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On Summer Reading and Synesthesia

“Monday Musings” for Monday July 22, 2013

Volume III, No. 27/130

School of Athens

The School of Athens by Raphael

A Few Thoughts On Summer Reading and Cultivating Synesthesia

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Words are powerful. Language is powerful. We not only communicate with words and languages, but they, the individual words, tell us about us, about our nature, and even about our future. Consider the word, the individual word, the first word of the great works, such as Iliad, Odyssey, the collected work of Mowlana Mohammad Balkhi Rumi, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, etc.

Homer’s Iliad starts with the word “Anger.”  This very important word becomes the theme which is carried out throughout the entire epic. The story of intrigue, covetousness, deceit, anger and violence runs through all the 24 books of Iliad. Agamemnon stole and seduced Achillies’ concubine, and Paris abducted Helen, daughter of the great God Zeus and wife of the greek Menelaos, ending in Achillies killing Hector and finally, Achillies himself getting killed by Paris.

The book of Odyssey starts with the word “nostos,” homecoming or return (etymology of the word nostalgia.)  The word sets the tone, and becomes the theme of Homer’s Odyssey. Saint Augustine’s almost sacred 13 books of Confessions start with “Inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te.” (Our heart is restless, until it rests in you.) These powerful books as well as the rest of the five million three hundred thousand words Augustine wrote are a must read. Enjoying the most enigmatic book of all time, the christian Bible, I have learned to pay special attention to the words that open and close the 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament.  Also, I have learned to pay special attention when numbers are used: resurrection after three days (Lazarus was revived after four days), 40 days of wandering in wilderness,12 disciples, (after his suicide, Judas was replaced immediately by Matthias),12 tribes,153 “fishes” (bad grammar!) in Gospel of John, etc. I think it would be a good idea to take the children and grandchildren to your own library or the public library, check out some of these books and make a game of finding the first word in each of these book, and see if they develop into a theme around which the book, the epic, or the work is written. That would be a fun game.

In this space, we have spoken of Rumi and how as a child I used to look forward to a newspaper that carried a column elaborating Rumi’s poetry. Well, several faithful readers wrote to tell us that they are anxious to read more about Rumi, and will wait by their mail box for the fresh “MM” coming down the pike.  They want to read Rumi and satiate their longing for mysticism and transcendence of this most honored and honorable 13th century (1207-1273) Persian poet, Mowlana Jalal-ad-Din Mohammad Balki Masnavi Mowlavi Rumi’s first word in his massive collected work is “listen.” Yes, the word “listen.” Listening is the essence of love. Listening is so important that another Persian great poet and philosopher, Mosleh-e-Din Saadi (1210-1290) said  “We are given two ears and one tongue, so that we may listen twice as much as we may say…”

SYNESTHESIA

We have spoken of synesthesia, a wonderful phenomenon where being exposed to one set of stimuli, like reading or listening to a lecture, ushers in other stimuli or sets of stimuli and sensations, such as music or envisioning paintings. Several readers have written and wondered if this is a genetic, inherited and inborn attribute, naturally occurring, or could it be acquired. The answer is probably yes to both. Raising children in a rich environment of words, music, poetry, dance, discourse, reading and even arguing and intellectual disagreement will inculcate a sense of awareness and appreciation in children of the expanse and abundance of life, its possibilities, and what it can offer. To that extent you can teach a child to use their God- given multiple senses as fully as possible.  However, to some synesthesia comes naturally.

I was reading or shall I say re-reading (for the umpteenth time) Plato’s Symposium, this is a recording of the dialogue between his teacher, Socrates, and in this instance, a young man named Phaedrus, a student or interlocutor of the Master, Socrates. Reading this conversation brought fresh insight and better understanding of the nature of love. As a result, it brought an exciting and different experience. As I read and re-read the speech, the conversation and the poem, learning about “soul love-agape” and not “body love-eros,” I saw the perfect symmetry, verbal counterpoint of a fugue subject, balancing sophist vs. philosopher, humanist vs. the divine; temporalist vs. eternal, rhetoric vs. dialectic, opinion vs. knowledge, appearance vs. reality, body vs. soul, esse–being vs. videri—seeming, profligacy vs. progress, parsimony vs. economy, solipsism vs. introspection; secularism vs. eschatology, licentiousness vs. liberty, idolatry vs. idealism, convenience vs. commitment, etc….,  and suddenly I saw Socrates as a conductor coming to the podium and all these speech components playing together and producing the rich and sumptuous music of Bach’s  Brandenburg Concerti… Oh, what a feast of verbal and musical complexity of counterpoint and beauty. What a perfect fugue subject!

