Thursday, August 10, 2023

Oh We of Little Faith

I started writing this post while I was on pilgrimage with my old choir back in January of 2019, but I didn't post it then, as there was something missing. Some experience or some message that was incomplete and which my journey over the past 4 years has opened up. It is more appropriate to continue this thought process today.

Being a pilgrimage, we toured sites of particular significance to the catholic faith:

The shrine of St. Catherine at the Basilica San Domenico. The relics of St. Catherine (her thumb and her head) are held here and where it was so cold, we could see our breath at the mass we sang.

We also sang mass at the Basilica of St. Peters - yes the Vatican - twice. Being at the seat of the Catholic Church and the ground where St. Peter was killed was remarkable. Not just the sheer magnitude of the ... everything about it, but also the history of a conversation started 2000 years ago regardless of where people in power have taken the conversation since then.

We also visited Assisi, the grounds were St. Francis lived and died. St. Francis was charged by God to fix his Church which was falling into pieces. The current pope took the name Francis in the same context, to fix the Church which is falling into pieces.

ASIDE: In shamanic journeys lately I keep hearing this same message, "Clean this shit up".

I share all of this not just because it was a heart-wrenching, beautiful, and exquisite journey, which it was, and not just because it was such a privilege to sing with my colleagues in some of the most beautiful and significant catholic locations on the planet, which it also was. 

I share this because as a neuroscientist and as a student of humanity and the context in which it grows, I was mystified by the saints and their works and how they influenced the world around them. Their lives are described as miraculous, in fact, to be canonized a saint, there needs to be at least 3 miracles attributed to you. I find it funny that after millennia of trying to eradicate magic, it is still a requirement that magic has to happen for you to be hallowed a saint. 

You don't hear much about miracles these days - not without snorts of derision in the same breath. Is it because "miracles" aren't? That they are attributed to something else? Or is it that they just don't happen anymore?

I have a theory about what happened to miracles, and it has to do with how we relate to ourselves within the context of our society.

But first, for context, I want to share my favorite TED talk of all time with you. Elizabeth Gilbert (no relation) speaks about creativity and genius, and the way humans get messed up with the current view of their own creative genius.

I bring this up because it points to a shift in how we view ourselves in the context of our world over the last epoch. We hold ourselves as separate. Separate from the world around us, the environment, the elements, the animals, separate from the people around us, even separate within ourselves (we have both a mind and a body?).

Now for my theory regarding miracles and what happened to them - it's actually more of an assertion. 

We no longer have the faith a miracle requires.

Hear me out... Jesus, Francis and Damien all healed lepers in a time where there was significant stigma regarding the affliction. In fact, there is still stigma regarding leprosy, even in Florida. Lepers were relegated to the margins, literally, of society and were required to loudly proclaim their status to anyone approaching them. Yet, when they were healed (as with many other miracles in the bible), it was their faith that was acknowledged to have healed them. They somehow embodied something that allowed them to be healed. It's like there are instructions for how to have miracles happen. In fact, the many interpretations and translations of the bible have effectively butchered the text so that the magic it used to teach is impotent.

Check this out as a possible interpretation of how to pray from the original texts: 

" All things that you ask straightly, directly.. from inside My name - you will be given. So far you haven't done this,... So ask without hidden motive and be surrounded by your answer - Be enveloped by what you desire, that your gladness be full"

                                                                            Gregg Braden, The Divine Matrix

In the King James version of the bible, the second half of the directive is completely gone. The part that tells you how to have the miracle, the magic, if you will. 

Perhaps, it was too much like divine revelation, too much like the magic the church was trying to eradicate?

Monday, April 10, 2023

Searching for a sign

In my last post, Everything is Connected, I start to draw connections between various parts of my past and what I have accomplished and the precipice I am now viewing my future from. There are those that speak of "flow", "luck favors the prepared", and "there are no coincidences". While the educated mind might balk at some of these kinds of concepts, we still strive to have that kind of "magic" in our lives.

 At the beginning of the year, instead of creating a resolution or goals for 2023, we decided to pick a word. Out of a deck of cards. Very woo. I pulled the word existence. It was perplexing, inscrutable, and kind of intriguing. So I adopted it.

