Lessons Learned from the Last 35 Years

I’m turning 35 today and thought I would take a moment to write some of my lessons learned from the last several years.

Move everyday.
I’ve always had a pretty thorough movement practice, but among the most positive changes in my last 5 years is the fact that I now move every single day. I’ve found that one of the biggest, simple changes anyone can make is a routine to get your body in motion. What’s interesting to you? What’s a thread, an exploration, a discipline of study that you’d like to pull on? Go try it! These bodies of ours are meant to move.

Find work that you love. Keep looking until you do.
I enjoyed much of what I did professionally 5 years ago, but that pales by comparison to the amount of delight I get from my work today. As someone who has had more than 40 different jobs in more than 15 different industries, I can tell you that it’s really tempting to settle. You don’t have to settle for good enough! Keep looking.

Work with people you love.
While the work matters, doing it with people that you love matters even more. Among the most positive characteristics of my work today is that I get to spend my working life with people I enjoy. Find those people that you are proud to work alongside, and build your professional life with them.

Fear is a good guide.
I’ve often gone towards fear, but it’s only in the last year that I’ve recognized, specifically, that fear can be a useful guide. It’s natural that we move away from things that we are afraid of. That’s fine: it keeps us safe. But sometimes, it can be useful to go towards the things we are fearful of, instead. There’s a lot to be learned in those shadows.

Everything takes the time that it takes.
As somebody who prides himself on his ability to move quickly, patience with myself is a hard won feat. In the many years that I was dissatisfied with my work, I was constantly pressuring myself to have already found my perfect career path. Over many years of wanting a family member to take better care of himself, I was always wanting him to change more quickly. We don’t get to decide how quickly or how slowly things change.

You don’t get to control people. (And actually, it is none of your business.)
Years ago, my friend, Dana Casperson, told me “you don’t get to control people, and actually, it is none of your damn business!” This has been hard feedback for me to receive, and I’ve repeated that quote to myself many times over the years. I’ve often derived meaning from trying to “help” (control) people whom I love. We don’t get to. Practice letting go of the desire for control.

“You’ve always been a little bit slow.”
Something my Dad said to me on my 30th birthday – jokingly, but with a grain of truth: “Robin, it’s okay. You’ve always been a little bit slow.” I’ve accomplished a lot that I’m proud of in the last 35 years and some are things that most people don’t let themselves even dream of trying. But I also went on my first date at 19, years later than anyone else I knew, and am frequently the last person to recognize something new about myself that’s obvious to everyone else around me. While I have excelled in many areas in my life, I have also moved slowly in areas that my peers are much quicker. That’s fine. Going slow works, too.

Get familiar with grief.
This has been a particularly hard one for me, having gone through two substantial heartbreaks in the last 5 years. I haven’t found that grief gets any easier, but I’ve found that I can develop better toolsets to help deal with it. Endings, deaths, and partings are a natural and inevitable part of our lives. It helps to practice getting familiar with grief.

Relationships get better with time. “Make new friends, but keep the old.”
I was pretty antisocial until 19 and then turned a corner and learned the name of every single person in my entering class in college. I love meeting new people. (And a good thing too, since that’s most of my job today!) But novelty doesn’t hold a candle compared to my most intimate friendships that go back 10+ years. Relationships get better with time. Make room for that.

Leave room for introspection.
I’ve long had the tendency to distract myself by being busy when things get tough. It turns out, at least for me, that when I leave more room for introspection, growth happens more quickly and way more gently! I’m blessed that I have bandwidth in my life today for a lot of quiet introspection. But however you do it, leave room for yourself, too.

Read more.
Along with my propensity to get busy, I frequently don’t make enough time for reading. It feels like cheating – taking time for myself, selfishly, to learn. But in a world that is filled with distractions, I find so much delight in handling a physical book and diving into someone else’s world. So this advice is mostly just for myself: read more.

Play more.
Anyone who knows me knows that I can be very playful. Not usually childish, but frequently childlike. There’s a lot to take seriously in the world right now. Balance that with play.

