Monthly Archives: February 2013


IMG_0822Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the senses become blended, from the Greek “syn”, meaning “together”, and “aisthesis”, meaning “sensation”. By calling it a “condition”, I don’t mean to imply it is a bad thing. In fact, it can be enthralling to some individuals, and if they are artists can help them be more creative.

In most people, the senses are separate and distinct. They hear, see, smell, taste, and feel. In a person with synesthesia, 2 or more senses can become blended, resulting in associating certain musical tones with certain colors, or associating certain smells with particular colors, or “tasting” music. There are various other interesting ways in which the senses are blended.

Here is some more background on synesthesia from Hubbard EM:

Synesthesia is an experience in which stimulation in one sensory or cognitive stream leads to associated experiences in a second, unstimulated stream. Although synesthesia is often referred to as a “neurological condition,” it is not listed in the DSM IV or the ICD classifications, as it generally does not interfere with normal daily functioning. However, its high prevalence rate (one in 23) means that synesthesia may be reported by patients who present with other psychiatric symptoms. In this review, I focus on recent research examining the neural basis of the two most intensively studied forms of synesthesia, grapheme –> color synesthesia and tone –> color synesthesia. These data suggest that these forms of synesthesia are elicited through anomalous activation of color-selective areas, perhaps in concert with hyperbinding mediated by the parietal cortex. I then turn to questions for future research and the implications of these models for other forms of synesthesia.

Since this is a very subjective experience, it is difficult to study. There is no way to officially “diagnose” it, and it’s not very common. I don’t believe I have it, but sometimes I think I experience very brief flashes of it or something similar. It’s certainly possible that synesthesia is a continuum phenomenon, meaning it may not be a simple matter of you have it or you don’t(similar to many mental illnesses, though again, synesthesia isn’t an illness). If this is the case, it means most people would fall somewhere in the continuum, with extreme synesthesia on one end and complete absence of it on the other.

It sounds like it can be a wonderful experience for some people, with many artists claiming to have it. But is it possible to become a synesthete(a person with synesthesia) with training? I don’t know for sure, but it looks like the answer is no.

This doesn’t mean we can’t improve our artistic abilities or our senses; synesthesia isn’t the same thing as artistic talent or artistic appreciation, but perhaps we can learn something from the experiences of synesthetes. Juggling makes me more appreciative of intricate movement and dance, but it doesn’t necessarily bring me closer to synesthesia.

Still, I strive to make my juggling both more artful(by singing, humming, using different color balls, or dancing while doing it) and more athletic. The synergism between the two makes the experience far more uplifting than if I was aiming at either one of the two alone. It’s fun trying to make music with the balls, sort of like I’m a wild symphony orchestra conductor, but using balls and my arms instead of a baton. Art and fitness always together, not alone.

Above all, there is so much beauty out there to appreciate, and beauty within us that needs to be expressed. Try releasing more of it next time you exercise and you may find yourself getting better results.

Fitness as poetry

IMG_0819If there is one thing I do not like about modern living, it is how we compartmentalize our lives. There is one hour for exercise, hours and hours of work, an hour(if we’re lucky) for socializing, an hour for reading, a half hour for cooking and eating. This eventually gets hardened into routine. You become a fossil of yourself trapped in this rock-hard routine, barely able to breath or escape.

We need to be more flexible, we need to make fitness and fun a lifestyle, otherwise sickness and boredom will become our lifestyle. Always throw away your inhibitions and step out of your comfort zone. Don’t worry what others think. As you know I think fitness should be a form of play, rather than a tedious chore. I think we should reintegrate art into exercise to make it more like play and to further broaden our minds. They never should have been separate in the first place, it’s a very common bad habit to separate the two.

So sing while you exercise, or better yet while you dance. Liberate yourself from the chains holding you back from being a better you. Make exercise your art, be religious about it.

Song and dance and exercise were once all interwoven, bring them all back together. Do it with friends or family. Do it alone in the forest, dance and sing to the song of the forest. Sing while you run. Invent your own moves and your own style. Be poetry in motion and make sure you sound like it too.

“Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” – Margaret Lee Runbeck

Athleticism and vision

Here! Catch! How good are your eyes at keeping track of fast moving objects? Would you like to improve this ability?

Since professional athletes have to keep track of fast moving objects, it comes as no surprise that their dynamic visual acuity(DVA) is superior to that of non-athletes. What is DVA, and how exactly are athlete’s eyes better than non-athletes? The Waseda University, Mikajima, Tokorozawa, Saitama, Japan reports:

Dynamic visual acuity (DVA) is defined as the ability to discriminate the fine parts of a moving object. DVA is generally better in athletes than in non-athletes, and the better DVA of athletes has been attributed to a better ability to track moving objects. In the present study, we hypothesized that the better DVA of athletes is partly derived from better perception of moving images on the retina through some kind of perceptual learning. To test this hypothesis, we quantitatively measured DVA in baseball players and non-athletes using moving Landolt rings in two conditions. In the first experiment, the participants were allowed to move their eyes (free-eye-movement conditions), whereas in the second they were required to fixate on a fixation target (fixation conditions). The athletes displayed significantly better DVA than the non-athletes in the free-eye-movement conditions. However, there was no significant difference between the groups in the fixation conditions. These results suggest that the better DVA of athletes is primarily due to an improved ability to track moving targets with their eyes, rather than to improved perception of moving images on the retina.

So it was because their eyes are better at moving to track an object, than because of some kind of improvement in the retina. It is interesting how they tested this.

Can this ability be improved? With enough training, it looks like the answer is likely yes – High-Performance Vision Training Improves Batting Statistics for University of Cincinnati Baseball Players:


The University of Cincinnati team batting average increased from 0.251 in 2010 to 0.285 in 2011 and the slugging percentage increased by 0.033. The rest of the Big East’s slugging percentage fell over that same time frame 0.082. This produces a difference of 0.115 with 95% confidence interval (0.024, 0.206). As with the batting average, the change for University of Cincinnati is significantly different from the rest of the Big East (p=0.02). Essentially all batting parameters improved by 10% or more. Similar differences were seen when restricting the analysis to games within the Big East conference.


Vision training can combine traditional and technological methodologies to train the athletes’ eyes and improve batting. Vision training as part of conditioning or injury prevention can be applied and may improve batting performance in college baseball players. High performance vision training can be instituted in the pre-season and maintained throughout the season to improve batting parameters.

This is pretty remarkable, though they didn’t use any control groups(they compared results with the previous year).

They used a variety of devices to help improve their DVA and hand/eye coordination, including: DynavisionTachistoscope, Brock String, Eyeport, Rotary, Strobe Glasses, Saccades, and Near Far training.

I have no experience with any of these things, so I can’t say which ones work better than the others. As a juggler, I wonder if jugglers have the same superior DVA as baseball players, and I also wonder if learning to juggle could help improve the DVA and coordination of baseball players.

I also wonder if any of those cool sounding devices could help a juggler improve his/her juggling ability.

It’s hard to say at this point.

Can house plants improve indoor air quality?

Spider plant. Source: Wikipedia.

Spider plant. Source: Wikipedia.

It goes without saying that indoor air quality can affect human health. Indoor air is often more polluted than outside air. There are many strategies to help clean the air, like mechanical air filters. House plants and the microorganisms associated with them offer another method for cleaning the air. Or do they? The Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies put this to the test and reported:

The presence of potted plants likely favored a decrease of approximately 30% in PM₁₀ concentrations. Our findings corroborate the results of NASA studies suggesting that plants might improve indoor air and make interior breathing spaces healthier.

“PM” means “particulate matter“, which are extremely tiny particles that tend to be inhaled deep into the lungs and can have toxic effects.

Plants that clean the air the most include: peace lily, philodendron, mother-in-law’s tongue, spider plants, asparagus ferns, English ivy, bamboo palms, purple heart plant, pothos, potted mums, gerbera daisy, and orchids.