I believe every child ought to be exposed to the work of Plato. Perhaps you might wish to include the collected work of Plato, all of his work, 1810 pages, as a part of your child’s birthday or Christmas gift. Also, with the present ought to go the gift of commitment that you will read the book to your child and encourage verbal dialogue and intellectual engagement with your child.

 Love of the Lord

If all oceans, rivers and falls turn in to ink…

And the trees and forests of the world into paper…

And, if I could commission the talents of all poets, artists, philosophers, sages and writers…

It would still be impossible to begin to tell of my love for you, oh, Lord God.

Hafiz Shirazi, aka, Lesan-ol-gheib.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On the Brain and Behaviour, Part IV

Monday Musings for Monday June 24, 2013

Volume III, No. 23/126

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NIH Neuroscience Center Building, Rockville, MD

(Editor’s Note: This is part IV of a four part series on Brain and Behaviour. In Part I, June 3, 2013, the general topography and physiology of the brain was discussed. In Part II, Monday June 10, the topic of Epigentics was explored. In Part III, June 17, the emergence of ‘Age of Mind’, marriage of psychoanalysis and neurosciences was examined. Today, Part IV, we conclude the series by offering an example of such marriage in the form of a book review to enhance our understanding of what lies in the future of the union of psychoanalysis and neuroscience.)

 Brain and Behaviour, Part IV

PSYCHOANALYSIS AND NEUROSCIENCE

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

PSYCHOANALYSIS AND NEUROSCIENCE

Edited by Mauro Mancia. 436 pages. $199.00

Springer.  New York, NY

The faithful readers of this space recall that we begun reviewing books about mind, memory, neuroscience and the brain many years ago. The first book reviewed in this series was the book by Harvard clinical and research psychologist, Daniel L. Schecter, Searching for Memory, the Brain, the Mind and the Past. The last book reviewed in this series was the Nobel Laureate psychiatrist Eric Kandel’s book, “The Emergence of a New Science of Mind,” published in the October 2011.

We now offer the review of a fascinating book, “Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience,” edited by the enormously sage of the Italian Academia, neurobiologist and psychoanalyst Mauro Mancia. First a word about the author/editor:

Mauro Mancia is Professor Emeritus of Neurophysiology, University of Milan, Italy and Training Analyst of the Italian Psychoanalytical Society. His interest is in the link between neuroscientific knowledge and psychoanalytic theories of mind and he has written extensively on the subjects of narcissism, dreams, sleep, memory and the unconscious.

Interest in dream goes back to Sumerian recordings going back to some eight thousand years ago.There are abundant references to dreams in Torah, the Bible, the Holy Quor’an and other celestial books, such as Avesta, the book of Zoroaster, written 500 BCE. But it was not until early last century that Freud published his work on understanding and interpretation of dream that a firm connection between dream, memory and “mental” history began to evolve.

Fast forward the clock. Neuroscientific interest in dream started in 1953 with the discovery of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep by Aserinsky and Klietman, taking psychophysiologic findings of dream into the realm of biology. There are many exciting discoveries in the area of psychoendocrinology of dream and memory coming out of many sources and laboratories both in US and abroad. Here is the title of one of the recent articles: “The Role of the Inter-relation Between Serotonin (5-HT), Muramyl Dipeptide and Interleukin-1 (IL-1) in Sleep regulation, Memory and Brain regulation,” by the editor of this book and his colleagues, published in American Journal of Physiology. 

The book is organized in four parts.

Part I:

Memories and Emotions: consists of eight chapters written by experts in their respective fields.This segment examines one basic message: memories stand out and last longer when they are accompanied and highlighted by emotional experience. The message of this section of the book is the importance of interconnection of memory with emotions. With scientific detail and elaboration, the authors demonstrate the proteins in amygdala and hippocampus responsible for retention of memories are parts of the limbic system that overall is responsible for housing emotions denoting the common neuronic pathway for memory and emotions. In 1940s, while mapping specific components of the limbic system, Paul D McLean invoked the romantic notion that the limbic system is “the anatomy of emotions.”

