The Plastic Brain

brain bookJust a few decades ago, using the word “neuroplasticity” could get a brain scientist into trouble.

The concept ran counter to the dominant belief that the adult brain was “hard wired,” and that major change did not and could not occur. If you lost a portion of your brain to accident or stroke, you were out of luck: Whatever processes that section of your brain handled were lost to you forever.

Now neuroplasticity is practically a buzz word. A friend of mine recently suffered a small stroke; he says his therapists are all about neuroplasticity and how its principles can be used to train other parts of his brain to take over functions once handled by the damaged area.

In chapter after fascinating chapter of “The Brain That Changes Itself,” Norman Doidge relates how this shift occurred—how pioneering neuroscientists, aided by new technology, broke through the old belief to prove that our brains are constantly remodeling themselves, even as we grow old, and how the right therapeutic techniques can facilitate that process. Continue reading

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A Stroke of Insight–and a Message

stroke bookOne morning when she was 37 years old, Jill Bolte Taylor lost much of her mind. A malformed artery-vein junction in the left hemisphere of her brain burst open, flooding surrounding brain cells with blood that is toxic when not where it’s supposed to be.

Over the next few hours, as various left-hemisphere functions faded in and out and then shut down, it became quiet inside her head. No more chattering voice-of-me analyzing, judging, building anxiety, anger and fear. No more awareness, as well, of being separate. Just right-hemisphere peace and the bliss of being one with the energy of the universe.

However, Taylor was a PhD brain scientist, and she realized she was having a major stroke; bliss or no bliss, she was in serious difficulty. She managed to summon help—and then she spent the next eight years rebuilding her left-brain functions, including the “self” that had words and boundaries and could function in a world where past and future and other linear concepts matter.

She did quite a good job. In 2006, she published a book that became a bestseller, “My stroke of Insight.” In it, she offered hope and advice to stroke patients and their caregivers. However, she had a message for the rest of us, too: We can all get a taste of the bliss she experienced during her stroke by learning to “step to the right”—by choosing to cut off the negative chatter that our highly trained logical, analytical left hemispheres are so good at coming up with and accessing the deep peace that she says is the nature of the here-and-now, non-verbal right hemisphere. Continue reading

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Reshaping Weight Issues

Fat dust?

Fat dust?

NOTE: This post is actually a talk I gave at the Institute of Qigong and Integrative Medicine gathering “Tea and Chi” this past weekend. “Ryan” is IQIM acupuncturist Ryan Lilly, and the full name of his class is “Weight Management and Healthy Living Through Chinese Medicine.”

When I saw the flyer for Ryan’s class on weight management at the Institute’s picnic this summer, I was taken aback.

Weight management? Wasn’t that a little frivolous for the Institute? I mean, we’re serious people. We’re not about sculpting svelte silhouettes; we’re about curing major diseases and striving to attain enlightenment and immortality.

If you become an immortal, what does it matter if you’re a little chubby? The robes those guys wear hide quite a lot.

Anyway, those were my first thoughts.

My next thought was, so where’s the sign-up sheet.

Because there wasn’t one. You had to e-mail Ryan to register. Which I did that evening.

For me it wasn’t just about the 10 or 15 pounds that seem to love me more than I love them. It was about 60 years of spending an enormous amount of energy fighting food and fat.

Few days have gone by when I haven’t stressed about my weight or about eating too much, except, of course, the days when I decided it was OK to eat anything and everything because I’d be starting a diet in the morning.

Since I’ve generally weighed 5 to 25 pounds more than I‘ve thought I should, I’ve engaged in a whole lot of negative self-talk around food.

It gets old. I sometimes think that if I’d spent the energy I’ve spent fighting fat doing something more constructive, I might have achieved something really amazing. Maybe not world peace, but something worthwhile enough to be mentioned in my obituary.

But let me tell you a little about the class. Continue reading

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A Rash Is a Rash Is a ???

When is itching, plus a rash, merely the releasing of toxins and negative energies from the body—and when is it shingles?

On a Friday, I had a headache—I called it a sinus headache—and then Saturday, my shoulder began itching fiercely. Actually, it was the outer portion of my back on my left side at about armpit level—one of those places it’s darned tough to see, even in the mirror.

On Sunday morning, it looked liked I might have a rash. By Sunday evening, the itching had abated, I could see several red spots, and the area felt vaguely numb, vaguely uncomfortable, vaguely shinglesque. (And I do know shingles because I had a mild case 20 years ago.)

So what was it?

On the one hand, rashes and itching can result from energy work—or at least so I’ve read and heard from other people.

On the other hand, because I had chickenpox as a child, I am always eligible for shingles, even though I presumably have some immunity from my long-ago case of shingles and more recent shot of shingles vaccine.

I didn’t know whether to view my itching and rash as a qigong phenomenon or an issue I should address via western medicine. Continue reading

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Tea & Qi: A Community Celebration

Tea & Qi

Tea & Qi

On Sunday, Nov. 9, the Institute of Qigong and Integrative Medicine is holding a “Community Tea & Qi” in Bellevue.

