Not for bedtime reading

I’ve just read ‘Why we sleep’ by Matthew Walker. On the back cover it has the usual ‘OTT quotes to grab your attention’ although with this book I’ve had to retract somewhat on that comment. O’Connell (Guardian) says ‘it’s been an eye opener’ and now I am agreeing with him. McConnachie (Sunday Times) says ‘you’ll never think of your bedtime in the same way again’ and again for me, he’s right.

The book is an absorbing and sobering read.

It has a lovely balance between being readable and yet giving neuroscience or other hard-hitting facts. When I picked it up, I read 120 pages that day as it was fascinating. It was a little bit repetitious but methodically works it way through explaining various aspects and then various consequences. The underlying theme is that we are designed for a different way of life than we currently live and there are consequences to that.

My lasting thought is whether mobiles phones and tablets are the equivalent of 21st century cigarettes: Addictive and carcinogenic.

He talks about how sleep is one of the most stupid things nature could allow us to do as we are so vulnerable, especially when paralysed in REM sleep. Therefore, it must be incredibly valuable. However, he also talks about how with ‘earlier risers’ and ‘night owls’, a group of people can effectively spread who is awake across 20 hours thus only being totally vulnerable for 4 hrs. It also means that for us night owls, early mornings required for work and school are not that healthy. Interestingly, dolphins rest (sleep) each hemisphere of their brain separately so that one half is awake and keeps them alive – being totally asleep underwater isn’t a good option. The info on birds made me smile. For birds that roost together in a line, say on a telegraph wire, everyone gets a full sleep except the ones at each end. They need to keep their outer eye, and therefore opposite brain hemisphere, awake to watch out for predators. So, half way through the night they supposedly turn around by 180o so that they can rest the other half of their brain.

I hadn’t realised that sleep is driven by 3 facets: The circadian rhythm which is our 24hr 15min clock rises and falls twice a day which is why we have a lull around 3pm and 3am. Melatonin release is triggered as the light goes down and is the signal to the rest of the brain to shut down for sleep. Walker has a lot to say about the effects of being on electronic devices, LED lighting and general bright lighting and how much that delays this trigger happening. As the morning light rises the Melatonin concentration reduces and we wake up. So, if you are feeling groggy in the morning then bright light is useful but, in the evening, lower level or mood light is much better. This is one thing I have changed as a result of reading this book – I use lamps or use fewer lights and resist the urge to have brightly lit rooms. I also have the blue light filters on my electronic devices and being strict about switching the m off around 8pm. Even reading on a tablet will push out the melatonin effect verses reading a paper book.

The third item is a chemical called Adenosine which I hadn’t heard of before. Basically, Adenosine starts building up from the point you wake up. Its effect is to build up an ‘urge to sleep’. The longer you are awake the more pressure it puts on you to sleep which is why you start to feel tired after 16hrs awake. Then when you get 8hrs sleep the Adenosine is flushed out from the brain and you wake up refreshed. Any less sleep time and some of the Adenosine remains so that next day you have a higher starting level of it already and thus feel tired more quickly. There appears to be a lot of evidence for the effects of 6 or less hours sleep which he says is effectively self-euthanasia. (He’s very passionate about sleep.)

He covers how learning, memory and cogitative abilities are enhanced or impaired with sleep. This couples with the information in ‘Anxious’ as the proteins that build long-term memory need 4-6hrs to do so either through sleeping or through being more relaxed after learning something otherwise the process is interrupted. A thought for L&D people perhaps.

He quite graphically covers how lack of sleep kills you and a number of the various sleep conditions. Narcolepsy sounds terrible. One aspect is that the switch, which fully paralyses you during REM sleep (except your eyes), is faulty so that with any heightened emotion or startlement it flicks on and at that instance your body paralyses itself. Not a good outcome if you are up a ladder or swimming. Apparently, these people learn to nullify their emotions in order to reduce this happening.

He goes on to talk about how to get a decent night’s sleep (p291) and how to do that sensibly. I have to say having followed one or two relevant items for me, I am getting off to sleep much better these days and I am much more committed to doing that having read this book.

On a lighter note, a colleague sent me through this YouTube video, which covers everything you need to know about the brain and it is hilarious.

And on a final note, at Cambridge University’s 30th Neuroscience Day I attended earlier this month, there was a research poster talking about how their ‘findings show that recalling more specific positive memories has long-lasting effects on cortisol and mood’ (reducing and enhancing respectively). This gives me more conviction when advocating this type of exercise to coachees.

I am off now to set-up the login to my new University Moodle website – 6 months after leaving the other one! Puts swapping banks or internet providers into context.

Prediction Error and Hype

I found out today that my application to UWTSD has been accepted. I’m really pleased and chilling out on the fact that universities have their own pace and that’s that. I also realised that once my three assignments get passed, I will have 30 Level 8 credits which will be an achievement as they are quite special.

Apart from reading, I decided that I need to get on with identifying which neuroscientists I am going to approach as once the ethics form gets signed off I can reach out to them. In 18 months I’ve gone from worrying about whether I’d have enough to talk to, to worrying about how to pick the useful ones from the hundreds around. The reading, especially of the textbook last year, is becoming useful as I have a better ability to understand which ones look like they might be useful and which are in less relevant areas. I am also appreciating that a number of the post-docs might be better to speak with, especially as they might have more time.

So, at the moment I am creating a spider diagram (Inspiration software) of university research centres and their Heads and Post-docs. The good thing is that I can link the webpages to the names but it still means I have to look through the webpages to understand who’s doing what and there can be ten to twenty people to overview. At least I have a good starter for ten from the reading I have done which has helped.

