Tag Archives: neuroscience

Can’t Say Enough About “Quiet”

QuietIt’s my believe that we should add a new protected class–introverts– to those already afforded protected under the law. I came to this conclusion after reading Susan Cain’s brilliant work “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”  The book opens with the example of Rosa Parks, a quiet, self-possessed woman who, by one quiet act of defiance touched off a movement which changed society.  Cain brings up several introverted heroes in various walks of life: CEOs, inventors, artists, scientists…to whom we owe much for their enormous contributions to society. But the book is much more than this.  It serves to challenge the “Extrovert Ideal” which has been held up as the personality model for years, undervaluing the introvert and even making introverts feel somehow damaged or afflicted with something they must “work on to get over.” I felt vindicated after reading this book, especially having learned that much of the introvert/extrovert nature is imbedded in one’s biological makeup.  There really isn’t anything wrong with me!  Cain explores the neuro-scientific research on sensitivity and convincingly explains the workings of the brain as it affects personality .  This physiological component and how it manifests in introverts also explains why they suffer when forced to work in groups, why they need down time alone in order to be creative, and how, unlike extroverts, find large social affairs an energy drain as opposed to a boost.  Reading this, I can’t help but think about how most modern workplaces are set up for extroverts–desks crammed together for more “collaboration”–how classrooms force students to engage in group projects more and more, and how the extrovert in a group is often chosen as a leader, regardless of any particular qualifications for the position.  You extroverts out there, don’t be turned off by all of this, however!  Cain is careful to explain how we in society and in our personal lives need a balance, but that balance must now value the contributions and needs of  introverts as well.  Her book, which took over seven years to research and write, is filled with compelling stories, carefully researched data, and passionate statements.  It is an enjoyable read just at face value, but as an introvert, or the spouse or sibling or parent of one, it is a must read! It  will change the way you see the world and others in it.

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Life After Death?

butterflybowlOn this snowy day in Maryland, trapped in the house, what better time for blog updating?  …and tackling the weighty issue of whether there is life after death, and if not, what?  If you search on “life after death” in Amazon or any other search engine, you will find a host of books written on the topic, ranging from personal Near Death Experience (NDE) accounts and physicians’ testimonies,  to religious tracts, to downright fanciful frauds (my opinion).  Two books which I recently read on this phenomenon are worth mentioning.  The first is called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, M.D.  It is a short book in which Dr. Alexander recounts his experience of falling into a coma for seven days after contracting a rare brain infection,  a description of what he experienced during the coma, and his miraculous recovery.  He described a low-level world of nothingness, and then seeing a musical light which brought him to a higher plane.  When he described sitting on a butterfly’s wing and talking to a beautiful female guide, I started thinking, “Uh, oh, this is a bunch of bunk…”  But the compelling twist to this story is the fact that his brain was in such a non-functioning state that he should not have been able to experience these visions, so it brings up the question of what is consciousness, if it is not coupled with, or is an off-shoot of brain function?  It is a very compelling story for skeptics, seekers, or outright atheists just on the face of it: the trials of a mysterious, deadly illness and miraculous recovery.  But beyond the surface, it is a fascinating exploration of the human mind, the concept of “spirit,” and the nature of consciousness.  In order to make it a more balanced story, Dr. Alexander proposed nine neuroscientific hypotheses to explain his experience, and why each one of them was not sufficient to explain it.  Much of the book is taken up with the story of his illness and the background his own personal struggles, but in the chapter entitled “The Enigma of Consciousness” he steps into the role of a more objective researcher to examine what he underwent in the face of what we know about consciousness (not much, it seems).  Whether you believe he “saw” heaven or not, this book opens up fascinating questions for further debate on the role of the brain in determining personality, soul, and whether it is a necessary component of what we call our consciousness.  It spurred me to pick up several books on neuroscience and how the brain works.   In my follow-on reading, I came across the opposite of Alexander’s experiential proof of heaven, in a work which takes the purely reasoned approach: Dinesh D’Souza’s Life After Death: The Evidence.   If you have never read D’Souza, you are in for a treat, because whether you agree with him or not on any given topic, he is a brilliant writer and pure logician.  How can you logically prove that there is life after death, you ask? D’Souza walks the reader through a rebuttal of the atheist argument, and examines the evidence from philosophy, neuroscience, physics, and history all in a readable, accessible style. In his introductory chapters, he puts forth his goal of making a reasonable argument that it is perfectly reasonable to accept that the immaterial consciousness does survive the material body, and that we (believers) should not relinquish science and reason to the enemy (atheists).  And, he achieves his goal brilliantly.   greenbackgroundbutter

