Food & Mood

Gut bacteria…produce hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate basic physiological processes as well as mental processes such as learning, memory and mood. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, which influences both mood and GI activity.

American Psychological Association

Since learning more about all of the wonderful things that my little gut buddies do for me, I have been more inspired than ever to treat my body with respect and compassion. It added a whole new layer to my concerns around my routine eating habits. I wondered what my eating disorder had done to my delicate gut microbiome. Not only that, I wondered how continued disordered eating (i.e. eating my day’s worth of food all within the span of a few hours right before sleep) was affecting them and in turn my overall quality of life. There were days I certainly felt the physical symptoms of this casual self harm.

The correlation between what we eat and how we feel both physically and mentally is difficult to notice unless you are consciously aware of that connection long enough to reveal a pattern. Before learning about this crucial link, I never really thought about how what I ate and when I ate it changed the way I felt mentally and emotionally throughout the course of the day. But now that I know one of the two neurochemicals I’m always joking that my brain won’t give me actually comes from my gut, I knew I had to make some changes.

When we’re lost in our own heads, it is easy to get the impression that this is simply who we are, that these thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are part of our identity, an accurate reflection of our world. If taking Paxil taught me anything, it was that any change in our brain chemistry whether natural or artificial, is enough to completely reshape our inner landscape. The fluctuations in mood I experience throughout the day are no more a part of my essential character than being deathly afraid of social interaction was. Perhaps the most surprising part is that both SSRIs and our eating habits are influencing the same neurochemical, serotonin.

I’ve always loved food and eating, but it wasn’t until I started practicing mindful eating that I noticed what a huge boost in mood I experience after a meal. Now that I’ve been making an effort to eat at regular intervals throughout the day again, it’s much easier to notice the way eating is about a lot more than nutrients and the cessation of hunger pains. As someone who is used to leaning on kratom, coffee, and cannabis to get them through the day, it feels like meals were actually the lift my body was looking for all along. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about all the years I spent resenting my own body for not giving me the chemicals I needed to be happy when I was starving it of the resources it needed to do so. It’s so easy to assume your “broken” because of genetics rather than searching for solutions within your own behavior and lifestyle first.

It’s such a shame that the mental health industry doesn’t seem to acknowledge this new science at all when it comes to caring for clients. Not only would the incorporation of this information into treatment plans help people with common disorders such as depression and anxiety, but I believe it could also play a role in the treatment of eating disorders. I know there is vague talk in the mental health community about “eating healthy” for your mental health, but even I used to write that off as ableist and out of touch. It’s important that we also include the information behind why our eating habits are so crucial to our mental and emotional wellbeing.

Learning about this connection and then taking the steps to discover it within my own body has been amazing. It has completely restructured my relationship with food and my body. It is a joy to rediscover and reconnect with the signals my gut has been trying to send me. I can’t tell you how long it had been since I was able to distinguish my bodies hunger and satiety signals and respond to them. There is such a softness and compassion in the act of listening and tending to your body’s needs. Food and eating no longer seem like an enemy that I’ve got to work with in order to survive. Nor is eating some hobby to indulge in for sheer sensory pleasure. Eating is a beautiful dance that we learn from these physical forms of ours. It’s a push and pull, a give and take, that is so essential to our overall wellbeing. It’s a reminder that everything in this world is inextricably connected. There are no short cuts or cheat codes. But with patience and compassion we can begin to uncover what it really means to take care of ourselves. I promise you, the effort is more than worth it.

Mindful eating: Techniques and tips to get started - CNN

The Mind-Gut Connection

The Mind-Gut Connection featured in upcoming Lunchtime Learning Presentation

The more I learn about the human body and the world, the more obvious it becomes that every little supposedly insignificant thing matters and everything is inextricably connected. The bad news is there is no cheating your way to health or fitness or happiness. But the good news is, although it may seem harder, the tried and true methods of slowly achieving success are always available to us. If we treat both our bodies and our minds well and show them patience and compassion, health and happiness with inevitably follow. A lot of people will find this obvious and uninteresting, but I’ve never been one to base any of my opinions or actions on good faith alone, I usually require a more thorough knowledge of the mechanisms going on behind the scenes.

The emerging science of what’s going on backstage in our own bodies is truly stranger than fiction. Most of us know (although we don’t like to think about it) that our bodies contain lots of microscopic organisms in addition to our human cells. Our skin, our hair, our nails, our eyelashes, and of course our guts are teeming with strange little lifeforms, the majority of which are harmless. It may be a bit unsettling to consider, but the bacteria inhabiting our bodies are actually even more than harmless, they are helpful, even necessary for us to be healthy. Before reading The Mind-Gut Connection by Dr. Emeran Mayer, I thought my vague comprehension of that fact was sufficient. Gut microbes are good for us, case closed. Now I’m discovering that the role these little organisms play in our digestion, day to day life, decision making, and ever our personalities are far more complicated than I’d ever imagined.