Part II:

The second part of the book consists of three chapters. It examines the sensorimotor side of “empathy pain,” the role of the anterior cingulate cortex in affective pain, and social cognition and response to embodied stimulation.

Part III:

Also consists of three chapters. It is perhaps the most exciting part of the book. It deals with “The Dream in the dialogue between Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience.” One chapter dissects the neurobiological and psychoendocrinological anatomy of dreams and memory formation. In recalling events of the past as practiced in psychoanalysis, the brain’s physiology and even anatomy and morphology stands to be changed. This part of the book reminded me of another significant book recently published, “Train your Mind, Change your Brain” in which author Sharon Begley, a Wall Street Journal neuroscience reporter, shows how thinking can change the brain functionally and anatomically.

Part IV:

The two chapters of this part discuss fetal behavior. While the word embryology is seldom used, the authors of these two chapters examine in detail the onset of human fetal behaviour, and neurophysiologic impact and influence of nursing on the early organization of the infant mind.

With the knowledge that the basic instrument in the discipline of psychoanalysis is recall of memories, dreams and transference, the 21 authors of this book make a good case why there should be a robust and constant conversation between psychoanalysts and neurophysiologists. It is time for these disciplines to learn about and from each other. The authors invite readers, in most scholarly and convincing manner, that psychoanalysis, a powerful reservoir of volumes of memories, should integrate resources with neurophysiology and enjoy the mutual fertile and rich products. It is the expressed purpose of the book to further elaborate and understand the relationship between memory, dreams and neurobiological changes occurring during the experience and the course of psychoanalysis. This holy partnership is encouraged and the authors, like priests, are willing to bring about this holy matrimony to the world of science.

The downside of the book: It is a rather difficult read, I guess because it is a translated work. I do not know how much psychoanalysis and neurophysiology the translator, Mrs. Judy Baggott, has had. To a linguist, conversant with a variety of Eastern and Romance languages, the slip of the translator shows fairly frequently. Her skirt should be longer!  However, this minor flaw should not dissuaded anyone form tackling this enormously informative and scholarly work.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On the Brain and Behaviour, Part III

Monday Musings for Monday June 17, 2013

Volume III, No. 22/125

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Brain  and  Behaviour,  Part   3

Thinking  About  Thinking,  Episteme,  Chrestomathy

Twenty  First  Century , The  Age  of  Mind

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Editor’s Note: This is part III of a four part series on Brain and Behaviour. Part I, June 3, 2013, the general topography and physiology of the brain was discussed,  Monday June 10, the topic of Epigentics was explored.  Today we examine the relationship between psychoanalysis and biology.  Next week we will review some of the books about the subject to enhance our understanding of what lies in the future of neuroscience.

In preparing for this essay, obviously I was drawn to psychoanalytic literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. But the further I dug, the more it became obvious that psychoanalysis did NOT start with Freud. Many of Freud’s teachers and predecessors had expounded on the theory of unconscious. Plato, Shake­speare, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche have all dealt with and expounded on the possibility of the unconscious, the soul and metaphysics. Yes, I was taken all the way back to Aristotle, a student and rival of Plato, whose writings are so very organized and detailed, making the reader feel like they are biting into stone. Aristotle had a lot to say about psyche (soul), God, ether and metaphysical phenomena. Psychoanalysis thrived in the first 60-70 years of the 20th century, but experts fear the threatened demise of the field.  What is the answer? The answer lies with uniting psychoanalysis with biological sciences. Let me elaborate:

In a recent discussion with an academic colleague who was identifying the twentieth century’s greatest achievement as the discovery of the atomic bomb, I argued rather forcefully that the contribution of the twentieth century was advancement of Father Gregor Mendel’s genetics through the discovery and understanding of RNA and DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. They were awarded Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 1962. We celebrated at the University of North Carolina and Research Triangle Park, in 2003, the 50th anniversary of the discovery by having Dr. James Watson amongst us. The understanding of DNA and subsequent expansion of the knowledge and advancement of human genome project which was completed in 2003 by Dr. Craig Venter, Director, The Institute for Genomic Research, in my opinion, was the greatest achievement of the 20th century.

