Tryptophan, serotonin, microbes and mood …

Good Saturday. That was a busy week for a limpet like me, and here is a weird anecdote/book review from said week, but it surely did happen to me.

I have just finished listening to a book called Brain Maker by Dr. David Perlmutter


in which he makes a lot of claims about the positive effects the bacteria in your belly can have on your brain, almost so many that your “cure all” alarm starts to go off, except that he has pretty good studies and science backing him up, and he is quick to say when he is speculating.

Now many of us grew up believing that the tryptophan in turkey made you sleepy, only to be grossly disillusioned as adults when told that wasn’t true. But here is a replacement fact, better than the one before. While this is somewhat dense reading, these folks from the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, University College Cork, in Ireland, actually explain this complex system very succinctly in the abstract for their 2014 article, “Serotonin, tryptophan metabolism and the brain-gut-microbiome axis.”

The brain-gut axis is a bidirectional communication system between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin functions as a key neurotransmitter at both terminals of this network. Accumulating evidence points to a critical role for the gut microbiome in regulating normal functioning of this axis. In particular, it is becoming clear that the microbial influence on tryptophan metabolism and the serotonergic system may be an important node in such regulation. There is also substantial overlap between behaviours influenced by the gut microbiota and those which rely on intact serotonergic neurotransmission. The developing serotonergic system may be vulnerable to differential microbial colonisation patterns prior to the emergence of a stable adult-like gut microbiota. At the other extreme of life, the decreased diversity and stability of the gut microbiota may dictate serotonin-related health problems in the elderly. The mechanisms underpinning this crosstalk require further elaboration but may be related to the ability of the gut microbiota to control host tryptophan metabolism along the kynurenine pathway, thereby simultaneously reducing the fraction available for serotonin synthesis and increasing the production of neuroactive metabolites. The enzymes of this pathway are immune and stress-responsive, both systems which buttress the brain-gut axis. In addition, there are neural processes in the gastrointestinal tract which can be influenced by local alterations in serotonin concentrations with subsequent relay of signals along the scaffolding of the brain-gut axis to influence CNS neurotransmission. Therapeutic targeting of the gut microbiota might be a viable treatment strategy for serotonin-related brain-gut axis disorders.

And now for the exciting anecdote. I had really been feeling like I was swimming in soup the past week or so. Nothing particularly wrong, just dragging my feet and feeling kind of weepy. So while I am listening to Brain Maker, I realise that I have been on antibiotics quite a few times throughout my life, some fairly intense, and just recently again this fall, and have had my thrilling chronic cyclical vomiting episodes for years. So maybe this applies to me. Now after my last trip to the hospital last summer at the cottage my father-in-law gave me some probiotics that his pharmacist recommended to him, which I will happily buzz market, called Florastor. I had taken a couple but not continued for no particular reason, and had the small jar here in Ottawa. So I started taking them, two twice a day. To say that my mood improved would be a ludicrous understatement. Nothing external changed, but I swear within two days I just felt the tears back away and I cannot imagine what else could have been the cause of such a large swing. My leg has been quite sore, my side has been quite sore, we haven’t suddenly won the lottery and it is tax season. But the angst is low and the change was so noticeable. Now I understand (so to speak) the placebo effect and the power of suggestion, and if that is what happened here, then bring it on! But I can only heartily recommend both the (slightly preachy) book and upping the probiotics in your life. Yoghurt was already on the menu, but there seem to be a lot of key bacteria out there and once displaced they have trouble reestablishing themselves.

Apparently we are host to a large array of bacteria, or perhaps they are hosting us, as it turns out even our mitochondria, once proud bacteria themselves, have their own dna. Treating these creatures well, and feeding them what they desire, seems a very good idea. And interestingly, some of the bad bacteria crave sugars so in an astonishingly sci-fi moment, it is quite possible that it isn’t you doing the craving, you are merely the delivery mechanism, feeding the host in your gut.

So science and anecdote met in my belly it would appear, and put a smile on my face. I am a little stunned, but feeling very pro probiotic.

