synapse delete

[Photo: NICHD/P. Basser]

Your Brain Has A “Delete” Button—Here’s How To Use It

This is the fascinating way that your brain makes space to build new and stronger connections so you can learn more.

JUDAH POLLACK AND OLIVIA FOX CABANE

There’s an old saying in neuroscience: neurons that fire together wire together. This means the more you run a neuro-circuit in your brain, the stronger that circuit becomes. This is why, to quote another old saw, practice makes perfect. The more you practice piano, or speaking a language, or juggling, the stronger those circuits get.

The ability to learn is about more than building and strengthening neural connections.
For years this has been the focus for learning new things. But as it turns out, the ability to learn is about more than building and strengthening neural connections. Even more important is our ability to break down the old ones. It’s called “synaptic pruning.” Here’s how it works.

YOUR BRAIN IS LIKE A GARDEN
Imagine your brain is a garden, except instead of growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables, you grow synaptic connections between neurons. These are the connections that neurotransmitters like dopamine, seratonin, and others travel across.

“Glial cells” are the gardeners of your brain—they act to speed up signals between certain neurons. But other glial cells are the waste removers, pulling up weeds, killing pests, raking up dead leaves. Your brain’s pruning gardeners are called “microglial cells.” They prune your synaptic connections. The question is, how do they know which ones to prune?

Researchers are just starting to unravel this mystery, but what they do know is the synaptic connections that get used less get marked by a protein, C1q (as well as others). When the microglial cells detect that mark, they bond to the protein and destroy—or prune—the synapse.

This is how your brain makes the physical space for you to build new and stronger connections so you can learn more.

WHY SLEEP MATTERS

Have you ever felt like your brain is full? Maybe when starting a new job, or deep in a project. You’re not sleeping enough, even though you’re constantly taking in new information. Well, in a way, your brain actually is full.

When you learn lots of new things, your brain builds connections, but they’re inefficient, ad hoc connections. Your brain needs to prune a lot of those connections away and build more streamlined, efficient pathways. It does that when we sleep.

Your brain cleans itself out when you sleep—your brain cells shrinking by up to 60% to create space for your glial gardeners to come in take away the waste and prune the synapses.

Have you ever woken up from a good night’s rest and been able to think clearly and quickly? That’s because all the pruning and pathway-efficiency that took place overnight has left you with lots of room to take in and synthesize new information—in other words, to learn.

Thinking with a sleep-deprived brain is like hacking your way through a dense jungle with a machete. Its overgrown, slow going, exhausting.

This is the same reason naps are so beneficial to your cognitive abilities. A 10- or 20-minute nap gives your microglial gardeners the chance to come in, clear away some unused connections, and leave space to grow new ones.

Thinking with a sleep-deprived brain is like hacking your way through a dense jungle with a machete. It’s overgrown, slow-going, exhausting. The paths overlap, and light can’t get through. Thinking on a well-rested brain is like wandering happily through Central Park; the paths are clear and connect to one another at distinct spots, the trees are in place, you can see far ahead of you. It’s invigorating.

BE MINDFUL OF WHAT YOU’RE MINDFUL OF

And in fact, you actually have some control over what your brain decides to delete while you sleep. It’s the synaptic connections you don’t use that get marked for recycling. The ones you do use are the ones that get watered and oxygenated. So be mindful of what you’re thinking about.

If you spend too much time reading theories about the end of Game of Thrones and very little on your job, guess which synapses are going to get marked for recycling?

If you’re in a fight with someone at work and devote your time to thinking about how to get even with them, and not about that big project, you’re going to wind up a synaptic superstar at revenge plots but a poor innovator.

To take advantage of your brain’s natural gardening system, simply think about the things that are important to you. Your gardeners will strengthen those connections and prune the ones that you care about less. It’s how you help the garden of your brain flower.

Judah Pollack is the co-author of The Chaos Imperative, and Olivia Fox Cabane is the author of The Charisma Myth.

Morning walk is always a marvel. That it happens everyday does not dull the mixed sense of contentment and pleasure I find within the familiar ritual of its routine in my life.

First there is the dog, Bentley. Typically he wakes and stirs as I wake and stir. Sometimes he bounds awake ahead of me and I am groggy and met by his pleadings to get up.  He will even tap at my shoulder with his front paws to inflict an unavoidable urgency if I am lagging too far behind.  But today we are in synch, and he patiently waits as I put on my robe and step into my shoes, leash him safely, and carefully descend the stairs. The cat is waiting in the front entry way and meows expectantly.

Off the three of us go together, with the cat stepping out first and bounding far ahead to the culvert by the side of the road. It is absolutely her favorite place and I always imagine that it is filled with tiny tadpoles and single celled creatures that she partakes in the flow of the water of its protective cover. She dips her paw multiple times but eventually leans in to drink as well, remaining there a while before rejoining our meanderings.

