Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sandra Blakeslee's articles

I've added a link to Sandra Blakeslee's articles in the list to the right of this blog. There are about a dozen among them that are about neuroscience in one way or another. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Power of NOT-Doing

I've been thinking quite a bit about yoga of all things, lately. It's been in the context of thinking about neuroplasticity in general, on the Neurotonics blog, but in the process I think I may have been practicing my own advice over these last few weeks, not so much a form of letting go, rather a deliberate taking of the reins of life (gently) from the hands of the person who ordinarily drives the cart that makes the ruts in my own brain; she is Working me, not Just-veging me. Just veging-me practices staying out of old ruts by creating new context.

In line with the tenets of neuroplasticity AND yoga, the steps I've discovered so far for navigating personal change are:

1. Recognize that something is trying to change.
(For me, this is usually a feeling of being weighed down and struggling. I really dislike that feeling and am sensitized to it, but others may have to actively learn to recognize it.)

2. Stop reinforcing old behavior by repeating it, make some temporal space for some new behavior, then wait for it to emerge on its own.
Stop making every day cart ruts even deeper than they already are. Just stop. See how it feels. (In my case, it always feels like a void, something neither good nor bad.)

3. Practice breathing slow and deep.
Conscious breathing can help one navigate/dispel any associated void-related anxiety. Be kind to the animal part of the brain. (Read the last paragraph here.) Give your brain a job to do, and accompany it while it does its job.

Maybe this seasonal retreat is my yoga-esque way of "practicing" the inevitability, the eventuality of retiring and adapting to lack of outside pressure. Maybe it's a version of Matthias' "metacognition".

Just-veging me actually has a Happy Retirement fantasy it loves to show Working-me: I picture having moved to a sunny place, a drier climate with more distinct seasons but still mild, lots of fruit growing in nearby fields and sold in stands along the road. I buy a little place to live, drenched with light pouring in from skylights and windows in all seasons. I paint all the walls a clean stark white color, white walls against brightness and green and azure blue from a nearby lake reflecting a deep blue sky framed by sage hills that are several other colors of blue.

I maintain a few comfortable/comforting pieces of furniture but tolerate Absolutely No Clutter. Instead I enjoy spaciousness, tidy bookshelves, a clear desk, and a distinct lack of dust smell. I still have a computer, but spend less time at it. I have clean wooden floors (make that cork or bamboo tile), and I spend a few hours every day lying upon one or another of them, feeling supported by its perfectly flat coolness, breathing, feeling my body, practicing moving it, enjoying how well it supports its own as well as my life. I take walks outside, around the clear blue lake that will be in the middle of town (no remote wilderness for me, thanks..).

In early mornings I paint pictures, large canvases full of riotous color that externalize the kaleidoscopic images my mind commonly comes up with to show me (raw neural function, I'm pretty sure). I don't know yet if these productions sell or just stack up in the garage (which is empty because I prefer to ride a bicycle, no longer care to own a car). I can't see that part. Probably it won't matter much either way by then - being ecstatically in every moment will.

In the evenings I watch wide screen hi-def TV.

Surfacing from SAD

I think I'm back up from the depths of my own brain now.

I'm still in metaphoric deep water; haven't quite gotten myself hauled up onto the metaphoric dock yet, but my emotional nose is at least above the waves, and it feels like oxygen is available/abundant and that I can breath in an ordinary way again. I feel like me again. Hurray for the light box. I look forward to the post-season burst of physical energy I enjoyed last year. It could hit any day now.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

SAD progress report

I'm muddling along pretty good here in the quiet, the dark. I'm reading "Kent's Life" today, enjoying it a lot. Someone my age. The gender and culture and trajectory and outcome are somewhat different, but he's from the same continent and has been alive as long as I have. Kent wrote to me about knee pain awhile ago, let me know he reads this blog. He left a comment on the last blogpost and some others.

By reading about the trajectory through which his life has hurtled itself, and with which he has grappled/is grappling, he no longer seems a complete stranger. I'm up to somewhere in Sept. '06, and just found this quote:
"Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. You've got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight." --Bruce Cockburn
Yup. That quote is just about perfect for this retreat of mine. Maybe for this age of ours. Thanks Bruce. Thanks Kent.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Rage Against the Dying of the Light": A Survival Plan for SAD

"Rage Against the Dying of the Light" is Dylan Thomas' famous poem for his dying father, of course, but it evokes something quite different in me, a survival battle of a different sort.

In his Mindblog, Deric Bownds wrote about seasonal affective disorder. (SAD; who came up with that clever but misleading acronym? I'd like a word ..)

Apparently as many as one in ten have this in more northerly latitudes... I certainly have it.

Let me tell you a bit about where I live, Vancouver BC; in December, it rains. Non-stop. For days and days and days on end. Now, this is coastal rainforest climate, and therefore rain sprinkles/drips/falls/pelts most of the time all year long; however, I find December non-stop rain especially emotionally invasive, accompanied as it is by other important factors such as:

1. Shortest days of the year in a latitude above the 49th parallel

2. No snow to reflect whatever feeble amount of skylight there might be even on days when there is a break in the rain. Nature's winter colors here are wet dark grey or wet dark green (take your pick). I've seen it so dark here that the street lights hardly take a break all day.

