We are one week out from Christmas now. The cards are out and most of the shopping is done. I still have cookies to bake and a Christmas Eve meal to plan. There is an on-going battle to keep Maggie and Millie (my 9 month old kittens) out of the tree. I’m losing. Being drenched by a water bottle or having a can of coins shaken at them fazes them little. They are junkyard-tough, little kitties
I wondered if in the run up to Christmas, there was anything I could offer that would be useful. Upon reflection, I have come across something that might be. My life with its ups and downs, pales to those who are dealing with serious illnesses. Recently, I watched a movie called Alive Inside. It deals with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Music therapy has been found to be very successful at reaching those who have become withdrawn especially as memory seems to fade. Music stimulates more parts of the brain than anything else and it can bring back connections thought long gone. The problem is that not many people know about it and most nursing facilities don’t offer it. The best kind of music for this purpose is something from an individual’s past, something that makes an emotional connection, something from childhood or early adult years.
So during the holidays, if you are visiting someone with dementia, especially those who are withdrawn, please consider bringing the gift of music into their lives. Forgo the cookies, candy, flowers, or hand-knitted scarves. Take an iPod, CD player, etc. and offer the gift of music to those who are in need of connection.
Here’s the movie trailer. You can watch the full movie on Netflix.
I used to think hallucinations were associated with a particular kind of person- someone who would stand out in a crowd- someone who would need … medication. But that’s not wholly true. I suffer with migraines and, on occasion, I have aura in the classical fortification pattern (those zigzag lines). These are visual hallucinations. So on another level, I know hallucinations can affect many who wouldn’t stand out in a room or need medication.
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks is a fascinating book because it reveals the diversity found in the human experience. Forget what you thought “normal” meant. It won’t be useful anymore. Turns out, there are many perfectly happy, functional people who have hallucinations.
Photo: Erik Charlton
So what do we mean by a hallucination? Different definitions have been used throughout history. Even today there is confusion over exactly what a hallucination is, because the boundary between hallucinations, misperception, and illusion aren’t always clear. Sacks begins with the idea that a hallucination lacks external reality. (Keep in mind that for a Buddhist, we slipped into nebulous territory by assuming an external reality independent, discrete, and concrete.) Anyway, seeing or hearing (also tasting, feeling, or smelling) things that are not there will qualify as a hallucination for the book’s purposes. Hallucinations appear real to the one experiencing it because the perceptions are fully working to create that reality and project it into the world. This is different from a memory or the use of the imagination where, in the mind’s eye, both are experienced. Hallucinations are further characterized by being involuntary, uncontrollable, and often possessing color or detail beyond everyday average experience. Brain imaging now allows scientists the ability to monitor electrical and metabolic activity while someone is hallucinating.
Photo: Jens Maus
Sacks chose to avoid any analysis of dreams (although he does cover those hallucinations experienced upon falling asleep or waking up ) and the subject of schizophrenia. He does hint at the level of stigma associated with seeing (or hearing) things and how patients will not disclose this is occurring. Oftentimes, people will avoid using the term hallucinating and call it other things. Modern society equates hallucinations with insanity. Sacks cites a 1974 case published in Science where eight healthy pseudo-patients presented themselves at various hospitals complaining about hearing voices. Seven were immediately diagnosed as schizophrenic without any other symptoms. The other one was diagnosed with manic depressive psychosis.
The book takes up the breadth of human experience in which people have hallucinations due to medical conditions and drug use (both prescribed and recreational). There are many first person accounts given in the book. They are all candid and insightful, and open the opportunity to grow our compassion. Some of the medical conditions discussed are Charles Bonnet Syndrome (blindness), deafness, Parkinson’s, migraine, epilepsy, PTSD, and delirium. Various injuries, sensory deprivation, sleep disorders, and grief may also bring on hallucinations. Although the chapters on out-of-body, near-death-experience, and ghosts are interesting, I disagree that science has a full explanation to offer us. From Sacks’ point of view, all mystical experience probably would also count as a hallucination. Again, a limited view.
This is a very informative and enlightening book, sharing what in many cases individuals are afraid to share with the general public and their doctors (for good reason, apparently). It does much to decrease the stigma associated with hallucinations and enlarges our understanding of the range of what it means to have a human body with human perception.
When I was a teen, genetic determinism was in full swing. As I watched my grandparents die of heart attacks or strokes, I became convinced that my life would end by the same mechanism and I was content with the inevitable partially because it was a far off reality. But again, science is shifting our thinking. The new paradigm is called epigenetics and it has a lot to say about the choices we make. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene activity not caused by changes in the DNA structure.
Science is starting to grapple with the idea that our environment and choices are far more important than our genetic code. Bruce Lipton’s book The Biology of Belief, cites that around 95% of our illnesses are related to life-style choices, stress, and a toxic environment. We have far more ability to influence our futures than merely accepting whatever is in our genetic code is written in stone. Studies of identical twins (with identical DNA) reveal that oftentimes only one twin exhibits some dreaded disease. There can also be substantial differences in longevity. How is this possible? How could genetic determinism get it so wrong?
As usual, science’s understanding has grown slowly and advanced a simple view which has become outmoded. It turns out that our genes are far from static. Genes are always in flux and always being influenced. Some genes are activated by growth, healing, or learning. Another kind of gene is influenced by stress, emotion, or dreaming. A new understanding through epigenetics may allow us to use our will to activate our genes and influence our destiny. According to this way of thinking, changing our thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviors sends new messages to our cells thereby changing our protein production without affecting our DNA blueprint. So the original code stays the same, but new information allows the cells to create thousands of variations of that gene.
