old people and monkeys

We have been very busy in the gardens and energy is low for other things, so a quick post today.  Some scientists studying monkeys report that older monkeys, similarly to older people, withdraw from some social interactions.  They (we) are still observant, still permit some grooming activities (well, the monkeys do), less interested in toys, and generally choose to participate less.  Interesting enough and I am glad to know it, being a proudly grumpy older gentleman myself since the age of 5 years old when I idolized Gabby Hayes.

And I am particularly grumpy about the way the phenomena were talked about in this NYT story.  For example, the reporter writes, “How human behavior changes as we age could therefore have some biological origins.”  I beg your pardon but how our behavior changes as we age is necessarily biological in origin.  Or how about this nugget:  evidently the “dominant psychological theory” to explain our behavioral changes is that old people become more choosy “in order to maximize the use of the time we have left with death in sight.”  Have these people never visited nursing and retirement homes?  Or Las Vegas? Visited other countries where old folks work out of necessity (and maybe are accorded more respect with a stronger family system), or seen any poverty because the elders being less productive are abandoned by modern society?  ‘Maximize’ does not exactly capture the phenomena here, because it makes it sound as if we choose so much more than we really do.  One researcher says that our behaviors that seem deliberative “might be more similar to our primate ancestors than we might think,” the implication that our primate friends are not deliberative and choosy.  Once again we assert the specialness of our own kind in another instance of anthropodenial.  Ouch!

The researcher does, in a triumph of reality orientation, say that maybe monkeys and humans lose stamina with age (that pesky biological thing again) and that dealing with relationships that are ambivalent or negative is not worth the trouble.  Ah, there you go.  Now travel on.


Should I maximize my time left by playing golf, throwing dice in craps or watching TV? I’ll think about it on a long, unspoiled walk with a friend (thanks, Mark Twain)

3 reports on sleep

It is one of my favorite things to do, of course, and the topic of 3 stories in the 5/28/16 edition of Science News. The first is somewhat interesting, in that some research found that certain ion concentrations were involved in sleeping-waking. This is contrary to orthodoxy that key neurological systems, e.g., the RAS or reticular activating system, control the change in states. Basically when potassium ions rise in concentration in the brain and potassium and calcium concentrations fall, the brain awakens, and when potassium falls, and potassium and calcium rise, the brain sleeps. It appears, then, that the neurological systems work by modulating ionic concentrations. Anesthesia appears to work the same way. So when we are slow to awaken or to drift off, the concentrations are not properly adjusted. After reading this I thought about awakening but having difficulty getting up and going or feeling sleepy but still awake as the concentrations are being adjusted. And what about the delicious feeling of waking up and experiencing what I think is called a body yawn when your body stretches out and tenses before relaxing? Does the feedback from the body help the brain to coax the concentrations towards the awake mode? Bet so.

The second report finds that the mammalian sleep pattern of deep sleep and REM sleep is actually present in lizards. Who knew? The implication here is that 2 stage sleep appeared much earlier in evolution than previously thought, say around 300 million years ago, and that changes what we might consider as the reason we have the 2 stages because lizards do not have the memory capabilities of mammals, so what are they consolidating?  And lizards can doze with some awareness a long time, so what does REM do for them that dozing doesn’t?

The third story is quite interesting because sleep researchers have found that the first night we sleep in unfamiliar surroundings, the left hemisphere remains vigilant at least through the early stages of sleep and that this seems to be why the first night’s sleep when away from home is usually not so good. They did not study this pattern over the entire night so they are not sure if the left side stays on guard the entire night or if the right side might pick up some sentry duty itself. My question is, Why the left? The right side is more concerned with the immediate situation while the left focuses more on displaced information. Is the left worrying more, so that the guard duty is more a manifestation of rumination than of vigilance? That is my bet, though why the left side becomes more ruminative away from home only on the first night is still a puzzle—the studies are not systematic in exploring these issues. The article also mentions the folk belief, true to me, that parents can sleep through thunderstorms but awaken when their infant chirps. I will bet this is a more right sided phenomenon than left but I can find no studies on this. Come on, graduate students, here is a good study for that paper you must do.

After a cat nap, you know, just a short ionic fluctuation of the lizard brain and letting the hippocampus consolidate memories of my recent experience, I will travel on.