I have been on a journey exploring what my life is going to be about in this next phase: all I knew was that there had to be more nature and more exploration of consciousness. Many years ago, probably 20 years ago, I had a colleague guide me in a shamanic journey to meet my power animal. She was beating a drum that created a deep reverberation that I felt all through my body and I could definitely feel the hypnotic quality of it. I was working on my PhD at the time, steeped in the scientific method and just beginning to delve into the mysteries of human consciousness. When I found myself in a snowy wasteland talking to a raven, I was surprised and awed, but came out of the journey doubting my experience and explaining it away with thoughts of trance-like dream states and hypnosis. I mean, it had to be bullshit, right?

Twenty years later, my exploration of neuroscience as a science communicator and educator, has opened my eyes to altered states of consciousness (both psychedelic- and non-psychedilic induced), the power of emotions to create a deeper learning experience, and the mystery of how a purpose that is bigger than you alters the way you see yourself and your reality. Practical Neuroscience is what I started to call all of that.

Last year, I participated in a psychedelic journey led by a couple of shamanic practitioners and was deeply moved by the spirituality and presence of the ceremony and the deep connection they had to Spirit and the world around us. It was the kind of spirituality that I always wanted to experience and had never been able to with the organized religion I grew up with, except while singing sacred music.  During that psychedelic journey, I asked myself "Could the way of the Shaman be a path to the kind of spirituality I was longing for?"

I just recently completed a seven month long Shamanic Calling course. We explored sound driven shamanic journeying and connecting to the subtle realms. While my scientific training and way of thinking seemed like it would get in the way of these exercises, it had the opposite effect. In a shamanic journey there is a yang aspect in which you are actively imagining, and then there is a yin aspect where you are open to what ever arises. The yin aspect is very much what I do while I am meditating, but the yang aspect was enhanced by my scientific mind as, once I stopped doubting, I used my background knowledge to imagine more precisely. And even tho my mind still still asks, "this is bullshit, right?", my experience of being closer to nature and in tune with my own emotions and hidden notions is exponentially better. So it really doesn't matter if it is bullshit. I am getting way more from it, both spiritually and creatively than I ever expected.

And the creative aspect is particularly important. Most of what I am interested in requires a creative and innovative approach to impact it. Scientific writing, psychedelics for medical and consciousness expanding ventures, having people be heard and empowered in our current reality, using data science to map and innovate, and having people live a life aligned with their purpose. In my favorite TED talk, and her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about creative genius as a separate entity or spirit that can work with you or not depending upon your willingness to let it. I find such resonance with this way of thinking as it allows me to bring lightheartedness to what I am working on. That there is a message waiting for me to receive it has my mind be open to ideas that I have disregarded in the past.

I recently attended an event presented by Paul Stamets and Guujaw called How Psilocybin mushrooms can help save the world. Having Guujaw there brought a spiritual dimension to the talk that was moving and resonated with me. Guujaw said that people just needed to reconnect with Nature. We have separated ourselves, and need to reconnect. Just dwell on that, meditate on that, apply the scientific method to that. And Paul also said something that had me be connected to my creative genius. He said that while he often gets marching orders while he is on a psychedelic journey, on his last journey, he was given a single word. Existence.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Everything is connected


I love messing with the mind. I also love messing with the brain. The two aren’t the same thing, although some things mess with both. My graduate training was in receptor biology, g-protein couple receptor biology to be a little more specific. I could get way more specific, but then I’d be doing the thing that had me leave the bench in the first place. I like to talk and think about ecosystems, about how everything fits together, I like to model and visualize the complexity, and I like to make connections obvious and non-obvious. So a little background before I go back to messing with the mind.

I like to tell the story of Darwin and how he relates the Aha moment in which the Origin of Species came into existence. I’m all about making connections, and subsequent research has demonstrated that while it may have looked to him like it came to him in a flash of insight, I like to think of it as his brain making the last little connection that tied his decades of thinking all together into a beautiful bow.

My decades of wandering started while I was realizing 8 year old me’s dream of being an astrophysicist. Sitting in the Array Operations Center at the Very Large Array, in front of the terminal with lines of green code on the dark screen, I realized that this is not what I wanted to do with my life. Mind you, sitting there was the result of me responding to an innocent “You wouldn’t be interested in Astronomy, girls don’t do Astronomy”, so I’d never really explored what I could or would want to do. But from my vantage now, that is life isn’t it? Taking a journey to see what works, to find out what there is for you to find out, to learn all the lessons along the way?