Apart from all the implications this information sparks curiosity about in the scientific community, my philosophy centered mind goes straight for the larger existential questions we are now faced with. Who is really running the show? Are we this human form shown to the world, or are we actually the bacteria pulling the strings deep inside our guts? Perhaps we’re just the passive hosts without even realizing it. Or maybe it’s not even possible to make a clear distinction between the human and bacteria cells within us. For now it does appear as if we are one in the same.

Whatever we may be, Dr. Mayer’s book is an excellent example of the way looking deeper into the natural world leads only to more marvel and mystery. The complexity and intricacies of this existence are an endless source of fascination that I don’t think we’ll ever truly be able to decode. However, we have now learned at least a bit more about this magical little world within us. So here are a few of what I found to be the most interesting things laid out in this book:

Personality & Decision making

These bacteria in our digestive organs do a lot more than help us break down our food. They are also influencing our mood, disposition, and the decisions “we” make. We all know that our cells communicate and deliver signals and chemicals to the brain, but what I didn’t know was that these bacteria are doing the same. I was shocked to discover that our gut produces the majority of serotonin in our bodies, not the brain. This is one of the reasons we experience that familiar cozy, satisfied feeling after a good meal. This also explains the way our diet affects our mental health. It’s not just a placebo effect. Eating healthy, fibrous, fresh, unprocessed foods really does make us feel better all around.

One of the most incredible things I learned was from a study that showed transplanting the gut microbiome of one rat into the gut of another causes the latter rat to begin expressing a personality and behaviors more similar to the donor rat. For instance, a shy rat given the microbiome of an outgoing rat, will now begin to appear brave. It’s honestly a bit frustrating to realize what a big role the gut microbiome plays in our mental state. Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve faired so well without my paxil is because I’ve been drinking pro & pre-biotics every day since before I began weaning myself off the drug. It makes me wonder what kind of success, if any, I may have had in my battle with social anxiety if I had known this information before starting an SSRI.

Hunger, Satiety, & Weight

The microbes in our guts also have a big part to play when it comes to our appetite. They have a direct line to our brains with the capacity to influence our hunger signals. What I once thought was a definitive sign that my body needed more calories or nutrients, now may very well just mean that my gut bacteria need more fibrous matter and pre-biotics to snack on. These little buddies also have a hand in our sensitivity to our satiety signals, in other words our cue that we are full and want to stop eating. These bacteria are also responsible for how much of the food we eat is absorbed and stored in our bodies.

Just as in the other rat study I mentioned, the same effect can be observed regarding the physical weight of the rats. Give a skinny rat the microbiome of a heavy rat and it will begin to gain weight and vice versa. This is a stunning insight into just how little we actually comprehend about nutrition and how to influence our own body weight. There really is no “one size fits all” diet when it comes to weight loss or gain, and it’s got a lot more to it than just genetics.

The Best Diet for a Healthy Gut Microbiome

This book also gives suggestions about the best foods for us to eat if we want a gut microbiome that keeps us healthy and happy. The author particularly emphasizes that diets high in animal fat lead to a state of constant inflammation and physical and mental health complications. Not surprising. He also says that diets high in fibrous plant foods lead to more helpful strains of bacteria flourishing in our guts. Now it seems obvious to me that the extrapolation of that information points directly to a vegan diet. No animal fat, tons of plant foods. However, this author is clearly attached to his flesh foods, because based on anecdotal evidence of healthy tribal peoples who eat a mediterranean diet (basically vegan, plus fish) he decided to label that the best diet. He gives no explanation on how the fish part is necessary or beneficial. The actual data he provides seems to say the opposite. So I think it’s safe to say eliminating the last “bad gut” food, would be best, don’t you think?

Unfortunately, he goes on to say that even a drastic change in diet isn’t going to have a huge effect on the types of bacteria living in our guts. However, it will change the kinds of metabolites the bacteria we already have produce for our bodies and brains, which is nearly as good.


In summation, the information I’ve learned from this book has completely changed the way I view my body and even my mind. I fluctuate back and forth between being excited and terrified about this new knowledge and what it means. At the very least, this book shows just how important our physical health is when it comes to our mental health. The two are inextricably linked for better or worse. Really all we can do is work with the gut-microbiome we have. They are as unique and diverse as each individual they are house in. Treat them right, give them lots of healthy vegan foods to eat, and they will repay us in kind.