Posted in LIFE | 32 Comments

Yum, stigmata …

I can just feel a rant coming on. Why in the name of all that isn’t holy do people hand over their lives to religious leaders? Who in their right mind would buy chocolate shaped like Jesus on a cross? Do you eat the genitals? And many more questions …

We watched a documentary about the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints the other day, and how a cruel nutcake pedophile managed to convince tens of thousands of people to give him all their earnings, all their children and all their minds, was one question they couldn’t answer. And it turns out the FLDS run or ran a vast business empire, including pecan farms that they would get the women and kids to harvest. Seemingly voluntary slavery, with those who worked outside turning over their entire paycheques to the “church”.  The son of the current leader who is managing the empire while the actual leader is in jail said when he was sent to work on a FLDS compound they literally only got two hours sleep, which is a common cult tactic, combined with poor nutrition, which creates these willing zombies. Just ask the Hare Krishnas.

A sense of community is one thing, but handing over your mind is a terrible thing. Perhaps ignorance is a kind of bliss, but a rotten one that opens you up to gross exploitation.

So happy bunnies and spring, but can we please stop glorifying government execution and martyrdom and on top of it all, let’s put to rest the notion that a man who died two thousand years ago died on our behalf.

Have an eggselent Easter nonetheless, and sorry to be rude about the Rood, but if you are gnawing on one, please do enjoy the stigmata last.

Posted in LIFE, RANTS | 1 Comment

Four years … to get bacq on a bicycle …

Four years ago, four interesting Februarys ago, we went on what proved to be, and we suspected, a last family trip with my mum, to the Turks and Caicos.


A lot of things hadn’t happened then, one of them being my hernia and nerve resectioning operation. The only way to the town in Providenciales to get groceries, etc. [etc. being beer and wine, ed.] was to ride bicycles. And I rode with my left leg, my right leg coming along for the ride. It is hard to remember pain, luckily, but I do remember the awkwardness and the motion I developed to turn the left peddle. I have never been a very balanced person, but my bicycle was my good friend and I had even taken it with me to St. Pierre and Michelon when I did a six week French immersion course when I was 18. In the Turks and Caicos I felt the loss of my powers, took my pain meds and trudged along as best I could. Hubby tried kite surfing while I took pictures from the beach, slowly relegated to audience and cheering section. Surgery was that following summer.

Fast forward to this year (zooming right through breaking what the doctor somewhat ironically called my ‘good’ leg) and here I am, trying to keep up with my 86 year-old father-in-law, peddling with two legs, in Treasure Cay.


Why should anyone other than me care? Because you have to be patient to be a good patient, and roll with life’s punches, and my lame story reveals that in spades and makes a good allegory that I hope encourages others to see through life’s storms without too much angst but with constant requests for a better answer. To be content but not complacent.

But mostly because when I got home and realised how long it was since I had ridden a bike, I had an enormous feeling of gratitude to those who listened to my story and helped me along the way that I feel compelled to share.

And in particular, I want to thank Dr Kosar Khwaja, now the Director of Acute Care Surgery at the McGill University Health Centre and still doctoring the Montreal Canadiens, who found my hernia and believed in the entrapped nerve after many false starts and miss- and non-diagnoses.


I remember him warning me I wouldn’t heal like Mike Fisher, and boy was he right! But heal I slowly have, and while pain-free was never a realistic goal or option, I suddenly, after four long years, was riding a bicycle and barely thinking about it.

What a delightful man, who didn’t dismiss the middle aged chronic pain patient as passed her prime, but quickly and professionally found the problem, fixed it as best he could, with a realistic discussion of the possible outcomes, and treated me like I was in the NHL. I had teased my doctor when I first found out about the inguinal hernia surgeries being performed in Montreal, that included nerve resectioning, that we lived in a socialist paradise and I wanted what those professional hockey players were getting, a scant two hours from my house. And I got it.

Thank you, Dr. Khwaja.

Posted in LIFE, MY UN-NERVING | 22 Comments

Flora, fauna and me … a photo update from the Bahamas

The Bahamian Mockingbird, which one elusive source introduced by saying that if you thought you had fifteen birds outside your window, you probably had a mocking bird, and they were right:


I haven’t identified these yet, but I sure wish I had one in my dining room:


Nancy’s, at the bottom end of Abaco, in Sandy Point. A lovely spot, somehow preserved, yet Nancy has been dead these 18 years. The chairs have Disney symbols, and the hideous Castaway Cay is off in the distance to the right (not in the photo), and we wondered if these had slowly but surely washed ashore so to speak. But the place has been almost untouched by the Disney proximity, who source most everything from Miami, despite many promises of local economic benefit when they purchased the offshore cay from the Bahamian government, roundly observed to be amongst the most corrupt. But the people seem rather pleased to have been left alone.