3. My birthday happens to fall between solstice and New Year. Happy Birthday to me.

4. It is generally regarded as the season to act jolly even if you don't feel it, for the sake of the troop.

My nervous system finds this combination of factors so stressful that if I don't "manage" my passage through this season, I could tip over into despair. Which I refuse to let happen. Instead, I walk straight into a social abyss, into social "dark", retreat to let my system work through its impasse, free of outside stress. I retain my right to feel inwardly sane and on even keel for whatever the next year might bring.

I've written about having this little affliction, once before, here. I've let go of jigsaw puzzles since then, however, in favor of sitting at the computer with a 10,000 lux sunlamp blazing for a few hours every morning from October on, drinking coffee. Therefore "November" has been less of a "problem" in the last few years; I've learned to confine the disorder to a shorter period, in December instead. Hurray for neurogenesis, neuroplasticity.

Someday I may alter the overall Survival Plan to include travel away to a sunny clime, but these years I find even that nice idea too daunting. Here's the current plan - I offer it freely to whoever wants to read it, this solstice day, 2007:


1. Sun lamp
2. Fireplace (real or fake, doesn't matter)
3. Computer, internet and online life, TV, access to DVD rental near by your house
4. Enough clean clothes and food, etc., to last a few weeks
5. Enough control over your life to take a sizable time out without financial damage to the rest of your year.
6. Ability to say "no thanks" to invitations from other people. They may never fully understand why you would rather be solitary, but after awhile they will simply stop asking you to be social against your own inclinations or natural preference.
7. No need to feel obliged to try to explain yourself.
8. A willingness to be alone, in your body and in your own life, completely off-clock, so everything can reset itself naturally, as best it can.

You've arranged your few weeks off work, one week on one side of winter solstice (today) and one week (and a bit) on the other side, having found there's no point in pushing yourself to go against your own inherent need to retreat. Do not feel bad for acting anti-social. Most of the year you are social enough. Do not apologize for doing something you need to do to retain your own capacity to steer your own mind through life. Unless you are a mom or dad with young children who need to be reassured by emotionally available contact and/or programmed with (or deprogrammed from) culturally appropriate activity, the on-going social impact of you not being part of any "scene" that involves other human primates will likely be vanishingly minimal. Let others do whatever they need to do, and take your right to do what you need to do, for you.

Congratulate yourself if you've planned ahead, if you've withdrawn naturally by stages, by graded exposure/graded withdrawal. One year, just stop sending greeting cards. See how that feels. If it feels ok, move on: next year, try stopping your attendance at all (meaningless to you) social outings. See how that feels. If it feels good, move on. The year after that, add (meaningless to you) gift-exchanging to the "things to let go of" list. The year after that, have a yard sale in the summer and, in addition to regular yardsale-type clutter, get rid of accumulated decorations, wrapping paper and fairy lights. You will feel "lighter" and more free, and the person who buys it all will feel lucky. Win win.

- This part is up to each individual.
- Make it up as you go along - you've already done all the hard work of creating a retreat space for yourself in which you can be free of others, off all clock & culture constraints.
- Reap all the benefits. Integrate them. This is recharge time. Plug yourself into yourself for a change.

This year I find I'm sleeping better, much much better. In bed by 10 and up at 6 or 7, usually without waking in the middle of the night, something I thought I'd have to forever more endure.

Last year at this time I was seized by a rare need to exercise, and spent three months being on a treadmill 30 minutes a day. This year, no such need has seized me yet, but the treadmill is here, just in case.

I'm finding this year (perhaps a result of the exercise last year?) that I can think more clearly, a bonus. I spend my time these days learning to give myself permission to think things through more carefully, slowly, from more different sides than usual, to forgive myself for feeling slow and thick and vulnerable and starkly mortal, to let things mull themselves around however long they need to. I want my mental compost to be rich and fertile, sufficient to get me through another year.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Ramachandran on the Topic of Conciousness

I surfed upon this video (about 54 minutes long) featuring a talk given by V.S. Ramachandran May 2006, on his favorite topics; phantom limb pain, synesthesia, mirror neurons/autism. It was Lecture 6 of 12 of IBM Research's Almaden Institute Conference on Cognitive Computing. The link has a link that can take you to the power point presentation given.

A Reprint of Alf Breig's book on Neural Biomechanics: Thank you Michael Shacklock!

If you would like to see what was in the book that helped ignite the neurodynamics revolution in manual therapy, pay Michael Shacklock's site a visit, and order the reissued book, just published. Why this book went out of print so quickly is a mystery, but that it did was a sad and frustrating fact of life, until Michael got busy and facilitated its reissue himself. Legions of current and future grateful manual therapists will remember you for this Michael..

I've ordered my own copy (the pay system is fairly straightforward, secure etc.). I expect the book to be everything I've ever imagined.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rhythms of the Brain: Part IV: Conference on Brain Network Dynamics 2007 video

I want to put a link here, to a video of Buzsáki's contribution to this conference that took place almost a year ago.