Default Mode Network

NeuroScience

If you haven’t heard the term default mode network (DMN) before, you’re not alone. Yesterday was the first time I did. Although I still am new to this concept, I wanted to talk about it today. I just wanted to get that disclaimer out first thing. I’m certainly not an expert on this. I hardly know anything about it. What I do know, however, is already enough to enthrall me and make me eager to learn more. So don’t take my words here as gospel. Go read about it for yourself.

I first heard about this term while continuing to read How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. If you’ve read my other posts referencing this book, you already know where this is going. That’s right, psychedelics. Scientists have discovered a very fascinating phenomenon in the brains of people tripping on LSD or psilocybin. These psychedelic substances inhibit or turn off the default mode network in our brain.

So what is the default mode network? From what I’ve gathered, the default mode network includes many different parts of the brain that are active when we are “in our own heads” so to speak. These are the pathways we are using when we are ruminating, daydreaming, planning, remembering the past, contemplating the future, etc. Basically this is the network that is active when we are lost in thought, rather than focusing our attention on something in the outside world. In the book, it also specifies that this DMN kicks on when we are thinking about ourselves.

This aspect of self-awareness encompassed in the DMN is one of the reasons why we are able to experience “ego death” while using psychedelics, which switch off this network. It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that ego death and transcendent experiences are both known to occur while tripping. The DMN, while useful, is also being linked to depression and other mental illnesses. People that spend a lot of time in the DMN are often less happy overall than people that spend less time in this brain state.

I find this very fascinating because it seems to reflect a lot of the advice you hear given to people that are unhappy. “Try to focus on someone else for awhile.” “Rather than ruminating, use that energy to help someone you love.” “Become a more active part of the community.” All of these shifts in focus are actually helpful, but now it seems science is getting a better idea exactly why that’s the case. And I don’t know about you, but I find it more easy to follow through on advice if I know the facts back it up.

Another thing I found interesting is the idea that social media tends to strengthen the DMN. When we are scrolling through Instagram or checking how many likes we got on our last Facebook post, our brains are in the default mode network. Apart from all the other reasons there are to disengage from social media, this one is quite compelling. No wonder I feel happier and less anxious now that I don’t use those apps!

If you’re looking for a way to experience the bliss of brain states outside of the DMN, but don’t want to take a drug to do so, you can try meditation instead. Surprisingly fMRI scans of experienced meditators and those of brains on psychedelics are remarkably similar. Training our minds through meditation can give us the power to focus. That focused attention in itself is another way to get ourselves out of the DMN. I believe that is why the “flow” state we experience when we loose track of time while working on a task that completely absorbs our attention is so pleasant. It’s a great feeling to “lose ourselves” in our work.

I have yet to see any research related to this, but I’m interested to know how the DMN functions in adolescence. I hypothesize that it may play a role in the unhappiness a lot of us experienced during this time in our lives. It also appears to be a time in life when we tend to be the most selfish. We’re learning who we are and what we want, finding our own identities. While this is an important and necessary part of growing up, it also requires a lot of self-centered thinking, which as we now know, can lead to a greater sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. As we get older and start to think more about others, the emotional turmoil of youth also seems to subside somewhat.

As this term was only coined in 2001, there is still a lot that science doesn’t understand about this brain state. A lot more research needs to be done. I’m excited to see what else neuroscience will discover about our brains and how exactly they work in the future. But as I said earlier, I am not at all a voice of authority on this subject. I just couldn’t resist sharing the concept and the things I’ve learned that have got me so excited about it. I highly recommend doing your own research and reading more about the default mode network for yourself. Feel free to correct me if I have misinterpreted, misunderstood, or misrepresented any of the things I’ve shared about this network. Also Let me know in the comments if you find out anything interesting that I didn’t mention.

Exploring the Mind

Still immersed in How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, I have been unable to prevent the psychedelic perspective from penetrating my every thought. I am desperate to find some free time in which I can start experimenting with my own spiritually centered trips. One of the things I find most interesting about psychedelics is the revelations people often experience while taking them. It’s not as if these insights are new. They are usually a reflection of things that have become platitudes: We are all one, love conquers all, we have the ability to choose our own reality, make our own happiness, etc. This is one of the reasons I find it so difficult to express the psychedelic experience to those who haven’t taken these drugs for themselves. It’s almost too hard to put into words and make sense of in my own head, let alone translate it to others. It’s similar to the way we can pass along knowledge, but not wisdom. There is something ineffable about the experience that solidifies the truth of the realizations that come with it.