Last year, I took a dear friend’s suggestion and participated in a guided psychedelic retreat, ‘cuz I like messing with the mind, ergo it had to come to that eventually, right? I didn’t commune with God, or see my ancestors or anything cool like that, but it did start me on a journey of letting go. For the past year, I have been catching up on the Psychedelic Renaissance happening all around me. Given how much I like messing with the mind, I was shocked that I had been oblivious to it all. Turns out oblivious is not far off track. You really don't see what is right in front of you. 

Back in 2006, I wrote a blog post on The Power of LSD, based on an article I’d found. I got so much of that article wrong. I remembered thinking that psychedelic research was a limited phenomenon, that the studies in that review were isolated work, that not much came of the research people were doing. In fact, the first sentence of that article reads "The therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs have recently resurfaced as a topic of debate in neuropsychopharmacology." In my own defense, at the time I found the article, I wanted to get back into working on the brain after having done a stint in program management and event coordination in transformational education, in fact, that was the year before I started working at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

So I was around, though I wasn't necessarily present to the birth of this psychedelic renaissance. And it has captured me. Medicine that could actually cure (loaded word innit?) mental disorders, instead of treating the symptoms?! I'm all in. Well kinda. What is someone who loves to study the brain, loves to teach others about the brain, and loves to map and explore possible connections for innovative ideas to do in this space? Well that is the question. And the inquiry I'm on these days. Mostly I'm gathering my thoughts and using all my talents to determine what is next for me around here.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Peaceful Seattle Protests

Woke this morning to a crash of thunder. It does rain in Seattle, but the thunderstorms are rare and worthy of getting up to watch with a cup of coffee. We even stood outside under the umbrella to get the full effect, but the cold and the wet are not major draws and we decided to go back inside. Looked like after that excitement it was going to be another boring day in quarantine. Sat with the two youngest and reviewed social media and the violence that occurred last night. Cried at the videos of police brutality and the injustice of it all.

Then my eldest daughter and her best friend called to say they were going to the protests. My younger daughter was in, and my son was upset he had to work. My kids make me proud so often. As a mom I was terrified, proud, and fighting my own mind: I just wanted to numb myself with Netflix to escape the Covid-stupidity, but terrified of not being there for my girls in a situation that could get dangerous. Besides, it was cold and rainy out. So, we suited up and got ready to go.

My daughter’s best friend is a college grad, studying to get into med-school, and a nationally renowned track and field athlete training for the 2020 Olympics next year. When she goes running in the neighborhood to work out she makes sure to take her ID because she is also Black. The things she has to manage for because of her skin color stun me and make me weep.

In the car downtown she gets on the phone and asks her friend if she’s going to the protests and says, bring your white allies with you if you can. It makes me cry behind my mask. Soon after we get to Westlake there are large booms that send the crowd running. The tension and adrenaline are so high because we are scared of the police. This is the whole reason we are here. We are scared of the police.

We were part of the peaceful protest, that’s what they called one of the three protests happening in Seattle today. But all three were downtown and you could hear the flash bangs going off a couple streets over. Most people were there for the right reason and you could hear it when the Black Pastors started praying. But, there were those that were there to stir shit, like the two white guys that were watching people and saying it was the Blacks killing the Blacks. Yeah, I saw you. I heard you and watched you re-cover your faces and walk away. Like the skinny white guy who spray painted “fuck the virus” on the granite before my husband chased you away.

But the helpers were out too. I saw you. The couple handing out waters, the brave chick who yelled at the guy with a hammer in his backpack and made him throw it in the trash. I saw you. When you dug it out of the trash and dumped it down the drain. I saw that too. Even the Black guy who walked by us and said “Look at you, so white and scared AF.” That made us laugh. I saw you see us.

My youngest who deals with anxiety was such a trooper. With flash-bangs going off and people running, she didn’t want to leave, even with tears running down her face. The police kept us from marching peacefully so we stayed listening to the speakers and took comfort in being there. Letting our people know, we hear you.

As an avid fan of the Twitter platform, I watched what was happening far (but still too close) from us and saw both virtually and in the air around us when things started to get tense. We left as soon as the scanners told the undercover cops to get out of the crowd. We were in the car when the alert about the Seattle curfew jarred all of our electronics. You’ll see the riots on the news, you won't see the peaceful marches and the spoken word and the singing. And people will compare this to the 1999 WTO protests and I hope they say that today had the same effect in having the world see that things just aren’t right.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The ethics of brain disorder.

An argument can be made that who you are and what you experience are constructs of your brain. What you see and hear and taste and smell and feel, while coming from your sensory organs, are processed, and "interpreted" in the brain. They are merely information that is processed by your brain and result in what could perhaps be called an arbitrary reality. And your brain can be fooled: optical illusions and tactile illusions are just two ways for you to demonstrate that your brain creates your reality.

