I've got a rare genetic condition (Ehlers Danlos Syndrome) that causes crazy flexible joints, frequent dislocations, and a bunch of other not fun and crazy stuff, AMA!
Jul 2nd 2017 by industrialink • 12 Questions • 399 Points
Hi, I'm Steve Brown, the real estate editor of The Dallas Morning News. I've covered the beat in North Texas since 1980, following the fall and meteoric rise of one of the most vibrant housing markets in the country.
I'm also the 2017 chair of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, who met a few weeks ago for our annual conference in Las Vegas. Ask me anything!
Replies will be tagged "-SB"
And that's it, all! Thanks for joining us for another great AMA. For more Reddit happenings from The Dallas Morning News, be sure to follow us at u/dallasmorningnews
Can you clap with one hand by having it smack against the inside and outside of your forearm?
Would you be interested in filming a niche porn category with a woman that is very flexible and can be folded up to fit in a suitcase, box, or oven?
Nootropics is a very growing market. What are your thoughts on the use and/or the regulation of nootropics?
Hey! Love all the vintage Fortune covers... we've got a few of those floating around our office (Fortune is a sister brand at Time Inc).
How has the housing market changed in North Texas since you published this article in 2015?
As a kid I used to be able to the clap thing with my left arm, but after a bad wrist dislocation I'm no longer able to. And as for the niche porn? The money would have to be pretty good.
There are a host of chemical agents people consume with the goal of improving their cognitive function. It’s estimated that the sale of such drugs from improving cognition is a billion dollar a year business in the world. Most of these drugs and supplements induce the actions of natural neurotransmitters and modulate plasticity in ways that impact brain function. The drugs that are used off-label, designed to treat ADHD, are a case in point. A drug like Adderall is a stimulant that has the same general effects as the natural neurotransmitter, norepinephrine. There are about 20 chemical agents overall that are relatively well-known, distributed for sale and studied on some level, that are being sold in the nootropic marketplace. There is a significant body of evidence that at least some of these agents (not all) have positive “performance” or “cognitive” enhancing impacts. On the other hand, they are in a sense mind-altering and one consequence of their use is the downregulation of the processes that produces natural brain-generated transmitters. There are two consequences of this. You need to continue to take the stimulate or the boosting drug and you need to progressively increase the dosing of it to have a stable amplifying effect. When you’re off the stimulant, everything is turned down. Artificially establishing a situation over time in which you must have a stimulant to perform at a high level is a rather questionable life strategy.
We know that you can drive changes in the brain that are equivalent to taking a stimulant drug through an intensive brief period of brain exercise. I’ve earlier described brain exercises that we apply that are specifically designed to upregulate norepinephrine. We’ve shown that if you work at an exercise for a few minutes, before you enter a learning cycle, it accelerates learning rate and increases asymptotic learning achievements across a period of tens of minutes. If you do this everyday for several weeks, the upregulation of the release of the stimulant from the natural processes of the brain appears to be sustained out to the future. The difference? It’s all natural and it operates 24/7.
Prices have gone up by more than 20 percent in the last two years. And there's very little for sale in the area priced under $250,000 - only about 4,000 listings last time I checked. - SB
We’re supporting a trial underway. This has been a subject of intense interest having been stimulated by the large number of war-wounded individuals who have come home to a life of PTSD. There are a half-dozen different brain-plasticity training strategies that are now being evaluated. One class of studies have involved virtual reality training that usually incorporates some form of directly dealing with, and attempting to weaken, that kind of signaling that sets off a PTSD epoch. Others have applied strategies like ours designed to more broadly normalize all of the distorted machinery that contributes to the repetitive, powerful hijacking of the brain by the historical terrors that are the basis of the problem. Many others personalize the intervention with recognition of the complex and very highly-individualized nature of traumatic human experiences. All of these strategies show promise. None have been demonstrated to be a completely reliably solution yet. My belief now is that some combination of strategies – integrated neurological collection with refined trauma-specific coaching – might be the strongest form of treatment that we can apply to help these individuals.