Pollan’s book talks a lot about the seemingly limitless potential of these drugs to treat mental illness, comfort the dying, and even improve the quality of life for average, healthy people. What it hasn’t seemed to touch on yet though is the implications these psychedelic experiences have in regard to our minds in general. Sure we are introducing a foreign substance to our brains, but the pathways it activates are already inside of us, just waiting to be utilized. People have already found ways to access these mental pathways through breathwork alone, without the use of any substances. What does all this mean when it comes to our limited perspectives and perception of ourselves, others, and the world around us?

As a child, unburdened by biases or expectations, the world seems like quite a fantastical place. We’re present, we’re in the moment, we’re open to new experiences and ways of thinking. Understandably, that changes as we age. The more time we spend looking at the world through a certain lens, the more it begins to feel like that’s the only lens there is. We forget that we haven’t always thought or felt the way we currently do, and that others don’t think, feel, or react in the same ways that we do. Wouldn’t it be amazing to take a peak into the mind of someone else for just a few moments? Or better yet, to truly know the full capabilities of our own brains?

It’s frustrating and fascinating to realize that no one will ever truly know what it feels like to be anyone else. We take for granted that as human beings we are pretty much the same, but how alike are we really? So much of our experience of life is private and uniquely personal. The way our minds work are too complex for us to fully grasp, despite how far science has come. One of the issues psychedelic researchers have is how to quantify and categorize such personal, subjective experiences into usable data. Science has been relegated to the very limited realm of objective facts and observable behaviors/phenomenon. It seems we haven’t quite figured out a way to explore and understand subjective experiences, despite what a huge impact these things have in the world.

I suppose subjective subjects are better left to philosophers than scientists. However, one thing that is mentioned in Pollan’s book is the suggestible nature of a psychedelic experience. Whatever you are primed to experience is most likely what you will experience during your trip. Just like in a lot of other ways, in this way psychedelics seem like a hyper-intense reflection of reality in general. Our perceptions of everyday life are also highly suggestible, especially in childhood when the rigid patterns in our minds that psychedelics break down, haven’t yet been formed. If you wake up each morning and tell yourself you’re going to have a bad day full of tedious, tiresome activities, you probably will. On the other hand, if you can make yourself believe you’re going to have an amazing day filled with smiles and laughter and new adventures, you probably will! The external circumstances can be exactly the same.

It is impossible to imagine just how many different ways of thinking exist in the world. I believe we are each capable of experiencing all of these perspectives. More than any physical barrier, what holds us back most in life are our own limiting beliefs. Changing them can seem impossible at times. We don’t usually choose to believe what we believe. It’s an amalgamation of so many different factors that manifest as a belief system. Challenging those deep-seated ideas is no small task, nor is there a clear place to start. Part of the issue comes from realizing how much these beliefs limit our ability to even imagine alternative ways of thinking.

Looking at it that way really underscores the importance of finding time for focused creativity as an adult. Creativity isn’t about what you produce. It’s about expanding the limits of our own minds so that we are better able to come up with creative solutions to our problems and allow ourselves access to more options in our inner lives. Creativity is a muscle that is not exercised nearly enough. It is completely undervalued in our schools, offices, and communities. Studies have shown that adults are drastically less creative than children. Longitudinal studies that follow the same participants over decades reveal that despite being very creative at one point, they lose the vast majority of that creativity as they grow older.

If you find yourself feeling stuck, like the world has lost it’s luster, you’re not alone. The panoramic view of existence we all enjoy in childhood becomes narrower each year. For me, it’s extremely comforting and reassuring to remind myself that there is so much I don’t know. There is so much I am incapable of even imagining. So when I begin to apathetically ask myself, “Is this all there is?” I know the answer is a resounding, “No.” There is so much more waiting to be discovered.

Some St. Louisans Find Therapy, Meaning In Psychedelics As Researchers  Study Benefits | St. Louis Public Radio

Mushroom Magic

For the last few days I have been reading a book called How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. It is a fascinating look at all the different ways that fungi have influenced and continue to influence humanity and the world around us throughout history. This book not only addresses the incredible research being done around psychedelic mushrooms, but also the incredible nature of our fungal friends in general. For instance, did you know that human beings are more closely related to fungi than we are to the plant kingdom? There are tons of intriguing tidbits of information like this sprinkled throughout this book between awe inspiring accounts of spiritual psychedelic experiences. Even if you have no interest in psychedelics, this book is still well worth a read for all of the other information and research it contains.

I haven’t even gotten halfway through this book yet myself, but already there are a few points that I’d like to discuss today. The first of which is the great comfort that simply reading this book has brought me. As you may know from reading my other posts, I am quite disturbed and troubled by the thought that soon the world as we know it will be coming to a rather abrupt and violent end due to the unsustainable nature of modern human civilization. For many years now I have despaired over the fact that we have already gone past the point of no return when it comes to the destruction of our environment. I’m not exactly sad due to the inevitable loss of human kind, rather by the greater loss of all the beautiful and complex lifeforms that share this wondrous planet with us. Michael Pollan’s book has given me hope that despite all humans have destroyed that life will continue on after our end.