Besides this, greenery beautifies.

If you do a lot of indoor exercise, consider getting more houseplants to clean your air.

Jump rope training

In this era of increasingly super-ultra high-tech fitness, many simple, old-school fitness tools are unfortunately getting neglected. It just looks so “uncool” to some people, to use something your great grandparents may have used to keep fit. With all the high-tech options available today, and with how accurately they can keep track of calories burned, why go primitive? While I am not opposed to technological progress, I believe some of the best workouts you can possibly have can still be done with little to no equipment.

Take jumping rope for instance. Very ancient and ever affordable, a 150 lb(68 kg) person can burn 238 calories in 20 minutes by jumping rope at a moderate pace. And it exercises both your upper and lower body. All you need is the rope, and the space to do this(wooden floors are best). There are so many to choose from, and you can even make your own jump rope. It’s pretty good cross training for runners and boxers. Boxers frequently jump rope because it improves cardiovascular fitness and stamina. And heck, it’s a lot of fun when I do it very fast.

Besides being a good total body cardio exercise, jumping rope can also improve coordination. According to the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation, Faculty of Health Sciences, Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey: 

Adding rope jump to training programs improves joint repositioning and coordination. Weighted Rope Training group got greater gains for coordination and eccentric endurance parameters for lower extremities in a closed kinetic chain.

This makes it excellent cross-training for a variety of fitness activities. This is also one of the reasons I often recommend jumping rope to people who have trouble learning how to juggle. Becoming a good rope jumper may also help you become a competent joggler. Remember, in joggling, rhythm is everything, and jumping rope can help you develop a good sense of rhythm. It may even help you become a better dancer, so maybe you can compete on Dancing with the Stars after all(is this still on?).

I don’t jump rope as often as I used to, but being in the “rope bubble” as I call it puts me into a meditative state that is similar to how I feel when I juggle.

High-tech fitness equipment has its place, but they don’t guarantee amazing fitness results. And whatever you do, don’t forget to work on your coordination.

Wider headed men are more aggressive

Skull dimensions predicting behavior? It sounds like debunked 19th century criminal anthropology, but hold on. Here is some evidence from the Department of Psychology, Brock University:

Facial characteristics are an important basis for judgements about gender, emotion, personality, motivational states and behavioural dispositions. Based on a recent finding of a sexual dimorphism in facial metrics that is independent of body size, we conducted three studies to examine the extent to which individual differences in the facial width-to-height ratio were associated with trait dominance (using a questionnaire) and aggression during a behavioural task and in a naturalistic setting (varsity and professional ice hockey). In study 1, men had a larger facial width-to-height ratio, higher scores of trait dominance, and were more reactively aggressive compared with women. Individual differences in the facial width-to-height ratio predicted reactive aggression in men, but not in women (predicted 15% of variance). In studies 2 (male varsity hockey players) and 3 (male professional hockey players), individual differences in the facial width-to-height ratio were positively related to aggressive behaviour as measured by the number of penalty minutes per game obtained over a season (predicted 29 and 9% of the variance, respectively). Together, these findings suggest that the sexually dimorphic facial width-to-height ratio may be an ‘honest signal’ of propensity for aggressive behaviour.

This was only true of men, not of women. And yes, I realize “on average”. It looks like testosterone makes the skull wider, and so the higher a man’s testosterone levels, the wider his skull. And we all know testosterone is partially responsible for aggressive tendencies. A little more info: Facial structure is a reliable cue of aggressive behavior.

This is very interesting research. Hopefully the experts will do even more research, but I often wonder if there is anything useful that can be done with this kind of information without being discriminatory?

Be keen on choline

Choline is a necessary nutrient for proper human functioning, but it tends to get little attention. This is unfortunate, because a lot of people, in particular pregnant women and vegetarians, may be deficient in choline.