There is such a thing as too much caffeine.
5 years ago I would have believed no such thing. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I sleep better at night if I stop drinking aged pu-erh after noon.

The last year and a half has been tumultuous for everybody. Beyond that, in the last 5 years, my personal and professional life have changed more than I could have conceived. These practices have become bedrock in my life. I’m going to spend the next five years deepening these and developing more. I wish you well in finding yours!

Unconventional Advice to Improve Your Relationships

What’s the old joke? “Why do my parents push all my buttons? Because they installed them!”

In 2019, at 33 years old, I spent 4 weeks traveling with my mother in Africa. And as much as I love my mother, she also can drive me crazy.

Whether in our personal relationships or at work, here are some lessons learned for having better relationships with people in our lives.

(Want more? Here’s the fully story about that trip.)

Gayle Karen Young Whyte, former head of People and Culture at Wikimedia, on Immediacy and Resilience

My guest today is Gayle Karen Young Whyte, former head of People and Culture at Wikimedia (the parent company behind Wikipedia). These days Gayle is very politically active and consulting with a select group of executives on organizational and culture change.

I’ve known Gayle since she spoke at the first Responsive Conference in San Francisco in 2016, and have followed her work ever since.

In this conversation, recorded in late 2020, we talk about resilience, inquiry, the COVID-19 pandemic, and what we can all do to rise to the challenges of these times. Gayle brings wisdom, simplicity, and kindness to the questions of how to continue learning, growing, and thriving as new opportunities arise in our lives.

Memento Mori: Remember Death

How would you live your life differently if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?

We’re all so busy rushing through our lives that we sometimes forget to pause and remember that we have fleeting time on this earth. Watch this short vlog for a reminder to be grateful for what you do have in your life, and the time you do have available now.

Memento Mori. Remember that you will die.

Reflections on Morocco and Culture

Visiting the Sahara by dromedary, Morocco

To celebrate my 30th birthday, I spent five weeks in the spring of 2017 with my family traveling through the Kingdom of Morocco. I have fantasized about visiting Morocco ever since I was introduced to the character T. E. Lawrence through the movie Lawrence of Arabia at eleven years old. I was entranced by Lawrence’s charisma and self-certainty, especially alongside the mysticism of the Berber tribes and the stark ferocity of the desert.

Unsurprisingly, Morocco was rather abruptly different than the images of camel treks across the desert and Atlas Mountain mystics I had envisioned. What I found was even more special.

A brief word on Moroccan History

Morocco is a country dense in history and culture. Frequently called the “Kingdom of Morocco,” it is ruled by a king, who is by all reports benevolent, well-loved, and politically savvy. While not rule of law, it is customary for every establishment in the country to display a photo of the king, and most show him in cinema-perfect wilderness or religious setting. For more than 50 years, Morocco was a French colony, and French is still the language used to conduct government business today.

Morocco is on the North-Western corner of the African continent, with coasts along both the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. It has always been a export-rich country, through which salt, gold, and other valuables were ported to the coast, and from there shipped to Europe or Asia.

Morocco is a majority (98%) Islamic country, which comes with it’s own history and philosophies. The pervasiveness of the Islamic faith influences every aspect of life, such that those few locals I met who consider themselves religiously atheist, simultaneously are still culturally Islamic. While Morocco is liberal compared to many Middle Eastern countries, a call to prayer echoes around even the smallest of Moroccan towns five times each day. On my first night in Morocco, the call to prayer woke me up in fear at 4am with long drawn-out Arabic chanting that even native speakers may have a hard time deciphering. We eventually came to recognize the most common phrase, “Allah akbah,” which means “God is great.” By the end of 5 weeks, the call to prayer had become such a comfortable ritual that my first morning back in the United States I woke up confused for lack of the pervasive chanting.