I’ve argued in meetings at the While House and elsewhere that when we train a soldier and teach them to accept the terrible things that they must do “on the job” we should think about training them just as seriously and intensely and carefully when they return home from duty and go back to civilian life. We’ve altered them neurologically through brain plasticity processes to play a role as an imposer of violence and as a witness of its horrors. They have acted in our service doing something that most of us couldn’t do. At the end of this incredibly generous action on our behalf, we have an equal responsibility to help them bring their brain back to normalcy.
Alas, we are not now doing a good job of this. Shame on us.
Talk about self serving question! - SB
One way to evaluate the claims of the available brain training programs is to look at the underlying research. Independent researchers (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28092015) recently published the first systematic review of the science behind commercially available brain-training programs. They identified 18 companies and found that 11 companies had no clinical trials or empirical evidence indicating that they helped with healthy aging. The remaining seven companies were classified into three levels of evidence with the highest level requiring at least two well-designed randomized controlled trials, at least one of which met gold standards. BrainHQ outranked Cognifit, Cogmed, BrainAge2, My Brain Trainer, Dakim, and Lumosity by a large margin, with more than twice the number of highest-standards controlled trials than any other commercial competitor. Lumosity actually came in the bottom bracket of those companies shown to have evidence.
This work clearly demonstrates that when it comes to brain training, not all programs are alike. At the same time this does not mean that there is no value to the training exercises sold by these companies, it simply means that they sell things for which they have limited hard evidence that they actually work.
It was a giveaway from the folks at the Crescent with their anniversary. -SB
Restoration of memory is commonly approached by applying either one of two general strategies. The usual training form is to practice remembering. This approach stems from a long history is cognitive experimental psychology where the natural therapeutic approach has been to address a weakness by practicing in ways that would be imagined to directly overcome it. For memory this means 3 things: practicing to remember longer strings or lists of information, practicing to recall things that you know belong together or that are associated, and learning tricks or strategies or methods to work around your failing memory. All of these strategies have compensatory value but none of them actually fix the fundamental neurological problems that usually apply to an individual with a failure memory. For example, older people lose their memory primarily for 2 reasons. The first is that the brain no longer represents information it's receiving or manipulating in as sharp or salient form. Because information is represented unreliably in a “fuzzy” neurological way it struggles to record it. Recovery of memory requires training that again refines, sharpens, increases the salience of, and recovers the reliability of the representation of the high-speed details of what you have just seen or heard or felt. Secondly, old brains are noisy and that nosiness results in problems of interference for any long sustained operation. It’s important that you train the brain in ways that suppresses and reduces that noisiness. All of these basic contributors to memory failure can be very positively engaged in most individuals by appropriate, intensive exercise. That exercise can come in natural forms or by engaging yourself in the right forms of computerized exercises.
The best pricing will be east of U.S. 75. -SB
So, this impacted your athletic passion, what did you find to replace it?
1) Do the quality of our thoughts also change our brains? Can having positive self talk etc improve our brains?
2) Can I become smarter at 25 given I've been cognitively stagnant for the past 9 years? Is it possible?
Can you get smarter at 25? Half of the variance of adaptive intelligence is explained by variance in brain speed. Can your brain speed be accelerated? Not a problem. The right kind of brain exercises on a computer, or the right kind of natural activities, can contribute to an acceleration of the natural processes of your brain at every brain system level. When scientists studying intelligence tried to understand other factors that contributed to adaptive or fluid intelligence, they added 4 or 5 other key factors to that list. Fortunately for you, they are also all plastic. So can you recover your brain power, and make yourself “smarter”? Get to it. I should say that psychologists that study these issues have wrestled with the mutability of intelligence for a long time. There is still a strong body of psychology deniers, sort of like the global warming deniers, that seem to lack a full appreciation of our capacity to change our neurological abilities to change the machinery of our brain, by engaging in the appropriate forms of exercise.
In time, they will get over this.
As for changing your attitude, to change your capabilities; can you talk to yourself and drive yourself into a ditch? Or to improve your performance abilities? Learning and achievement is contextual. If I simply explain to individuals – adults or children – that they have a clear capacity to change their brain for the better, I increase the likelihood that over time, they will be better. If I simply educate children in the fifth grade that their brains are plastic, they will do better in the sixth grade. This is well-established science. Of course, the same applies on the negative side of life. My dear sweet mother-in-law, a master pie maker, began telling herself at about age 70 that she could no longer make a good pie. Pretty soon, she couldn’t. It is a very good idea to live life with a positive attitude.