A neuron. Choline is necessary for nerve-signaling, synthesizing cell membranes, and is a precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Image source: Wikipedia

A neuron. Choline is necessary for nerve-signaling, synthesizing cell membranes, and is a precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Image source: Wikipedia

Choline is usually considered part of the B vitamin club. Or maybe it is more like a “fellow traveler”. Whatever the case, choline is a quaternary ammonium salt that is used to synthesize cell membranes, for energy production, and also for nerve signaling. It appears to be particularly important for proper brain, and liver functioning.

Choline is also a precursor molecule for making acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter in the brain that is important for memory and muscle control. Fatty organ meat is the best source of choline, and eggs(the yolk) to a lesser extent, though it can also be found in plant foods like nuts, whole grains and green vegetables, but in smaller amounts. Lecithin, which is used as an emulsifier in food production and as a supplement also has a lot of choline. A healthy person can make their own choline from the amino acid methionine, but many people don’t produce enough.

Unlike most nutrients, choline doesn’t have an RDA(recommended daily allowance). It does, however have an AI(adequate intake, which is 550 milligrams per day for men and 425 for women which was set in 1998), which means experts can’t agree on an RDA since the science is less clear for choline than for nutrients with RDAs, like vitamin C, calcium, vitamin A, and iron, among others. Not getting the RDA for vitamin C can lead to a deficiency disease called scurvy, which is characterized by bleeding gums, weakness, and bone pain.

Lack of choline, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily lead to any chronic, debilitating deficiency disease, except for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, in many, but not all people who get inadequate choline. According to –  Choline
Dietary Requirements and Role in Brain Development
Lisa M. Sanders, PhD, RD and Steven H. Zeisel, MD, PhD:

When placed on a low-choline diet, only 68% of individuals developed signs of organ dysfunction characteristic of choline deficiency. This suggests that genetic variability among individuals may influence susceptibility to choline deficiency.

So your genes can determine whether or not you show symptoms of choline deficiency. This is one very complex nutrient which is involved with so many metabolic pathways. Most pregnant women do not get adequate choline(in theory, they require more), however, supplementing with choline didn’t appear to help enhance infant cognitive function, according to: Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;96(6):1465-72. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.037184. Epub 2012 Nov 7:


The women studied ate diets that delivered ∼360 mg choline/d in foods (∼80% of the recommended intake for pregnant women, 65% of the recommended intake for lactating women). The phosphatidylcholine supplements were well tolerated. Groups did not differ significantly in global development, language development, short-term visuospatial memory, or long-term episodic memory.

Phosphatidylcholine supplementation of pregnant women eating diets containing moderate amounts of choline did not enhance their infants’ brain function. It is possible that a longer follow-up period would reveal late-emerging effects. Moreover, future studies should determine whether supplementing mothers eating diets much lower in choline content, such as those consumed in several low-income countries, would enhance infant brain development.

What about choline’s effect on dementia, since choline is a precursor for acetylcholine, which is important for brain health and memory production? According to – Clin Ther. 2003 Jan;25(1):178-93:

RESULTS: A total of 261 patients (132 in the CA group, 129 in the placebo group) were enrolled in the study. The mean (SD) age in the CA group was 72.2(7.5) years (range, 60-80 years), and in the placebo group it was 71.7 (7.4) years(range, 60-80 years). The CA group comprised 105 women and 27 men; the placebo group, 94 women and 35 men. The mean decrease in ADAS-Cog score in patients treated with CA was 2.42 points after 90 days of treatment and 3.20 points at the end of the study (day 180) (P < 0.001 vs baseline for both), whereas in patients receiving placebo the mean increase in ADAS-Cog score was 0.36 point <1 after 90 days of treatment and 2.90 points after 180 days of treatment(P < 0.001 vs baseline). In the CA group, all other assessed parameters (MMSE,GDS, ADAS-Behav, ADAS-Total, and CGI) consistently improved after 90 and 180 days versus baseline, whereas in the placebo group they remained unchanged or worsened. Statistically significant differences were observed between treatments after 90 and 180 days in ADAS-Cog, MMSE, GDS, ADAS-Total, and CGI scores and after 180 days of treatment in ADAS-Behav and GIS scores.CONCLUSION: The results of this study suggest the clinical usefulness and tolerability of CA in the treatment of the cognitive symptoms of dementia disorders of the Alzheimer type. (Emphasis mine)