The headscarf is a mixed symbol of oppression or free speech depending on one’s perspective. In Morocco, the headscarf is not encouraged by governmental institutions, and generally frowned on by urban middle and upper classes. That said, throughout Morocco, the headscarf is very common. In the city of Fes, for example, I rarely encountered local women with their heads uncovered. To further highlight these complicated socio-political factors, in January 2017 Morocco banned the manufacturing, marketing and sale of the burqa — the full head and face covering which leaves only a woman’s eyes visible. And yet it was not uncommon to see women in full burqas in the inland cities we visited.

Prior to Islam, Morocco was inhabited by three culturally distinct tribes of Berber, which continue to exist as their own integrated-yet-distinct cultures today. In my time in the Dades Gorge, for example, I encountered several groups of locals who spoke not a word of French or Arabic, but only their local flavor of Berber. I had even learned a few words of Berber a few days before, which didn’t translate at all across the several hundred miles we’d traveled since.

Culture isn’t ever black and white

There are some truly beautiful things about Moroccan culture. If you are a guest visiting the house of a neighbor and admire something of theirs, it is customary for the host to offer the admired object to you as the guest. There’s an emphasis on family honor, that it is sacred to each individual, that another is respected and felt welcomed. As a tourist who has traveled in a variety of countries around the world, I have never felt more welcomed and included as I did in Morocco.

An abundance of figs, Ifrane

There is a tradition, adopted from the Berber, of mint tea to celebrate every occasion. Moroccan tea is made with a large bunch of fresh mint, Chinese green tea, and an overabundance of sugar. (It is not a coincidence that a preponderance of Moroccans have bad teeth.) If you stop by the house of a local in an city or town throughout the country you will be offered tea, and turning it down can be difficult to do.

Over several days of strolling the souks (open air markets) of Fes, we downed gallons of the extra-sweet mint tea. Every shop we visited had someone ready to run and fetch us a fresh brew, and the longer we stayed in a single location the more pressure to join for yet another tea ceremony.

Fes

Fes is by far the most magical city I’ve ever encountered, and often referred to as the country’s cultural capital. The narrow streets of the Fes El Bali, or old Medina, would be called alleys in any other city, just wide enough for two mules to pass abreast. The walls are of thick mud-brick, 10 feet high, overshadowing the streets. Ever few feet these streets twist and turn, and side streets branch off in a variety of directions. The side streets get smaller and smaller until they dead end to a Hobbit-sized door, which is the entrance to someone’s home.

Chaouwara Tanneries, Fes

The city has several distinct districts, including the UNECO site of tanneries, which have been used as a within-city leather manufacturer for thousands of years.

As tourist walking aimlessly through the city, you will periodically get accosted by a carpet seller and brought into his Dar (Arabic for house), while his wife or cousin runs to bring everyone tea. Dars in Fes consist of a majestic central courtyard, usually open to the sky, with a variety of rooms surrounding it. It is startling to find the majesty of these traditional Dars at the end of the dark, narrow lanes of Fes.

My family stayed in one of the five rooms at Dar Romana on the northern edge of Fes Medina. From our rooftop terrace we had a panoramic view of this mystical city, the old fortified walls of the Medina, and the surrounding countryside.

I quickly befriended Semu, one of the servers at Dar Romana, and he and I spent hours together over the next week. I taught him some of my daily physical routine and he taught me Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, which is Arabic intermingled with the variety of linguistic characteristics unique to Morocco, including French, Spanish, and Berber.

Semu and I would sit and study together for an hour each evening. We began with some basics of the language. “Hello” is “Shalom aleichem” which is from Hebrew and translates as “Peace be upon you.” The proper response is “Aleichem shalom.” I was taught that it is improper not to respond to this greeting.

My friendship with Semu also gave me the opportunity to ask all of the questions that a 30-something male has in a foreign country.

“How do you meet women?”
“What do you think of arranged marriages?”
“Do you believe in God?”

Semu, and other similar friendships I forged throughout the country, provided a brief glimpse into Moroccan culture that went beyond the superficial look allowed by more typical tourist interactions.