I'm watching it right now, for the second time, trying to follow along. We are asked to hear neurons (live cell assemblies) in a rat's brain (in its hippocampus) firing as it runs around.

An excerpt from the abstract:
"The lifetime of oscillating assemblies is internally regulated and can be accelerated by the locomotion speed of the rat and possible other gain factors. The internally generated assemblies can give rise to a perpetually changing composition of assembly membership even in the absence of environmental or idiothetic inputs. We hypothesize that the mechanisms underlying the intrinsically shifting assembly sequences is the substrate of episodic memory."

Welcome to the blog world Nick!

Nick Matheson PT, a regular on SomaSimple, has started his own blog, Strengthen Your Health. Nick is a careful thinker, a bit of a rebel, and a good, good writer. Mark his site and check it frequently.

Our pain science PT blog community is growing...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Rhythms of the Brain: Part III: Ideomotion?

By happy circumstance I found a good chunk of Buzsáki's book online this morning, which makes it easier for me to point the reader to the appropriate section which is p.18-22. Note the picture on p. 20 of the book. It depicts a time line measured in decades, between 1930 and 2000, and the various hypotheses of the behavioral correlates (kinds of movement or observable output) of hippocampal theta oscillations as they arose. To the right and left of the time line are photos of his two mentors, each of whom had their favored hypothesis based on impeccable reasoning and found themselves in seemingly opposing camps.

There is also "Oscillatory Heritage of the Grastyán School", which can be accessed by clicking on the instruction "open entire document", (in which the same picture appears on p. 136). and "Theta Rhythm of Navigation: Link Between Path Integration and Landmark Navigation, Episodic and Semantic Memory".

This material provides enticing clues about relationships among memory, movement, and theta oscillation. They are connected somehow, but apparently no one has been able to say exactly how, in 7 decades. One gets the impression that Buzsáki has spent his whole life trying to reconcile these two views into a third, sublating view.

1. The predominant theory linking the hippocampus and its theta oscillations to movement comes from Cornelius Vanderwolf, who was an advisor of Buzsáki's:

"theta occurs only during intentional or voluntary movement, as opposed to immobility and “involuntary”, i.e., stereotypic activity"

2. Buzsáki himself leans toward his original mentor, Endre Grastyán's idea:
theta is "orienting reflex, searching for stimulus with significance to subject"

From the first paper p. 135, and of interest to me because physical therapy is about restoration of functional movement, is this quote:

"Despite seven decades of hard work on rabbits, rats, mice, gerbils, guinea pigs, sheep, cats, dogs, old world monkeys, chimpanzees and humans by outstanding colleagues, to date, there is no widely agreed term that would unequivocally describe behavioral correlate(s) of this prominent brain rhythm. By exclusion, the only firm message that can be safely concluded from this brief summary is that in an immobile animal no theta is present, provided that no changes occur in the environment, and the animal is not “thinking”....
Processing environmental inputs requires “attention”, and so does intentional movement. With the introduction of the term “voluntary”, theta oscillation research unintentionally entered the territory of “intentionality,” a label that refers to the “substance” of all subjective mental activity (Dennett, 1987). Thus, an inescapable deduction from the behavior-brain correlation approach is that the “will” plays a critical role in theta generation. An alternative, and perhaps more sober, conclusion is that our behavioral-cognitive terms are simply working hypothetical constructs that do not necessarily correspond to any given brain mechanism."

My bold.

I confess not knowing the scientific background of either of these august hypotheses or what led to their two solitudes, but I did note that missing entirely from the debate (as near as I can tell), and certainly from the picture, has been any recognition of something called ideomotion, defined medically as
"Muscular movement executed under the influence of a dominant idea, being practically automatic and not volitional."


to discuss Ideomotion

That "not volitional" part could be important, because if, as Vanderwolf says, theta oscillation is present in only "voluntary movement", then presumably it would be absent in ideomotion according to the definition of ideomotion. However, in ideomotion, movement is occurring, although no "thought" in terms of conscious motor command or inhibition is directly involved.

Then there is this: immobilized animals do not produce any theta oscillation ("in an immobile animal no theta is present, provided that no changes occur in the environment, and the animal is not “thinking”"). Certainly in ideomotion movement occurs, but it's hard to say if "thinking" does... Certainly people who explore this movement are wide awake and perceiving, but their bodies are moving them, it is not they who are moving their bodies: yet they can interrupt the ideomotion if they choose. Is "perceiving" usually considered as "thinking"? What about the zen states of alert no-thought?

What about the proviso contained in this sentence:
"By exclusion, the only firm message that can be safely concluded from this brief summary is that in an immobile animal no theta is present, provided that
- no changes occur in the environment, and
- the animal is not “thinking

... what exactly does "thinking" mean? Attending? Being brought out of a reverie by an exteroceptive (environmental) distraction?

What if there actually existed a type of "no-thinking" "movement"? Would theta oscillation be present then I wonder? I'd love to know some day.

If ideomotion were entirely volitional, it wouldn't likely have become an adjective modifying a noun, "effect" as in "ideomotor effect". There would be no such "effect" if all the parts of the brain were simultaneously aware of the movement, and if the movement were being generated by conscious parts of the brain rather than non-conscious parts or at least slightly less conscious parts.

