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?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Stuff I Learned - Holiday Break

After a bit of a hiatus from the work of grad school, I've recently returned to reading and studying material related to join laxity. As is often the case (see this blog entry for a short discussion of ADHD and the Brownian motion of my mind), I've found interesting articles that divert my attention away from the task-at-hand.

What are you doing to improve your odds of
being a Superager?
The other day I found an article in the New York Times that piqued my interest. In this article, the author discussed how important it is for aging populations to push themselves - to get out of their comfort zone. The therapeutic power of pushing beyond the comfort zone has been something of a recurring theme that I've encountered in various quarters.

For example, a theory of athletic training suggests that much of the supposed age-related diminution of physical prowess is not necessarily the result of aging, but the result of how older athletes tend to stop pushing themselves in their later years. There are some pretty outlandish claims being made about the turning-back-the-clock potential of training hard past age fifty; that being said, I do think there's some truth to the claims that some age-related declines in performance arise from taking it too easy.

The aforementioned article wasn't about athletic training. Rather, it was about how the mind ages (or does not age!) The authors used a term that I love (Superager) to describe minds that remain healthy and vital well into what we may consider old age. What did the authors find as they researched Superagers? They found that Superagers tended to embraced mental challenges that took them well outside of their comfort zone.

Specifically, the authors mentioned how a friendly game of Sudoku or a simple cross-word puzzle doesn't have the same brain-building pizzazz as embarking on an intellectual challenge that may bring the participant to feelings of frustration or discomfort. While I am no fonder of feeling frustrated than the next person, I'm hearing more and more about the beneficial effects of stress on learning.

In a course that I'm looking forward to taking next semester, Systems Neuroscience, reliable sources tell me that the instructors intentionally introduce a baseline of stress into the lectures. Not huge stress (no water balloons nor Trier tests), but just enough stress to excite the brain into a state that's poised to learn new material. By randomly calling on students, the low-grade stress of am I next? is reputed to help groom neural circuitry into recallable memory. In the research that I've accessed, there seems to be evidence supporting this assertion - that the mental stress of taking on challenging tasks is very good for the memory and the brain.

As we head into 2017, in what ways are you leaning into your zones of discomfort? With the increasing evidence that mental and physical challenges are among the best tonics for aging - what strategies are you exploring to improve your odds of being a Superager?

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Stuff That I Learned - The Older Student's Mind

I’ve just completed my first semester of graduate school, and it went pretty well. The semester got off to a pretty bumpy start, though I had a lot of guidance and support in getting my nascent graduate career on track. The semester has recently ended, and I now feel the time and space to reflect on the past 15+ weeks.

As you may know, I’m a bit older than the average graduate student. Since returning to school, many people have asked me questions about the process of returning to school; how do the other students treat me?  how do I balance work & school? do I notice changes in my mind? what’s it like being older than some of the professors? etc.

Answering all of these questions would make for a very long blog entry, so I’ve chosen one question to address – the question about my mind.

So – did I notice any changes in my mind? The short answer is yes, though the details have surprised even me. I expected that I would experience deficits in my capacity to memorize or to digest new material, though in all honesty, that’s not been the case. In fact, I’ve found that my memory is far better than it was when I was an undergrad almost thirty years ago. The primary difference in my mind is in the recognition of anxiety. After years of meditation, I’ve developed an emerging capacity to observe my own mind. And over this past semester of graduate school, anxiety paid a visit more than a few times!

I don’t believe that this past semester’s anxiety emerged out of nowhere, but that the anxiety has likely been in the background my whole life. Upon reflection, I recalled instances as an undergrad that may legitimately have been called panic attacks. At the time I considered these states of mind to be unpleasant, and I spent many of the intervening years changing the external circumstances of my life so that I wouldn’t have to feel anxious. And I crafted a life that didn’t give the anxiety much of a chance to be directly identified, and as a result I came to believe that I wasn’t a very anxious person.

When I was younger, I'd sometimes feel
anxious about laundry.
(ca - 1985)
Then I went back to school, and embarked on a new life where I didn’t have much control over my daily activities… and there was my old friend, anxiety! I’m still not too fond of feeling anxious, though I’ve had the good fortune to learn some techniques to work with my mind. The daily practice of meditation has allowed me to be present with the anxiety, and I have come to recognize anxiety’s ephemeral nature. Like all thoughts, the anxiety can seem so unbearably real, but in actuality, the anxiety isn’t necessarily solid. And I found that simply knowing that the anxiety was insubstantial freed me from having to make it go away.

More than dealing with adversity (my first exam in Exercise Physiology was a case-study in adversity!), balancing many responsibilities or memorizing a vast amount of material, I believe that my capacity to be still with anxiety best predicts my potential to succeed in my return to school. It’s still too early to predict how well I’ll do in this new endeavor, though being freed from having to feel a certain way gives me the confidence to continue moving forward.