I also feel that I need to understand a bit more about neuromodulation and epigenetics as well so I have found this great little book called “Introducing epigenetics: A graphic guide”: An easy and useful read on that subject. Fascinating area and again there’s much more going on there than I had appreciated. The DNA strands seem covered in proteins and other things which highlight what should happen with the gene (active – how or silent). There’s a lot going on in that nucleus that determines how the genes we have are then interpreted, or not.

Whilst looking at this topic I found a newspaper article about the DNA Testing Kits you can buy. If you are thinking of doing it then it’s worth a read: “What I learned from home DNA testing”. The thing I hadn’t got, is that each product isn’t absolute. The results reflect the collection of people tested to create the database and this appears to skew the results – quite a lot as you’ll read.

On another note of useful little things, I found a great set of YouTube videos called “2-minute neuroscience” which cover various topics from the Amygdala to Glutamate to Alcohol effects. On the other hand, I am also coming across some books and YouTube videos which have some interesting leaps, analogies and tenuous claims. One thing I am learning to do is to Google the person or the topic and see what others are saying about it as a way of getting a feel for where it stands.

In one video the lecturer showed how, under a certain set-up, metronomes get into sync with each other (due to being on a moveable plinth). He then stated that this means that when I talk to you, my brain oscillations cause your brain to oscillate in sync. Hmm???? He ‘proved’ this by showing brain scans showing both brains lit up in the same areas. However, a few thoughts on that which are not about my brain oscillating yours: Brains are roughly laid out the same, so if you are talking about something then we are probably both using similar areas for processing and meaning, etc. And the devil is in the detail, as although the same areas are used, the neural circuits will probably be different. Many brain imaging techniques give either detail for a small bit or generalisation for a large area – i.e. something is happening in this general area but we can’t say what exactly.

At the end he then, I felt, contradicted himself. He said that if two people were primed differently (this person is trustworthy, this person is dishonest), then they would interpret the conversation differently: To ‘prove’ this he showed brain scans with different areas lit up. So how does that ‘prove’ that if I speak to both people my brain gets them in sync with me?? So, my plea to you is to look to differentiate between the good and acknowledged work and the people who are riding on the hype for a quick buck.

For myself, I’ve been experimenting with using my attention to stop me focussing on unhelpful thoughts which is nothing new I know. It is surprising powerful to do and can be like a switch and longer term it is probably beneficial for your brain chemistry. If you can really engage into the moment by reading aloud or forcing yourself to understand what the sentence is saying, or making something you need to think about or doing something that forces your concentration. The other thoughts drop away instantly and I feel quite different, so I am advocating this more in my coaching with a stronger conviction.

Also, I was reading about dopamine and learning. Dopamine helps improve synaptic function and is involved in ‘the prediction error’. If something is novel or is different to expected, the prediction error is high and dopamine is very active. As what you predict and happens gets closer, the dopamine drops. I suppose this is because you’ve learned to predict it: Helpful if what you are learning helps save your life or gets you food. So now I understand why people say that you learn most with surprise or novelty. It has made me wonder about coaching and how much during my coaching I am looking to reduce the prediction error to help make the action palatable to the coachee. I think I am going to watch for this from now on and try something different.

Looking forward to 2018

Happy New Year and best wishes for 2018.

Over Christmas I read LeDoux’s book ‘Anxious’. I like LeDoux as he seems to get concepts across well for me and he seems quite pragmatic. In Anxious he starts out by separating feelings (a human concept) from threat responses and neural defence circuits. I liked his thought that a mouse has a threat response via neural defence circuits but, without language, we don’t really know if it feels fear. For him, fear is the label we give to the collective biological activity that is happening at the point we focus on it.

Thanks to Ledoux I have now managed to detach my research from ‘the Self’ conversation – phew. Although I have noted down ten different ways in which authors, outside of psychology, are using the term and they vary from neural circuitry to conceptual notions: Often they mix them up as well.

The book is quite neuro-terminology heavy but it made me think a lot as I Attentionhad not come across or thought much about everything it covered. It appears that we need language to have our type of consciousness which is where ‘we know we know’ and I have been trying to work out what it would be like to plan or decide without using words in my head. I think you must have a different level of consciousness then, like Damasio’s Core Self which is responding in the moment but has no past or future. It’s a bit like when you are engrossed in something, you aren’t thinking in relation to anything larger than what you are doing at that moment. He says that ‘the price of predicting the future is anxiety’ and I wonder if something that used to be a valuable human asset is now becoming our Achilles heel.

LeDoux feels that fear can only be a feeling if you are conscious of it. It also appears that if you can focus your attention firmly on something else then the visual networks responding to seeing a threat are dampened so the action of the amygdala is less. This is like when you are engrossed in a book and you notice less of what is happening around you so you feel calmer, or more likely, you aren’t really aware of how you feel. Attention is powerful and quite narrow as well.

If your attention is less focussed then external events can more easily creep into your consciousness. This matches with the reading I have done about how many people these days are easily distracted and how more anxious they are as well. I can see now why Mindfulness training can reduce stress so much, as you literally don’t see/ hear minor issues that don’t need your attention. However, if you did notice them they would spike a threat response of some level. Once the amygdala is triggered it makes the brain more active and therefore it becomes more effective at processing things it is attending to (threat) which is partly why that is quite tiring for any length of time.