For more about all of this, see the essay by Barrett Dorko, called Without Volition. He has learned how to teach this form of movement, which seems contradictory at first - how can one consciously learn to produce movement that is non-conscious? Dorko says, it's already in there, in everyone. This is consistent with neuroscience, embryology, evolution, etc. - all of which say movement precedes sensation. A study has been conducted and others are being conducted to test the effectiveness of this approach on pain perception.

No learning is involved, just un-learning - of conscious inhibition of this deeper kind of "organism" movement.

The main "ideas" delivered to those wishing to experience ideomotion are:

a) It exists
b) It is possible to stop inhibiting this movement. Inhibition, after all, requires muscular contraction and can therefore be a waste of energy, or can create nociceptive irritation, may have become unconscious (as opposed to nonconscious).
c) One simply chooses to "go inside" and wait for a brief period of time for it to emerge,
d) One sits with eyes closed and waits for a few seconds. It starts up, all by itself (well, usually gravity helps a little), then one allows it to proceed without interference.

It emerges as though one never didn't know how it was "done". Slightly differently for each individual. Unique like a fingerprint, a movement output "signature". Also like fingerprints, different for each person but with recognizable characteristics in common, certain qualities that distinguish ideomotion from other kinds of movement.

Usually eyes are closed (they also tend to roll up) which seems to help focus to be retained within. The immediate first person experience of this form of movement is effortlessness, ease, surprise (usually pleasant), softening, and a feeling of spreading warmth. Dorko calls these "characteristics of correction", a throwback perhaps to his manual therapist past. Perhaps they should be thought of as characteristics of self-correction.

From the "observer" point of view, the movement looks eerie and beautiful at once, rather sea-creature-esque, long slow loops and circular patterns that come from the main vertical axis of the body. But don't "have" to..

What I like from the therapist perspective is that no physical effort is required from me, either, just light contact for the first few seconds, to help the patient orientate to something exteroceptive, however mild, for reassurance mostly. Simultaneously they are asked to go "inside" themselves; for many, it will be their first time consciously dropping their own conscious control of motor output in the presence of another.

So what role am I playing? Someone who goes deepwater-diving for the very first time will experience unfamiliarity, arousal, some anxiety, a need to have contact with someone who will stay on the vessel and handle the oxygen hoses, provide a tug line through which the diver can signal any problem they may be having. The all-important trust factor must be present. With any "first experience", human primates usually require accompaniment from someone else who's "been there" before and can reassure. My role is the same as ever, to construct and maintain a treatment "crucible" in which the patient can change him or herself.

Next to no technical expertise is actually involved. The movement is natural, easy to experience (because it's there anyway, all along), more preferable to feel than tension, and can rapidly become a familiar and reliable way to drop tension and discomfort - just by letting it happen. The sense of this is, "Ah yes, this is how my body really moves, once I let it.""Ah yes, this feels like "me"." "How nice to finally feel what my physicality and moving really feel like."

Back to Buzsáki and theta oscillation

The Grastyán definition of theta oscillation and the movement associated with it, sounds like it could be ideomotor movement:

What if the "orienting reflex, searching for stimulus with significance to subject" consisted of a nervous system or portion thereof, suddenly deprived of and looking for its own familiar input, i.e., conscious command of voluntary movement?

What if this 'inputter' part of the brain had an heretofore unused ability to stop issuing commands, withhold them, and take itself off line for awhile? Stop inhibiting? Inhibit itself instead?

What sort of "movement" might be in there, completely capable of inhabiting and operating, by itself, the macroscopic motor system? Unencumbered by human wishes, wants, and dictates? Ordinary internal chatter?

All that is apparent is that in that long list of types of movements on page 136 of the "Oscillatory Heritage of the Grastyán School" article, and page 20 of the book, ideomotion is notably absent. William James thought about and discussed it at one time (along with nearly everything else in existence in his day it would seem), and it was first defined by William Carpenter in 1852. It's been around for quite awhile. Maybe it was assumed to be one of those "behavioral-cognitive terms" that "are simply working hypothetical constructs that do not necessarily correspond to any given brain mechanism." Maybe it was simply overlooked, or missed completely, too obscure, too bogged down by the strange Victorian company it kept in its early days. To be fair, it never exactly achieved household familiarity.

Perhaps however, someday someone will have a look sometime to see if the movement known and defined as "ideomotion", might or might not have something to do with orienting behavior, memory, theta oscillation, non-voluntary movement.. all those tantalizing bits about which there has been disagreement, for over 7 decades of hippocampus research. Maybe someday, someone who knows how, will be able to untangle the "concept" of ideomotion from its "mechanism" (two different things as discussed in Part II), differentiate substrate from that which operates upon said substrate (.. maybe just some other substrate.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Rythms of the Brain": Part II

Way back in September I talked about "Rhythms of the Brain" by György Buzsáki, a book of great scope ostensibly about just three questions, according to the author on p. 5:
1. how are EEG patterns generated,
2. why are they oscillatory, and
3. what is their content?