This quibble returns periodically

Every so often, ever since the early 1970s, I have heard it said that we humans only use 10% of our brain and we would be superhuman when we use 100%.  I heard it again last week and it is as stupid now as back then.  I have several problems with this idea.  One is that it is not true–our brains are fully alive and neurons, even resting ones (ones not firing in response to inputs), fire on their own, kind of like breathing.  Another is the word “use”, as in “I used all of my hand to pick up the glass”.  True enough that we do direct some, probably relatively small, portion of our brain, i.e., mental, activity when we mentally focus on some image or feeling or thought, but did not Freud long ago show that the unconscious is always operative.  And have not cognitive and neuroscientists shown the importance of subconscious, subliminal activity, e.g., the decision is made before we think it or something that seems important nags at us to remember it.  The activity of the brain we do not use but is still our own is remarkable, very remarkable.  Another is that the areas we do not ‘use’ are often automatized–we would not want to focus on muscle synergies as we perform an acton, it would be quite disruptive.  Another is that this view of the brain is mechanistic and ignores the biological nature of our existence.  If you have read this blog at all, you understand that ignoring that is one of the few sins I recognize.

Finally, consider when we choose not to use even what we can of our brain function, when we clear our mind, empty it (though that is a process not a goal), and calm our being (MEMBRAIN, brain, & soma) in an act of meditation.  What is the result then?  Ah, so much depends upon life events and history  of meditative practice and discipline, so much depends on the paradox of the koan, and, following William Carlos Williams:

So much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


Now what brain power didn’t I use that I should have if I were to be a superior machine?  Travel on (or not).




controversial title?

A story in the NYT (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/magazine/what-if-ptsd-is-more-physical-than-psychological.html) tells of some good research into PTSD and brain insults from combat.  Once again some thoughtful scientist-practitioners saw something that needed better understanding and did something about it.  They noticed that soldiers returning home reported two complexes of symptoms, one reflective of psychological trauma, i.e., PTSD, and one reflective of concussions, e.g. CTE.  After having researched concussions and their sequelae from sports injuries and with specialized brain imaging techniques and machines, they went to Iraq/Afghanistan to investigate.  They found that, although a mandated protocol, soldiers were not being assessed for concussions after experiencing close explosions and many soldiers were reluctant to report such symptoms both from their confusion with PTSD and from their fear of discrimination by their commanders.  The researchers met with resistance from the military medical community who minimized the effects and potential for longer term sequelae but Admiral Michael Mullins (now retired after being Chair of the Joint Chiefs) gave the researchers the power to follow through and even to design/implement new treatments and prevention.  They developed a small sensor that detected the pulsive force of explosions and turned red if acceptable limits were exceeded.  (These limits were the result of sports research and further experimentation).  If the badge is red, the soldier must report and the medical team must evaluate.  That’s the good news;  the bad news is that many soldiers, including some instructors who trained them how to explode doors open and handle other explosions, suffer from brain injury that can profoundly affect their life.

Now the controversial title is this:  “What if PTSD is more physical than psychological?”  Many commented on the fact that PTSD is physical, that it is a medical and psychiatric diagnosis, and that it is a brain disease.  Others responded that they understood all that but did not mind the title anyway.  I am closer to the first group.  The writers did say in the body of the article that PTSD was a brain disorder, and so we can assume it is physical.  But the title, while cute and catchy, perpetuates the belief that stress and shock and emotional trauma are not and do not cause physical phenomena.  This is still a widespread belief (“when will that person just get over the incident?”) of many in the general public and also, it seems, in military medical staff.

Much research has been done in the past 30 or more years to enhance our understanding of PTSD and its long term sequelae.  The only name I can remember right now is Bessel van der Kolk, who has done much to show that emotional trauma affects the brain both immediately and over the long term.  The characteristics of the trauma and the timeliness and expertise of any treatment cause great variation for any one instance.

When I practiced psychology I explained the effects of child maltreatment, characterizing the betrayal of trust in family violence, witnessed or experienced, sexual aggression, and sometimes parental behaviors reflecting the adults’ psychopathology as blows which bruised the child’s developing empathy for others and also for themselves.  The subsequent depression, anxiety, difficulties in emotional regulation and impulse control, even some difficulty understanding cause and effect or moral norms, were the effects of the traumatic bruising of brain areas involved in empathic or social-emotional processing.    The emotional maltreatment was a physical insult that bruised the developing brain in characteristic ways, ways that could affect their behavior some years later (think of 3 yr old being molested and consider when they reach adolescence).

So yes, the title miseducates, but the article is still a good one you might oughta read.  Travel on.