He also cited an experiment where thinking of something pleasant whilst there was a threat stimulus reduces the amygdala’s activity which starts to back-up some therapeutic and NLP techniques. I am also beginning to experiment with purposefully and firmly focusing my attention on something else when I start to have unhelpful conversations in my head (that I don’t need to have) and it has helped.

He talks about extinction techniques where memories can be extinguished and I thought therefore they were erased but it doesn’t seem to be the case. It appears that what happens is that you create a new stronger positive association that becomes neutrally stronger than the old negative response. However, under stress or in certain key situations the old response may reappear. This is worth talking to coachees about if you are working on embedding a better response to something as it prepares them for that happening rather than them thinking it hasn’t worked and giving up on it.

On the DProf front, things have been going well and I am feeling upbeat about it going forwards. My application to join UWTSD should go through soon and I have just about completed the three assignments for this module. I like the slightly more structured approach with key touch points which doesn’t allow you to vanish for months.

Having pulled my project back into my coaching that has been very cathartic and energising. Also, it has helped with my interview questions as I have a real feel for what I want to do with the information at the very end. Plus, people I have tested my new angle on get what I am doing and why I am doing it much easier now.

l also know I am in a good place as I’m finding it easier to stand my ground and feel comfortable in doing that. One thing I learned from last year is to get the person raising the point to explain it a bit more rather than just react to it. It’s amazing how often there’s not much behind it even though it is conveyed with a certain ‘rightness’.

Having repositioned my research, I also reflected on my method. It relied heavily on a number of neuroscientists being involved over a period of time and that was worrying me but now I have been advised to use a Mixed Methods approach. This is a bit of a catch-all phrase but it has allowed me to separate the neuroscientist interviews away from the questionnaires which get the neuroscientists to rate the ideas given in the interviews. This means as long as I can get some neuroscientists to interview it is not so bad if the ratings part does not happen in full.

So overall it feels more worthwhile, simpler and doable. I also feel I am 100% doing my research now rather than what some else suggested, even though that is how it started.


I read an interesting book, “Consciousness and the Brain” by Dehaene. It’s been on my stack for months and as I started reading it I thought, ‘oh I should have read this months ago’. But I am realising I can think that about almost every book so I’m just glad that I have now read it. The book is about what he calls, Conscious Access – we become aware of something.

Here are some of the highlights from it:

  • The image at your eyes moves around a lot and all the blood vessels are in front of your rods and cones, so images are blurred, blotchy and moving, yet we don’t see any of that. It seems that this can be tracked through the lower visual processing areas. It is not until it gets to higher neural areas that it’s sorted out; therefore, we see a clear and stable picture of the world.
  • Even if we are not conscious of it (eg. Famous gorilla and basketball experiment) the input goes a long way up into our brain. So, at any moment our brain is processing a lot of information that we never get to be aware (conscious) of. And some of it affects or biases our thinking.
  • These inputs get weaker as they travel upwards but some trigger higher neural areas which then send a signal back down to the sensory input. From my understanding, this signal is checking out what it thinks could be happening. If the sensory input comes back as agreeing then the higher cortical area gets more excited. A reinforcing loop gets set up and gains strength.
  • About 300ms after the initial stimulus the excitation gets strong enough that suddenly the cortex ‘ignites’, as he puts it, into lots of activity. It’s quite sudden and extreme.
  • This activity is the higher cortex sharing that information all over itself with lots of long-range axons firing. This neural network sends signals back and forth in a way that creates an oscillation of electrical activity, in the Gamma band (33+ pulses per second), which can be monitored outside of the brain.
  • The other thing that happens is that the active neurons tightly shut down (inhibit) other neurons so that your attention becomes very focussed. New sensory input will find it hard to trigger another neural circuit into activity, as at this time the brain deems that information to be irrelevant. In fact, the wave of activity is a positive voltage at the top of the head not a negative wave because there is more inhibition activity going on than excitory.
  • It seems that when we get stressed, the neurochemicals that cause vigilance increase and therefore we are more vigilant. This means we respond to fainter stimuli – I think this shows up as people perceiving things as more threatening when they aren’t. (It could be that when we talk about how important relationship is in coaching, that what we are doing is reducing the amount of these neurochemicals being released.)
  • It appears that in babies the wave of ignition happens but at about 1 second – probably due to the lack of myelination at this age.
  • He talks about Schizophrenia and how a disruption in creating a connected, excited neural network could create similar symptoms. It seems the brain gets the bottom-up sensory information but the top-down check from the higher areas to the sensory areas is impaired. This is checking for “I think it is this, are you sensing that?”. If it gets a signal back which matches its expectation of what it thought then there is no mismatch between expected and sensory input and the brain is satisfied it ‘knows’ what’s going on. If this loop is disrupted then the neural circuit does not get closure so the person will be ‘left’ with a feeling that something isn’t quite right or is missing. As the brain doesn’t like discrepancies, it invents a story to make sense of it. Also, when we do something, that part of the brain alerts the sensory areas to expect it – that’s why we can’t tickle ourselves and when we hear ourselves echoed back in a phone call we get disorientated as we weren’t expecting that. Again, if this is impaired then the person would not always realise it was them doing it, hence the claim of ‘other voices in my head’.
  • The brain is in a constant state of flux so these ignitions are happening without external stimuli. In fact, he reckons that the brain creates more of these ignitions internally or randomly than are externally triggered.