Now, facing the 21st century, with wars going on every corner of the globe, humans killing humans for a few pieces of mud prized as land, the need for understanding human behavior makes psychoanalytic research more urgent.  And I believe we have the opportunity to develop further understanding of ourselves, the new science, the science of mind, provides us with a powerful instrument for further development of the field. If the 20th century was known for the discovery of DNA, genomics and epigenetics, the 21st century will be known for the discovery and understanding of the science of mind. And the promise of establishing such a discipline rests with espousing psychoanalysis with biological sciences, neuroscience and neurobiology. Of course, the concept of scientific understanding of mind is not new. Sigmund Freud in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” wrote an increase in plasma ACTH and glucocorticoid is a response to stress as adults. Thus, differences in an infant’s interactions with his/her mother–differences that fall in the range of naturally occurring individual differences in maternal care– are crucial risk factors for an individual’s future response to stress. In the same book he further elaborated, “The deficiencies in our description would probably vanish if we were already in a position to replace the psychological terms with physiological or chemical ones….we may expect [physiology-and-chemistry] to give the most surprising information and we cannot guess what answers it will return in a few dozen years of questions we have put to it. They may be of a kind that will blow away the whole of our artificial structure of hypothesis…” Further reference: in his classic paper “On Narcissism” he wrote, “We must recollect that all of our provisional ideas in psychology will presumably one day be based on an organic substructure.” On the cusp of 21st century, we really need a contemporary Freud to orchestrate the disparate parts of the symphony of life, psychoanalysis, biological sciences, genomics, neurosciences and neurobiology to produce the rich symphony of better understanding mind and ultimately life.  Well, we do have a few contemporary Freuds, one is Eric R.Kandel whose most recent book, “The Science of the Mind”, we reviewed in this space. Dr. Kandel who is a Nobel Laureate psychiatrist and professor at Columbia University insists that to save psychoanalysis and pump vigorous life into this elegant field, we need to bring about fusion of the two disciplines of psychoanalysis and biology. Otherwise, there is a wide spread concern about viability of psychoanalysis as a scientific discipline. For example, Jonathan Lear. Others have argued that psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic literature from Freud to Hartmann to Erickson to Winnicott, will be read as a modern philosophical or poetic text alongside Plato, Aristotle, Shake­speare, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Proust (the literature I went through for preparation of this essay). On the other hand, if the field aspires, as I believe most psychoanalysts do aspire, to be an evolving, active contributor to an emerging science of the mind, then psychoanalysis will survive. There is no doubt that psychoanalysts could and did make many useful and original contributions to our understanding of the mind simply by listening to patients. We must at last acknowledge that at this point in the modern study of mind, clinical observation of individual patients, in a context like “the psychoanalytic situation that is so susceptible to observer bias is not a sufficient basis for a science of mind. Psychoanalysis research is depleted from opportunities to add more knowledge,” so say the late Kurt Robert Eissler (1908-1999) and Hartvig Dahl (1924-2007). Marshall Edelson in his book “Hypothesis and Evidence” offers a persuasive argument that the holy marriage between psychoanalysis and biology must take place: “we must bring psychoanalysis and biology together.”

Psychoanalysis is based on the concept that individuals are unaware of the many factors that cause their behaviors and emotions. These unconscious factors have the potential to produce unhappiness, which in turn is expressed through a score of distinguishable symptoms including disturbing personality traits, difficulty in relating to others, or disturbances in self-esteem or general disposition. As I have suggested earlier, most biologists believe that the mind will be to the twenty-first century what the gene was to the twentieth century. I have briefly discussed how the biological sciences in general and cognitive neuroscience in particular may contribute to a deeper understanding of a number of key issues in psychoanalysis.

As things stand now, psychoanalysis is falling behind biology. Psychoanalysis and biology must marry to reinvigorate the exploration of the mind. I should say at the outset that although we have the outlines of what could evolve into a meaningful biological foundation for psychoanalysis, we are very much at the beginning. We do not yet have an intellectually satisfactory biological understanding of any complex mental processes. In the next century, biology is likely to make deep contributions to the understanding of mental processes by delineating the biological basis for the various unconscious mental processes, for psychic determinism, for the role of unconscious mental processes in psychopathology, and for the therapeutic effect of psychoanalysis.  Biology has the potential to enlighten these deep mysteries at their core.