So if you take the case, even if just for a moment, that your brain creates your reality - you can start to delve into the possibility that everything could (should?) be questioned. Your view of yourself, for sure - are you REALLY that way? Definitely your view of others and life should be questioned. What about your past? You already have several examples of how things didn't really go down as you remember. And it is becoming increasingly obvious that eye witness testimony is flawed, sometimes fatally. And what about your future? That you even think that your future exists (good or bad) demonstrates the wondrous ability of our brain to fabricate a reality.

One pitfall we all have (yes, even you) is thinking that you can distinguish what is real from what isn't. Have you ever awoken from a dream where you and your significant fought? And you were still upset late into the day with said person until you realized that the reason for your ire couldn't possibly be real - I mean, when have you ever had a pet dragon that they hated, much less secretly barbecued for your friends?

So where do ethics come in? One notion that deserves scrutiny is that we are fundamentally good and that when we do something bad, we did it on purpose. You might consider that our entire justice (punishment?) system is based on this notion. That we have an insanity defense is proof that the accepted perception is that 'normally' we can distinguish right from wrong, unless something is off with our brain.

If you are up for wading into the contradictions that may be starting to tingle your spidey-sense, I recommend reading David Eagleman's book - Incognito. In this book, Eagleman relates a story in which a man's penchant for child pornography is solely the result of his brain tumor. That a complex behavior could be the result of brain disfunction is astounding, and begs further inquiry into the behavioral effects of brain abnormality. Especially when you consider that the brain can be trained to do anything. ANYTHING. For further reading on the amazing ability of the brain to learn and relearn (even seemingly impossible) things, check out The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.

If the brain creates a reality that includes how we interact with the world - is our prison system really the best way to habilitate a human being? This is a question that is so mired in "yeah, buts..." that it is vastly difficult to hold a reasonable discourse on it. But we can (should?) start to question how we think about people who have committed heinous crimes. Like Aaron Hernandez.

Aaron committed suicide at 27 years of age while he was in jail for murder, and he had C.T.E., Chronic traumatic encephalopathy - a persistent or long-standing neurological (brain) disorder induced by trauma. Hernandez was an embarrassment to his former team and they refunded thousands of fans who had purchased his jersey. The hidden communication behind all this could be interpreted as "We didn't realize how bad a human being this individual was and we are sorry".

How does one get C.T.E. and did this disease play a role in his criminal behavior? C.T.E. is caused by repeated trauma to the head, as is common amongst veterans or athletes such as boxers, WWE fighters and NFL players.

Figure from: Cortical maps and modern phrenology
Brain. 2008;131(8):2227-2233. doi:10.1093/brain/awn158
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms
of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License
which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, 
and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is 
properly cited.

Much of what we know about the brain is through studies that reported functional or behavioral deficits after localized trauma. We know that trauma to the fore-brain can impact higher order functions such as decision-making and social cognition. People with damage to the amygdala are more likely to make decisions that do not take emotional processing into account.

Since we know that damage to the brain can result in personality changes that can have dire consequences, shouldn't we be putting attention on how best to eliminate those factors that can induce the worst kind of behavior in people?

Wait, what? Did I just say out loud that certain activities (like perhaps tackle football) may actually result in human beings committing heinous acts? There is a lot about the brain that we don't know, yet when there is compelling evidence that some activity has horrible consequences (don't get me started on global warming) shouldn't we take action to eliminate the risk?

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The untwining of death.

Last Thursday was the Feast of All Souls (as a practicing Catholic those words don't sound at all as gruesome as seeing them on the screen), and as a member of the St. James Cathedral Choir, I had the profound privilege of singing Durufle's Requiem Mass that night. This mass is an opportunity to mourn those we have lost, to meditate on our mortality and to look death in the face.

Death is apparently a part of life, a natural progression, inevitable... and yet I would venture to say that there is nothing in life that instills more fear (but then, I like public speaking).

Fear of our own death for sure. And the scary part of our own demise is the unknown, the uncertainty that comes with death. As a catholic, I recite the Nicene Creed each week. And as a conscious catholic, I always stumble over the line:

... and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Do I? As far as I can tell, death is the ultimate adventure, the great unknown. What really happens after we die? You don't know! (kudos if you get the reference) I know I'm supposed to believe something, but REALLY? There is no way to know. Until it happens, and then I suspect I won't care anymore anyway. And while being afraid of something that will eventually happen, regardless of how much I try to avoid it, is a possible way to spend my time - it seems like a rather sad existence.