As someone who tends to be anxious, I’ve found some techniques that have helped me navigate my busy life. Here is a summary of the techniques that I’ve found to be helpful. Maybe some of these techniques may be of some benefit to other people, too?
  • ·      Compassionate motivation – I tried to initiate all of my various tasks by considering how my actions have the potential be of benefit to others. For example, whenever I attended a lecture, I tried to consider how the knowledge that I gained may give me more tools to help others. In changing the motivation, I found that a lot of the pressure that I put on myself to succeed softened into a concern for others. Reminding myself that I’m not the center of the known universe was a helpful practice in working with anxiety!
  • ·      Meditate – thoughts can seem so real, and I used to believe that my thoughts were inherently real. For example, when I used to feel anxious, I’d work hard to change the conditions that I felt caused me to feel anxious. Through meditation, I’ve learned to see thoughts as insubstantial, and I’ve gained some measure of freedom to be present with anxiety. While I’m not always 100% mindful, I’m no longer as likely to immediately embark on changing whatever I felt was causing the anxiety.
  • ·      Exercise – I cannot emphasize enough how much exercise has helped me to navigate this busy semester. Working out on the Pilates equipment gave me something to push against, which helped me to enjoy the resilience of feeling embodied. And running has conferred the vast benefits of cardiorespiratory fitness, which has been repeatedly shown to help with both anxiety and depression.
  • ·      Reconsider what’s essential – I used to think that I had to sleep a certain number of hours per day in order to feel OK. This past semester I experienced that my life contained more wants than needs. While I’d rather sleep more than I did last semester, I found that drinking X-ounces of water per day or sleeping X-number of hours per day may not be as essential as I used to believe. The human body & mind is wondrously resilient!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Stuff That I Learned - Week #15

Busy - but committed to eating right,
meditating and exercising
Fall Semester of 2016 is nearly complete. I've learned more in one semester than I ever could have imagined, and I continue to delight in my good fortune to be a non-traditional graduate student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

This week I had high hopes of writing more about neural control and/or my hearing, though the final push into exams is consuming more of my bandwidth than I had expected. Next week I hope to return to weekly updates.

Please keep an eye on my blog into 2017, as I'll continue with weekly updates on stuff that I learned. Next semester promises to be very interesting - I'm coming to refer to it as Neural Fest 2017.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Stuff I Learned - Week #14

This past week of school was significantly shortened by the Thanksgiving holiday. As a result, I learned about 60% less than most other weeks. Despite the paucity of class time, there was still plenty of work to do and stuff that I learned.

For this week's blog, I have been debating whether to write about basal ganglia or diabetes. Writing about basal ganglia would reference my neural control course, whereas writing about diabetes would refer to my exercise physiology course. For a couple of reasons, I've not written very much about my neural control course thus far this semester.

As far as coursework, neural control is more closely related to my research interests than exercise physiology. That being said, I've aways loved to move my body and work out. And the exercise physiology course has focused on what happens while moving the body and working out! I've found this exercise physiology course to be personally very interesting, and the material also potentially interesting to those that are fond of yoga and other physical activities.

As the name may imply, neural control can be pretty technical. By studying various neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease, stroke, and deafferentation, our class has been learning about the various brain structures and neural circuits that underlie our sensing of the world and how we move through our world. Fascinating stuff!

Next semester I anticipate significantly deepening my understanding of neural control by being a teaching assistant (TA) for an undergraduate neural control course. I imagine that I'll come away from Spring semester with a much richer understanding of movement and its neural signaling. It's been said; if you really want to understand something, teach it!

Along with TA-ing neural control next semester, I'll also be taking a graduate-level neuroscience course, systems neuroscience. The systems neuroscience course has humbled people far more intelligent than me, so I'm girding myself for a busy semester of memorizing. While the price of admission to systems neuroscience seems to be a daunting amount of work, the payback promises to be incredibly rich - I've long desired a better understanding of the brain circuitry that underlies the richness of our lives.

You may be wondering, what does this have to do with basal ganglia or diabetes? Well, the short answer is that this blog posting, at least thus far, has had virtually nothing to do with either one! So, I'd best get to work - and write a bit about diabetes.

I took away three primary points from the recent lecture on T2DM (Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus). The first two points weren't really new information, but rather a clearer presentation on material that I'd heard before.

The primary causes of T2DM are lack of physical activity and obesity. There are certainly other factors at play in the increasing incidence of T2DM (such as familial history, ethnic predispositions, etc.), though being obese and sedentary overwhelmingly increases the risk of developing T2DM. I had heard this before, though it was a good reminder to keep moving and to avoid regaining the 40-pounds that I recently lost.