Are you aware that humble oyster mushrooms have the ability to clean up oil spills? Apparently fungi, unlike most organisms, are able to consume and purify a lot of humans’ more toxic and problematic waste materials quite efficiently. A study was conducted where oyster mushroom spores were sprinkled on an oil spill. After some time had passed, the spores were able to consume the oil and cover the area in a blanket of squishy mushrooms. Most of us are aware that fungi are the organisms that break down dead or decaying matter, purifying waste and recycling it back into life once more. I was not aware that these miraculous beings were able to do the same with toxic man-made substances. However, according the Pollan’s book, fungi actually thrive even in the wake of human destruction and debris. Mushrooms are even able to break down plastics!

While I don’t expect humans will take advantage of the amazing potential of fungi before we all perish at our own hands, this new information still leaves me hopeful. I am filled with peace. Despite centuries of irrevocable human error, the fungi will protect this earth. They have preserved the endless cycle of life and death on our planet long before the arrival of humanity and will continue to do so long after we are gone. And for that I am so grateful.

7 Impressive Benefits of Oyster Mushrooms

The Brain-Gut Connection

By now, most people know about the gut microbiome. Maybe not the term, but we have a vague understanding of things such as probiotics and antibiotics. It’s very trendy to drink kombucha and eat fermented foods like kimchi in an effort to nurture our gut bacteria. I mentioned in another post how wild it is to find out we are nearly equal parts human tissue cells and germ/bacteria cells. On my way to work this morning as I listened to a podcast episode all about the brain-gut connection, I found out some even more startling and fascinating information.

Every day science is learning more about the helpful bacteria in our digestive systems. It’s quite the complex subject, far more complicated than simply pro and anti biotics. I learned today that there are also things called prebiotics and postbiotics. Prebiotics are the fibrous material that the gut bacteria eats, and postbiotics are the waste materials that the bacteria excrete, which actually ends up being beneficial to our physical as well as our mental health.

I was shocked to discover what a huge role our gut microbiome plays in our mental health. Further research may even uncover that this is the root of all our mental illnesses. Of course, as a vegan, I was intrigued to learn what kind of a difference a plant based diet would have on all of this. I know that farmed animals are routinely given antibiotics to keep them “healthy” even in atrocious conditions. My initial instinct was to feel even more sorry for the animals themselves. Not only are they physically suffering, but god only know what those conditions, PLUS an obliterated gut biome is doing to them mentally. I hadn’t even considered the implications of this on human health. Not only does consuming meat fill us with carcinogens, growth and stress hormones, and cholesterol, it is also destroying our gut biome with the antibiotics absorbed in the flesh of the animals we consume.

Initially, I felt pretty smug about this. Just another reason veganism is the only healthy diet. However, I knew that my mental health, while much improved by a vegan diet, wasn’t completely cured by it. As the podcast continued on, it explained that while meat contains antibiotics, so do the fruit, vegetables, and grains that we eat. Apparently Raid was originally patented as an antibiotic! Raid is also something that, despite all the awful things we know about this poison, is still used on virtually all the crops commercially grown. I suppose organic crops may avoid this, but honestly I don’t know. Call me a skeptic, but I never believe things labeled as “organic” are actually grown organically.

Many of you may take away from this information that we need to balance out our antibiotic ridden diet with lots of healthy probiotics. However, it’s not so simple. Apparently probiotics, though still good for us, are not actually helpful in the ways we intend them to be. Instead, it’s more important for us to focus on consuming foods that are rich in prebiotics. This provides our gut bacteria with the fibers they need to flourish. These foods include things like chicory root, dandelion greens, garlic, onions, and bananas.

Perhaps even more interesting than all of that information is the link between the gut microbiome and hunger/cravings. Hunger seems pretty simple. When our stomachs are empty, this space sends a signal to the brain that we need to eat, right? Wrong. It’s actually the small friends (and foes) in our guts that are giving us these signals. In a study, subjects were told to fast for 14 days, only consuming water and a prebiotic solution. Despite consuming no actual food, the subjects reported having no hunger pains or cravings throughout the 14 day period. The gut bacteria was well-fed by the prebiotic solution, therefore no hunger signals were being sent to the brain.