Time

When I opened up my cafe, I spent every waking moment for several months taking care of small emergencies. When there weren’t emergencies to solve, I spent my time afraid of the next fire that I would have to put out. I came to resent the amount of time I spent opening the cafe, establishing protocol, and picking up the pieces when things didn’t work out. In juxtaposition, a restaurateur in Fes who spent so much time teaching us how to make Moroccan mint tea to perfection, my friend Semu who taught me the basics of Darija, and the countless carpet salesmen who spent endless hours pulling rugs down from ceil-high stacks to find the perfect fit — these people didn’t attempt to calculate their time in the way I had. Looking back, I wish I had savored the process of opening the cafe, even the most difficult aspects, rather than constantly trying to optimize my time.

Afternoon tea on the rooftop of Dar Romana

While so many of us in the West are constantly set on optimizing every moment of every day, there’s a sense of spaciousness to Moroccan time. It is more important to deeply appreciate your mint tea in this moment then to rush to be on time to whatever appointments you have coming up next.

The Gender Gap

Juxtaposed with these beautiful aspects of the culture, there are many that I find less favorable. I am quite social and befriend new people everywhere I go. As a tourist in Morocco, I befriended dozens of local men. Over the same period I met exactly three local women. Women in Morocco work and socialize mostly in the home, so my experience is understandable, but far outside my day-to-day norm.

While there are no laws forbidding women to work, it would be very strange for a local woman to sit down for cafe noir, a national favorite consisting in equal parts of espresso and sugar, at the men’s-only cafes that exist on almost every street. It would be even more strange for a woman to serve customers at any one of these cafes. Highlighting my own lack of expertise in Moroccan culture, female friends who have had homestays in inland Morocco describe the interior of the home as the women’s domain. All those men, drinking cafe noir and smoking endless cigarettes in street cafes, are reported to have been kicked out of the home by their domineering wives. I don’t know the truth of this gender dynamic, but it is clearly complex and substantially different than my own day-to-day.

My father, looking out at the Sahara

Young People Everywhere

After Fes, and a brief visit through the Sahara Desert, we traveled through the south of Morocco over a stretch known as the 10,000 Ksars. A Ksar is a mud-brick fortified village, usually around a small oasis, and inevitably surrounded by hectares of parched, dusty, desert countryside. Most of these 10,000 villages are abandoned or have fallen into disrepair. However, we discovered one in the town of Tinejdad, that had be repaired and re-inhabited.

We spent a single night in Tinejdad. Late that night, after my family had gone to bed, I found myself in a conversation in broken French, English, and Arabic with a couple young men in their early 20s who were working the front counter at our hotel.

Gite Elkhorbat, Tinejdad

The conversation began because, with the four foot thick mud-plaster walls and desert temperatures, I was searching for an extra blanket. I asked how to say “blanket” in Darija, and my hosts, who turned out to be brothers, spent several minutes in friendly bickering about word choice and pronunciation. My new-found friends asked where I had learned Darija, and I explained about my friend Semu and our lessons. I asked questions about the various languages they spoke and they launched into a description of Berber, interspersed with good-natured sibling squabbles.

Half an hour into this conversation, a young woman who also worked for the hotel, joined us. She sat down on the couch next to us and began looking through my notebook. She was clearly well-educated and curious, and flipped through my entire notebook, correcting my spelling, offering pronunciation suggestions, and changing several of my most frequently-used phrases to the local dialect. In return, I taught her words in English that she struggled over as she read my notes on our previous day’s travel.

I sat and watched, intrigued but also a bit stunned, since this was the most familiar interaction I had had with a woman on the entire trip. Looking back at my notebook, I’m also in awe of the amount of diligent correction and adjustment she offered.

So many carpets, Azrou

Our lesson ended when her fiancé called, as translated to me by the two brothers, who had continued their playful bickering throughout. In the midst of my new-found friend’s call with her fiancé, one of my companions turned to me and asked quite frankly, if I was married. I explained that I was not. He nodded in understanding and said that he, too, was “searching for a wife.”