I can assure you the book is about a great deal more than just some pat answers to these three questions, because to even begin to answer them, Buzsáki ranges far and wide, and brings back mountains of info to share.

As I looked the intro over again, I found this on page 17:
Hippocrates's view of the brain was that from it arose all "pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears." A century or so later, Aristotle asserted that the heart housed the soul and ran nervous functions, and the brain was "an organ of minor importance, perhaps necessary to cool the blood."

Buzsáki says, "Aristotle's linear causation managed to suppress the correct view for more than a millennium. His revisions were based on several deductive arguments" ... such as the heart is affected by emotion, all animals have one, it is warm, it is essential to life, it's in the middle of the body and well-protected, etc.

Buzsáki asks,
"How can we argue against overwhelming intuitive "evidence," such as the "logical" examples cited above? Surely facts are needed but facts are always interpreted in context... similar skepticism can be expressed within the framework of dynamic complex systems. What does it mean to conjecture that the brain is a pattern-forming, self-organized, non-equilibrium system governed by nonlinear dynamic laws, and how should we prove or disprove this?"
He goes on to say that many have tried, that it is not easy, and that it's important to distinguish between concepts and mechanisms. In an accompanying footnote he says,
"Concepts are substrate independent, whereas particular mechanisms always depend on some kind of substrate. Although concepts borrowed from other disciplines can assist in addressing a problem or gaining a new insight, understanding mechanisms always requires experiments on the relevant substrate (the brain, in our case). Concepts can be developed by introspection, but their validity can be confirmed or rejected only by confronting them with mechanisms. A general problem in neuroscience is that the same terms are often used interchangeably as concepts or mechanisms (e.g.., inhibition of memory as a concept and inhibition as a mechanism)."

This began to tie in with the thinking along I've been doing with Tree of Knowledge. In the next section titled "Scientific Vocabulary and the Direction of Logic", he talks about how language and meanings get squeezed, like living things almost, over into meanings not originally intended by the speaker. He asks,
"Are our top-down concepts, such as thinking, consciousness, motivation, emotions, and similar terms, "real," and therefore can they be mapped onto corresponding brain mechanisms with similar boundaries as in our language? Alternatively, do brain mechanisms generate relationships and qualities different from these terms, which could be described properly only with new words whose meanings have yet to be determined? Only the latter approach can address the issue of whether the existing concepts are just introspective inventions of philosophers and psychologists without any expected ties with brain mechanisms. I believe that the issue of discovery versus invention is important enough to merit illustration with a piece of neuroscience history."

More to come about this.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Virtual Back Pain Study Idea

In the Neurotonics blog I wrote up a post about virtual body experiments, and while doing so had a thought on how one might develop a study about back pain using the strategy of virtual movement illusion.

In that the back, unlike other areas of the body,
a) can't be "seen" as easily in a mirror or any other way
b) does not occupy much "cortical real estate" kinesthetically would definitely need kinesthetic input.

1. First the virtual body illusion would need to be firmly established. The researchers, Henrik Ehrsson in Sweden and Lenggenhager/Blanke in Switzerland have already figured out how to do that with their cameras and kinesthetic input (stroking the back with a pen, etc.). Apparently the brain finds this ridiculously easy to "believe".

2. It shouldn't require mirrors or camera projections of the "real" back, just a projected image as per Moseley with his paraplegics (see Matthias' blog post about that). Probably any "back" would do. Maybe fitted to the patient's size and shape and color of clothing. Just a film of a generic look-alike back might do, projected ahead of the patient's eyes.

3. Then the back in the movie (the "virtual" back that the patient's brain now feels it belongs to) would bend, lift its legs up alternately, rotate, extend, sidebend, whatever.. move easily.

4. The brain should be able to overcome its pain output to the physical back, because it can "see" the back it "thinks" it is embodied into (i.e., the back in the film), moving easily.

I think this might be a really really interesting study. Moseley, please consider doing something like this. Or Ehrsson. Or Lenggenhager/Blanke.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge" : Part V "On the Razor's Edge"

The authors want there to be no mistake about what they intend to convey about the observer role. They provide an analogy:
Imagine a person who has always lived in a submarine. He has never left it and has been trained how to handle it. Now, we are standing on the shore and see the submarine gracefully surfacing. We then get on the radio and tell the navigator inside: "Congratulations! You avoided the reefs and surfaced beautifully. You really know how to handle a submarine." The navigator in the submarine, however, is perplexed: "What's this about reefs and surfacing? All I did was push some levers and turn knobs and make certain relationships between indicators as I operated the levers and knobs. It was all done in a prescribed sequence which I'm used to. I didn't do any special maneuver, and on top of that, you talk to me about a submarine. You must be kidding!"

All that exist for the man inside the submarine are indicator readings, their transitions, and ways of obtaining specific relations between them. It is only for us on the outside, who see how relations change between the submarine and its environment, that the submarine's behavior exists and that it appears more or less adequate according to the circumstances involved. If we are to maintain logical accounting, we must not confuse the operation of the submarine itself and its dynamics of different states, with its movements and changing positions in the environment. The dynamics of the submarine's different states, with its navigator who does not know the outside world, never occurs in an operation with representations of the world that the outside observer sees: it involves neither "beaches" nor "reefs" nor "surface" but only correlations between indicators within certain limits. Entities such as beaches, reefs, or surface are valid only for an outside observer, not for the submarine or for the navigator who functions as a component of it.