We just aren’t sure if they are serious, but there certainly are black Bahamian parrots, and a parrot preserve, at the southern end of the island. But you have to love the sign:


Pete’s Pub, which might just be one particular harbour, in Little Harbour. The story of the founding, and foundry, are most remarkable, and Pete’s father, Randall Johnston, originally of Toronto, sure took prepping to the nth degree. His story is captured in his edited diary, Artist on his Island: a Study in Self Reliance, and his youngest son and grand-children still occupy the harbour to this day. They also serve pretty yummy fish.



What once was the lighthouse, and a view from within of the Atlantic. Little Harbour sits just at the southern end of the cays that make up the sea of Abaco.



Beautiful stingrays from the Johnston foundry, that gently bob in the wind. Randall and his wife were both artists and made both lovely and dreadful statues and castings.


And finally back to Treasure Cay, sunning with the curly tails:



And this really is a starfish trail, as he or she wanders about at low tide, not getting eaten by rays:


And, finally, a happy goofy me:


Hoping all is as well as it can be in this best of all possible worlds. And yes, I know Voltaire was being sarcastic, but hey, sometimes things can be pretty good.


Posted in PHOTOS | 2 Comments

Sticking my head in the sand, and contemplating the ethereal …

I have undoubtedly written about this before, and probably equally inarticulately, because it is very much a thought in progress and almost more an emotion than a thought.

Can we somehow evolve without having to dwell endlessly on the mistakes and horrors of the past and even present? Can we learn, not from our mistakes, but from our successes?

I am tired, and I realise how lame that is as a reason, but it stands: I am tired of outrage and hearing about the worst people do to each other. There is so much good in the world and yet people always seem to want to know the gory details of something heinous. The past and the present become a sort of body count. And if you try to bring attention to the good, you get the old puppies and rainbows response as though only foolish people like puppies and rainbows … hmmnn.

I find myself increasingly interested in medicine and physics and cooking and chemistry (and puppies and rainbows) and in these fields one sees immense progress and understanding and beauty. And it really is a choice what one dwells upon, as there is only so much time and attention one gets. It isn’t a question of blind acceptance of the mainstream, it is that living down a rabbit hole is destructive for everyone and in no way appears to improve the world around.

Perhaps we can celebrate the beautiful rather than bemoaning the unpleasant, thereby giving it such undue attention. Putting on blinkers might actually mean being able to see the important things, avoiding the distractions flung by the fear-mongers.


Much love from the beautiful Bahamas.

Posted in LIFE | 1 Comment

Well, that happened …

Now where the heck was I? It seems like a remarkable dream, almost. A year ago we were heading off to California, I was still on Lyrica, my poor mum was still struggling and today I am sitting in my tie dye yoga pants from Jammin’ on Haight (got to love the name)


short one mother, with a chunk of metal in my leg, access to wonderful legal weed, and still somewhat stunned by the recent tempest in my teapot of a blog. And life having improved (?) we are looking forward to heading south to the Bahamas, to join our aged parents, or parents-in-law, for the last two weeks of February, with a brief start in Miami to go to the Strictly Sail boat show, now as boat owners, not just dreamers. Plus ça change, mais plus ça remain the same. Thank Thor.

But what of philosophy and economics and the general theory of everything? Has it progressed? No.

But I just have to get this out there. Last summer we took a couple from the sailing club for a sail on our new boat. And then she died, unexpectedly, just a few weeks ago. She was very much my age. I didn’t know her well, and I don’t think we were destined to be friends in particular, but what has really spooked me is that after I broke my leg there was a brief moment when an x-ray had resulted in some considerable panic about my insides and I had a weekend between the phone call expressing concern and the booked x-ray to determine if they had somehow missed an aggressive cancer (which was clearly the unspoken fear that drove the schedule of appointments). And so we went sailing. I knew it was actually really unlikely that there was something wrong as I have been poked and prodded most everywhere throughout my interesting medical history (actually everywhere, without going into too great detail, even with a toothpick which did find a one inch circle of fire on my back that was fed by my ilioinguinal nerve, and which was entirely cured by the nerve resectioning).