Our path varies by my willingness to follow the dog’s lead or resist.   The choices include a lakefront across the street or a variety of edged flowerbeds within our own yard.  Today Bentley is inclined to stop and look, rather than bound or pull. The lake sprinkler fountain is his interest because it is creating a small fluffy cloud that climbs to the height of the trees along the far edge of the lake.  I have been on this walk hundreds of times, but I have never seen a cloud formation there before.

Eventually I guide Bentley to the garage side garden. This is where my oldest and favorite plantings of bushes and perennials are located. Two large English Rose Rhododendron and a smaller deep red Rhododendron bush grows alongside a variegated pink Weigela. Across the grass near the fence several plantings are in bud: Japanese Iris, varieties of Columbine and Peony, summer flowers that are sprouting and beginning to spire and a white-laced Viburnum .

In the side yard the cat stops again to drink water from a large round concrete birdbath that I salvaged from one of my neighbor’s trashday offerings. It is one of my favorite yard spots, because it offers the dog and cat plenty of fresh water.   We slowly wind down the long hill behind the house to the woodline on the far side yard close to where it adjoins our community’s nature and wildlife reserve.

When Bentley has completed all of his desired explorations we finally meander back up the hill to the front yard. What is noticeable to me this morning are the repeated row edgings of the freshly mowed grass.

My roommate James worked hard on it just yesterday. He provides mowing and supportive care of the yard since he moved in over a year ago. I am so very thankful to him. Before Mother’s Day last week he also helped me power wash the back yard wooden deck and a concrete porch underneath in preparation for a gathering of my extended family.

They were coming for a rare holiday visit to my home and I am so very grateful. We were making preparations for the first visit to my home of my youngest son’s family after the birth of my now seven month old granddaughter.  I still revel in my joy in having extended family time together…though I was so occupied in my excitement with visiting grandchildren that I have only one posting photo taken that day.

I sigh as I think about my multitude of blessings and especially for the miracle of our precious  new grandchild.

It is time to go inside and feed AnneMarie the cat.  She is almost twenty years old.  I must carefully hold back Bentley on his leash so he will not crowd her too close as she slowly winds her way up to her feeding dish in the kitchen.

Finally, Bentley takes his chew treat and happily bounds head back up the stairs again. All is well this beautiful and sunlit morning.

 

WHAT IS FRACKING?

Relatively new drilling technology – high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – now makes it possible to reach natural gas reserves that underlie much of the eastern part of Ohio (plus many other regions in the USA and throughout the world).

Fracking is the use of sand, water, and chemicals injected at high pressures to blast open shale rock and release the trapped gas inside. Horizontal drilling is just like it sounds: after the well drill reaches a certain vertical depth in the ground, the well is then drilled horizontally.

As with any industrial activity, the development of oil and gas involves risks to air, land, water, wildlife and communities.

The oil and gas drilling industry argues that horizontal fracking is safe because it has been around for 40 years, but that is not correct.

While the use of hydraulic fracturing to drill vertical wells has been around that long, horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing is very new and only began in Ohio in 2011.

The use of horizontal fracking requires millions of gallons of fresh water, acres of land per well pad, and the use of undisclosed chemicals.

As this new combination of drilling technologies has ramped up nationwide, communities have seen a corresponding increase in harmful air emissions, water contamination, and serious problems associated with the disposal of horizontal fracking waste fluids.

Because fracking is so new to Ohio, our laws simply haven’t caught up. That’s why we’ve called on lawmakers to close the gaps in Ohio law, and immediately put the neccessary protections in place to protect the healthy and well being of all who call Ohio home.

Read about our Act on Fracking campaign, and learn about some of the ways fracking is affecting our neighbors here.

U.S. MAP OF SUSPECTED WATER WELL IMPACTS

The US Map of Suspected Well Water Impacts is a project that will attempt to piece together recent complaints of well water quality impacts that people believe are attributed to unconventional gas and oil operations. Research has demonstrated potential risks to ground and drinking water posed by faulty well casings, surface spills, and hydraulic fracturing.

From across the country, in areas where gas and oil development is occurring, accounts of possible well water contamination have been reported but not been collected all in one place – yet. The FracTracker Alliance, which includes the Ohio Environmental Council, is providing that opportunity. Learn more.

INDUSTRY ACCOUNTABILITY

The OEC has called for greater accountability of the shale gas industry by recommending an increased number of inspectors, strengthened penalties, an impact fee on drillers to cover externalities or damage associated with drilling, and by passing a citizen rights amendment which would allow for citizens to have the right to know about, comment on, and appeal shale gas permits.

General members of the public, adjacent property owners, and even leasing landowners do not currently have this right.

And it’s not just OEC who is calling for strengthened regulations: the Ohio Attorney General also has called for strengthened penalties on operators for violations, full disclosure of chemicals, and increased landowner rights.