Real estate is still largely a local business. I expect it will stay that way when it comes to homes. - SB
Do you largely concur with Dr. Sarno’s work regarding the brain and pain? If not, why not? To drill down a bit, some of us who have applied his insights about the brain and have experienced much less pain for months will inexplicably relapse into pain and then get stuck, unable to successfully apply the principles that seemed to work earlier; do you have any insights or suggestions to address this dilemma from a neuroplasticity perspective?
As you know Dr. Sarno was a controversial physician who argued that chronic pain was powerfully contributed to by an anxious demeanor or personality. That it could be an exaggerated outcome of uncontrolled or unrepressed anxieties or worries. This perspective stems from studies that began to emerge in the second World War that strongly argued that pain is powerfully modulated by context. For example, severe wounding on the battle field could be a good thing if it translated into survival and going home to your family. The same wound in a homeland factory could be devastating where job loss meant deep family troubles. The wounded soldier didn’t hurt nearly so much as the wounded civilian. We know that there are powerful processes in the brain / plastic processes that can contribute to and sustain pain genesis or that can contribute to pain suppression. Dr. Sarno probably exaggerated the cure-all nature of this therapies but it’s generally that this class of therapy helps many people and that the help can be transformational.
Chronic pain has a plasticity-based origin. When a painful source of information comes from the body, roaring activity from the source of the pain degrades the representation of innocuous inputs from that body region. The machinery of the brain is unstable and oscillates and that oscillatory activity is sine qua non with pain. When it’s there, you hurt. When it’s not there, you don't. This degradation can actually be amplified. It can grow by continuously reliving and reimagining it (i.e., practiced suffering) to extend beyond the insult itself by plastic changes that arise in the brain. It can clearly be related to the anxiety and other factors emphasized by Dr. Sarno. Through growth the pain can achieve a life of its own long after the source of the pain has been eliminated. In my view, Dr. Sarno was a little reckless, perhaps, but he was also quite a bit ahead of his time.
You mention that the brain has several stages of change during the course of a lifespan. I have seen imaging videos of a dramatic pruning process occurring during the teenage years that is a natural function of every human brain. Jung mentioned the midlife of a person is a peak moment for embracing elements of themselves neglected through the first half of their life, typically instigated by a sense of dissatisfaction. What other essential stages are there if any, and how might they be managed effectively?
For me, it made me realize my true passions, and it's led me to meet some truly amazing people who have become very close to me. Gotta take the good with the bad.
I do not think of brain development as staged. I think of it as continuous and progressive from the beginning of around the third trimester in the womb to the date of death. What occurs in a teenage/young adult brain is a late stage of progressive, advancing change where the brain finally has the power to command control of the “highest” levels of operation. Once it engages these highest levels it changes their operations in ways that confer reliability and control. And one expression of those changes is “pruning”. Of course in different individuals the timing of these changes can be very different. Many brains arrive at this relatively complete state of personal evolution at a young age. Others never get there.
In the development of your neurological powers, the brain plastically organizes itself on the basis of the strength of correlation of local activities. It first has the power to organize cerebral-cortical systems where information first enters the cerebral cortex but it has to strengthen and refine through plastic remodeling the way it represents the information in detail before it can effectively engage machinery at the next higher brain level. It plasticity changes in ways that increases its reliability and that increases the power of its cooperative actions level by level by level until it reaches a peak performance epoch. In most brains, this is sometimes in the third decade of life. It’s continuous process. The process continues past that third decade in a more highly variable way as a function of how you live your older life. Most individuals move from a growth period to a progressively declining functional epoch that extends roughly from the 30th birthday to when they die. Because the brain is continuously plastic this does not have to happen. Continuing growth is possible. Sustaining those high levels close to the end of life is achievable. The brain does not have to go backward in the direction it come from so that as you age you are more like the baby that came into the world long back in your personal history.