I was lying out on one of the trampolines that beautiful sunny day, looking down at the water rushing past, and I remember thinking that if this was my last day on the planet I was going to enjoy it. And now I find myself thinking that most days, even when it seems ludicrous to my rational brain. It is not that I have gone passive against wrongs or ills, it is just that the question, as raised in 10% Happier, of whether the worries are useful or detrimental is much on my mind.

Is the world going to hell in a hand-basket? Maybe yes, maybe no. It certainly is taking its time if so, and we are lucky to be along for the ride.

Argyle Sweater 20110909 handbasket

As the always cheerful Pink Floyd would have it, life is a short warm moment, and death is a long cold rest. Here’s to the warm moment, and hoping it lasts a little longer.

Have a superlative Sunday.

Posted in LIFE | 35 Comments

Four infourmative books that made me rethink thinks … and then I drivel on for a bit …

First and four-most was Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing.


Inspirational and a solid mix of anecdote, science, and useful information that you can apply in your everyday life, though it is far from a self-help book. A book about cutting edge neuroscience and the remarkable new therapies that can awaken dormant brain cells. It might even make you cry, from happiness.

In the same vein of helpful science, but requiring quite the well-worth commitment of time and effort, was Gary Taubes Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health.


Taubes explains why we get the often erroneous advice we get (usually a form of sunk cost is to blame) and just how wrong it often is, backing up theory with science and excellent investigative journalism. A quick easy introduction can be found at, where he was interviewed by Russ Roberts:

Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about why we get fat and the nature of evidence in a complex system. The current mainstream view is that we get fat because we eat too much and don’t exercise enough. Taubes challenges this seemingly uncontroversial argument with a number of empirical observations, arguing instead that excessive carbohydrate consumption causes obesity. In this conversation he explains how your body reacts to carbohydrates and explains why the mainstream argument of “calories in/calories out” is inadequate for explaining obesity. He also discusses the history of the idea of carbohydrates’ importance tracing it back to German and Austrian nutritionists whose work was ignored after WWII. Roberts ties the discussion to other emergent, complex phenomena such as the economy. The conversation closes with a discussion of the risks of confirmation bias and cherry-picking data to suit one’s pet hypotheses.

This book didn’t exactly change the way I ate,  I had already been suspicious of carbs, and way back in the karate days had changed my body composition by going almost Atkins, a change that has persisted to this day. I am now too skinny, after a life of being possibly on the plump (for Ontario standards, which turn out to be pretty darn anorexic) side. But if you have unwanted fat, or know people who do, this book is basically a must. It makes sense of many things you experience in your own body and helps to explain why governments want you to eat so much grain. And for Americans plagued by diabetes, this book should be essential reading.

What is Life, by Addy Pross, was a pleasant surprise and extremely interesting, and moves one from the macro to the micro and back again. His understanding of chemistry is astonishing but the concepts he discusses are for the most part thoroughly explicated, and I thought he did a good job of backing away from the philosophical and sticking with the knowable, but recognizing the inherent questions all answers raise.


The question of how life on Earth (or indeed anywhere else) began is one that has been pondered and debated by scientists, philosophers and the common man throughout history. The title of this book repeats that of an essay written by Erwin Schrödinger in the 1940s. While it is not necessary to have read Schrödinger’s essay to understand this book, anyone interested in the knotty problem of life’s origins should probably take a look.

In Schrödinger’s essay, written before the structure of DNA was known, he tries to relate the macroscopic process of heredity to the quantum worlds of physics and chemistry. In his turn, Addy Pross addresses a related problem – what is it that makes some arrangements of matter ‘alive’? What (in the chemical sense) differentiates living matter from the same set of chemicals in a dead organism, or a piece of inanimate matter that has never been alive?