MORE FRACKING READING & RESOURCES

Resource Guides

Events & Presentations

Other Resources

 

I experienced this when I was about eleven years old.

Near death, explained

New science is shedding light on what really happens during out-of-body experiences — with shocking results.

Near death, explained
This article was adapted from the new book “Brain Wars”, from Harper One.

In 1991, Atlanta-based singer and songwriter Pam Reynolds felt extremely dizzy, lost her ability to speak, and had difficulty moving her body. A CAT scan showed that she had a giant artery aneurysm—a grossly swollen blood vessel in the wall of her basilar artery, close to the brain stem. If it burst, which could happen at any moment, it would kill her. But the standard surgery to drain and repair it might kill her too.

With no other options, Pam turned to a last, desperate measure offered by neurosurgeon Robert Spetzler at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. Spetzler was a specialist and pioneer in hypothermic cardiac arrest—a daring surgical procedure nicknamed “Operation Standstill.” Spetzler would bring Pam’s body down to a temperature so low that she was essentially dead. Her brain would not function, but it would be able to survive longer without oxygen at this temperature. The low temperature would also soften the swollen blood vessels, allowing them to be operated on with less risk of bursting. When the procedure was complete, the surgical team would bring her back to a normal temperature before irreversible damage set in.

Essentially, Pam agreed to die in order to save her life—and in the process had what is perhaps the most famous case of independent corroboration of out of body experience (OBE) perceptions on record. This case is especially important because cardiologist Michael Sabom was able to obtain verification from medical personnel regarding crucial details of the surgical intervention that Pam reported. Here’s what happened.

Pam was brought into the operating room at 7:15 a.m., she was given general anesthesia, and she quickly lost conscious awareness. At this point, Spetzler and his team of more than 20 physicians, nurses, and technicians went to work. They lubricated Pam’s eyes to prevent drying, and taped them shut. They attached EEG electrodes to monitor the electrical activity of her cerebral cortex. They inserted small, molded speakers into her ears and secured them with gauze and tape. The speakers would emit repeated 100-decibel clicks—approximately the noise produced by a speeding express train—eliminating outside sounds and measuring the activity of her brainstem.

At 8:40 a.m., the tray of surgical instruments was uncovered, and Robert Spetzler began cutting through Pam’s skull with a special surgical saw that produced a noise similar to a dental drill. At this moment, Pam later said, she felt herself “pop” out of her body and hover above it, watching as doctors worked on her body.

Although she no longer had use of her eyes and ears, she described her observations in terms of her senses and perceptions. “I thought the way they had my head shaved was very peculiar,” she said. “I expected them to take all of the hair, but they did not.” She also described the Midas Rex bone saw (“The saw thing that I hated the sound of looked like an electric toothbrush and it had a dent in it … ”) and the dental-drill sound it made with considerable accuracy.

Meanwhile, Spetzler was removing the outermost membrane of Pamela’s brain, cutting it open with scissors. At about the same time, a female cardiac surgeon was attempting to locate the femoral artery in Pam’s right groin. Remarkably, Pam later claimed to remember a female voice saying, “We have a problem. Her arteries are too small.” And then a male voice: “Try the other side.” Medical records confirm this conversation, yet Pam could not have heard them.

The cardiac surgeon was right—Pam’s blood vessels were indeed too small to accept the abundant blood flow requested by the cardiopulmonary bypass machine, so at 10:50 a.m., a tube was inserted into Pam’s left femoral artery and connected to the cardiopulmonary bypass machine. The warm blood circulated from the artery into the cylinders of the bypass machine, where it was cooled down before being returned to her body. Her body temperature began to fall, and at 11:05 a.m. Pam’s heart stopped. Her EEG brain waves flattened into total silence. A few minutes later, her brain stem became totally unresponsive, and her body temperature fell to a sepulchral 60 degrees Fahrenheit. At 11:25 a.m., the team tilted up the head of the operating table, turned off the bypass machine, and drained the blood from her body. Pamela Reynolds was clinically dead.

At this point, Pam’s out-of-body adventure transformed into a near-death experience (NDE): She recalls floating out of the operating room and traveling down a tunnel with a light. She saw deceased relatives and friends, including her long-dead grandmother, waiting at the end of this tunnel. She entered the presence of a brilliant, wonderfully warm and loving light, and sensed that her soul was part of God and that everything in existence was created from the light (the breathing of God). But this extraordinary experience ended abruptly, as Reynolds’s deceased uncle led her back to her body—a feeling she described as “plunging into a pool of ice.”

