The Divided Brain and Freedom of Thought

I’ve been reading and listening to lectures about the divided brain recently. The “hard” problem how consciousness arises from the brain is endlessly fascinating to me.

In the book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and The Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist, the author begins by explaining how perception of how the two hemispheres work has changed over time. The brain has two hemispheres – the left and the right. In the last century, scientists believed that the left brain was in charge of some things like language and mapping, while the right was in charge of music, art, and abstract thinking. Then it was discovered that both hemispheres were at work on all tasks and scientists believed that it was hopeless to assign certain tasks to one hemisphere or the other and that they were essentially the same.

Mr. McGilchrist, has studied the relationship between the two hemispheres for decades. He tells us that there is a complicated relationship between the left and right hemispheres. It turns out that the physical connection between the hemispheres plays a larger role than once thought about how the two sides communicate. While it’s true that each side of the brain can sustain consciousness on its own, each side attends to the world in its own way. When you are working on certain tasks both hemispheres do work together, but that there are inhibitors from one hemisphere to the other so that the one side is “in charge” or governs certain tasks while the other serves as a facilitator to the other hemisphere. These two modes of thinking can switch quickly as your environment changes around you.

In the animal kingdom we see the same brain division into two hemispheres. It is believed that this helps to protect an animal while its foraging for food. Mr. McGilchrist explains that when a bird is pecking around for a seed on the ground one hemisphere is focused on that task, while the other hemisphere is tasked with keeping a watch out for predators.

Another interesting discovery of how the processing is divided is that new experiences are processed first by the right hemisphere and then mapped out in the left for routine work. For example, the first time you drive to a new job or school, your right hemisphere is busy processing the new experience. You are very aware of the trip to the new location, alert to the new experience. But, after repeated trips to the same location, the left hemisphere maps out the route and after a time you hardly recall the drive at all. Routine tasks are shoved into the background of our conscious thought.

We will probably never understand how the mind works from the simple fact that there’s no way for us to study the brain objectively. In order to observe a any system, we need to be able to separate ourselves from it and observe it working independently of our control. Because each individual is the only one to truly “know” in any way what he/she is thinking it is impossible to say for sure what is going on in any individual brain. One person can observe another from the outside, but the one thinking the thoughts to be observed cannot. There’s no way to be an independent observer of your own thoughts.

Science Fiction sometimes depicts the ability to read minds as a wonderful super power or as a depressing reality of human nature. The stories generally show the mind readers as trying to control the gift so as to preserve the privacy of others. However, it seems to me that if it was discovered that some people could read minds the temptation to control large populations of people would be difficult for those in power to resist abusing that power.

Some might say that we see mind control happening today in the news media massaging the facts to fit a biased narrative or how advertisers persuade us to buy their products. It is true that a great deal of information is known about how to manipulate people, but I believe the brain is highly adaptive to these abuses. Once it becomes aware it is being manipulated, the mind can develop ways to thwart the control of an outsider. The fact that individual “thoughts” are hidden inside each person means that bullies and oppressive governments will never be able to completely control individuals.

And that’s why I’m thankful no one can read minds.

Until next time. 😊

On Meditation and The Meaning of Existence

I have been reading about this new trend in an old practice called Mindfulness. It seems to be based on Buddhist meditation practices which help calm one’s mind and focus on the present. I think there’s value to Mindfulness and meditation practices because our culture overloads us with information and stimulation of the senses. To sit and contemplate one’s existence is a positive thing. I have been reading about this new trend in an old practice called Mindfulness. It seems to be based on Buddhist meditation practices which help calm one’s mind and focus on the present. I think there’s value to Mindfulness and meditation practices because our culture overloads us with information and stimulation of the senses. To sit and contemplate one’s existence is a positive thing.

But, while I think meditation has many benefits, I have a problem with some of the promises of “Mindfulness.” There seems to be a strain of thinking that suggests Mindfulness will help you give meaning to your life. I also notice that some definitions of Mindfulness use the term “present moment.” This is an odd idea because it’s impossible to focus on the present moment. As soon as you reach out to grasp it, it becomes the past moment. This is the slipperiness of time – it can’t be stopped or slowed down.

These two ideas seem to me to be a reaction to the fear of the passage of time. I don’t think the purpose of meditation is to extend the present moment or to give meaning to it. Let me explain.

mind·ful·ness /ˈmīn(d)f(ə)lnəs/
noun
1.  the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
  “their mindfulness of the wider cinematic tradition”
2.  a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

We live in the present, but we are always making a bargain with the future. For example, consider a daily task list. Daily lists are about planning the immediate future. The lists are made so that I will do what I need to do that day plus what I want to do. I will do the laundry in the morning so that I will have time in the evening to read. I will make a grocery list today, so that when I go to the store tomorrow, I won’t waste time and money when I get there. In this way we have expectations about the day. But, at any time, an unexpected event, such as a car accident or an unexpected visitor, can upset the day’s plans and the daily list is forgotten.