Pross suggests that there are two aspects to the origin of life problem. The first is historical – how did life actually emerge on Earth just over 4 billion years ago? To this, Pross claims we will almost certainly never find a satisfactory answer. The second, more important, question covers the general chemical principles and processes by which life could emerge, and identifying the driving force behind why it should do so in the first place – seemingly in defiance of the laws of thermodynamics.

And finally, rounding out the top four books that brought science to Xty’s life in 2015, in more ways than one, I am currently listening to, and mostly greatly enjoying Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics, by Richard Thaler.


Richard H. Thaler has spent his career studying the radical notion that the central agents in the economy are humans—predictable, error-prone individuals. Misbehaving is his arresting, frequently hilarious account of the struggle to bring an academic discipline back down to earth—and change the way we think about economics, ourselves, and our world.

Traditional economics assumes rational actors. Early in his research, Thaler realized these Spock-like automatons were nothing like real people. Whether buying a clock radio, selling basketball tickets, or applying for a mortgage, we all succumb to biases and make decisions that deviate from the standards of rationality assumed by economists. In other words, we misbehave. More importantly, our misbehavior has serious consequences. Dismissed at first by economists as an amusing sideshow, the study of human miscalculations and their effects on markets now drives efforts to make better decisions in our lives, our businesses, and our governments.

Well that should keep you busy for today and tomorrow. The fiction review will have to be short. And I must confess that a few books need to be finished, before that review can be complete, one of which is currently sitting on the sail boat, where it reads best: a good friend sent me Passage to Juneau, by Jonathan Raban, and while I am not sure I like the protagonist and he seems to name drop his history rather than introduce the reader to it, it is full of fascinating sea-faring stuff. Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World is absolutely charming and holds up extremely well. The Aubrey/Maturin series, of which Hollywood made but the one movie, Master and Commander, has gotten a little silly as Patrick O’Brian moves away from the historical time line, but as we approach the end of the series, having made it through The Wine Dark Sea, I heartily recommend them, especially in audio and especially if you can get them read by Simon Vance.

Outside of sailing, well mostly, surprise joy was found in Around the World in 80 Days, Dracula, and perhaps inexplicably, I still think about that irritating book Babbitt, and the growth of American conformity that it examines. 20 Gazillion Nonsensical Leagues Under the Sea, however, I can only say is an historic curiosity, and in that vein and taken with a gallon of sea salt, can be approached, but with extreme caution. Likewise The Black Arrow, and especially The Last (thank zeus) of the Mohicans. I think I would have preferred the second to last:


And finally podcasts. What a great resource. Econtalk, Sawbones, Radiolab, My Brother, My Brother and Me, Serial, The Adventure Zone, Trends Like These, Judge John Hodgman, The Ancient World, Doorway to The Hidden World … I am sure there was much more. But a cornucopia of entertainment and information, and I am sure you will be able to find something of interest in the heap. All free from iTunes, but you can always support young comedians if you feel like it …

Have a happy and interesting New Year’s Eve, and don’t be falling for mandatory drinking! Be safe and warm and do no harm, even to yourself.

*I cannot understand why some of the links are displaying oddly. They look fine in preview and do work. First it was Dracula, and I was able to fix it. Now it has spread but the html is the same for both the correct and incorrect, so I am a little stumped and will stump around in the snow with the dog and see if that helps!

Aha … something to do with Project Gutenberg links perchance, as altering Dracula to link to wikipedia has fixed the strike through, if not the colour. For my own sanity’s sake I will tackle this … but after the snow tromp.

Posted in LIFE, RANDOM | 78 Comments

Another year older … but not just another year …

Happy Birthday to me …

That said, what a year it has been.

Bought the boat in Cape Cod in January ..

Went to California with a dreaming in my heart in February:

Still visiting mum in March in Ottawa:

Making maple syrup in Penetang in April:

Bye-bye Nana in May …

Getting the boat from Wareham, Mass., still in May:

From the site of the old Cape Cod Shipbuilding Co, which had clearly seen better days:

Fixing the boat back in Ottawa, still in May:

Oh dear in June:

But oh yeah in July! Ottawa, New Brunswick and then Penetang for the in-laws’ 60th:

And then Go Home in August and the cutest nest ever:

And then a lovely and calm fall:

What a wonderful world!