Meanwhile, in the operating room, the surgery had come to an end. When all the blood had drained from Pam’s brain, the aneurysm simply collapsed and Spetzler clipped it off. Soon, the bypass machine was turned on and warm blood was pumped back into her body. As her body temperature started to increase, her brainsteam began to respond to the clicking speakers in her ears and the EEG recorded electrical activity in the cortex. The bypass machine was turned off at 12:32 p.m. Pam’s life had been restored, and she was taken to the recovery room in stable condition at 2:10 p.m.

Tales of otherworldly experiences have been part of human cultures seemingly forever, but NDEs as such first came to broad public attention in 1975 by way of American psychiatrist and philosopher Raymond Moody’s popular book Life After Life. He presented more than 100 case studies of people who experienced vivid mental experiences close to death or during “clinical death” and were subsequently revived to tell the tale. Their experiences were remarkably similar, and Moody coined the term NDE to refer to this phenomenon. The book was popular and controversial, and scientific investigation of NDEs began soon after its publication with the founding, in 1978, of the International Association for Near Death Studies (IANDS)—the first organization in the world devoted to the scientific study of NDEs and their relationship to mind and consciousness.

NDEs are the vivid, realistic, and often deeply life-changing experiences of men, women, and children who have been physiologically or psychologically close to death. They can be evoked by cardiac arrest and coma caused by brain damage, intoxication, or asphyxia. They can also happen following such events as electrocution, complications from surgery, or severe blood loss during or after a delivery. They can even occur as the result of accidents or illnesses in which individuals genuinely fear they might die. Surveys conducted in the United States and Germany suggest that approximately 4.2 percent of the population has reported an NDE. It has also been estimated that more than 25 million individuals worldwide have had an NDE in the past 50 years.

People from all walks of life and belief systems have this experience. Studies indicate that the experience of an NDE is not influenced by gender, race, socioeconomic status, or level of education. Although NDEs are sometimes presented as religious experiences, this seems to be a matter of individual perception. Furthermore, researchers have found no relationship between religion and the experience of an NDE. That is, it did not matter whether the people recruited in those studies were Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic.

Although the details differ, NDEs are characterized by a number of core features. Perhaps the most vivid is the OBE: the sense of having left one’s body and of watching events going on around one’s body or, occasionally, at some distant physical location. During OBEs, near-death experiencers (NDErs) are often astonished to discover that they have retained consciousness, perception, lucid thinking, memory, emotions, and their sense of personal identity. If anything, these processes are heightened: Thinking is vivid; hearing is sharp; and vision can extend to 360 degrees. NDErs claim that without physical bodies, they are able to penetrate through walls and doors and project themselves wherever they want. They frequently report the ability to read people’s thoughts.

The effects of NDEs on the experience are intense, overwhelming, and real. A number of studies conducted in United States, Western European countries, and Australia have shown that most NDErs are profoundly and positively transformed by the experience. One woman says, “I was completely altered after the accident. I was another person, according to those who lived near me. I was happy, laughing, appreciated little things, joked, smiled a lot, became friends with everyone … so completely different than I was before!”

However different their personalities before the NDE, experiencers tend to share a similar psychological profile after the NDE. Indeed, their beliefs, values, behaviors, and worldviews seem quite comparable afterward. Importantly, these psychological and behavioral changes are not the kind of changes one would expect if this experience were a hallucination. And, as noted NDE researcher Pim van Lommel and his colleagues have demonstrated, these changes become more apparent with the passage of time.

Some skeptics legitimately argue that the main problem with reports of OBE perceptions is that they often rest uniquely on the NDEr’s testimony—there is no independent corroboration. From a scientific perspective, such self-reports remain inconclusive. But during the last few decades, some self-reports of NDErs have been independently corroborated by witnesses, such as that of Pam Reynolds. One of the best known of these corroborated veridical NDE perceptions—perceptions that can be proven to coincide with reality—is the experience of a woman named Maria, whose case was first documented by her critical care social worker, Kimberly Clark.

Maria was a migrant worker who had a severe heart attack while visiting friends in Seattle. She was rushed to Harborview Hospital and placed in the coronary care unit. A few days later, she had a cardiac arrest but was rapidly resuscitated. The following day, Clark visited her. Maria told Clark that during her cardiac arrest she was able to look down from the ceiling and watch the medical team at work on her body. At one point in this experience, said Maria, she found herself outside the hospital and spotted a tennis shoe on the ledge of the north side of the third floor of the building. She was able to provide several details regarding its appearance, including the observations that one of its laces was stuck underneath the heel and that the little toe area was worn. Maria wanted to know for sure whether she had “really” seen that shoe, and she begged Clark to try to locate it.

Quite skeptical, Clark went to the location described by Maria—and found the tennis shoe. From the window of her hospital room, the details that Maria had recounted could not be discerned. But upon retrieval of the shoe, Clark confirmed Maria’s observations. “The only way she could have had such a perspective,” said Clark, “was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe. I retrieved the shoe and brought it back to Maria; it was very concrete evidence for me.”

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory

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