I think the harder part of death is when someone else dies. Because we have to continue living life without them. My daughter is a freshman at the University of Utah studying Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering. The same majors as the young man who was randomly murdered there this past week. When I got the campus alert, I had a visceral reaction until I got her on the phone. Death of someone young or violent death is the most crushing. And as a mother, I'm terrified of the thought of losing one of my off-spring. My parents too. The closer it gets to the end of their lives, the more fear I have of losing them.

My father-in-law died two years ago. Les was the first of our parents to succumb, to go, to pass, to die. It's hard to even call it like it is. It was heart-breaking to be with my spouse's sorrow in losing his Dad, and in my own sorrow, but the hardest part to be with how heart-wrenching it was for my mother-in-law to lose her love/partner/soul-mate. My mind balks at merely having to imagine, much less be, in that position.

Let's talk about that. Hebbian Theory very simply states that "neurons that fire together, wire together". Practically speaking, that means that when two things are associated together, they become intertwined. My daughter's first word was "kitty". A word that was spoken whenever the four legged furry being was present. She associated that sound with that phenomenon. It's what we call learning, associative learning to be precise.

When we associate with another human being, our neural pathways become intertwined. That emotion with that experience of eating at that place with that person... they all become intertwined. Even the routine that happens as you start to leave a place, especially when you have been leaving places for many many years together. A moment that sticks with me from Les's funeral was my mother-in-law turning around after the service to make sure Les was with her.

That funeral was such a surprise to me! It was so impactful, both as a Catholic and as a Scientist. Rituals are the bomb!!! And Fr. Tom was brilliant. He reminded us that our experience of Les continues to happen, regardless of whether or not his body is there. Everything that is associated with Les is still associated with Les which is both the bitter and the sweet part of losing a loved one.

If you subscribe to the notion, as I do, that the brain generates EVERYTHING, then your experience of another person resides solely within your skull. Add to that another thought experiment, think of someone you love, or someone you hate... if you really inspect it, you love not them, but who you are and how you feel when you are with them.

While listening to Fr. Tom speak, I intentionally started to remember the things I loved about Les, like when he first met me and told me that he was a contact. Yes, by aliens. Our mutual love of science and space was one of the things that has him continue to be present for me.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Being Profoundly Connected...

What exactly does that mean?

Let's take a look at experience to explore this question. And by experience, I mean your actual day-to-day, living-your-life experience.

When you look at why you do the things you do, ultimately it is to have an experience.

  • Riding a rollercoaster
  • Giving a present
  • Going in for your first kiss
  • Volunteering at a food-bank
I mean, why would you even go to a horror movie?!

When I saw "It" with my family, the experience of the hackles on the back of my neck at full attention, goosebumps over my entire body, the lightness of my internal organs defying gravity... the entire experience was something my son and I reveled in. The experience of being that terrified (in a controlled environment) was awesome.

If you look at why you do things, even the things you don't want to do that you do anyway, it is  ultimately in pursuit of a particular experience.

Now, if you took the extraordinary experiences, those that you try to reach again and again, can you identify the intention that was being fulfilled in that moment?

I am most inspired, lit up and fulfilled when I am profoundly connected to another human being. Or when I am around other human beings who are profoundly connected. "Connected to what?" you may ask...

  • When I am present to my love for my husband of 28 years. 
  • When my colleague is in touch with and expressing their life's passion. 
  • When my child is aware of their own brilliance and unique expression. 
  • When my other child is proud of what they have just accomplished.
  • When I am watching someone in the zone - performing at their peak at what they love to do. 

All this is people being profoundly connected. And I am fulfilled when that is happening around and within me.


What if I set up my life so that what I do, the actions I take, the thoughts that arise, are all aligned with People being profoundly connected. If my life were set up that way, my experience - all the time - would either be inspired and fulfilled or in pursuit of that which inspires and fulfills me. Sounds cool, life affirming and worthy. Lives, people's lives, especially MY life isn't set up so that it is aligned with People being profoundly connected.

As I set out to align my life with that intention, that calling, what I must deal with first is everything that is not aligned. This is non-trivial. A lot of the structures in my house are designed so that I can check out (Hint: not connected).

I'm taking the next 3 months to have my life be aligned with my calling: People are profoundly connected.