Dehaene, and others, are doing some amazing work with Comma, Vegetative-state, minimally conscious and Locked-In Syndrome patients. They are developing a test for consciousness in these patients. It seems that they have detected consciousness in Vegetative state patients who months later regain a further level of consciousness. Also in one very special 2007 case, a neuroscientist triggered a patient’s Thalamus area (electrodes) which is heavily involved in the system that determines how awake or vigilant we are. They thought this overall system might have been stuck in the ‘not awake’ mode and they managed to ‘kick-start’ it so the patient went from minimally conscious to a more stable state of consciousness. There are also some specific drugs which can bring back conscious to patients at the time they have them which points to the fact that if the system is not damaged then there could be a point in the future when we can awaken these people.

As a final snippet. I read (3 hours) a lovely book called, “The Little book of big stuff about the brain”: It is an easy and informative read about learning and reward, plus a bit on consciousness, and how to make those work well. Another book that took my eye, is called “Predictably Irrational”: looks like a thought-provoking business book although I haven’t read it yet.


Have a wonderful Christmas and I wish everyone the very best for 2018.


My love-hate relationship

I think I am coming around to the realisation that a doctorate is a love-hate relationship. Something I enjoy and at the same time frustrates me as well. I can hit the depths of ‘what the hell have I been doing for the past 18 months’ and the highs of, ‘wow that’s a real insight that’s popped out of being made to think about this for 18 months’. So, I hate being held to account on a pin head and yet love the result that that gets from me. Although I am working on alleviating the frustration and having more of the love moments.

I am in the process of moving to a new university, UWTSD, and one which I wish I’d found at the start as they are more structured in their approach and I can relate to them and the way they think. Overall, I feel they care about me and I am not just a means to an end. However – big however, this does mean that I have to get my research approved all over again as their process doesn’t quite align to Middlesex’s. I thought it might be relatively straight forward but I am now understanding how open the Middlesex programme was and the consequences of that. I think it would have caught me out in the end so I am glad to have hit upon it now and I think the end result will be more robust and meaningful. At least I am not going round in circles, as it’s a spiral, so I’ve been here before but this time it has shifted me to a different level.

They are still in academia and can have interesting ways of putting things. So, when I got asked to ‘situate my research in relation to existing coaching practices’, I blew a slight gasket and had a teenage moment of asking if they could put it into plain English then I might be able to do that but currently I didn’t have a clue what that meant. It turned out they meant  is quite simple and I probably should have been better at answering it a long time ago but it seems to have fallen off my radar when it should have been centre stage! The question is “what is the specific situation in your coaching that you really want this research to actually help you with? How will the research outcome help with that and enhance your coaching?” (The pin head). I’d moved on from here a long time ago when it appears I am supposed to use this as my anchor point. At last the Research proposal and the Project proposal make sense as I wondered how they differed.

Three days later, two very late nights, ten pages of scribbled notes from various ah-ha moments during my waking hours (I carry it with me now). And I eventually crafted my response: In a nutshell, I have some coachees who logically get what actions they need to take to make the change they say they want to but actually do very little towards it – they are very hesitant about the changes to be made. If I could develop a model of what mechanism is acting to maintain the status quo then I would have a chance of helping those coachees make the changes and get to where they’d like to be. Then I realised that the coaching assignments where this happens are really pushing into territory coachee’s might view as changing ‘who they are’, the Self, rather than more congruent, although stretching, changes. Given ‘who we are’ has been designed to help us navigate life safely and securely I might be a bit hesitant about changing it as well.

Yesterday I decided to listening to the AC’s latest webinars and Aboodi talks about coachee’s being “attached to their structure of interpretation”. So now I am tuned to looking at my research from a different place I am suddenly noticing different things that are relevant – or maybe I’ve just stubbled across them – a theme in this level of research I feel.

I really hope synaptic plasticity is true because mine must have been working overtime this week – hopefully in all ways. Yes, I didn’t realise that it happens in so many ways. We rave a lot about this and yet it is happening all the time. By the time you’ve read this your brain has already changed – synapse by synapse. Maybe one less-used presynaptic terminal died as it doesn’t get enough nourishment. Some post-synaptic terminals will be stronger and more effective at firing which can happen in a number of ways:

  • The pre-synaptic terminal creates more neurotransmitter or it releases its neurotransmitter for longer.
  • The post-synaptic terminal:
    • The receptors on it move to the part of the membrane closest to the pre-synaptic terminal – they gather together.
    • Receptors become more sensitive to the neurotransmitter so it is more effective.
    • It creates more receptors and sends them to the membrane edge. Also, these are held firmer by the ‘scaffolding structures’ so they stay at the membrane edge for longer. Signals are sent to the neuron’s nuclei such that more receptors are made. Having ‘tagged’ which dendritic spine needs them, they travel back to it. Overtime, this can lead to the postsynaptic terminal dividing into two followed by the presynaptic terminal, thus creating two separate synapses.
    • Also, there are silent synapses which become active.

All of this creates ‘long term potentiation’ – enhanced effectiveness which lasts for a long time. It makes me think that practising is really important within coaching as it starts to create and embed some of these changes. Serotonin is mentioned a lot so I am beginning to think about how I can affect that. When we talk about how important the relationship is in coaching, I think that is because it tends to support serotonin release which appears to enhance learning and inhibit the amygdala – makes it feel safer.

Coming down to earth

Well it probably won’t surprise you but having completed Part 1 of the DProf I have withdrawn from Middlesex University. In my email I said that it had not been a very enjoyable 18-months, which since April is a very big understatement. Firstly, since they merged all Administration, it’s been terrible: Two of three submissions since April might still be sitting waiting if I had not phoned up and asked what was happening with them.