We have seen that one point of convergence between biology and psychoanalysis is the relevance of procedural memory for early moral development, for aspects of transference, and for moments of meaning in psychoanalytic therapy. We have considered a second point of convergence in examining the relationship between the associative characteristic of classical conditioning and psychological determinacy. Here, I want to illustrate a third point of convergence: that between Pavlovian fear conditioning, a form of procedural memory mediated by the amygdala, signal anxiety, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Psychoanalysis and cognitive neuroscience would accomplish two goals, one conceptual and the other experimental. We must recollect that all of our provisional ideas in psychology will presumably one day be based on an organic substructure.

The American psychologist best known for his maternal-separation and social isolation experiments on rhesus monkeys, Abraham Maslow, demonstrated the importance of care-giving and companionship in social and cognitive development. He conducted most of his research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As an aside, the etymology of the word companionship comes from Latin for bread—PAIN—nutrition.  Another psychologist, Hans Selye, had pointed out as early as 1936 that humans and experimental animals respond to stressful experiences by activating their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The end product of the HPA system is the release of glucocorticoid hormones by the adrenal gland.

The prefrontal association cortex has two major functions: it integrates sensory information, and it links it to planned movement. Because the prefrontal cortex mediates these two functions, it is thought to be one of the anatomical substrates of goal-directed action in long-term planning and judgment. Patients with damaged prefrontal association areas have difficulty in achieving realistic goals. As a result, they often achieve little in life, and their behavior suggests that their ability to plan and organize everyday activities is diminished.

What To Do?  What is Next?

For one thing, we must transcend territorial imperative, and learn to speak each other’s language– neuroscientists the language of psychoanalysts, and psychoanalysts the language of neuroscience. For many years both the Association for Psychoanalytic Medicine at Columbia and the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, to use but two examples, have instituted neuropsychoanalytic centers that address interests common to psychoanalysis and neuroscience, including consciousness, unconscious processing, autobiographical memory, dreaming, affect, motivation, infantile mental development, psychopharmacology, and the etiology and treatment of mental illness. The prospectus of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute now reads as follows: “The explosion of new insights into numerous problems of vital interest to psychoanalysis needs to be integrated in meaningful ways with the older concepts and methods as do the burgeoning research technologies and pharmacological treatments. Similarly neuroscientists exploring the complex problems of human subjectivity for the first time have much to learn from a century of analytic inquiry make a significant fraction of psychoanalysts technically competent in cognitive neuroscience and eager to test their own ideas with new methods.” The challenge for psychoanalysts is to become active participants in the difficult joint attempt of biology and psychology, including psychoanalysis, to understand the mind. If this transformation in the intellectual climate of psychoanalysis is to occur, as I believe it must, the psychoanalytic institutes themselves must change from being vocational schools- guilds, as it were- to being centers of research and scholarship.

We have precedence, the Carnegie Foundation commissioned Abraham Flexner to study medical education in the United States. The Flexner Report, which was completed in 1910, emphasized that medicine is a science- based profession and requires a structure education in both basic science and its application to clinical medicine. To promote a quality education, the Flexner Report recommended limiting the medical schools in this country to those that were integral to a university. As a consequence of this report, many inadequate schools were closed, and credentialed standards for the training and practice of medicine were established. To return to its former vigor and contribute importantly to our future understanding of mind, psychoanalysis needs to examine and restructure the intellectual context in which its scholarly work is done and to develop a more critical way of training the psychoanalysts of the future. Thus, what psychoanalysis may need, if it is to survive as an intellectual force into the twenty- first century, is something akin to a Flexner Report for the psychoanalytic institutes.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine(1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On the Brain and Behavior