There are so many parts of that evening that stand out in my mind — the openness of the brothers, the familiarity of my tutor and her insatiable curiosity, and that short exchange with another single man. It could have been a conversation with a acquaintance in the San Francisco Bay Area, discussing a recent date. In a country, frequently strange and magical, that was a refreshing reminder that young people are young people everywhere.

Culture is a felt-sense.

Walking paths in the Dades Gorge, which that have seen constant human habitation for 3000 years, or through the narrow alleyways of Fes, which has been lived in for 4000 years, there was a permanence of place unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Throughout so much of our lives, there is a sense of impermanence, the idea that things might change so quickly that you wouldn’t even notice.

Madrasa Ben Youssef, Marrakesh

As much as I might explain about Moroccan culture, words aren’t nearly as important as experiences. You can watch Lawrence of Arabia for images of the Sahara (actually filmed several hundred miles from the Sahara), or Indiana Jones for Marrakech (this time filmed in Hollywood), but none of these compare to the lived experience of a Saturday night in the Marrakech Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square, or a week wandering through the narrow alleys of Fes. There is a depth of lived experience in these places that cannot be fully understood unless experienced.

It seems obvious when I state that you cannot know Morocco without traveling in the country, and I would argue without living there for years. Culture is a felt sense. It has to be experienced to be even partially understood. There was a richness I experienced throughout my time in the Kingdom of Morocco: aspects that I loved, others less so, and many that I will never understand. I’ll always be somewhat haunted by the country and its people, and grateful.

“Florida Priming” and Simple Tools To Trigger Improved Performance

There’s a concept in cognitive psychology called priming. In its most abstract, this means that if we are given a reminder of a stimulus before being presented with that stimulus, we are more likely to behave favorable towards that stimulus. People who are shown pictures of money before being asked to calculate the cost of groceries are more rapid in their calculations and people who are reminded of aging through subtle cue words like “Florida” and “retirement” are more likely to walk slowly immediately afterwards.

Some of these priming examples have unfortunate consequences (like the so-called old-aging “Florida priming” example) but I’d like to look at how we might use these realities to improve our performance, too.

The Pink Elephant in the Room (Photo: Crispy)

Here are two cases studies:

Asian Test priming: asian students who are reminded of their ethnicity prior to tests, perform better than the same students not reminded that of asian-students-make-good-test-takers stereotype. In this case, students are simply being reminded of the biases they themselves might hold. My curiosity then is how else might we use our current beliefs to stimulate behavior in accordance with those beliefs?

Age priming: In the “Florida priming” example, participants in the study walk more slowly due to the reminders of behaviors of the elderly.  In this example, participants are performing according to the dictates of a different stereotyped group. How then could we stimulate performance according to the group different then our own?

I am going to examine both of these cognitive biases from the perspective of learning ballet, but the lessons can be applied across any physical or mental discipline.

Speaking at Ignite San Francisco (And How to Create an Effective Talk)

I recently gave a talk at Ignite San Francisco. The presentation was well received and fun to deliver. Below are my slides from the talk. In this post I’ll break down my process for becoming one of the speakers (hint: just ask!) and how I built my talk.

If you don’t know Ignite, take a look at some of these. I learned about Ignite from my friend Karen Cheng, who had given talk previously. I asked for an introduction to the organizers and asked Karen’s advice on how to get chosen for a position among the speakers.

Ask For Help

Which brings me to the first things I learned from this experience: Ask for help! Even if you don’t need it, but especially if you can use it – ask people you respect for their thoughts and opinions. When possible, ask from a place of excitement rather than desperation. I’ve been on both sides and know that asking from desperation or being asked from a desperate person are both no fun. Karen gave me two pieces of advice. The first was an introduction to the organizers. The second, which I would never have thought to do myself, was submit three talk requests to be considered. I don’t know which of these made a bigger difference, but together they worked.

Introductions Matter

This idea is tossed around a lot but my experience of speaking at Ignite reinforced the idea. Having a friend on the inside, of course, means I’ll be more likely considered for a speaking position. This isn’t biased and unfair treatment, it just makes sense that the organizers are busy, have limited time, and are more likely to choose someone who is, by affiliation, not crazy, than someone they don’t know.