Second, the conduct of the people in the presentation was the final straw for me. I am still not sure how raising your eyebrows is an acceptable response to someone attempting to put across their case when ‘questioned’. Maybe it’s because ‘questioned’ is a term which I use loosely in this context: Judgmental statements with question marks seemed to feature highly which is very threatening. To be honest, I don’t think they really wanted to hear an answer, it was more like a prod to get a reaction. So, there I am, needing them to ‘pass’ my project and wondering if they understand the phrase “a productive and informative session”. To add to the situation, the written feedback I received made me wonder if the submission had been read as two items stated as missing are there.

Well, it was very informative in that it informed me that I did not want to put up with this again and that my style is different to theirs. Also, it did get a response – as a customer I am not prepared to pay them to behave like that towards me – so I am off.

As a final laugh or cry, I had to email them to get them to process my withdrawal as they seemed to have not done that since they said they would. Well at least they are predictable. I’ll let you know what’s going to happen going forwards once that’s sorted.

Yesterday I read something that made me grimace. It was the phrase ‘neuro diversity’ which seems to be being used for grouping together dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia etc. It bought up for me my ‘old chestnut’ about ‘the self’, ‘this is who I am’, ‘out of character’, ‘the real me’ and ‘mini-selves’, etc as I think these are outdated thinking – we are all neuro diverse, every single person. From the point the egg is fertilised we are being shaped and we never stop being shaped by every moment we are alive as our synapses and chemicals are constantly changing, which all add up to changes in us. As a person, we have many many facets that could and will show up at any moment due to internal and external situational combinations.  So, it is always you, you are always you. It might not be an aspect of you, you see very often or have seen before but it is you. In ‘complex systems’ it seems that some aspects have a higher probability of happening and this is what I think we call ‘who I am’. And ‘out of character’ means we’re seeing an aspect of that person we don’t usually see but it is still part of them and who they are. The impact of all their years sits in front of me as a coach and although coaching is unlikely to explore much of that, it does influence the coaching. I feel we are a blend, a continuity, we are analogue rather than discrete, packaged or one thing. So, when a coachee does something ‘out of character’ I see that as glimpsing into another aspect of them and therefore, useful information.

I have also now read ‘The myth of mirror neurons’ by Gregory Hickok. It was not too technical and an enlightening read in getting me to think about the soundness of the research that is being done. I think it was the end of any glamour or dazzlement that I had for this area. And the media have a lot to answer for as well as they grab a glamour headline, forget its limitations and put it up as a miracle answer to something complex.

Anyway, mirror neurons. Way back I read Ramachandran’s book, which was great, except that he made what I thought was an irresponsible comment about an experimental observation involving mirror neurons. And I remember thinking at the time that mirror neurons just seemed to activate because they saw another monkey picking up a nut. Ramachandran interpreted it by saying it was if the monkey had mindread the other one’s intention. The debate appears to centre around whether mirror neurons give us understanding of the intentions of others. This book is a very well written account around which research results were ignored, how many conclusions seem to make a leap of connection and how a number of the arguments for mirror neurons are circular and underpin each other. Also, very interesting was how the training of the monkeys prior to the experiments and the setup of the experiments probably contributed to the results. The experiments seemed to test for what they were looking for and did not appear to test for variations or to disprove their theories. For example, in the training and experiment set-up the monkeys saw the people pick up food and bring it to the mouth a lot. Hickok talks about the conditional training that this would have created and the fact that if there was food the experimenters always picked it up and brought it to the mouth.

He then goes on to discuss where mirror neurons do seem to help us. Imitation, which is what mirror neurons do a lot, is important as we learn so much through it quickly. Also, he says that we respond during movement better than we should be able to therefore mirror neurons maybe part of a feedforward system which allows us to adjust movement by predicting where we’ll end up and where we need to end up.

Lots of food for reflection.

Movement, oscillations and emerging patterns

(Hot off the press: Today I had my Project Proposal resubmission approved. So, I have finally completed Part 1. I am now an official doctoral candidate – exciting and scary.)

I have got to ‘Movement’ in my textbook and whilst I am fascinated in how the body coordinates itself, I am definitely feeling uncomfortable reading about the animal experiments that have led to this knowledge. ‘Ablate’ is a fancy word for ‘destroying’ or ‘removing’ a function and I am frequently reading that word in this chapter. Also, cats are being used a lot which is unpleasant. My sons will laugh at this as I regularly moan about cats and chase them away from the birdfeeders in the garden.

On the movement side what is very interesting, if I understand it correctly, is that when your muscles contract, basically each cell within that muscle contracts. The basis of muscle contraction is about overlapping thin F-actin and thicker Myosin protein filaments, which are laid out in this pattern:

____________                ______________  F-actin

                   ̻̻  ̻̻  ̻̻__________  ̻̻  ̻̻  ̻̻                                      Myosin

____________                ______________

                   ̻̻  ̻̻  ̻̻__________  ̻̻  ̻̻  ̻̻

____________                ______________


The thicker Myosin filaments have little bundles at each end. These have an extended ‘finger’ which, when excited, ‘ratchet’ the overlapping layers inwards towards each other, bit by bit, thus contracting the cell.

I have also managed to read “The Oscillating Brain” by Timothy Sheehan which is well written and was an easy read overviewing brain oscillations. This topic seems to be causing excitement in the neuroscience world so I thought I’d better get a heads up on it. It also covers a good overview of complex systems theory, which is easier to conceptually understand than I thought.