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Willpower: Wanted to Write this Post, but…

It seems if you look for an image representing Willpower, you more likely will find one for Temptation. Willpower is as hard to define as it is to summon.  Instead, we think of will power as something we must call on to deliver us from temptation.  The common image that comes to mind is the devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other, each whispering in an ear.  Or, just as common, is the image of a young woman looking with lust at a tasty treat, trying to summon the power not to succumb to “just one bite.” But willpower is much more.

Read Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by authors Roy F. Baueister, a researcher with expertise in neuroscience, and John Tierney, the NY Times Science writer.  You will learn a host of new facts about this things called willpower:  that it is a concept that went out of style with the Victorians, that it is a limited resource which can be drained (or strengthened, thank goodness), that one spends approximately four hours each day resisting temptation (which exhausts willpower)–I’m sure I spend much more time than that!–and that resisting temptation takes mental energy, which depletes our reserves, but which can be replenished by an injection of glucose.  Sugar to the rescue!  So, maybe Oscar Wilde had it right, the best way to avoid temptation is simply to give in to it.  The book is a fascinating read on the physiology/neuroscience involved in this thing we call willpower.  The writing is fun and personal, the “case study” examples are fresh and amusing, and it is chock full of fun facts for entertaining friends at your next cocktail party.  I am not sure it helped me much with my flagging willpower, but it did lend some insights into its causes.  Turning now from the use of willpower to avoid unwanted behaviors, I am more interested in the willpower (or discipline) of individuals who can will themselves to perform a desired task.  The book does speak about developing strong, ingrained behaviors which held to strengthen willpower (for example, Stanley, while lost and starving in the jungles of Africa, never failed to rise every morning and shave.)  I want to find that willpower that will make me sit down an accomplish a task.  And, the task that most often is “put off” by more pressing ones is writing.  When I had to write my Master’s thesis, the house was the cleanest it had ever been.  Whenever I sit in front of that blank screen, or with pen in hand and notebook at the ready, I will do almost anything to avoid making a start.  And that’s the thing, isn’t it?  One you start, once you get in a flow, it really isn’t as bad as all that.  A great book to read on the craft of writing (and there are many!) cleverly entitled “On Writing” by Stephen King is by far one of the best I have read.  He addresses the universal writers block issue (although he is a prolific writer) with helpful advice that put me in mind of the wisdom in “Willpower”.  You have to show up.  You have to come to the paper every day — some writers make it the same time every day — and you have to do something, even if you end up tearing it up later.  This is similar to the advice in Judith Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” wherein she advises one write morning pages, three full pages each morning, even if you are just writing “This is dumb and I dont know what to write.”  The exercise off-loads a lot of mental baggage we all carry around, puts it somewhere, and frees you up to get on with other tasks.  Much like the conventional advice in many self-help programs: write down a to do list and put one or two first steps you can take.  Well, I’m not sure any of this has helped me with my writing aversion when it is on me full force.  It is a lot like exercise, I love the feeling when its over.  In fact, I empathize with the great James Joyce…there is a tale about his famous lack of productivity.  He was in despair over it, and a friend exclaimed helpfully, “But look, you wrote seven words today!” to which Joyce responded, “Yes, put I still don’t know what order they go in…”

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