Scratching For An Idea

I take the word “scratching” from Twyla Tharp, who discusses scratching as a part of the creation process in The Creative Habit. My scratching looked like this:

How to Give an Effective Speech

I have given a lot of talks in the last couple of years. I’ve used the same set of public speaking skills to give presentations ranging from autism to how to learn handstands and how not to stretch. I am currently attending a course on public speaking and group facilitation at the Option Institute in Sheffield, MA and decided to put down some of these tools in writing.

For starters, here is a 3-minute talk on my recent mastery of the Gymnastics Giant.

What’s Your Purpose

Most of the time when I give a short speech I have two goals:

The Content

For many introductory talks I am the content. Even when giving a talk on advanced topics what makes the content stick is my personal stories. The content is only relevant to the extent an audience can connect with the speaker. Throughout my life I get many of the same questions. Probably most people do. “What do you do for work?” And for me: “What did you do in the circus?!” A short presentation designed to share a story from my life is a chance to share the answers to a lot of those basic questions so that I can rapidly move relationships on to some more advanced topics and areas of play. I’m happy to talk about my dance company or a workshop I am putting on. And if I can get the basics out of the way in a group it saves us time for more juicy topics later.

The Ask

The ask is a bit more complicated and depends on the audience and the context of my talk. Almost always when I’m giving a talk, though, I have a clear purpose behind the situation, something that I’d like to get, teach or contribute. When I have a clear ask I usually save it for the end to give my audience something clear to remember when they think of my talk.

Recall is heavily weighted towards the combination of the beginning and end. Thus, I like to start out my talks with something pretty hard-hitting about myself (when that’s the topic of the talk) and end with a clear ask (when I have one). What comes in between established authority or context for my talk, tells the story.

How to Overcome the Fear of Humiliation – Using Daily Documentation to Learn Porteño Spanish

My taxi driver was gesticulating wildly, swerving in and out of traffic, as he impressed upon me his opinions of Argentine politicians. I was very silent in the back seat.

I have been warned to avoid discussing politics with Argentinians, but I was silent for a completely different reason: I was too scared to talk. Growing up in California I was exposed to a lot of Spanish and have a good ear for the language.  So long as we are speaking slow and in the present tense, I have about the capacity for conversation of a precocious 4-year-old. The reason I was silent in that back of that taxi was that I was more scared of speaking poorly then I had interest in engaging in the conversation.

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina and in this post I’ll share my fears of language learning and the newly launched Start-Up 100, which I’ll be using to overcome that fear.

Jonah Lehrer on Neuroscience and Humanity

On Tuesday night I went to the Herbst theatre in San Francisco to hear neuro-scientist and writer Jonah Lehrer in conversation with Roy Eisenhardt.  While I grew up listening to City Arts and Lecturs, this was my first live discussion and a much needed return to academic discourse (not to be confused with discussion, debate, or dialogue).  As an alumnus of Columbia and Oxford Universities, Lehrer is now a contributor to Scientific American,  National Public Radio, and Wired Magazine, among others.  He has published articles in The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe and maintains the blog The Frontal Cortex.