What is valid for the submarine in this analogy is valid also for all living systems: (...) for each one of us human beings.
My bold.
This is second nature for physiotherapists, and others who work with human function, like sport coaches, trainers, etc. We are steeped in observation and evaluation of movement in a context. We can communicate with the person performing the movement, behavior, function we are observing, but we can never quite share their inner world, or see things quite the same way they do, or have quite the same feelings at quite the same time. And we cannot literally feel someone else's pain. We can only infer how they feel based on how their movement, behavior, their description.

If we treat pain, we cannot be so presumptuous as to think we have very much at all to do with its resolution. Instead, the patient will draw from their encounter with us what they need for self-resolution of their own pain. Let me be clear: they will take from the encounter only what they need. Whatever that might be. All one can do is offer up what one knows, and be willing to handle someone's skin and body parts in a boundaried, caring manner, learn to sense change that goes on inside that "submarine". Learn to sense when response has slowed, and it's time to move on, change position, change grip, change part, change vector..

Most of this "learning" to sense how and when, is in one's own "submarine". There is no way to really abstract it, test it, subject it to algorithms, define it precisely, dose it. It's a relationship - it's a bodily relationship more than it's a social relationship - yes, it has therapeutic value, but it is more in the realm of two nervous systems communicating than it is two people. It is as ephemeral and non-verbal and in the moment as pain itself is. And that big neuroplastic adaptive continually changing entity known as the patient's nervous system, will learn something from this encounter; if we are careful to set up the encounter right, it will move itself in a direction that is favorable.

Patrick Wall stated that he viewed pain as a "need" state that required a "consummatory movement" to quench it. The movement has to come from the patient. In order to create, to produce that required movement, their brain, their nervous system needs to find the right moment while assessing and adopting (learning from, neuroplasticizing around) the right sort of "input". This takes time. It can be provision of a movement illusion, as from mirror therapy, or it can be provision of a kinesthetic illusion, as in manual treatment of that midline zone without a great deal of sensory-motor mapping that we call the "back", for example. If someone can see an illusion of their painful body part moving freely in a mirror, great. The back is a bit harder to set up mirror therapy for, but some day someone might rig something up. Until that day I think manual therapy will never go extinct. There will always be people around needing physical contact from another nervous system in order to find that elusive mix required to create THE movement that can resolve their distress, and it seems to me there will always be some chunk of the population willing to become the next generation of human primate social groomer, capable of supplying boundaried human contact backed by some degree of understanding, be it conceptual or kinesthetic or both.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge" : Part IV "On the Razors Edge"

Maturana and Varela go on to explain the two conceptual, perceptual traps in a bit more detail.
"...on the one hand there is the trap of assuming that the nervous system operates with representations of the world. And it is a trap, because it blinds us to the possibility of realizing how the nervous system functions from moment to moment as a definite system with operational closure. We shall see this in the next chapter."
Maybe for the purposes of this blog we could call this idea, Representational-ism. As long as we know what it is, and how to use it properly, it is ok to use it as a conceptual tool. What is important is to avoid being "trapped" by it, or by any other singular way of viewing something as immensely complex as an organic nervous system/brain that has co-evolved within a complex living organism as part of its functional integrity.

"On the other hand, there is the other trap: denying the surrounding environment on the assumption that the nervous system functions completely in a vacuum, where everything is valid and everything is possible. This is the other extreme: absolute cognitive solitude or solipsism, the classic philosophical tradition which held that only one's interior life exists. And it is a trap because it does not allow us to explain how there is a due proportion or commensurability between the operation of the organism and its world."

The authors say,
"..these two extremes or traps have existed from the very first attempts to understand cognition, even in its most classical roots. Today, the representational extreme prevails; at other times the opposing view prevailed.

We wish to propose now a way to cut this apparent Gordian knot and find a natural way to avoid the two abysses of the razor's edge. By now the attentive reader has surmised what we are going to say because it is contained in what we said before. The solution is to maintain a clear logical accounting. It means never losing sight of what we stated at the beginning: everything said is said by someone. The solution, like all solutions to apparent contradictions, lies in moving away from the opposition and changing the nature of the question, to embrace a broader context."

Hegelian sublation, in other words...?
Here is what they propose:

The situation is actually simple. As observers we can see a unity in different domains, depending on the distinctions we make. Thus, on the one hand, we can consider a system in that domain where its components operate, in the domain of its internal states and its structural changes. Thus considered, for the internal dynamics of the system, the environment does not exist; it is irrelevant. On the other hand, we can consider a unity that also interacts with its environment and describes its history of interactions with it. From this perspective in which the observer can establish relations between certain features of the environment and the behavior of the unity, the internal dynamics of that unity are irrelevant.