In addition to this, what kinds of foods we crave can also be linked to our gut bacteria. Some bacteria like to eat very sugary, fatty foods. Rather than having anything to do with “willpower,” our ability to choose healthy foods has a lot to do with what types of bacteria we have in our gut. The good news is, that if we can manage to resist these impulses to eat sugary, processed foods for a few days, those pesky bacteria will die out, taking the cravings along with them.

I was so blown away by all of this information, that I’ve been sharing it with anyone who will listen. Of course that means I had to make a post about it. Considering I only heard about this stuff a few hours ago, I wouldn’t recommend you simply take my word for it. But I do encourage all of you to look into it for yourselves. I certainly plan to do lots more research on this topic myself. I may even order the book The Energy Paradox by Dr. Steven Grundy, who was the guest on the podcast I listened to today. I absolutely adore learning new, helpful information like this. The implications of this knowledge are potentially life-changing.

A scientist explores the mysteries of the gut-brain connection |

More Than This

Like most people in my area, I was raised Christian, Methodist to be more specific. My family was never super religious or anything, but we did go to church every Sunday when I was little. As soon as I was old enough to question things, I did. When I found that none of the important questions I raised could be answered, I decided to cast aside these religious teachings and become an atheist.

Without really realizing it, I harbored a lot of pain and resentment toward religion after that. I spent a lot of time feeling superior to people that were still religious. I thought they were idiots, brainwashed, or at the very least painfully ignorant. Slowly I began to give up that anger though. While there are plenty of things I disagree with about a lot of religious teachings and organized religions, I don’t feel the need to fight against them or throw them out entirely anymore. I’m content to let others find comfort and meaning in life in whatever way they see fit.

My yoga journey has reawakened my interest in spirituality and the things we still don’t understand about this existence. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts addressing these fascinating subjects. I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge and there is simply nothing better than learning something new that completely changes your perspective. I’ve been lucky enough to learn a lot of those kinds of things in the last few days and I’d love to share a few of them with you.

I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly what we are. For most of my life, it seemed obvious. We are these physical bodies. We are matter moving through the world and when we die we’re dead. Our consciousness disappears. These bodies turn back to dust. A few things I’ve heard have led me to challenge that belief though. Did you know that what we consider to be our body is actually made up more of the empty space between/within atoms than the actual atoms? Not only that, when you only consider the cells our bodies are composed of, we are made up practically equally of germ/bacterial cells as we are human cells. How can that be?! It completely changes my conception of what it means to be me.

With those two things in mind, it seems like we should identify more with our consciousness and the energy inside of us than our physical bodies. But what exactly is that energy and where does it come from? I don’t pretend to know. But I have learned that our thoughts, feelings, words, and emotions are not as immaterial as I once thought. I may not have all the answers that I would like to have, and I may not ever have them, but I believe there is much more to existence than can currently be understood or explained by science. I no longer have the arrogance I once did. There is so much I don’t know. There is so much for me to learn and discover. And that’s okay. I am so excited to keep searching.

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

Empathy for All

I consider myself incredibly lucky to work in such an interesting field. Psychology has always fascinated me, but actually working with kids and families in my community has broadened my horizons even more than I could have imagined back when I was still in school. Given that I’ve struggled with social anxiety for the majority of my life, it seems strange to me that I would have such a good time working is social services. However, I’ve learned to be more fascinated than fearful of people. Even so, I also believe that I am on the autistic spectrum which I feel gives me an interesting perspective on interpersonal matters. I have always been able to set aside my emotions around a subject or situation fairly easily and act based on logic and facts rather than my feelings.

I’ve learned throughout my life though, that this analytical character of mine can often be seen as cold and calculating by those around me. Many times I have offered up an opinion about something that seems perfectly logical to me, but has been terribly shocking and offensive to others. For instance, a recent conversation I’ve had with a friend at work sticks out to me. We were discussing the idea of legalizing all drugs and illicit substances. We both agreed that at face value, this seems like a shocking and unethical idea. I think most people have a gut reaction to this proposal that causes them to condemn it right away. However, I have read the research on this idea from countries where similar policies have been implemented. It came as a surprise to me, but legalizing these substances actually has the opposite effect than you would expect. Rather than more people abusing drugs and overdosing, there are less instances of this behavior. This is because people are more easily able to reach out for help. There is less of a stigma surrounding drug abuse. People that use are also able to do so more safely than they are when it’s illegal, which results in less instances of overdose and infection.

After discovering this data, I was fully on board with legalizing all drugs. Even though my emotional reaction to the idea remained unchanged. It still felt like a bad idea, but I was confident in the science enough to overlook my personal biases. However, when I shared this information with my coworker, he refused to change his position on the matter. I asked him, “So you’re still against it even if it results in less drug abuse?” This seemed so interesting to me. That even highly intelligent people will often side with their emotions rather than the facts.