As an illustration of how this might work, Joe Dispenza in Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, looked at a Japanese study of type 2 diabetes. The subjects were divided into two groups. After a baseline reading to establish fasting blood sugar levels, one group watched an hour-long comedy show while the other group watched a boring lecture. Subsequent to viewing the programs, the group who had watched the comedy show had significantly lower levels of blood sugar. After ruling out the idea that physically laughing took glucose from the blood, the researchers found that the laughing diabetics had altered 23 different gene expressions. A new state of mind apparently triggered their brains to send new signals to their cells which allowed genetic variations affecting blood sugar levels.
The overall idea here is that we have a vast amount of say in how our genes create our futures. I am not destined to die of a heart attack, nor am I necessarily protected from cancer, just because no one in my family has had it. DNA is not destiny. We will need to tread carefully when we have any kind of genetic testing. I do ascribe to the idea that knowledge is power, but we need to be cautious and not bring into fruition a future that defaults to a false belief system. Another great book on the emerging paradigm is The Genie in Your Genes by Dawson Church.
I’ve been watching some of the TED talks that have been done over the past few years. There is no doubt that it’s becoming ever more difficult to keep up with the changing world of science and especially anything to do with healthcare. Just a couple of days ago I learned that antioxidants may not be the panacea they have been touted to be. So now I have to rethink my supplement choices and make sure my vitamins are “low dose.”
One of the most important TED talks I’ve seen concerned diagnosing children with developmental disorders and how we’re doing it all wrong. An estimated one in six children suffers from a developmental disorder including:
Traditionally, these disorders have been diagnosed in children by observing their behavior.
In 2010, Aditi Shankardass gave a short TED talk about research she and her colleagues were doing at Harvard. Using an EEG, researchers were able to look at a child’s brain activity while awake and map the areas of activity in real time. Use of these tools leads to a precise neurological diagnosis. She goes on to explain that about 50% of those seen in the clinic diagnosed with autism, actually have brain seizures not detectable from observing behavior alone. Once these children receive appropriate anti- seizure meds, their conditions resolve.
Which leads to all kinds of questions. The latest statistic about the prevalence of autism is that it affects 1 in 88 children (1 in 54 boys: 1 in 252 girls). Does this research mean that half of autism isn’t autism, and in fact, easily treatable? What about the rest of the disorders? How many haven’t been diagnosed because observing behavior doesn’t catch the problem, and just as scary, how many are wrongly diagnosed? How many children and parents are suffering needlessly?
Dr. Shankardass ends her talk with a plea to spread the word about this non-invasive, diagnostic technique.
This is an update to a blog I did in 2012 about the Voynich Manuscript. Recent work done by Dr. Stephen Bax (Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Bedfordshire) has resulted in some startling findings.
I love tales of missing manuscripts especially in fiction, but also in non-fiction. Last week, I finished The Swerve which featured the true story of the recovery of Lucretius’ poem, On the Nature of Things, and how it influenced our modern world. I liked the idea of a Renaissance book hunter slipping into monasteries looking for ancient wisdom. But I have a better story to share.
In 1912, Wilfrid Voynich recovered a mysterious manuscript that bears his name and resides in the Yale Library as Manuscript 408. The curious document has defied the patient and persistent attempts by all amateur and professional cryptographers to break it.
Its exact history is sketchy, but the document is alleged to have belonged to an Emperor, several practicing alchemists, and a religious order. Some have even proposed that Roger Bacon or John Dee authored the manuscript.
Consisting of 240 vellum pages with colored illustrations, the writing script is unknown and unreadable. Many of the illustrations resemble herbal texts of the 15th Century except that only a few of them can be identified. Aside from the herbal renderings, there are also illustrations covering topics on astronomy, biology, cosmology, medicines, and recipes. The drawings are fanciful, colorful, and complicated. Carbon-14 dating in 2009, dates the manuscript to between 1408 and 1438.
The text itself has puzzled for decades and even modern computer tools have proved ineffective. The writing itself seems to progress left to right with no punctuation. There are no obvious corrections, the document being very carefully executed. There are some 170,000 separate glyphs utilized throughout and many are used only once or twice. Statistical analysis of the work reveals that it resembles the flow of natural language. But what language? It seems to share some correspondences to English and Latin, but not entirely. The repetition of the glyphs is not a characteristic of European language.
Manuscript 408 remains the only undeciphered Renaissance manuscript and it continues to draw many into its mystery. Some think it’s an early herbal or medical text. Others see it as a work of alchemy (early chemistry) or hermeneutical teaching. Still others have declared it a hoax, but if it is a hoax of some kind, it goes beyond anything produced in the 15th Century. It goes beyond the codes and cyphers used then, and continues to evade codebreakers today. What is this curious work and who penned its bizarre contents?
For those intrigued enough to read further:
The Voynich Manuscript- Gerry Kennedy & Rob Churchill
The Friar & the Cypher- Lawrence Goldstone
Six Unsolved Ciphers- Richard Belfield
Drawingon work done to date, Dr. Bax undertook a detailed look at some of the plants and signs in the manuscript. He began with some of the speculations on plant names to decipher letters within the text. He believes he has deciphered ten words and fourteen signs to begin the process of identifying the language MS 408 was written in. Dr. Bax believes the manuscript is not a hoax, but rather a 15th Century book on nature written not in code but rather an unknown language. Now, the hard work begins to try to reveal more of the manuscript. It seems like this is an instance when having the right experts makes all the difference.