The modulation or control of brain plasticity is a subject of thousands of scientific reports. There is a control system deep in the brain that releases chemical modulators – we call them modulatory neurotransmitters. Included on this list are the transmitters norepinephrine, acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, and endogenous opioids – along with two or three other minor players. Modulators are engaged as a function of behavioral context; you can think of them as having enabling power for plasticity. Or, they are released as a function of performance success – you could think of those as having “confirming power”. For example, norepinephrine broadly increases the excitability of responses across the cerebral cortex for those momentary times when it is released. When I am challenged to solve a problem, or challenged because something surprising has just occurred, its level of expression goes up. You could think of it as turning up the lights in the brain in ways that contribute to getting the answer right.
The neurotransmitter acetylcholine plays a different, crucial role. Acetylcholine is also released during moments of close attention – it actually increases the excitability of all of those things that are close to something I expect to occur, or something I am listening or searching for, or sensing to occur in my feelings. It actually allows the brain to change, to find a new solution, because the brain can actually engage the processes that can allow a substitution of what inputs dominate neural responses at each affected location. You can think of it as opening up the repertoire in the domain of possible change; once it is turned on, it gives you about two minutes to go through a behavioral cycle with the possibility of changing its effectively engaged neurons for the ones that were most valuable to improving behavioral performance.
Dopamine, another key neurotransmitter, is released as a function of the occurrence of a reward, or as the brain informs itself that it has responded correctly or made a correct judgment (a “self-recognized reward”), or by the expectation of a reward. That is to say, as soon as the brain expects you get the answer right, you get that rush of pleasure that tells you, “way to go!” – even before you respond to indicate that you know the right answer. Dopamine does two critical things: it modulates enduring change. Dopamine release does another wonderful thing; dopamine related processes actually change rapidly from having an initial positive plastic effect to having an immediately following negative plastic effect. What it is doing is strengthening all of those activities that contributed to performance success, then it takes the next moment in time to weaken everything connectionally that did not contribute. So, there is a positive and negative effect, which taken together, amplifies the power of change.
Serotonin and endogenous opioids and other modulators are also in play, but explaining their specific roles would take another page, or two…or three. I recommend Wikipedia.
In the meantime, think about the marvels of owning a brain that controls its own evolution and change. What do these modulatory neurotransmitters do in sum? They turn on your plasticity machine when something important is about to happen (or has just happened). They open up the machinery for broad change, just for those learning moments when change can be important or valuable to you. They evaluate the success of your behavioral “try” – if it is a good one, they save all of those changes that contribute to its success, and by doing that progressively and iteratively, they give you the power of master controller for even very complex activities. All of this occurs with the brain operating on the basis of enabling change that it interprets to be in its own best interest. What a machine you possess. What a wondrous thing. I sure hope you have a healthy one. I sure hope you are taking good care of your very own most powerful organ.
In the early days of your research, the accepted idea was that the brain was static and that the only change in structure and function that occurred during mid-late life was degeneration. What was some of the early evidence and findings that led to the acceptance of the idea of neuroplasticity? What made you go against the largely accepted school of thought?
First of all, there were prior studies conducted primarily in the domain of physiological psychology that argued contrary to the predominant view that the brain was continuously plastic. They just weren’t taken very seriously by the neuroscientific mainstream. My transformation came from two sources: a research team that I lead at the University of California contributed to the invention of a device called the cochlear implant and we realized in its application that what can appear to be an almost miraculous recovery in listening ability must be attributed to brain remodeling. These devices shocked the sector of the hearing range that normally only represents highest frequency sounds with only a very crude simulation of the normal patterns of input representing intelligible speech. Not surprisingly, the speech that most individuals initially heard was very degraded. In time, a miracle occurred. They heard everything. And, they described what they heard as sounding completely natural, just as it sounded before they lost their hearing. This was not a miracle accounted for by our engineering. The brain did it by changing itself to account for this recovered power.
In parallel, we were conducting studies on the basic organization of great sensory systems of the brain and very early on showed that the changes that occurred following damage to a peripheral nerve innervating the hand manifested powerful adult brain remodeling. We quite quickly showed that we could drive such changes very easily by manipulating inputs from the skin, or by training in an animal of any age. That led us to conduct studies in which we trained animals to define the rules that govern plastic change. We saw that plasticity was rule-based, and following those rules, we could change the brain positively or negatively in performance and in its operational powers at will.