Best wishes to all and sundry …


Posted in LIFE, PHOTOS | 79 Comments

Gobble gobble gluck gluck munch munch munch

a thousand hairy savages sitting down to lunch …

or something to that effect, as I either paraphrase or quote the inimitable Spike Milligan, in honour of my American friends’ turkey festival. A very Happy Thanksgiving to you late celebrating folk.

We have become increasingly aware of American Thanksgiving as it has for one become bigger than Christmas in the States almost, or perhaps has become a part of it, a forerunner, a season opener. But as my athletic therapist pointed out yesterday as the insane blackness of the ill-named Black Friday was plastered all over town, your dollar has our border retailers salivating, so perhaps we are more aware this year than usual.

The fluctuation in the exchange rate has currently put a dead stop to a great Canadian tradition of cross border shopping, where the strong US dollar was offset by cheap prices and low taxes. But as the cold weather approaches and our snow birds all look south, it is with dismay. A dismay I am sharing, as while the boat must stay home, there is just a chance that we will imitate our old lives and manage a Bahamas trip to stay with the elderly in-laws who have a sweet setup with friends in Treasure Cay, where they have a little bungalow community where the average age is about 862. But one does one’s own cooking, etc., so it is really just the flight that is an added expense. And we are worried about them. They soldier on remarkably, but age is age and pop-in-law is 86.

But back to the present, I hope you enjoy your holiday, see family if that is a good idea, don’t see family if that is a better idea, and if football is part and parcel of your sweet potato pie day, you might enjoy listening to this episode of Radiolab. Their endless NPRness eventually wears one down, as episode after episode seemed to delve into transgenderness and then sort of horrible stories about death, and shooting Rhinos because they do have an agenda and kind of hate a lot of things, or at least I began to find it more depressing than inspiring, but many of the episodes cover very interesting ground, and this one, about the invention of American football was an astonishing tale, and I heartily recommend it while you are peeling those sweet potatoes or just curling up on the couch fending off wolves:

Radiolab: American Football

Today, we tackle football. It’s the most popular sport in the US, shining a sometimes harsh light on so much of what we have been, what we are, and what we hope to be. Savage, creative, brutal and balletic, whether you love it or loathe it … it’s a touchstone of the American identity.
Along with conflicted parents and players and coaches who aren’t sure if the game will survive, we take a deep dive into the surprising history of how the game came to be. At the end of the 19th century, football is a nascent and nasty sport. The sons of the most powerful men in the country are literally knocking themselves out to win these gladiatorial battles. But then the Carlisle Indian School, formed in 1879 to assimilate the children and grandchildren of the Native American men who fought the final Plains Wars, fields the most American team of all. The kids at Carlisle took the field to face off against a new world that was destroying theirs, and along the way, they changed the fundamentals of football forever.

It makes one appreciate the use of indian names for sports teams a little more … perhaps a compliment not an insult?

We used to go camping for Thanksgiving, and gathered around the table I actually enforced a giving thanks, each person in turn. I think our middle child was thankful for potatoes one year, and really when you think about it, me too! So just to be preachy for a moment, do remember to be thankful for something or someone or both … even for yourself. We are lucky to be alive and it doesn’t get better than that, as far as I can tell.

So I hope your brine is salty, and your beer is malty and that you are able to eat, drink and be merry. But maybe don’t go shopping tomorrow. It is getting a little unseemly. Unless you want to drive up here … but our Black Friday started Wednesday, so it is all a little confusing.

Have a lovely Thanksgiving and I hope a couch features prominently in your day.

Posted in LIFE | 153 Comments

I think I shall call it the Brain of Whew …

I have mentioned Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing in the Word of the Day [or Week, or Eon, but my intentions are good] and would like to give it a little more attention. This book, while in a way full of miraculous stories one doesn’t believe, is full of miraculous stories that one does believe. The lab tests are there, the brain scans are there, the people are real and the doctor hails from my home town, Toronto, so I can vouch for the places being real as well. It touches on the confluence of Western and Eastern medicine while discussing what is arguably the most exciting medical discovery of the 21st century, the brain’s ability to heal itself, which Doidge first wrote about in The Brain that Changes Itself.