It will be a celebration of things IQIM has accomplished over the past year and its plans for the future, as well as an opportunity to meet the people behind the organization plus a lot of Yi Ren Qigong practitioners.

Tea & Qi will be from 1 to 4 p.m. on the 9th at the South Bellevue Community Center, 14509 SE Newport Way, Bellevue. The cost is $25.

To register, go to

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The Qigong of Knitting—and Smartphones?

Needles and yarn.

Needles and yarn.

After a year’s hiatus, I am knitting again and finding it most satisfying.

Years ago I read somewhere that small, repetitive movements—the examples given were knitting and chewing gum—boosted the production of feel-good chemicals in the brain. That could be one reason I’m finding knitting so satisfying.

But I think there’s also something in the way one holds the work in front of the body, and the way fingers, wrists and forearms twist and move.

From a qigong perspective, one might note that the twisting and moving of the fingers, wrists and forearms must be stimulating the flow of qi through all the meridians that pass through the wrists. A good thing, no?

And perhaps all this action and the position of the hands in front of the body is also stimulating the heart center, one of the key centers on the ren meridian. That would be good, too, since they say that women are particularly drawn to, and need, stimulation of the heart center. Knitting is different in this way from, say, quilting, painting or gardening, which are done farther from the body.

I might have ended this post right here, short but sweet, except that as I thought about knitting as qigong practice, it occurred to me that maybe smartphone use is a form of qigong practice, too. Certainly the phone is held in the hands in front of the heart.

But nahhh…. When I’m using my smartphone, the meridians at the base of my thumbs may be getting a royal workout, but I have zero awareness of any part or aspect of my body other than my thumb tips. It’s almost as if the phone were wired to my intellectual mind.

And that definitely is not qigong.


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Pu-ehr Tea and Me

Pu-ehr teaI am trying to make Pu-ehr tea my go-to, drink-all-the-time beverage of choice — but it’s hard.

Pu-ehr tea (and damn it, Word, I really do intend to type Pu-ehr tea, not Pu-her tea) is the sauerkraut of Chinese teas, having been fermented by microorganisms growing on the leaves.

Like sauerkraut, it’s supposed to be really good for you. Generations of Chinese have believed that it regulates body weight, improves digestion (particularly after eating heavy, greasy foods), lowers blood pressure, eliminates toxins and more. Some of these claims have been supported by modern science, although I’m not feeling too fussy about this. (Did I mention that it’s said to promote weight loss?)

Just now I did some reading about Pu-ehr tea, and, oh, my, is there ever a lot to read! Turns out there is nothing simple about Pu-ehr tea. There are many steps involved in its production, and many types of Pu-ehr tea. The best Pu-ehr tea, for which connoisseurs pay big Chinese bucks, commands adjectives like “rich,” “earthy” and “deep”; the worst leans more towards “fishy,” “moldy” or “sour.”

All Pu-ehr tea starts as a type of large-leaf green tea grown in the mountains of Yunnan Province in southern China—and by 2008 decree of the Chinese government, it can’t start as tea grown anywhere else. (Roquefort cheese and Champagne wine have similar deals.)

Traditionally, Pu-ehr teas were dry fermented as they aged for 10-15 years or more. In the 1970s, a process akin to composting in its use of moisture and heat was developed to accelerate the fermentation so that the tea was ready in a year. Both types are available; you can guess which one you pay more for.

Two more pluses for Pu-ehr: It has less caffeine than regular tea. And it’s said you can re-brew a really high-quality Pu-ehr tea up to 20 times.

I have been trying two types of Pu-ehr tea, and I have tried re-brewing both of them, with so-so results, i.e., both types tasted significantly weaker the second time around, although this may have had more to do with my brewing technique than the tea.

One of the types is Rishi Pu-ehr Ginger, which has loose brown leaves with bits of ginger and orange peel for a bit of tang.

The other is Jasmine Pearl Sticky Rice Mini Tuocha Pu-ehr, where the “mini tuocha” means that the tea has been compressed into little bowl-shaped buttons, and the “sticky rice” refers to the tea containing a Chinese herb that tastes like sticky rice. Each button is wrapped in a square of pink paper covered with tiny Chinese characters; unwrapping a button and watching it disintegrate under a stream of hot water is very satisfying.

I find both of the teas to be earthy-tasting and pleasant to drink but also a bit flat, maybe even somehow wan, so I’m planning a trip to a Chinese tea shop to buy some unflavored, possibly higher quality Pu-ehr tea that may be more to my liking.

However, I doubt I will find a Pu-ehr tea with the so-nicely-mellowed-by-milk bite of English Breakfast Tea, or one that has the soul-satisfying substantiality of a cup of strong, hot, fresh-brewed coffee.

And I doubt Pu-ehr tea makes a good caramel macchiato…

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