A point about diabetes that I did not know, is that T2DM is largely caused by inflammation. And the cause of this inflammation is the obesity. I was unawares that obesity, on its own, elevated systemic inflammation in such a significant way. Simply being obese elevates inflammation, and this uptick in inflammation can lead to the body's tissues becoming resistant to insulin.

The resultant resistance to insulin can change how blood vessels respond to stimulus, including exercise. With diabetes, the endothelial tissues of the blood vessels (a fancy name for the specialized tissues that line blood vessels) no longer appropriately dilate, which hinders the body's natural responses to exercise. Net result - a person with insulin resistance may feel more tired and depleted from exercise, and then is less likely to stick with an exercise routine. A downward spiral!

Diabetes has become a worldwide epidemic, and while diabetes can be effectively managed, the long-term side effects continue to extract a heavy toll. Diabetes-related issues in circulation can cause kidney damage, loss of eyesight, neuropathy, and amputation... to name a few. Diabetes is a much larger subject than this blog can handle, though I'm hoping that a couple of points can emerge from this brief discussion.
  • Keep moving! In particular, keep up with your aerobic conditioning and strength training. These are the only two paths of exercise/movement that have been shown to both treat and prevent diabetes.
  • Stay trim. While I'm heartened to see the great strides that are being made in body-acceptance, I hope that we don't lose sight of the fact that obesity significantly increases the risks of developing serious health problems. Serious health problems! Staying at a healthy weight remains an important predictor of good health.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Stuff I Learned - Week #13

This past week I've been learning about how high altitude impacts physical activity. As many of you have probably experienced, hiking in the mountains of Colorado can be more fatiguing than hiking in Wisconsin's Blue Mound State Park. Why is it much easier for a flatlander to exercise in the hills of Southern Wisconsin's Driftless region than to exercise in Colorado's high country?

Atmospheric pressure rapidly decreases as altitude increases, and as a result, there's a lot less oxygen available at Monarch Mountain Ski Area in Colorado than there is at Tyrol Basin here in Wisconsin. While this decrease in available oxygen may seem like the beginning and end of the story, the physiology is actually much more interesting than simply more/less oxygen.

Earning turns outside of Leadville, CO
(huffing and puffing every step of the way)
Let's start with looking at how your body responds to an environment that has less available oxygen (hypoxic). A few weeks ago I discussed the feedback mechanisms that determine respiratory rate, and those same mechanisms are at play in the hypoxic state. With less available oxygen in the inhaled air, the chemoreceptors in the aorta and carotid arteries signal the respiratory centers of the brain-stem to increase the depth and rate of the breathing.

In addition to the increased rate and depth of the breathing, heartrate also increases when you're moving around in the high country. (Have you ever experienced the feeling that your heart was going to fly out of your chest while skiing in the mountains?)

The increase in heartrate and respiratory volume that occurs in the mountains is a good start in adapting to the lower-oxygen conditions, though these cardiorespiratory adaptations are still insufficient to fully compensate for the hypoxia. There is still insufficient oxygen getting to your working muscles - as hard as you may be breathing when you're skiing, it still isn't hard enough!

There's not much oxygen at the top of Mt. Kangchenjunga.
At 28,169 feet above sea level, tying your shoes is exhausting. 
Why, then, doesn't the body just breathe harder? The answer brings us back to the feedback mechanisms that I discussed a few weeks ago. At altitude, the feedback mechanisms are receiving conflicting messages about the hypoxic conditions, and as a result, are sending mixed messages to the respiratory control centers.

As I mentioned earlier, the sensors in the carotid arteries and aorta are sensing a deficit in oxygen, which signals the respiratory centers to increase the rate and depth of the breathing. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the deeper breathing reduces the levels of carbon dioxide in the muscles. While less carbon dioxide in the muscles may seem like a good thing, the decrease in carbon dioxide corresponds to an alkaline shift in the tissues. As the pH of the tissues moves to an alkaline state, the central and peripheral chemoreceptors signal the brainstem to slow down the breathing in order to bring the pH of the tissues back into balance. As a result, the body is simultaneously trying to speed up and slow down the breathing!

Herein is another example of the brilliance/intelligence of the human body. After spending a few days at altitude, your body figures out how to respond. The central and peripheral chemoreceptors reduce their signaling to the respiratory centers, and as a result of this downregulation, the breathing responds more effectively to the hypoxic conditions. Voila - blood oxygen levels are normalized, and some degree of adaptation to high altitude conditions occurs!

While there is more to high altitude adaptation than this cardiorespiratory signaling effect, I think I'll leave the discussion here for the time being.

For a future posting, let me know if you'd find it interesting to learn how Tibetan and Andean populations, for example, have adapted to thrive at the highest elevations.