Lost in Translation, emptiness is found

There are things too little to really merit attention, yet still big enough to be bothersome. Things that fly under the radar of consciousness only to appear when you are looking elsewhere and disappear you try and train your focus on them. What are those things, really? Sometimes they are just little concepts, words that sound familiar enough not to be really considered, even if they somehow fail to hold a concrete shape if you were asked to define them. Translational was one of those word for me:

Earlier this year I went through a bunch of papers on the effect of mindfulness on health and cognition. Among those, there was one entitled “A translational neuroscience perspective on mindfulness meditation as a prevention strategy” by Tang and Leve (2016). In the paper, they proposed “a translational prevention framework of mindfulness and its effects”, a sentence in which every word made sense on their own, but when put together, the significance escaped me. Now, upon learning in the lecture that translational is an alias for applied, there’s only the “prevention network” to decipher… 😉

Now, the point of this linguistic exercise is not to complain about the language of the paper, even if I sign to notion that difficult things should be explained using simple language (Feynman paraphrase: If you can’t explain it to your grandmother…). What the lecture brought vividly to my attention was how empty words really are on their own. Empty in the Buddhist sense of emptiness, i.e. not existing as absolutes on their own but merely as a collection of references, all depending on each other.

What has this principle of emptiness / interconnectedness got to do with neuroscience? If we begin zooming in from the interconnectedness of all living systems to interactions between humans, we end up inside a human brain where the neuron are vastly interconnected. Somewhere in this interconnectedness, consciousness emerges from neurons that in themselves are not conscious. And in this lecture, it fits beautifully to the mention in the summary slides (on the overall principle of neurotransmitter systems function): “Everything influences everything”. In fact SI system depicts similar principles in a greatly simplified manner:


If you find yourself interested in the concept of emptiness, there’s an excellent book, Emptiness and Joyfull Freedom, by Greg Goode (a philosopher) and Thomas Sander (a mathematician) that can be found on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Emptiness-Joyful-Freedom-Greg-Goode/dp/1908664363). For a short, refreshing poetic break, Thich Nath Hanh’s text “Interbeing” is a nice one (http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=222).


Tang, Y. Y. and Leve, L. D. (2016) ‘A translational neuroscience perspective on mindfulness meditation as a prevention strategy’, Translational Behavioral Medicine, 6(1), pp. 63–72. doi: 10.1007/s13142-015-0360-x.


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Neurotransmitters and how to tamper with them

This week’s lecture went through different neurotransmitters as well as their receptors and receptor cascades. A lasting theme throughout the lecture was m-opioid receptors, which was started by discussing with how to block them using naloxone. Naloxone is a m-opioid receptors blocker (i.e. antagonist) that was originally developed as a remedy against opioid abuse, but has also been found effective against alcohol abuse. Alcohol activates many neurotransmitter systems, among them being GABA and endorphin systems which release dopamine into the reward pathway bringing about pleasurable feeling. Of these two, Naloxone targets the endorphin (i.e. endogenous morphine) system by binding to the m-opioid receptors. A note to myself: Remember to look closer into how naloxone affects craving. It appears it does so not directly but gradually extinguishing the pleasure felt while drinking.

We also went through the serotonine hypothesis, which is the basis for treating patients suffering from depression with selective serotonine re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI), a multibillion business. The serotonine hypothesis has been hotly contested, yet it still is the dogma by which millions of people worldwide are being treated.  Finland ranks in top ten with regard to how many antidepressant users we have per capita (70 / 1000), the number one being US (110 / 1000) [http://www.businessinsider.com/countries-largest-antidepressant-drug-users-2016-2?r=US&IR=T&IR=T].

I raised a point whether GABA levels can be increased via ingesting GABA enriched tea (fermenting tealeaves under nitrogen seems to produce GABA into the fermented leaves, see eg. http://worldteanews.com/tea-health-education/gaba-tea-and-the-hype-around-its-health-benefits for explanation in lay terms). I tried to do a literature survey but did not find too veritable evidence of the health benefits.