The oscillations, seem to be the pattern caused by all the neurons that are firing. A bit like a Mexican wave at a sports stadium which can vary the speed with which it goes around and around. Although formed of individual people there is a ripple effect that can be seen from afar rather than the individual people.

There seems to be a regular resting baseline of Alpha oscillations (8-12Hz) which increase to Beta oscillations (13-30Hz) when we get sensory inputs. Once consciousness kicks in we get Gamma Oscillations at 30-70Hz which means that the neurons are firing more rapidly. I read another technical paper on neural oscillations that talks about how the oscillation networks coupled with the electrical circuit characteristics of neurons, enable filters to be created which amplify certain aspects and suppress others. (More third year electrical engineering degree material) One example it gives is how the cortical and thalamus oscillations progressively decrease neural responsiveness to external factors thus creating deeper sleep. Inhibitory neurons feature a lot.

In the brain, there appear to be a lot of inhibitory neurons which help to sharpen the difference between what’s on and off. (Used a lot in vision). Therefore, once one set of neurons are excited they inhibit other neurons so it is even less likely they will fire (it takes a bigger input signal to activate the inhibited neurons) thus sharpening the definition between them. A good understanding of decision maths or logic circuits is useful as the brain seems to use these a lot.

I must admit I had been putting off reading about Complex Systems Theory as it sounded a bit heavy going. Also, I feel that there are two phrases within complex system theory that people seem to love throwing around: complex system and emergent properties. The good news is that complex system theory as overviewed by Timothy Sheehan is easier to follow than I thought.

The ‘complex’ part refers to the system rather than the theory (I am sure that will follow) and in essence the theory attempts to make complex systems simpler. A good example of a complex system is the weather. There is a lot going on and there are a lot of things that affect it such that you cannot really predict the weather patterns off just one variable. Also, the patterns of interaction between the variables are hard to predict in a precise manner. That definitely sounds like the weather forecast.

The term emergent property seems to be about the most predominant trend(s) or pattern(s). That is, if you overlay all the individual aspects what is the most predominate trend(s) that appears? An example of this is if you take Euston Railway Station concourse: During the day people seemingly walk across all parts of it but if you superimposed all their paths you’d probably find that most people use just 4 or 5 main routes through it. Across the day these trends might vary (rush hour verses off-peak) but still stay within a limited number of options. I think a ‘Wordle’ is another example as it pictorially simplifies the information about how often a word is used and makes it easy to see the trends.

A complex system also has some themes. Firstly, repetitive activity underlies the stability of the system along with feedback loops. Also, it follows a ‘S’ shaped curve. They mainly operate on the more vertical part of the ‘S’ which gives them their steady-states. For example, our weather is predominately a temperate climate with our winters generally colder than our summers. However sometimes the system can move towards either end of the curve. At one end, it becomes ‘weak’ and easily affected by other factors more than it usually would be. At the other end, the system can become overloaded and break down, giving rise to unexpected behaviour. Thus, sometimes complex systems do things which are very unlike them.

This also characterises people. Over time, we form assumptions of people’s behaviour but in times of stress they do ‘out of character’ things, like becoming unusually forceful, rigid or argumentative. When they are feeling ‘fragile’ they seem more easily overcome by daily occurrences. So, a complex system is simply something which has lots of variables and is not easy to predict precisely, although it has a steady state trend(s) and occasionally does something unexpected. Like our weather or us. Although I am not sure if this helps us understand people or is just another analogy.

What do team building exercises and the brain have in common?

Well it is just over 4 months since I initially submitted my Research Project proposal which seems ages ago. It’s 6 weeks since I resubmitted it, hopefully having addressed their conditions and I am chasing things as well now as I am less convinced about the rigour of their processes. ‘Turnitin’ seems to be a black hole that just checks how much of your work is copied from others. I love it when it picks out a phrase like “reaching their potential” and then cites it in some random person’s website. This means that you have to go through and see how much of the 18% ‘copied’ words you need to worry about. On the upside, it has meant that since mid-July I have been able to focus on the bit I love, the neuroscience, rather than writing academic stuff.

I am another 100 pages through the text book and it is fascinating. I have learned about how neurons (probably) grow towards where they need to go as well as learning about all the sensory systems. I am glad I have an electrical engineering degree as I can understand the electrical circuits used within neural firing and their oscillations. Although I never thought I’d have to brush up on this through being a coach.

I like the little side bits I am discovering such as chillies are ‘hot’ because they activate the same receptors as ‘bad heat’ (>43 degrees) which means we quickly do something about it and don’t eat too much. I am assuming this is because in large amounts those chemicals are unhealthy for us. Likewise, menthol activates the cool temperature receptor so it corresponds to our ‘cool’ sensation. I suppose the larger debate is around what do we define as ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ as they are human interpretations. Although very hot and very cold both feel like a ‘burning’ sensation which is probably our word for the ‘my cells are being destroyed’ feeling which is what it comes down to.

In reading about the senses, I get a picture of how each one is so well tuned for the particular aspect that it needs to be alerted to in order for us to survive. So, for vision there are a lot of neural networks to do with edges as these help with movement and speed of movement. Also edges help us see predators hiding. Then there is colour which helps us see what is ok to eat and what is not, as well as predators hiding. It has made me wonder whether very tidy people who are nervous are tidy as it reduces edges and makes the edges aligned. Both of these would make it easier to see threats. Although they are not consciously doing it for those reasons I wonder if that is the underlying survival rationale.