After a long series of studies designed to optimize this level of control, we have looked for models in which we could translate this science out into the world, to the benefit of struggling human populations. Initial focus was on children that struggle in their language abilities, and struggled to learn to read, and struggle in their cognitive development in school. Up to this point, we have trained more than 6 million such children in American public schools. Our interest then turned to individuals in the adult world, in adult populations, who acquire problems in life, expressed as psychiatric illness, or neurological injury or illness. Because everyone’s brain is plastic, every individual that struggles on planet earth can improve their functional abilities and brain health through appropriate forms of intensive brain remodeling.
Finally, it is not just about the struggling. It is about every one of us. It is about every individual making the most out of life. About working to improve their operational performance abilities; on the job, in life, in the things that matter to them. It includes you.
Thank you, sir, for this amazing post. What can be done regarding anger? Is this an inherited characteristic?
Anger is out of the immediate realm of my expertise. We commonly measure responses that relate to anger in individuals that we are trying to help. In general, we know that uncontrolled anger responses and expressions of hyper-reactivity emerge from the emotional control machinery of the brain, from the amygdala and the structures that feed it. This machinery can be quieted by specific forms of training. We apply that training, for example, in “wild children”, who cannot be sustained in a conventional home or foster care home because of their inherent strong emotional instability. “Mad all the time” or maybe more correctly, “upset all the time”, can describe many such children. In studies that we have supported in Australia, for example, the trainees are children who, because they have been in more than five foster care homes in the previous year, have been taken from them to live in a group facility where they can be minded 24 hours a day because of their ongoing, almost complete lack of personal control. Even in these extreme cases, these children’s brains can be plastically changed to get them past this completely self-defeating epoch in their life, in the great majority of cases.
What does it take to do that? First, we apply the kind of calming strategies that are commonly expressed within the science of meditation. Children are trained to understand that their brain is responsible and is highjacking them when they have an angry, out of control episode. That they simply must wait until it passes, until the brain storm, in their amygdala, moves out over the horizon again. Children are also trained in ways that are designed to positively reconnect them to other people, and to more accurately interpret where other people are coming from emotionally, that commonly lead to their misinterpretations that lead to their anger responses. I know this is probably not a very direct answer to your question about your own anger and the way it arises within you, but what I know for sure is that your angry moments are also subject to plastic modification. That you, too, can learn to wait until the storm passes. That you, too, can change your brain, and how you interpret the actions of others that reduce the probability that you respond inappropriately so often.
One last point. If, at some point in life, I poke my finger in your eye every so often, you might be inclined later in life to a bit more prone to be angry every once in a while. It’s very possible that in your early life, maybe without you knowing it, someone was poking a finger in your eye pretty regularly. It doesn’t actually have to be an outside agency, because you can often do the poking. When a child goes to school and is bullied or doesn’t do well in school, or feels inadequate or friendless, they can be poking their own eye. Something like this in your life might be the true origin of the moments of anger that are expressed later in life. Thank goodness you have a plastic brain, because if you live your whole life without doing something about it, shame on you!
Hi Dr. Merzenich, do you have any experience with hemifacial spasm?
Since the predominant hypothesis of origin seems to lie in the facial nerve (a nerve enervating the muscle of the face and not the brain) there is relatively little that I could say about it except that any widespread engagement of those muscles will result in a very powerful feedback from sensory receptors from muscles, skin and other tissues in the face to the brainstem (which could contribute to generating an enduring problem). I’m uncertain as to whether or not there might be a brain plasticity-related strategy to impact it but it’s not impossible to think there might be.
If I were you I would have someone stimulate the surface of my face (as I was blindfolded) and see if I could accurately reconstruct the locations of felt stimuli on the effected as well on the unaffected side. If you can’t, have that person help you with a 20-minute daily training session and see if you can improve your sensory feedback from the face. It’s possible that any weakening from that highly correlated activity fed back to the brain from skin and muscles could be on a path to at least limited improvement and generation of these strong co-contracting events. Of course you might also find that such an exercise is valueless. In which case, sorry for bringing it up.