Monday, April 22, 2013

Focus on Manual Skill or Action to Restore Slightly Shredded Soul

ResearchBlogging.orgThis is the unexpected story of working to find a path to restore some shredded soul, not through power lifting masses of weights, or sprinting all out till wiped out, but through Sharpening knives, grinding coffee beans - both by hand - making espresso on the stove, latte art - all manual, all small tasks, small skill focus, all about practice of motor learning or just small motor actions as a quest to reduce stress right now.
Often, working out sits in this place, but i feel a little too drained right now for that, except for light runs.  Seems there may be a reason - or at least a good thing happening - neurologically - in finding practices that focus, soothe and restore.

Here's a possible connexion: - working on motor SKILLS (like juggling) [ref 1, below] or on abstract information gathering, like language learning [ref 2 below] seems to change the shape of the brain - in particular the grey matter around certain regions. These changes are positive - i've talked about them before in relation to thinking about holistic rather than just physical wellbeing. These studies highlight our plasticity - that we can constantly get better, more resilient.

To quote from the first study (juggling) from Nature, 2004
Our results contradict the traditionally held view that the anatomical structure of the adult human brain does not alter, except for changes in morphology caused by ageing or pathological conditions. Our findings indicate that learning-induced cortical plasticity is also reflected at a structural level.
A recent study [ref 3 below] showed that stress reduction intervention work to reduce stress level also has grey matter structural changes, this time around the amygdala. You may have heard the expression "amygdala hijack" when dealing with fear/threat/stress - going all primal on ourselves rather than staying open and transcendent. Colleagues in neurology and business have been looking at how stress literally "eats" at the brain, too, in executives. Makes sense: if de-stressing builds up gray matter, stress could eat away at it. Ick.

So if practicing a motor skill is also a soothing activity, perhaps this is doubly good for getting to a restorative place? Restoration, after all, is key to function.

Why this focus.- all because i find i cannot concentrate nor workout today.

Event Horizons

For the past couple weeks i've been in Boston/MIT. Last week was a week no one expected.

I had watched the women's race of the marathon, and the start of the men's; went to lunch and then back over to the lab at MIT, where, on a skype with a colleague, i was told "heh, there's been some kind of explosion at the Marathon" - no way - maybe it's a gas thing.

We went on with our skype. When i got home that evening, we learned the news about the explosions being bombs.

On thursday night, when i got back home from the lab, i thought, dang, i've left my power cord over there, i'll head back - no wait, my card key's got a problem with the outside door - i'll get it in the morning.

This is the lab where i work when at MIT

I love this building. Those green awnings are where we head in and out of the place.

This is the same place - one of the less gruesome photos (source)- of Thurs night/friday morning

These are some of the alerts on campus April 18/19th as the City shut down (click to enlarge).

Two colleagues who works in the same group volunteer to do radio support annually for the Marathon. They stayed in the first aid tent to help after the blast. 

Context: Joy

On the Holiday Monday, just before the Marathon started, i'd ordered a marathon jacket from a fave regional sports store, because i loved the colors, was missing a windbreaker and thought, what the heck, it's a connection to the time and place, and support for this awesome event.

 All over town the weekend of the marathon, runners were everywhere apparent. It felt great to be surrounded by this mix of athletes in such a public, democratic event. In the Boston Marathon, only times for one's age group and number of slots available are the determining factor. For less than 150, if you have a sufficient time, you're in. Apparently this year all the times of people in their slots were higher than the minimum so eligible people didn't get in - but at least that's skills based. 

It's a pretty wonderful thing to see so many people moving it. Not everyone running on that saturday and sunday were marathoners; but you could tell that the atmosphere (and the clement weather) were adding that extra nudge to Be Human and Move as it were. 

Post Event 1: Together, Tough, Resilient

All this past week post the blast, I think i'd been feeling ok - there's a kind of awesome toughness in Boston that people - at least those i encountered and folks at work - just refused to give into some F**** who set off these bombs. There is very much a town feeling. And energy. We take care of each other, and screw you for trying to hurt anyone of us - seems to be the vibe. Runners kept running during the week; work went on. A colleague, Amy van der Heil, kept us focusing on that positive energy in email responses and quiet conversations.

Post Event 2: More Surreal; Sense-making Shut Down

Thurs/Friday rather had an icicle effect on that resilience vibe. It's hard to imagine a bad scene like the marathon getting worse. It started to feel more like columbine and related than New York: two guys going Random, and taking out anyone in their path. No reason; no message.  Town shut down to deal with this, finish it. 