Strengthening the ‘reasoning’ ability of the neural system feels like a useful thing do as it helps the brain to control emotional reactions before they get out of control. Also, I wonder how much more we’d get done at work if there was less fear and anxiety around. Maybe in 100 years that will be the role of a leader or HR.

With sight and sound, spatial maps are recreated in the brain. Visually there appears to be a mapping of retinal receptors to the same layout in the brain. This means neurons from the retina must end up in the same order in the visual cortex and it is amazing how it is thought that they do this. In many ways, it is very simple as they use a lot of chemical repulsion and attraction although given the number of neurons this means that the difference in that is quite subtle.

For example (in a simplistic way), if you had 100 neurons from the left to right side of the retina and the one at the furthest left had the most of Chem A, say 100%. Then the one furthest to the right would have the least amount, say 1%. Each neuron in between from left to right would go from 99% to 2% in a downwards gradient. The neurons they need to connect to, further along pathway towards the brain, also go from left to right but have Chem B with a 1% to 100% upwards gradient from left to right (the opposite way around). If Chem A and B repel each other, then the one with most Chem A (furthest left) will end up connected to the one with least Chem B (furthest left) and so forth. Thus, the neurons connect left to right as they were in the retina, maintaining the spatial representation.

Smell is different. In a frog experiment it appears that a coding system is used. Each odour has a unique neural firing pattern using the same set of neurons (which neuron and with what level of activation). Therefore, you can detect many different smells using fewer neurons and, for odour, a map is less useful than being able to detect lots and lots of different smells. So the brain has to decide how best to use its finite resources and each system seems very well honed to its work.

The ears turn sound waves into movement by using lots of little hairs inside them. The hairs are different heights, like pan pipes, and at the top of each hair is a ‘lidded’ opening. The ‘lid’ has a ‘string’ connected to the taller hair behind it. When sound moves the hairs, the tops of them move further apart thus the ‘string’ pulls the ‘lid’ open and ions enter to enable depolarisation. Movement using the ear canals, is similar although fluid and calcium granules create the hair movement. Should I be amazed or concerned as it’s a bit like a team building exercise solution but without bake bean tins.

Next time I’ll talk about neural oscillations and complex systems as these also seem relevant to ‘the self’ conversation and my DProf.

Is reality just a hallucination we all agree on?

This was the essence of Anil Seth‘s TEDTalk (Sussex University); he’s researching consciousness. It’s worth watching as there are some demos which really hit home the point that we construct the world (reality) in our brains. The sound example gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘our interpretation of the world is reality’ or in NLP ‘the map is not the territory; respect others’ maps of the world’. Food for thought for my coaching, as is Damasio’s talk.

This awesome-ness of the brain has been reinforced with my latest reading. I decided I need to understand sentences like “We have used purified neuroendocrine dense-core vesicles and artificial membranes to reconstruct in vitro the serial events that mimic SNARE–dependent membrane docking and fusion during exocytosis” if I am going to read primary research papers. So I have two textbooks: Principles of Neurobiology and Foundations of Behavioral Neuroscience Although it means I am reading with a highlighter (to mark key themes), a pen (to write on the page what the big words mean so when I read it next time I’ll know what they are), my phone (to Google what the big words mean) and my Kindle (to take notes which I can store as Word documents). It doesn’t make reading easy and it is very slow as it hurts my brain reading this stuff. But I now have a routine which helps: a short break every 30 minutes and a one hour break every three hours. Currently with the first textbook, I’m 150 pages in on 600.

With some other articles though, I get frustrated that simple everyday words aren’t deemed good enough. Take the wonderfully simple word ‘large’. What’s wrong with that? Everyone gets it and I can easily read a passage with it in. But no, obviously it is not good enough for some people who need to use, or invent, the phrase ‘high-dimensional’. I was seriously tempted to work out how much extra paper and ink was wasted by using ‘high-dimensional’ rather than ‘large’ but pulled myself up as I thought I was probably getting a bit obsessed about it. But throughout the article I had to keep reminding myself that a ‘high-dimensional cavity’ was a ‘large hole’ and a high-dimensional clique’ was a ‘large cluster’ – give me strength, as if this wasn’t hard enough to understand. There could be a sequel to the book, “Why business people speak like idiots”.

And to make it worse, from reading the textbook, I feel as if I know very little and that I should have known this stuff ages ago. But in good coaching style, I’m reframing this to the fact that I am now ready to read this, and it is an exciting read. Exciting because I had not realised what went on inside a neuron. It’s a whole little world of its own.

(For the next bit, I just want to put in a disclaimer: I wanted to tell you a few awesome things about neurons and I have limited knowledge so the next section is to the best of my understanding using analogies. But it is written with my best intentions at heart as I was stunned at the complexity of a neuron and at the fragility of it as well.)

In very simple terms from what I understood (Chapters 1-3 of ‘Principles of Neurobiology’) – There are bits going in and out of the neuron cell’s nucleus. Some bits (cargos) are carried by proteins via ‘microtubules’ (tubes) along the axon or dendrite. At the ends, many thinner helix structures help distribute them to various points. Sounds a lot like a logistics set-up for many online shops! At the axon and dendrite ends a lot happens with one thing leading to another which leads to another. It reminded me of the game Mousetrap where you essentially build a ‘marble run’ composed of many different components: Once built and triggered, various parts flip, roll, spin or fall to trigger the next section and at the end a net falls down trapping the mouse. Well it sounds rather like that – a cell membrane receptor has a protein complex attached to it inside the cell. Outside a neurotransmitter, such as serotonin, attaches to the receptor which changes the protein complex. Part of the changed complex then affects an enzyme which releases a chemical messenger. This goes off to a store of Calcium inside the cell and opens a channel so the calcium comes out into the cell. The increase of calcium inside the cell does a lot of different things, one of which will be resetting the initial protein complex. So, a neuron has at its centre a factory which takes things in and makes new things to send out, a logistics operation using a tube system to distribute things and get stuff back, and many games of Mousetrap which are initiated by elements inside or outside the neuron – simple! I wish.