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Vagus is vaguely taking shape

If I thought last week that we were getting a lot of new terminology, this week has confirmed my impression indeed! After filling in the six pages of names for various brain parts, I have to say it may still take a while before they are memorized…

I did have some kensho moments, nevertheless, as some formations I’ve already bumped into managed to manifest and say hello among the crowd. I’ve been wrestling with insomnia for quite some time, waking up almost every night after 4 to 5 hours of sleep, and sleeping the rest of the night in intermittent chunks if at all. I’ve read about causes for insomnia and my symptoms fit rather nicely (if nice were a good term…) with descriptions of hyperarousal of the nervous system (Kay and Buysse, 2017): when I wake up in the middle of the night, my heart is beating fast and strong like somebody had ordered it turn up the heat and prepare for war.  It’s very curious how after years of meditation I do not really suffer from rumination – my mind is rather still – yet the restlessness has remained in my body as if it were a blind ghost of days done by not  finding its way to the next world.

Now I know where the vagus nerve is lurking, and I intend to pore deeper into it’s function in controlling the balance of autonomic nervous system. I’ve already experimented with breathing techniques which seem to be helping, possibly by increasing vagal activity via respiratory sinus arrhythmia. (Tsai et al., 2015) I’ll write more about it in the coming blog entries when I have had time to look a little closer into the papers that I have found covering the subject.


Kay, D. and Buysse, D. (2017) ‘Hyperarousal and Beyond: New Insights to the Pathophysiology of Insomnia Disorder through Functional Neuroimaging Studies’, Brain Sciences, 7(3), pp. 1–19. doi: 10.3390/brainsci7030023.

Tsai, H. J., Kuo, T. B. J., Lee, G. S. and Yang, C. C. H. (2015) ‘Efficacy of paced breathing for insomnia: Enhances vagal activity and improves sleep quality’, Psychophysiology, 52(3), pp. 388–396. doi: 10.1111/psyp.12333.

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Second week, neurons, glia, playdough

This week we continued along the route in deciphering the function of the brain by first investigating the topological structure and function of neurons and glia cells, and then zooming closer to the cell membrane. It’s said that the human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe, and this started to reflect also in the lecture; new terminology abounded and it was getting tougher to try and follow the meaning of all the new concepts and how they were linked to each other.  Perhaps it would have helped if among the numerous slides there had been one or two explaining the structure and purpose of the lecture and maybe even one drawing together the most important concepts?

The exercise session was entertaining and informative. It’s much easier to remember where each functional region in the brain is after you’ve once baked a brain on your own, even if only from playdough. I wish I had better 3D model of the brain at my disposal as from brainstem upwards it was getting harder to place structures in their proper place. If anybody has a free or reasonably priced app for Android or Windows to recommend, I’d be interested!

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Learning diary – 1st lecture

Alas, yet another learning diary blog for the course Structure and Operation of Human Brain at Aalto University! First introductory lecture is down, several more to go. Feels rather weird to be participating a course after so many years since I’ve last actively studied new subjects under lectured settings. Weird, but refreshing! To paraphrase one of my gurus, Matti Nykänen, progress has progressed: the teaching methods seem to have evolved since the early iron age what with the propagation of learning diaries, excursions, and the paradigm shift from mumbling stone idols to actual interaction. Very nice! The course seems to be structured carefully as well as resourced properly – I’ve yet to see another with two professors and so many assistants at the service of the learning.

The Big Questions, oh yeah! Having pondered them myself to quite some extent, the promise of digging deeper into these is fetching! Keen on meditation, I’ve spend a lot of time with “Who am I?” and “What am I?”, classical questions of many traditions such as Zen Buddhism and Advaita Vedānta. I have experience of how these questions feel, when I present them to myself, let my mind calm down and wait for the answer, and have also read of the neural correlates they have been linked to. It will be good to hear

Speaking of correlates, I’m also looking forward to gaining a deeper understanding of the diffuse boundary between correlation and causality. I’ve read of the effects of physically tampering with the brain, such as severing the corpus callosum, and of damages caused by illnesses and accidents limited to specific regions of the brain, and how they are manifested on the behavioral level. From such data, it would be very alluring to draw hard mechanistic assumptions of the brain a “mere” machinery – flip this switch and that light goes on. But to what degree this really applies?

New pieces of information I found very interesting were the bits related to color blindness. The idea of us as homunculi living inside of our bodies observing the very separate, external world, is a strongly held intuition. It’s easy to feel that reality is outside and that our senses rely information of it to us as it is. This belief of externality of reality is, per eastern meditative traditions, one source for suffering.  Vision is a very strong sense modality with great reality effect, even if visible spectrum is but a tiny fragment of electromagnetic radiation that surrounds us. I knew animals and humans see colors differently depending on species, and that some women have receptor for four colors instead of the typical three, but I hadn’t heard of color blind people with only one colorblind eye. This offers a very nice access to subjective experience of colors!

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