Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Dog days

It's so hot that no one is doing anything. Including me.

The last 2 weeks I might have overdosed on adventure. And exercise, like two unsupported 300Ks. Feel like a slug. But I drag over to the Dojo for the air conditioning. Tuesday yoga, Wednesday Spinning at the gym. Trying to get back in the swing.

Then there's the book Mirroring People by a neuroscientist at UCLA. Madly reading because a Dojo buddy needs a book report for a Meetup on Wednesday evening. Ten minutes. Took the book along to Ashland but for some reason made very little progress!

Now I'm madly reading, trying to reach the halfway point. And rehearse the talk. This process really seems to wake up my brain. Taking in information, digesting it, then having to perform it for others. It makes me pay attention. It makes me care. And then I remember the material so much better.

Interesting the people you run into. This guy has a reading list of all the recent books on developments in neuroscience. There has been a lot of upheaval in brain science over the past 30 years. The discovery of mirror neurons is just one thread.

We have these special kinds of neurons in areas of our brain related to motor activity (movement) and planning and language. Mirror neurons fire not only when we act directly, but when we observe an action, or notice the potential for that action to happen. They used to think that perception, cognition, and action were separate processes in the brain. It turns out they're not separate at all; perception and action are coded in exactly the same way. Our brains are constantly modeling what we do and observe.

They're busy researching the implications of this discovery. Mirroring People does a really good job explaining the research that has happened, in a way that makes you think about what it could all mean. For instance they're pretty sure mirror neurons are how we develop empathy for other human beings. In observing people around us experiencing emotions, we model those emotions in our own brain and it's as if they're happening directly to us. Mirror neurons connect us to other people.

They're also pretty sure that mirror neurons are how we learn, by copying what we observe. Especially language.

This is fascinating stuff in the abstract. It also resonates with many of my experiences in recovering from brain injury.

  • Obviously, the endless stream of dysfunctional interactions with the medical establishment. How the people who are most on the hook to help are the least qualified to help. Partly because of a lack of empathy. Partly because this research happened after they left medical school. Partly because their egos think they know it all when in fact we have known very little. We're just starting to learn how wrong we've been about how the brain works. 
  • From the very beginning it felt like if I could just get out in the world and start forcing myself to do the things I used to do (like riding brevets), I would be able slip back into my old skin. You could call it (re) learn by doing. The research on mirror neurons seems to support this process. 
  • Learning and practicing language is like taking your brain to the gym.

We are just starting to know more. The book is very readable; highly recommend. It should come with a label though: Warning May Rock Your World.

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