Neither of these two possible descriptions is a problem per se: both are necessary to complete our understanding of a unity. It is the observer who correlates them from his outside perspective. It is he who recognizes that the structure of the system determines its interactions by specifying which configurations of the environment can trigger structural changes in it. It is he who recognizes that the environment does not specify or direct the structural changes of a system. The problem begins when we unknowingly go from one realm to the other and demand that the correspondences we establish between them (because we see these two realms simultaneously) be in fact a part of the operation of the unity - in this case, the organism and nervous system. If we are able to keep our logical accounting in order, this complication vanishes; we become aware of these two perspectives and relate them in a broader realm that we establish. In this way we do not need to fall back on representations or deny that the system operates in an environment that is familiar owing to its history of structural coupling.
My bolds.

So, what does that mean for someone like me, a human primate social groomer who deals with people in pain? Well, it means, at the very least that there will be a "solipsism" in the room in the form of the patient's subjective response to being in pain. Very few people can actively disengage from pain - it has this way of demanding the center stage of awareness. It means being aware of this and letting it exist, while simultaneously being an "observer" of the "organism" or unity that claims to be suffering pain, not allowing one's own mirror neurons too much control over one's thinking or behavior. Throwing a blanket over those mirrors. Staying cool but not cold.

It also means competently juggling at least five perspectives, as mentioned before.

In the end, whatever constitutes "help" will lie strictly within whatever the patient's nervous system is able to take from the relationship and make some new pattern out of. All I have to do, conceptually, is understand as much as I can about the problem (keep studying), be willing to offer this understanding as a possible new perception (to help move the process along, be a conversational and relational lubricant), be well-attached to my role as more of an observer than "hero" or "rescuer", then sit back, wait for the INTRA-relationships, those inside the patient, to sort themselves out. Be an effective mirror to the patient. Verbal and kinesthetic. Even use real mirrors on occasion. Keep the process moving AND not going off any rails.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Announcing Neurotonics

Matthias, the Neurotopian, and I have begun a new team blog called Neurotonics, to which we will invite other authors. The topics will vary but will all have as their common theme a scientific discourse on the nervous system and what that means to our work.

I picture it turning into a lovely long rambling conversation that will last for years.

Meanwhile, we will each keep up our own blogs, thinking out loud and talking to whoever cares to listen. :)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge" : Part III "On the Razor's Edge"

When trying to understand how we think, the authors say:
"..our first tendency to describe what happens in each case centers, in one way or another, on the use of some form of the metaphor of "getting information" from the environment represented "within"."

But, they point out, there is no one home in there. There is no "little man" inside the brain, operating visual mechanisms to see the outer world on a representational "screen" inside the brain. If there were, who runs the "little man's" "brain"? Another "little man" inside his brain?

The authors have already, for the first 128 pages, explained that life forms itself, that organisms as small as single cells, no nervous system whatsoever, still manage to conduct themselves and all the processes that are inherent to life - seeking food, avoiding predation, metabolizing, growing, reproducing, etc.

"Our course of reasoning (...) has made it clear that to use this type of metaphor ( i.e., the "little man" in the brain idea) contradicts everything we know about living things. We are faced with a formidable snag because it seems that the only alternative to a view of the nervous system as operating with representations is to deny the surrounding reality. Indeed, if the nervous system does not operate - and cannot operate - with a representation of the surrounding world, what brings about the extraordinary functional effectiveness of man and animal and their enormous capacity to learn and manipulate the world? If we deny the objectivity of a knowable world, are we not in the chaos of total arbitrariness because everything is possible?

This is like walking on the razor's edge. On one side there is a trap: the impossibility of understanding cognitive phenomena if we assume a world of objects that informs us because there is no mechanism that makes that "information" possible. On the other side, there is another trap: the chaos and arbitrariness of nonobjectivity, where everything seems possible. We must learn to take the middle road, right on the razor's edge."
My bracketed comment. My bold.
At this point the authors direct the reader to a figure showing a version of the sailing of a ship between the sea monster and the whirlpool, the Scylla monster of representation and the Charybdis whirlpool of overly rigid solipsism.

They are suggesting that the Razor's Edge is a Third Way.

So, what is a "third way"? Dorko's essay is good doorway into what a "third way" means for a therapist. A visual idea that can help us understand how to travel or think a third way, on a razor's edge, is to contemplate a mobius strip:
"If you put an ant somewhere in the middle of the strip and get it to start walking in a line parallel to the edge, then after travelling a distance that is twice the length of the paper, it will arrive back at its starting point — without ever crossing the edge of the strip!"

What if we had that hypothetical ant walk on the edge of the mobius strip? It would be able to walk between the sea monster on one side and the whirlpool on the other.

I got this mobius-strip idea from Ramachandran. In his book, A Brief Tour of Consciousness, he says,
My own philosophical position about consciousness accords with the view proposed by the first Reith lecturer, Bertrand Russel, that there is no separate "mind stuff" and "physical stuff" in the universe: the two are one and the same. (The formal term for this is neutral monism.) Perhaps mind and matter are like the two sides of a Mobius strip that appear different but are in fact the same.

Friday, December 07, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge": Part II "The Razor's Edge"

The book is subtitled, The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. It was first published in 1987, an afterword by Varela was added in 1992, and the copy I'm holding was revised and published in English 1998.