A final thought: Some neurotransmitters inside the neuron are in little sacs. These sacs are placed close to the cell membrane and are ‘held’ by ‘coils’. These connect to similar coils on the cell membrane. When triggered, both coils pull tight so the sac and membrane move closer together and merge (Fig 1 – B). Then neurotransmitters can leave the cell and go off to other neurons. One way a muscle relaxant works is to disable one of the coils so it cannot pull tight when triggered. Thus the neurotransmitter which signals the muscle to contract does not get released as it should, so the muscle stays relaxed. That is how subtle these chemicals are and this is how delicate or complex our brains are. With thousands of these mechanisms and others in our brains I can start to understand how just the tiniest change can cause major mental problems or alter what we think happened.

Re my Dprof: I now have 60 further level 7 credits for my R&D Capability Claim paper and have resubmitted my Research Proposal.

Self comes to mind (Damasio 2012)

Is it really a month ago since I did the last blog? I suppose that means a lot must have been happening. Not quite so much on the neuroscience side as I have been working hard to get my resubmission sorted but I am reading (trying) Damasio’s latest book ‘Self comes to mind’. I definitely think I have learned more about human nature and behaviour through reading these types of books than any ‘Neuroscience for …’ book. I find the neuroscience elements go in subliminally as they are often being used and I don’t feel anxious that I need to know all that stuff. Anyway I have a proper textbook for that if I need it.

Let me give you a few themes from the book:

Simple cells, in order to survive, must be able to detect internal and external changes. They must have a response policy for these and be able to act to avoid the threat. The response policy needs to have conditions which if met trigger a movement as the simple cell does not ‘think’. It appears as if the cells act with intention but they don’t. They are just doing what they do which all adds up to a lot. Brains evolved to make this more effective and varied, so they can ‘sense, decide and act’.

The basic intention of the organism’s design is to maintain structure with the overarching purpose to survive so genes can be reproduced. (Easy to forget when life seems to be about which mobile phone or App to buy.) Therefore incentive mechanisms are needed for guidance, so chemicals are released to signal good things (dopamine, oxytocin) or threats (cortisol , Prolactin) to optimise behaviour towards or away from. However, if you have senses you have far more information on the external situation. Therefore, we have developed beyond mere survival to having certain ranges of well-being.

He’s also big on the brain making maps; maps of everything. Brains are constantly up dating their map of the body so it knows that it’s ok or whether it has to do something to get in back within that tight range of requirements needed for survival. He also suggests that event maps make up our memories. He feels that it is more efficient to store ways of recreating maps than every detail of a memory. In essence, the map retriggers the detail of that event within us. There certainly seems to be a lot of evidence that there is neural firing similar to the original event, which happens when we recall it. This can mean that if a memory gets triggered in some way – of which there are many – then a response happens whether we like it or not. Depending on its strength and our abilities to control it, it may undermine what we are doing at that moment. Sometimes we will know this is happening (typically from explicit memories) and sometimes we just know how we feel, and assume that the current situation is making us feel that way (usually from implicit memories). Useful to know when the other person acts ‘irrationally’.

He talks about how we might learn due to mirror neurons. These mimic in our brain what we see others doing. This means we encode how to do things and may be partly how we learn so many things as we grow up. He talks about how if we have encoded it through mirror neurons then we can act it out as required. It makes me think in coaching that maybe I might need to do more real-plays of situations that my coachees want to handle so that they have a memory of doing it. In essence it puts it in their system. I wonder if this is why visualisation has an effect. Seems like a topic that could have more relevance once further explored and understood, so maybe one to look out for.

The saga of my panel has continued and it has been interesting to notice how I have been going through the change curve and what has helped that. It definitely helped to know that I have passed, although the conditions I need to meet are as stringent as I’d feared. Knowing was a mixed blessing as it rekindled some of the emotions but at I least understood the size of the task. Later that week we met as a group and it was helpful to talk about it. Partly it ‘normalised’ the experience and partly it enabled me to explore my options going forward. I also untangled what I felt I could have done differently, from the situation’s dynamic. This certainly helped me think more rationally and tempered the emotional response. I read in LaDoux that the emotional response is about creating action to re-stabilise the system and that once that action happens, the inhibitory neurons are fired to turn off the fight/ flight response. So the act of creating a response quenches what initiate it.

Another week passed until I spoke with my Advisor about the conditions, so I started by tackling the obvious ones. Doing one thing helped me to think clearer and then another condition made more sense, so I started working on that as well. Then I understood another, so by the time I spoke with my Advisor I had sent through my plan for addressing 5/6 of the conditions.

One useful outcome is that I now feel even more certain that my research method is well chosen as I have had to put up a stronger defence of it. Martin Seligman in ‘Authentic Happiness’ says that people move on when they can make something ‘good’ out of the situation, no matter how small. I’d go with that. And although begrudgingly at first, I have got to ‘acceptance’ on the change curve mainly because I have separated what I feel is inexcusable behaviour from the extra thinking the conditions have made me do. Now I can handle the two things independently.