If you've been listening to the podcast the past few months, you know that I have not fared well living in my brain, from the election on through the first month of the Trump administration.
By inauguration day, it had gotten so bad that I was trawling news sites, Twitter and Facebook several times an hour looking for people to argue with.
Inauguration day also happens to be my dad's birthday. As we drove to Charleston to visit and get some lunch (the dictate was at a place without televisions), I knew I had to do something to change direction.
So when we arrived, I opened my phone and deleted the Twitter and Facebook apps.
I'm still plenty active on both (Twitter | Facebook), but I really am only on the platforms when I'm sitting in front of my computer.
I do miss the opportunity to share from an app — most often Flipboard and my podcast app — but if there's anything I want to be sure to share out I'll email it to myself with a note.
There's something about deliberately visiting social media sites that makes my posting and commenting more deliberate. I have less time available, so I'm pickier about what I say and to whom I say it.
It's also led to some more in-person engagement. I'm certainly not pulling out my phone to look at it as often as I used to. I'm talking to more strangers, and I'm eminently more present around friends and family.
Today, the 14th of February, marks the seventh anniversary of my first date with my lovely wife.
Valentine's Day. That should be easy enough to remember, right?
This year, we decided to celebrate at a Savannah institution, Alligator Soul. They had a New Orleans-inspired menu for Valentine's Day.
Let's start right off with this is a place that knows how to treat diners. They took our coats, sat us 15 minutes ahead of our reservation and brought us a little take-home gift with our names on the sticker.
Our server, Robert, knew both the food and drink menus.
I started with a Sazerac, my go-to cocktail when I'm at anew place. Not my favorite version in town, but it paired really nicely with the carving board we picked as a starter. [Robert also recommend a cocktail for the Mrs., which she enjoyed, but there's a story with it.]
We were treated to an amuse-bouche of cajun beans with dried chorizo, and here's where that cocktail story comes in. The cocktail itself was lemon and cherry and a booze or two, and milady tried it immediately after the very lively amuse-bouche. She said it didn't taste like anything, and she handed it over. I took a sip of water and tasted it, and told her she was out of her mind.
Lesson: Cleanse your palate. After doing that, she was quite happy 🙂
The carving board came with a bleu, a cheddar, and something Robert called "gruyere-style." All three cheeses were from Georgia, as were the meats — bone marrow (a first for both of us), some rich, creamy pork belly and an added alligator sausage. Mustard, balsamic, grapes, pear, honey and three kinds of bread (toast, lavash and papadam) accompanied the meat and cheese.
The Mrs. had a perfectly prepared bacon-wrapped filet (medium-rare), while I opted for the game bird special, a medium-rare squab. I was undecided between the squab and the duck, but I'm glad Robert recommended the squab, because, frankly, I can go to my local grocery store, turn on my oven and roast a duck. Squab is probably not going to be on very many menus I see in my life.
As we dove into dinner, Robert found milady a riesling (she's a white-wine drinker, despite the steak) that she was happy with, and I tried what they call a gentleman's flight — a rye, sour-mash and bourbon whiskey sampler.
For dessert, the Mrs. opted for a chocolate parfait with amaretto creme, served in a champagne flute, while I went for the banana beignets, served warm over vanilla ice cream.
We were in a small room with several other couples, and we all got to talking, which, in my experience, is fairly uncommon at a restaurant of this caliber. Among other things, we discussed where everyone was from, eating something like squab, and my pants.
If you can fit it in your budget ($45 was a reasonable gratuity for our meal), I'd highly recommend a visit while you're in town.
It's been almost three weeks since I took Twitter and Facebook off my phone. I'm not absent from the networks, my following is growing, and I'm so much more present in my everyday life. We talk a little about politics (of course), welcome family to town and the Super Bowl.
The brief backstory on Kotler is that he got Lyme disease, it was misdiagnosed and he was in bed for three years. Eventually a friend convinced him to go surfing and his body started to heal. "Hmm," he thought. "Surfing is not a known cure for chronic autoimmune diseases."
So he did some research and discovered that action sports with a fair bit of risk get us into a state called flow, a state that not only helps with decision-making in high-pressure situations, it's that state that gets us writing, conversing, coding or whatever for hours with a high level of correctness and efficiency.
Kotler figured out for himself while writing a book that he could get himself into flow reliably with a specific bit of exercise he would use any time he was blocked and trying to solve a problem. If you've ever sat down with a friend and started talking and all of a sudden four hours have passed, you've been in flow.
In The Rise of Superman, Kotler outlines some of the neuroscience behind flow. Meanwhile, I was taking another one of my random walks through the library stacks and Kayt Sukel's The Art of Risk jumped out at me.