I began to find the book riveting about page 129, when I got to this section:
"On the Razor's Edge
The most popular and current view of the nervous system considers it an instrument whereby the organism gets information from the environment which it then uses to build a representation of the world that it uses to compute behavior adequate for its survival in the world. This view requires that the environment imprint in the nervous system the characteristics proper to it and that the nervous system use them to generate behavior, much the same as we use a map to plot a route.

We know, however, that the nervous system as part of an organism operates with structural determination. Therefore, the structure of the environment cannot specify its changes, but can only trigger them."
Second bold mine.

There is no "little man" (or woman) inside the brain, running things from within. The whole thing runs itself, responds to and adapts itself to various external stimuli. If we want what we observe to make any sense, the "we" who we observers think we are, must each consider ourselves as only a "construct" of the nervous system within the organism that we actually are.

We as observers have access both to the nervous system and to the structure of its environment. We can thus describe the behavior of an organism as though it arose from the operation of its nervous system with representations of the environment or as an expression of some goal-oriented process. These descriptions, however, do not reflect the operation of the nervous system itself. They are good only for the purpose of communication among ourselves as observers. They are inadequate for a scientific explanation.
My bold.

It's good mental exercise to hold two or more ideas aloft at once, like juggling several balls; one's physicality as an organism, one's environment, one's nervous system, one's personal vantage point as a perceiver, one's social identity as an observer talking to other observers. That is at least 5 right there, more if you consider the nervous system as not monolithic but rather comprised of many levels of integrated function inherited from all "life" from simple sea creatures down through time, each level perhaps capable of "perceiving" a perturbation in its own way, and responding from its own "perspective", the ultimate unifying integration completely hidden from any outside observer.

Now consider and add to that the innocent expectation people have of you if you are their physiotherapist.
Think about it.
I, as a therapist, cannot "specify" changes in any patient. I have no power over someone else's nervous system. I cannot with any degree of legitimate or ethical or scientific certainty, say to someone, I will do x,y,z, and you are guaranteed to improve. No one can say this to anyone and still be honest. In general, maybe. Specifically, to any individual, no. You buy a treatment slot and you take your chances.

If you are a patient, you are juggling the same five ideas as I am, whether you know you are or not. I simply become part of your environment, from your nervous system's point of view. You have to do your own observing and perceiving, and your own nervous system will do its own observing, perceiving, adapting and stabilizing, in response to "changes" that I can help "trigger", in the combined "you", the organism or unity that you are.

More to come.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge" Part I : Intro

I am starting a new series of posts bringing forward some of the book, Tree of Knowledge, by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. They came up with a new term in biology, autopoiesis, in the 1970s. A short introduction to the authors is in order, starting with Varela.

In the comprehensive site about Varela's life and work appears this quote:
"Unless we accept that at this point in intellectual and scientific history that some radical re-learning is necessary, we cannot hope to move forward in the compulsive history of the ambivalent rejection-fascination with consciousness in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. My proposal implies that every good student of cognitive science who is also interested in issues at the level of mental experience, must inescapably attain a level of mastery in phenomenological examination in order to work seriously with first-person accounts. But this can only happen when the entire community adjusts itself to the corresponding acceptance of arguments, refereeing standards and editorial policies in major scientific journals, that can make this added competence an important dimension of a young researcher. To the long-standing tradition of objectivist science this sounds like anathema, and it is. But this is not a betrayal of science: it is a necessary extension and complement. Science and experience constrain and modify each other as in a dance. This is where the potential for transformation lies. It is also the key for the difficulties this position has found within the scientific community. It requires us to leave behind a certain image of how science is done, and to question a style of training in science which is part of the very fabric of our cultural identity."
Francisco Varela, Neurophenomenology : A methodological remedy for the hard problem, Journal of Consciousness Studies, "Special Issues on the Hard Problems", J.Shear (Ed.), June 1996.

As part of this vision Varela helped organize a series of nine meetings between scientists and Buddhist leaders including the Dalai Lama.

Maturana is an advocate of something called radical constructivism having contributed concepts supporting a Biology of Cognition. From Maturana:
"The Biology of Cognition is an explanatory proposition that attemps to show how human cognitive processes arise from the operation of human beings as living systems. As much, The Biology of Cognition entails reflexions oriented to understand living systems, their evolutionary history, language as a biological phenomenon, the nature of explanations, and the origin of humaness. As a reflection on how we do what we do as observers it is a study in the epistemology of knowledge. But, and at the same time as a reflection on how we exist in language as languaging beings, it is a study on human relations".

(I can almost hear his Chilean accent in this quote thanks to the spelling.)

I admit I don't understand even half of what he and Varela are trying to say or how, but I do get:
a) they are talking about life from single cell life on up, pointing out how life organizes itself

b) they are leaving out supernatural agency (of which I wholeheartedly approve)

c) they lean toward phenomenology, or first person "knowing", with which I am all too familiar.

Tree of Knowledge is a careful argument for how to think about the nervous system, perception and cognition. They begin to discuss the physical nervous system about half way through, which is where I'll pick up next time.