And it’s not only daily plans we entrust to the future. We have a vision of our future life in 5 or 10 or 50 years. These form our hopes and dreams of where we will be in the future. Will we have a family life or an adventurous life or a successful career? And this creates anxiety in our present life because we know from experience in making plans from day to day and from witnessing other people’s lives that there is no guarantee our lives will turn out as we expect the future is veiled to our mind.

So, what to do? We need to look at the accumulative effect of time. Returning to the example of the daily list, we understand that if we have been diligent about daily work in the past that missing a day or two is not going to make a dramatic difference. We can make up the lost tasks on other days. If the interruption is more serious, such as an accident, then we know our daily routine is going to change in more drastic ways.

The same thing applies for longer stretches of time. If, for example, you decide to have a career then you must train for it. You may have to delay one job for another. You may have to go to school. In short, you sacrifice the present for the future.

If you try to hold onto the present, you will always fear the unknowable future.  Our future is made up of unforeseeable events, but it is also made up of the plans and sacrifices we make in each present moment.

When I was about the same age as my third child is now (30 years old), my husband and I changed our minds about having more children. We had originally decided that the two children born to us were enough. But, we moved to Texas from New York and I had quit working to be home with the children. We realized we had time to have more children and as we had no other family in Texas, we thought it might be good to reconsider having more children.

I remember being pregnant with my third child, a daughter, while watching the two older children playing. I remember thinking that they were doing so many things on their own and babies take up nearly every free moment of your life. Why was I starting from zero with another child? I put it out of my mind as the choice had already been made. And it turned out to be a happy choice. There would be three more children to come after her.

There is an experience in old age that is called “feeling the weight of one’s years”. When I was middle aged, I thought back to my 20s. Two decades had gone by – but it while that is a lot of years, it did not seem so long in the past. I also could see a future ahead of me. The children were young and I could see that my life was not finished. I could only understand “the weight of years” in theory. I had many more years ahead of me. It wasn’t until I reached my 60s, and my youngest child had left home that I finally felt the weight of years. At that time, I felt more that I lived a full life. Not everyone gets the joy of experiencing old age, so I feel doubly blessed in that. Perhaps, if I am lucky enough to live another 20 or 30 years, I will have an even greater appreciation.

If someone had told me when I was 20 that I would end up in Texas (I’m from New York) with six children and no career when I was 60, I would have said that was crazy talk. Now, at 62, as I hold my third grandchild, my third child’s first baby, I can see that the sacrifices I made over the years were a blessing in ways I could never imagine in my youth.

So, we can’t see the fullness of our lives until many years – innumerable present moments – are behind us. It is only then that we can truly understand the entirety of the moments that make up our lives.

My point is this: Meditation does not help you give meaning to the present. You already have meaning. Your existence has meaning. The understanding of the meaning of your existence grows over time. In other words, meditation can help you appreciate meaning in your life, but it does not create it.

So, do not be afraid to let go of the present, but fully embrace your life so that you can walk boldly into your future.

Until next time. 😊

Chicken Fried Rice

This week I’m adding a new chicken recipe. Everyone in the family loves this one for dinner and to take with them for lunch the next day.

This recipe uses nearly the same ingredients as the One-Pot Chicken and Rice recipe, but uses less chicken. You can stretch this dish depending on how much rice you use. I add 3 cups of cooked rice now, but when the kids are home I add a lot more. There are notes about this below the recipe.

I find that people are often afraid to try stir-fried dishes because they are unsure how to do it. So, I went looking for a good video to show you how it’s done. I am impressed that the cook uses chopsticks to make this dish. I use large flat wok spatula that I bought years ago in New York with my first wok. I would recommend that you buy a wok and wok spatula, but if you don’t have them, you can use a large pan and a regular spatula.

My recipe below is slightly different than the one in the video, but either way you will have a great dish that is easy to make and is usually greeted with smiles by family and friends.

[To print this recipe, please click on the link below to bring you to the recipe page. Or, you can use the drop-down menu above under Recipes.]

Chicken Fried Rice

Time: This recipe takes about a half hour to make

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups long grain rice (you can use other types of rice, but adjust your liquid if necessary)
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 or 2 chicken breasts cut into strips or small cubes
  • Salt and ground pepper to taste
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 cup or more frozen peas and carrots (or any small cut up vegetables you like)
  • 1 or 2 eggs
  • 1-2 Tablespoons Sesame Oil (optional)
  • Soy Sauce or Tamari

Directions:

Rice:

Many people have their own method to cook rice. If you don’t have one, then do the following:

  1. In a medium saucepan, bring the water and a 1/4 tsp salt to boil.
  2. My secret formula is to cook the rice in two stages. First cover the rice and simmer for 10 minutes at medium high heat. At the end of the 10 minutes, stir the rice and put the cover back on.
  3. For the second stage, turn the heat off under the pan or turn it down to very low for another 10 minutes. DO NOT LIFT THE LID. In this way, the pot maintains enough heat for the rice to absorb the water without burning the rice on the bottom of the pot.