The stories in the book are powerful and the most powerful idea that comes out of it, to me, is the importance of the active participation of  patients in their treatment, not the passivity that Western medicine traditionally assumes, where one waits for the medicine to take effect, going patiently to appointments where prescriptions are dished out and the expectation is to manage decline, essentially. We in the West tend to take a very mechanical approach to the body, with organs being like car parts, carburetors and pistons, or plumbing systems with pumps and valves. If one part isn’t working, we try to swap it out, or bombard it with the tools of the internal medicine folks. Or we medicate to tests, giving Lipitor to millions, as we manage risk not illness.

This last issue, managing risk, I recently ran into in one of my favourite podcasts … drum roll, and eye roll if you are a regular reader, Econtalk. In Perhaps Preventing Prevention is Prudent, Russ Roberts interviews physician Robert Aronowitz about his book, Risky Medicine, which “calls into question many of the health care norms we’ve adopted in our lives, including PSA tests for men and routine mammograms for women. In an unusual twist for EconTalk listeners, perhaps, Aronowitz suggests, the biggest problem in health care isn’t too little information, but too much.”

Initially one rebels against the idea, but when you discover that pharmaceutical companies deliberately turned away from researching medicines that cured a problem to ones that managed risk and hence would be prescribed for life, not a few weeks, one gets a little antsy. And as cropped up in a previous Econtalk, for every hundred people that take Lipitor, two will still have a heart attack and one won’t. So instead of three out of a hundred, two out of a hundred have a heart attack. But that means 99 people are taking a drug they do not need and that has many potential side effects and is insanely expensive overall.

But back to the brain. It turns out that much paralysis and pain can be from learned behaviour and that behaviour can be unlearned. I have written before about neuropathic pain, as a double edged sword of diagnosis. If correct, then bravo. But if incorrect an underlying condition can go untreated. But when the brain has become accustomed to behaving in a certain way it will continue to do so unless interrupted. The painful part of it all is the impetus it puts on the individual to take steps to better their own condition, especially when external events seem to have robbed them of that ability.

After reading [well, listening to, ed.] The Brain’s Way of Healing, I have begun attempting some interesting meditation, both focused and mindful, to use the vernacular. In the book Doidge writes of a fellow who actually managed to get his vision back after being declared legally blind, and in passing mentions eye exercises that are related also to meditation. These I also looked up. And the most interesting thing I have found to date about myself that I really want to encourage others to experience, is what goes on in my overstimulated brain when I close my eyes in true darkness.

I got myself a sleep mask that really makes things dark, so when I open my eyes it is pitch black. This is important because your eyelids actually let in a lot of light and you want to make sure that all you see is being generated from within. Then close your eyes and see what happens. For me it is an astonishing light show that is turning out to have different, identifiable, moments as I continue to practice. The meditation comes into play when you either focus on trying to see the darkness and try to ignore the light, letting the darkness expand as you bring your mind back to that one pursuit, a calm, dark space, or practice mindfulness, simply experiencing it and learning not to react, as thoughts literally flash through your brain.

But I think I am slowly beginning to win, and it is a great sport for insomniacs. There are all sorts of resources on the internet for guided meditation, and I haven’t researched enough to recommend any particular background sounds or voice yet, but it is surprisingly enjoyable if daunting to think that there is a vast potential to help one’s brain make one’s body well. Obviously this is all just old hat … get exercise and sunshine and you will flourish. But that isn’t the message we usually give the unwell, as we moved away from windows and natural light into a world of corridors and fluorescent lights. But I threatened to be unbearable as I discovered something millions know. The anxious and overwrought brain, whether from physical, medical or genetic reasons, can be brought under some control, as surely as you can fix your breathing when starting to panic. I have watched my oxygen sats go up and down as I controlled or failed to control my breathing in an ambulance, and as the paramedic helped me calm myself, my body began to function much better. I felt so sorry for her, having to constantly get people to not make themselves worse, that I tried quite hard to please her. And I have tried to remember that lesson, and feel the warm calm of full and proper breathing.

So if you are needing a little inspiration in your life, as I often do, I heartily recommend The Brain’s Way of Healing. There really is a lot of hope, when the blind can learn to see and the paralyzed to walk again.

Have a wonderful day, and may your brain be a source of entertainment for you. Mine sure keeps me on my toes … or at least I hope it will!


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