A similar discussion came up the other day at a meeting with people we work with on cases of child abuse. We began discussing the idea of virtual child pornography or child sex dolls. Of course the idea is repulsive. Everyone’s initial reaction is of disgust and condemnation. Yet, I remain convinced that if there is data that shows these things lessen the likelihood that actual children will be abused, then I think they should be allowed. I’m not aware that there is any such data. It could very well be the exact opposite. But even in this hypothetical situation, no one else would agree that this should ever be legal. Even if it stops children from being abused. Once again, I was left feeling amazed at the irrationality of these smart individuals.

I am careful to watch what I say, lest I upset anyone, but a lot of the time, I don’t find it as easy to condemn the alleged perpetrators as I feel I should. Obviously child abuse of any kind is inexcusable and all measures must be taken to protect children from these offenders. However, this doesn’t make me incapable of still feeling sorry for everyone involved. After all, a lot of pedophiles were once the innocent victims. This obviously doesn’t justify their crimes, but it does somewhat explain them. We are unable to just cast these people out of society. The fact remains that putting them in prison for ten years doesn’t solve the problem. They are very likely to go on offending as soon as they are released. The science has shown that as upsetting as it is, pedophilia is a sexual orientation. It is something that cannot be changed. These people must learn how to control these urges and understand that although they cannot control their thoughts, they are able to control their actions. If they are considered monsters by society for their thoughts alone, why wouldn’t they give in to their urges? There needs to be an effort to rehabilitate these people, not just punish them.

Often we will interview a child because they have been abusing other children. We won’t ask them about what they’ve done, rather we try to ascertain whether or not something has happened to them that is causing them to act out this abuse on others. I think it’s very interesting that when a child hurts another child, we still feel empathy and compassion for both of them. It makes me wonder at what point we draw the line. When does a troubled child become an unforgivable adult? Does the limit of our compassion end at eighteen? Why do we make that distinction?

I find it hard to make sense of this divide, even though I do feel it viscerally within myself. It is much easier to vilify an adult than a child for the same crime. At the same time it seems illogical to arbitrarily make a decision that someone isn’t culpable at 16 but they are at 18. How exactly were they expected to “fix themselves” now that they are legally an adult? This atmosphere of shame and condemnation only makes it harder for the “undesirables” in society to seek help. Apparently in the U.S. you may be reported to the authorities for even mentioning you feel sexually attracted to minors to your therapist, even if you’ve never acted on those urges.

At the end of the day, despite our feelings on these difficult matters, we need to act and make decisions in a way that results in the best outcomes for society as a whole. Sometimes it may end up to be something that at face value seems counterintuitive. But we’ve got to learn to look past our emotional impulses and trust the data. I certainly don’t know all the answers to these very challenging questions. I just hope that we can be objective and open as we continue to search for those answers.

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The Beginning of the End

It has been a truly bizarre year. I’m sure we could all agree to that. It seems like everyone is anxious for things to “get back to normal.” To be honest, I don’t have much hope that that will ever happen. When this pandemic first started, I didn’t really think much of it. I was just pleased to have an excuse to stay home. Now I’ve begun to think this is just the first phase in a long downward spiral for our species and our planet. This has been a long time coming.

I used to get flustered and frantic about my opinions on the state of the world. I felt I desperately needed to spread a message, to inspire change, to educate people so that we could all start to work towards a healthier, sustainable society. After years of exasperation and futile efforts, I have finally lost hope. Humanity will not change, therefore we will not survive much longer. Humanity has no interest in changing, we have no time left for the change that is needed, and to be honest, at this point, I don’t think we are capable of changing. It is a shame, but I have resigned myself to our fate. I have accepted the demise that is to come. Not 200 years in the future, not to the generation after me, but to me, to my generation, to everyone I know.

Cowspiracy was the tipping point for me. After watching that documentary and absorbing all of the scientific facts about our crumbling environment and the projections of how much time we have left before utter catastrophe if we continue at this rate (which we will), I realized that I will not be living out the extent of my natural lifespan. I have no idea how I will eventually die, but I feel pretty confident in ruling out old age. Perhaps it will be starvation, civil unrest, natural disasters, having no clean water, or even from a pandemic. It could be this very one, or the inevitably worse ones to come. To be honest, I’m surprised this is all due to a Corona virus and not one of the many strains of anti-biotic resistant bacteria we are breeding in our animal agriculture industry every day.

