found most touching about the article was Levitin’s final reflection: “When I saw Tom, something fundamentally Tom was still there. Some of us call it personality, or essence. Some call it the “soul.” Whatever it is, the tumor that took Tom’s memory had not touched it.”

It immediately brought me back to Irish philosopher John O’Donohue’s reflection on Meister Eckhart’s examination of the soul (yes, this is a winding—but connected—road). “…There is a place within the soul that neither time, nor space, nor flesh, nor no created thing can touch.”

Perhaps brain tumors and Alzheimer’s and traumatic injuries can’t touch that quiet place, either. Even when our neurological systems degrade and the people, places and things in our lives don’t mean anything to us anymore, something vital and enduring remains.

Day 18: Stroke of Insight

Continuing the series of people you should know, I’m highlighting one of my favorite brain research scientists, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. If you and I know each other personally, I’ve probably (definitely) already made you watch her TED Talk or lent you her book, “My Stroke of Insight.” (Actually, I’m missing my copy, so if I lent it to you, let me know.)

Jill Bolte Taylor

Inspired by her brother’s schizophrenia, Taylor began her career by researching severe mental illnesses at Harvard. A dedicated and renowned neuroanatomist, she split time between intensive brain study and advocacy work with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In 1996, at 37 years old, a blood vessel in her brain’s left hemisphere exploded. She had a stroke.

The morning of her stroke, Taylor became aware that something extraordinary was happening. As she went about her normal routine and wavered between types of consciousness, she recognized she was having a stroke when her right arm went numb. According to her reflection on the experience, she thought, “Wow, this is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?”

So, semi-aware but not entirely logical, she researched herself through the process of losing all function in her left hemisphere. As the hemorrhage spread, she could not read, write or identify herself as a being separate from her environment. One of the most intriguing parts of her incredibly intriguing TED talk is when she describes realizing the gravity of her situation and trying to call for help. In order to reach a colleague without being able to recognize numbers, she matched “the shape of the squiggles” on a business card to the “shape of the squiggles on the phone pad.”

(Seriously, watch her TED Talk. It’s poignant, funny, frightening and beautiful.)

When not engaged with the warning bells of her logical and ego-centered left hemisphere, Taylor experienced a euphoric uniting of herself with the entire world; in the midst of trauma, she had a powerful sense of peace and wonder.

The right sides of our brains recognize beauty and connectivity, and when fully engaged, release us from all the mundane concerns of living a life. Taylor’s post-stroke insights into the structure of the brain teach us that we can choose where to exist at any given moment. We can be peaceful, cellular beings in flow with the rest of the universe, or separate individuals with distinct personalities, goals and responsibilities. Her position is that the more time we spend engaged with our right hemispheres, the more peace we project into the world—and the more peaceful the world becomes.

What strikes me about her research is that we rely on our critical, categorizing, judging left hemispheres in order to survive. But without our present-moment, satisfied, universally conscious right hemispheres, there would be nothing to live for.

On this lucky and/or apocalyptic day (12/12/12), it’s something to think about.