She was a badass when she was younger. A climber who, after getting divorced, took her one-year-old son and backpacked around Europe. She got in an MRI machine and had an orgasm for a book and went around the country talking about it.
But she found herself taking fewer risks as she got older and wondered why, so she set out to figure out what goes on in a risk-taker's brain.
And fuck if she wasn't writing about the same bits of the brain that Kotler wrote about.
We'll come back to this later, but gamma activity is a signifier of flow.
Crazy. It was a sure sign that I needed to know a little more.
Here are some things we know about the brain. While I've been reading a lot here and there, the most succinct source for the historical stuff in this section is The Great Brain Book by HP Newquist.
Several thousand years ago, the Egyptians, in the mummification of the dead, were the first people to cut open bodies in an effort to preserve them.
They thought the brain was trash.
In the mummification process, the organs were removed so that the body could dry. The heart was returned to the chest. This is the organ the Egyptians believed handled thought, emotion and everything else, and that it would be useful in the afterlife to have it inside the body.
The lungs, kidneys and other stuff that sits in the torso were placed in jars and left nearby the body in the tomb (the Egyptians also left toys and tools and other things they thought the body could use in the afterlife).
Then they shoved a chisel in the nasal cavity, stuck a hook up there and yanked out what they could of the brain. They would later scoop out whatever was left.
They didn't leave the brain in the body. They didn't even put it in a jar. It just went out with the garbage.
Things go that way for about 1,400 years, until Herophilus, the "father of anatomy," cuts open cadavers and finds that the brain does connect to the rest of the body. This is around 300 BCE.
Four to five hundred years later, Galen posits that the brain actually handles a lot of functions, including moods. He gets the mechanism so wrong it's not worth discussing, but there's at least the understanding that the brain controls a good bit of what makes us people.
We're at about 1,900 years ago now.
Over the next, oh, 1,750 years, we get detailed drawings, but no real new science.
Then, in 1848, a railroad worker named Phineas Gage is clearing some space to lay track. He puts dynamite in a hole, tamps it down, and BLAM! — the explosive blows before he can get out of the way and his tamping rod goes up through his jaw, behind his left eye and out the top of his head.
As he's laying on the ground, the rod still stuck in him, workers come over and collect what they assume is the body of their late colleague. Instead, they help Gage up, and he's walking around and talking just like normal.
Well, as normal as you can be with a tamping rod sticking out of two holes in your head.
Gage lives another 12 years, with the only real noticeable side effect being that he turns into a really grumpy dude.
Doctors, of course, started examining him right away, and they studied his brain long after he died.
The biggest discovery early on from Gage's examinations was that different parts of the brain handle different things.
In 1861, a French physician named Pierre Paul Broca meets a patient named Louis Victor Leborgne. Leborgne could only say the syllable, "Tan." He seemed perfectly normal otherwise. His body language suggested that he understood everything that people said to him or asked him, but he couldn't say anything but "Tan."
Broca postulated that Leborgne had damage in the part of his brain that handled language, and, sure enough, when they opened his head upon his death, one part of his brain was badly decayed.
In the 1870s, a pair of doctors figured out that the right side of the brain handles the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls the right — in other words, the two sides of the brain work independently.
Over the ensuing half-century, we learn that the brain sends out electrical signals, and in 1924, we get the EEG, which worked then pretty much the same way it works now (we of course now also have the MRI as a more comprehensive way to look at brain activity).
In the 1950s, Wilder Penfield discovers he can get physical reactions by stimulating different parts of the brain.
And that's it, until very recently. Quick review:
• 1700 - 300 BCE: We go from throwing out the brain to learning that it's connected to the rest of our inside.
• Around 100 CE: We start thinking the brain controls our feelings
• Around 1500 CE: Anatomists start drawing things
• 1848-1950s CE: We learn basically everything you and I learned in science class about the brain.
In the 60 or so years that have passed since then — and we all know people who are way older than that — we've learned so much more. We've developed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines that can read what's going on in the brain. We know what each part of the brain does, at least to some extent. We know about neurotransmitters. We know about brain waves.
And we've been manipulating pieces here and there, with more and more accuracy. With the development of earlier drugs like fluoxetine and sertraline (Prozac and Zoloft, respectively), we figured out how to do things like block some neurotransmitter receptors. More and more specific drugs have been developed as well, and a current fad is over-the-counter nootropics like Alpha Brain and lion's mane-and-chaga mushroom "coffee" (both of which I'll recommend, but the Alpha Brain much moreso than the mushroom coffee).
Kotler also recommends a recipe for getting into flow predictably, though I won't post it here as (a) he put the work in, (b) I haven't tried it to be able to recommend it and (c) it might not be legal everywhere.
We're only going to get better at manipulating our brains, too, and the speed of information gathering is going to continue to increase.
Exciting stuff, huh? And what amazing creatures we are!