And then it was finished - more or less - focus on getting back home; on a plane this weekend. Tired. Fasting on the flight - short enough - no biggie; felt good to be a bit hungry. 

Back in the Familiar:
Pause for the Jets; Going Manual Mode; Going Small scale

But today. Today supposed to be back in the zone, back at work: talk about hitting a wall. A kind colleague, Gary Ralph Music, suggested i just take some time; this is rather traumatic. Ya. Maybe that is a good idea. Pause to process. Thank you, Gary. 

Which brings us to the manual work. Maybe that's more avoidance than process; maybe by focussing on the manual skills though, we push stuff otherwise in the pre-frontal cortex primary memory back into the parallel processor of sub-conscious activity where it can be processed faster, wordlessly. This is not denial? This is percolating till ready to get a verbalised ah ha perhaps.

Let me note that in the Stress Reduction/Amygdala reshaping work above, participants used something called Full Catastrophe Living (pdf of one chapter on meditation) that has been used by its authors since 1990 for numerous stress studies. Apropos, perhaps, pioneered at the Massachusetts General Hospital.  In that intervention, people are meditating; doing "nothing" - so i am extrapolating to think that skills manual work, or relaxing, less skilled manual work, can still have de-stressing benefits.

First example: sharpening all the kitchen knives; practicing waterstone sharpening: 

It also felt good to do something manual, focused, skilful, that has an immediate, testable result.

Then  - staying manua,l but less skillful - this example is even more manual than i hit, but looks intriguing, no?

More Meditative; Less Skill; Still Manual
Here's an even more manual version of coffee grinding than what i did, but i could see how this would feel good on a slightly warmer day (zip to about 2:27 in on the vid)

If you truly wish to pause, have all the time in the world,  and with to enjoy some lovely engineering - here's an example from Orphan Espresso where a grinder is machined and built by hand around the best burr in the business for grinding. Ingenious design solutions.  If you're interested in why burrs rather than blades for beans, that's an interesting story, too. Stumptown, New York Roasters that do coffee for my fave Boston Coffee Place, Thinking Cup, has a nice explanation in Step One here

Wasn't that a totally awesome geek out on coffee meets machine intrigue? Wow.

And that's soothing.

Delight, Distraction, Percolation ... Restoration?

Just writing about these ways to soothe the soul, restore the body in doing something mildly focused and hands on has helped breath a bit. Get some space. Unwind. Un-tension a bit. Maybe tomorrow i'll press something; maybe i'll do something else. It's ok. Feeling a bit hungry, drinking coffee and green tea, also: ok.

I hope if you're feeling stressed you can be gentle with yourself (as per Gary's suggestion), pause and find gentle practices to restore your soul, too.

Thanks for letting me share this on going experience with you. IT's so odd to feel woven into the fabric of this experience. A fluke of timing. And now etched. Grind Grind Grind, working it in; letting it go. Breathing.

This is going to take some time....and one of the biggest challenges: me being ok with that. At least my brain/gray matter should be happier with that process.

thanks again to Amy van der Heil for her care via positive focus, and Gary Ralph Music for his care in just stepping out with a Good Suggestion. 


Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuierer, G., Bogdahn, U., & May, A. (2004). Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training Nature, 427 (6972), 311-312 DOI: 10.1038/427311a

Bogdan Draganski1, Christian Gaser2,  Gerd Kempermann3, H. Georg Kuhn4,  Jürgen Winkler1, Christian Büchel5, and Arne Draganski, B. (2006). Temporal and Spatial Dynamics of Brain Structure Changes during Extensive Learning Journal of Neuroscience, 26 (23), 6314-6317 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4628-05.2006

Holzel, B., Carmody, J., Evans, K., Hoge, E., Dusek, J., Morgan, L., Pitman, R., & Lazar, S. (2009). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5 (1), 11-17 DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsp034


Rannoch Donald said...

M.c. This whole post reads like a meditation itself. I was shocked to see your messages on the day in question and glad to hear you are ok.

Sometime you asked me, what's with all the "breathe" posts. For me it's a very personal reminder that there is a genuine refuge available to us all in the simple act of focussing, whether it's the breath or a particularly cool cappucino. Thanks so much for the post. I love it.

dr. m.c. said...

Thanks Ran,
appreciate the listening/sharing


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