In a Wok or large Pan:

  1. While the rice is cooking, cut up the chicken, the onions and the garlic (I buy garlic minced in a jar).
  2. I don’t start cooking the chicken until about 5 minutes before the rice is done. At that time, turn the heat up high under a wok or medium high if you are using a pan.
  3. Add the vegetable oil, the garlic and the onion. You could cook the chicken first, but I prefer this order. Stir and cook for about a minute.
  4. Add the chicken. Stir and cook until almost done.
  5. I use frozen peas and carrots, so I add them in at this point and cook everything together until everything is done.
  6. If you are using a wok, you can push everything to the side to cook the eggs (as in the video). OR – you can remove everything and simply cook the eggs by themselves. Scramble the eggs until done.
  7. Add the cooked rice into the wok or pan. In this last stage you can cook the rice alone or with your other cooked ingredients. It will depend on the size of your wok or pan.
  8. You can add the sesame oil and stir it into the rice. I find this to be too oily for me, so this step is optional.
  9. Stir and cook the rice for about a minute. Add the soy sauce and stir into the rice. If you have removed the chicken and vegetables, you can add them back in at this time.
  10. Stir everything together and serve hot.

 NOTES: 

Family – I used 6 cups of rice to really stretch this recipe. I couldn’t put all the rice in the wok, so I put half the cooked rice in one of my largest bowls and just added a little soy sauce (the rice had to be hot out of the pan). Then I cooked the rest of the rice as explained above. Then I mixed the cooked portion in with the white rice in the bowl, stirring it all together. And that’s how you feed six kids and 2 adults. It’s not as good, but it helps the budget.

Ones and Twos – You can halve this recipe or save the leftovers for another day.

Health Needs:

Gluten Free

This is a gluten free recipe. Just be sure you are using Gluten free Soy Sauce or Tamari.

Vegan

You can skip the egg and substitute baked tofu for the chicken. Add the Tofu with the peas and carrots at the end.

Time Crunch

This can be made the day before and refrigerated.

Complete Meals

This is a complete meal in itself.

Fall Back and SAD: Under the Weather

My husband and I are expecting our third grandchild soon and we decided to get the Tdap (Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccine to protect the newborn. And as it’s flu season we decided to get that one, too. So, that’s two vaccines.

But, we weren’t done yet. We have also been talking about getting the Shingles vaccine. My grandmother had shingles twice and told me it was the worst pain she had ever experienced in her life. Since she gave birth three times, during the Depression, I figure that’s got to be pretty intense. Another consideration was that my husband had a very bad time with measles as a kid, so we decided we should get that one, too.

Perhaps three vaccines at a time was pushing it. By the next day we both had a low grade fever and chills. We’re just feeling back to normal today. So, a word to the wise – if you’re going to bunch up those vaccines, then do it on your days off from work or spread them out.

A Word about SAD and Light Therapy

This week is the first week where darkness has returned in a big way to our evenings. I would rather we stay on Daylight Savings Time permanently, but I am not in charge and so must soldier on.

When I lived in New York I used to suffer terribly from SAD (Seasonal affective disorder). The sun starts to set at 4:30 in the afternoon. By 5 pm I was on my couch under a blanket unable to move.

Light therapy was first being recommended in those days, so I bought a 4-foot fluorescent strip lamp and the full spectrum fluorescent lamps that were recommended. I leaned strip lamp against a wall facing the couch. This is because the light doesn’t work unless it affects the retina. It lit up the room like Luna Park and was as ugly as hell, but it did the job for me. I felt it helped me a great deal with my depression. I could sit up for another hour or two after sunset, and I could get up and finish chores and get ready for work the next day. I also felt I was sleeping better.

For more information about current research on SAD light therapy go here: Ocular mechanism key to light therapy for seasonal affective disorder

My husband found it had no effect on his mood, but he went to bed later than usual. He never needed more than 5 hours sleep at night, so the only real benefit for him was that I was happier and better company.

Now that I live in Texas, I don’t need the light therapy all winter long. We’re closer to the equator, so the light balance is not as great as in New York. Still, because of the heat, houses in Texas tend to be built like caves to shut out the evil sun unlike the North where we want to bring as much light into our homes as possible.

November is often a wet (when we aren’t in a drought) and overcast. I find my spirit slipping on days when I spend a lot of time at my desk, so I decided to take another look at light therapy.

Much to my delight, I’ve found that there are many more choices for light therapy. There are plenty of desk models and portable options. I ordered the one below and it should be arriving today.

Light Therapy Lamp, Miroco LED Bright White Therapy Light – UV Free 10000 Lux Brightness, Timer Function, Touch Control, Standing Bracket, for Home/Office Use

Light therapy is not be better than the real thing (which is why I love living in Texas), but while the gloomy days are here I plan to stave off the worst of SAD with my Happy Light.

Until next time. 😊