If I had even a shred of hope left that we would somehow overcome the self-imposed threats facing us, the public response to this pandemic has obliterated it. My fellow humans are incapable of even making the most miniscule, temporary changes to their daily lives, let alone the massive, permanent changes we need to make to survive as a species. Even though the pandemic rages on and is even getting worse in some areas, people have seemingly decided to just go back to normal. As if it’s been a year, so fuck it, it must be over.

If humans are incapable of simply wearing a mask when they are in the grocery store for 30 minutes, there is no way they’ll be capable of eliminating meat and dairy from their diets entirely. Perhaps if we had already implemented a strategy to move society that way and we also had a couple hundred years to get there, but we aren’t doing anything and we don’t have anywhere close to that amount of time. Scientists predict we only have a few decades and the US government is still subsidizing the industries that are killing us.

Not only has the majority of the population not accepted one of if not THE root cause of our impending demise (animal agriculture), but we can’t even all agree that we are even facing a real problem! Climate change is still up for fucking debate in America. And I don’t even expect those of you reading this to understand or agree with me on any of this. I’m mostly just having a good ol’ scream into the void. It’s the only thing I can really do at this point, sadly.

I won’t waste my time listing all of the statistics, facts, and figures about how animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, desertification, and species extinction. How it wastes massive amounts of food, water, and land. How everyone shouts “save the rainforest!” while ignoring the fact that the reason it’s being cut down is to make room for livestock. All of this information is readily available for anyone willing to look into it. Cowspiracy’s website has most of it laid out with citations. Although, in my experience, facts have never been enough to make anyone change. What I will point out, is that this pandemic is also just a symptom of the ways eating animals will eventually be our undoing.

Whenever a pandemic emerges, it is almost always related to some animal. And not just any animal. An animal that humans have been using as food. We end up keeping this “food” in filthy cramped spaces, crowded in with other animals and covered in piss and shit. Then we eat those same animals. It’s no wonder we are constantly facing disease. Bird flu, swine flu, mad cow disease. Starting to see a pattern yet? If we didn’t eat animals, none of these things would be a problem. To be honest, it’s almost karmic justice for these innocent beings. I wouldn’t even mind if humans were wiping themselves out due to our own greed and stupidity. But unfortunately we are taking down the whole planet with us and that breaks my heart.

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How Understanding Neuroplasticity Changes Everything

There are few things that I’ve learned about that have completely changed my life, but neuroplasticity is one of them. I’m just as excited about it now as I was when I first heard the term in my psychology classes at university. Up until that point, I was mostly resigned to the fact that, being in my twenties, my brain had already passed through the formative years in which it had any real potential to change. I felt that even though I was young, my brain was already set to mostly continue on the path it was placed on by my genetics and my experiences in my childhood/teen years.

I can still feel how thrilled I was to learn that wasn’t the case. As someone who is very data driven and fact focused, I would have never implemented yoga or meditation into my life if I hadn’t learned about neuroplasticity. Before that I wanted to believe in the healing potential of these practices, but as far as I could see, there was no hard evidence to show it did anything at all. (Granted I must not have been looking very hard.) But I learned that by mindfully practicing stillness, compassion, love, peace, focus, anything really, you are strengthening those neural pathways in the brain just like a muscle. What could be more incredible?

For the first time in my life, I saw, and truly believed, that I could be anything I wanted to be. It wouldn’t necessarily be easy or fast, but I was guaranteed to change if I put effort into it. I didn’t have to be that sad, angry, troubled, teenager anymore. I could be anyone. I could be cheerful, optimistic, friendly, loving, calm, kind. I didn’t have to feel like I was “lying to myself” by trying to change, like I used to. I knew it would work. I had the science to support me.

Even though it’s been years since I started intentionally redirecting my brain, I’m not quite where I want to be yet. As we all know, progress is not linear. I’ve encountered many setbacks along the way, especially this past year. But still, I have made some incredible progress. I never would have imagined at 18 that I would be the person I am today at 27. I still have a long way to go, but I am so much closer. A lot of the negative neural pathways that I maintained as a teenager, have all but withered away. And realizing all of this, remembering all of this, has reminded me that I can change. I’ve done it before. And it’s that belief in myself that ultimately makes it possible. I have neuroscience to thank for that belief.

I have been strengthening some pretty unhealthy pathways in my brain in 2020. It won’t be easy to redirect myself from those powerful urges and habits. But I’ll do it. I’ve already had a huge success yesterday. It may not have been perfect, but every little bit of progress counts. I feel so much better this morning. More awake, more energetic, more positive, more loved. That’s how I think of this effort, as an act of self-love. It keeps me motivated, happy, excited about the process. It feels so good to step away from this strange auto-pilot I’ve defaulted to and really be present with myself again. I have a long road ahead of me. But for the first time in a long time, I am eager to continue on this journey.

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