Lehrer’s talk was especially interesting personally because of his combination of academic affiliations and real-world application.  As a scientific correspondent Lehrer straddles disciplines with which I myself struggle: the balance of academic research and real-world application.  Lehrer speaks and writes with the ease of a well-read academic.  In discussing one of his two books – Proust Was a Neuroscientist – Lehrer cited Plato to confirm his thesis that some fundamental ideas currently espoused by popular neuroscience were conceptualized by the Greeks.   (I grow bored with the use of the classics merely for the edification of ones argument though this trend is by no means exclusive to Lehrer.  In my opinion, references should be accessible to the audience to which they are cited.)  However, I heartily concur with Lehrer’s argument that the humanities use different methods to answer fundamentally human questions about thought, cognition, existence, humanity… .  What artist, writer, poet, dancer – who?! – does not seek to answer such questions through whatever medium their profession employs?
Jonah Lehrer’s most recent book, How We Decide, encompasses decision making throughout the development of research psychology all the way to recent publications in neuroscience.  I have a pretty thorough grounding in classic Behaviorism (B. F. Skinner, etc.) and Cognitive Psychology.   It was interesting, then, to hear studies with which I am very familiar (the classic example of Pavlov’s dogs trained to salivate at the sound of a bell which ques food) in the context of neuroscience.  Lehrer discussed Chimpanzees being fed squirts of apple juice and conditioned to respond to a bell just as Skinner’s dogs were, with the important difference that these Chimps were also undergoing brain scanners.  The brain scans showed anticipation of food as clearly as did Skinner’s dog’s saliva.  My cognitive psychology profession Dan Reisberg used to argue that neuroscience would not replace cognitive psychology but merely confirm what we (as cognitive psychologists) had already learned.  I saw echos of this throughout Lehrer’s discussion.

In all, I very much enjoyed Lehrer for his wit, humor, and melding of neuroscience with the news.  I am critical of academic’s trend to use lofty references to establish credibility but I see this everywhere that academics publish.  And truly, Plato had some interesting things to say.   I will be adding The Frontal Cortex to my blogroll and will certainly be posting about Lehrer in the future.

As an aside I am also amused by Lehrer’s public image:

This rumpled look is awfully reminiscent of the graduate students I know in the sciences at UCSF.

CNS (Central Nervous System is Sexy)

A couple of clarifying notes as relate to my most recent post on Neurons and Excitability…

Often, when one hears Central Nervous System the inclination is to think of the brain.  This is accurate but not a complete picture.  The CNS also includes a region of the spine down to about the waist line – the spinal cord.  It is important to note that the spinal cord does not extend the full length of the spinal column.

Sensory information may arrive at a wide variety of points along the spinal cord or reach the brain itself.  Information that is processed along the spinal cord without reaching the brain results in what we call reflexes.  This is why reflexive actions occur so quickly: they need not travel the length of the spine and into the brain.

Muscle Fibers and Nerve Excitability

I have spent a great deal of time dissecting cadavers this year.  This has been an amazing opportunity to learn in person about human anatomy and physiology and is deeply informative for my continuing work with clients seeking to overcome pain.  In examining these bodies, generously donated to UCSF/SFSU, I have spent a great deal of time isolating muscles as well as bony landmarks and nerve bundles.  A muscle cell, technically called a muscle fiber, is composed of interconnected proteins which contract and release.  The first part of my revelation was that each of these fibers is the full length of the muscle of which it is part.  This means that a fiber (remember, that means a muscle cell) which makes up a small part of the Rectus Femoris (the outermost of the quadriceps muscles, it runs from the pelvis down to the knee cap) also runs the full length from the pelvis to the knee.  My second breakthrough was in connecting this fact to a similar detail about nerve cells.  A nerve cell is called a neuron and the aspect of the cell responsible for transmitting electrical impulses from the body of the cell to the outputting ends is called the axon.   Note the axon of the neuron below, covered in a myelin sheath.

Nerve

When I bump my toe everything happens so fast that it is nearly impossible to tell what is going on.  The sensory neurons in my toe send a signal to my spinal cord or my brain for processing, which then facilitates either a reflex or a processed reaction to the stimulus.  Perhaps, I withdraw my toe and cradle it in pain.  The signal, as it travels in both directions, is traveling from neuron to neuron or along the axon of many neurons, from extremity to the central nervous system (CNS, see following post for further discussion of this system) and back out again.  Some of the axons responsible for conducting the impulse to and from the toe are the length of the distance from toe to CNS!  Once the signal reaches the injured extremity it excites muscles fibers which contract (too late) to bring the toe out of harm’s way.  In these contractions, remember, fibers the length of the muscle are contracting.