“Monday Musings” for Monday June 3, 2013

Volume III, No. 20/123

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Brain and Behavior

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

“As humans we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than the atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” President Obama said at the White House in a recent press conference. Obama announced that he will seek $100 million for brain research in the budget he is presenting to the Congress. The research proposal includes approximately $40 million for research at the National Institutes of Health, $50 million at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and $20 million for the National Science Foundation. We have precedence. Scholarship and literature about the brain expanded rapidly, thanks to a federally funded $2 billion-per-year research effort organized by Congress in 1990 dubbed “The Decade of the Brain.” Mind/brain” exploration has also been driven by advances in basic knowledge and by new imaging and biochemical technology. This knowledge and technology allow scientists to watch the brain as it orchestrates the functions of life. Here are a few considerations:

Brain is not just as an organ of mentation, perception, cognition, and memory, but is a marvelous, even mysterious, complex structure. This structure is responsible for our rich repertoire of feelings, such as anger, jealousy, hatred, love, fear, hostility, sadness, compassion, generosity, kindness, guilt, pleasure, altruism, peace and joy. Traditionally, science has been more concerned with understanding mechanisms than with appreciating personal meanings. However, to understand the brain in totality, we must pay attention to both. As a consequence of this attention, we have learned that the brain is also responsible for our complex spiritual and cosmological pursuits. When an outfielder leaps up to snag a fly ball, we admire the ballet-like performance and ponder it. The moment the ball is hit, the outfielder’s brain begins to receive visual inputs. The eye tracks the ball; the brain computes its trajectory. Within milliseconds, millions of instructions are flashed to hundreds of muscles, telling each the exact degree of tension or relaxation required to move the body to the spot where the ball will descend. A flood of signals feeds back to the brain indicating whether each muscle is responding correctly. Finally, in a flurry of rapid-fire calculations that would outstrip the most powerful computer, the brain orders muscles to propel the body upward and extend the arm. Gloved hand and baseball arrive at exactly the same point at the same time.  On the other hand, take the case of Rajang Srinivasen Mahadevan, a native of Mangalore, India, who manages to remember the first 31,811 digits of the number pi. This feat is achieved through the function of hippocampus and amygdala (please see my review of the book by psychiatrist and Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel which appeared in this space two years ago), two anatomically small portions of the limbic system and nucleus ceruleus.

What part of the brain is responsible for the sudden and overwhelming feelings of warmth and spirituality that sweep one’s soul when listening to a favorite composer? Does the brain contain the soul? What goes wrong with the dopamine and acetylcholine neurotransmitting systems in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient with no memory, feelings, or personality, producing the unwelcome transformation of a person into a human object? What happens to the brain’s indoleamine and serotonin system in clinically depressed patients whose pain of living is so great that death becomes welcome? What about the ascetic dervish who fasts for 40 days and finds ecstasy in solitude and meditation? And what goes on in the brain of the violinist Medori (she last performed in Meymandi Concert Hall of Raleigh on January 16 and 17, 2009), who at age six was able to play classical music without looking at the notes?

These are but a few examples of the myriad secrets of this three-pound organ we call the “brain.” The spin-off of the “Decade of the Brain” is a better understanding of its role in healing, spirituality, and wellness. For example, meditation has been shown to enhance healing.  It is hoped that our knowledge of the brain will continue to expand and cure for Brain diseases, such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, autism, and other neurologic diseases will be achieved.

The neurophysiology of meditation has been worked out since in studies from London’s Maudsley Hospital, Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, New York’s Columbia Hospital, and the National Institute of Mental Health. Those studies have demonstrated that meditating for 20 minutes, morning and night, decreases oxygen consumption and the heart rate below the heart rate found in sleep. It also increases the blood flow to muscles and organs, decreasing the level of lactic acid and low-density lipoproteins.

The brain—containing 100 billion neurons, 900 billion glial cells, 100 trillion branches, and 1,000 trillion receptors—reacts to stimuli in a series of electrical bursts, spanning a complex map of connections. To keep this fascinating machine functioning and intact, it must be constantly stimulated and exercised. Whether it is calculating an algorithm or memorizing Lorenzo De Ponte’s libretto for Mozart operas, the poetry of Wordsworth, or the prose of Ibn Khaldoun, the brain must keep working to stay alert and fresh.

As physicians, we are blessed with the gifts of intellect and compassion. Our patients are getting grayer. We must encourage them to continue to exercise their brains, and, as their role models, we physicians should continue to be avid “memorizers” ourselves.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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