Given two facts – that muscle fibers run the length of a muscle and that axons may run the distance between an extremity and the central nervous system – we can begin to understand why we can experience pain in parts of the body distant from a specific injury.  Neurons begin to respond when other neurons in their vicinity are excited.  Thus a wave of signals traveling away from the CNS may excite offshoots and facilitate muscle contraction in an area not directly impacted by the original stimulus.  As part of the healing process, this interconnectivity may be utilized by subtly adjusting areas peripheral to the site of injury.

I was recently working with a client, a professional dancer, who suffered injury to his ankle some years ago.  Since that time his career has been successful but he reports always having noticed less mobility at the site of injury.  He had seen physical therapists and massage practitioners about the issue with little or no success.  He reported that these practitioners had spent considerable time working directly on his foot and ankle and wondered aloud why I was dedicating so much attention elsewhere on his body.  But consider: if muscle fibers systematically run the length of a muscle and the axons of nerves may run from an extremity to the CNS, what impact might working elsewhere i.e. on the same leg have on the point of injury?  Muscle cells that directly connect to the area may be as far away as the knee.  Neurons that directly relate the the area may end as far as the upper spine or head.  Conceivably – just given these two facts – we could have worked on his head and seen results in his foot.  Certainly, my clients saw results!

That muscle fibers and neurons can be the lengths discussed should not be taken to completely explain interconnection throughout the body.  How neurons communicate is a very active field of research.  How axons come to be a certain length is not thoroughly understood.  Nor should the story of my client be an incentive to start poking at a friend’s head in hopes of provoking a response in her foot.  It probably will only serve to get you a good swift kick.  Of course, none of this changes the two tenants of the discussion.

Next time you stub your toe, consider: where did your responses originate?

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of A Biology Watcher

The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas does not contain of the exclusive scientific vocabulary one might expect from a Doctor of Medicine who was professor, chairman, and dean at some of the most prestigious hospitals and medical universities in the United States. Thomas writes not as a scientist but as a scientifically-minded poet.  The book is a slim volume which covers a great deal of territory: each of the ten chapters takes a different perspective on issues relating to micro-biology, human evolution, the natural world, the pursuit of science.  The consistent humor and delicacy with which Thomas delves into difficult issues is a primary connection between the essays’ diverse topics.

Before properly beginning the book properly I turned to a random page and read:

Watching television, you’d think we lived at bay, in total jeopardy, surrounded on all sides by human-seeking germs, shielded against infection and death only by a chemical technology that enables us to keep killing them off.

These descriptions of our fearful actions continue for a lengthy paragraph and it is only at the end of the page that Thomas begins an outright discussion of the chapter’s topics of disease and the micro-organisms held responsible.  He sheds light on human behavior as relates to germs, behavior based not on knowledge of the cells themselves but rather on our own immune responses.  Thomas elaborates on several cases in which changing our approach could achieve more productive outcomes.

Lives of a Cell covers much more than just a discussion of micro-biology, even as relates to human behavior.  In “Some Biomythology” Thomas seriously discusses mythical beasts from a diversity of cultures and casually compares what these have to teach us about the animal kingdom with what recently-discovered micro-organisms can reveal of biology to the public.

In “Ceti” Thomas discusses Tau Ceti – a nearby start which resembles our sun, the CETI (Conference on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and the logistics of communicating with intelligent life beyond our solar system.  He revels in the potential miscommunication. What of ourselves would we choose to share with newly-found intelligent life if the beginning of our conversation spanned hundreds of years?  Our recent discoveries in science would be an embarrassment 300 years later.  He draws the reader into the realization of how quickly human society is changing, and proposes that perhaps music – Thomas favors Bach, specifically – could be our greatest ally.

Lewis Thomas’ prose are not what one might expect from the highest echelons of academia.  He is far too human and humble in his stringing together of abstract ideas; too good at reaching a broad audience.  I cannot wait to get my hands on his earlier book The Medusa and the Snail, on his many published articles, maybe even articles published by his colleagues, to discover whether the beauty of his thoughts and writing extend beyond these pages.  I hope they do.