So choline shows some promise when it comes to symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s, but more research needs to be done. Some good sources of choline:

Food Serving Total Choline (mg)
Beef liver, pan fried 3 ounces* 355
Wheat germ, toasted 1 cup 172
Egg 1 large 126
Atlantic cod, cooked 3 ounces 71
Beef, trim cut, cooked 3 ounces 67
Brussel sprouts, cooked 1 cup 63
Broccoli, cooked 1 cup, chopped 62
Shrimp, canned 3 ounces 60
Salmon 3 ounces 56
Milk, skim 8 fl oz. 38
Peanut butter, smooth 2 tablespoons 20
Milk chocolate 1.5-ounce bar 20

Source: Linus Pauling Institute of Oregon State University

None of this should be considered a recommendation to take choline supplements(or to eat a lot of meat), though if you look at the chart above it becomes obvious that vegetarians are more likely to become deficient than meat-eaters. Be on the look out for news about choline, and it may be worth talking about choline with your doctor if you show any deficiency symptoms. In the future, maybe there will be a simple liver test to see if we need more choline in our diet.

Musicians have larger corpus collosums

The benefits of playing a musical instrument are many, but did you know that if you learned to play an instrument early enough you may have a much larger corpus collosum than non-musicians?

What is this strange thing you ask? No no no, it is not what you are sitting on, that is the gluteus maximus. The corpus collosum(CC) connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It’s basically a bridge, but don’t tell the government or they will put tolls on it. Anyway, the CC appears to be significantly larger in musicians who started studying music before the age of 7:

Using in-vivo magnetic resonance morphometry it was investigated whether the midsagittal area of the corpus callosum (CC) would differ between 30 professional musicians and 30 age-, sex- and handedness-matched controls. Our analyses revealed that the anterior half of the CC was significantly larger in musicians. This difference was due to the larger anterior CC in the subgroup of musicians who had begun musical training before the age of 7. Since anatomic studies have provided evidence for a positive correlation between midsagittal callosal size and the number of fibers crossing through the CC, these data indicate a difference in interhemispheric communication and possibly in hemispheric (a)symmetry of sensorimotor areas. Our results are also compatible with plastic changes of components of the CC during a maturation period within the first decade of human life, similar to those observed in animal studies.

Studies like this are basically studying this really neat property of the brain called neuroplasticity. This basically means the brain can adapt or form new connections in response to learning. The brain adapts to learning how to juggle in a similar manner to how it adapts to learning to play an instrument. But you knew that already.

While brain plasticity is a feature of the brain at any age, young brains are more plastic than older ones. As the study suggested, the musicians with the much larger corpus collosums had been playing an instrument before age 7; learning after this age may not have the same permanent effect on optimizing growth of the corpus collosum.

This suggests a window of opportunity in learning things. The window isn’t completely closed after a certain age, there are after all many amazing musicians who started to learn to play well after age 7 obviously. On the other hand, how many 40 year old world famous virtuoso pianists are out there who have only been playing since the age of 35? Besides me, of course?

At this stage of research, we don’t really know if having a larger CC actually means a person is smarter(children who play an instrument regularly tend to do better in school, but that doesn’t mean that being a musician necessarily makes them smarter). On the other hand, it can’t be a bad thing. And since we are on the subject of the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, remember that the differences between the right and left hemispheres are mostly a myth. A very stubborn myth too.

Even if you can’t stimulate your corpus collosum to grow bigger after a certain age, keeping your brain active by learning something new is still the best way to keep your brain healthy.

Joggling through the snow and the mind


Snow is endlessly tricky for joggling. Every few feet its texture changes. It occasionally conceals ice or puddles underneath. How many times my feet have gotten wet and cold as a result!

How the snow cloaks the earth, how it masterfully conceals. You try to master it, yet in the end it always wins, balls get dropped, feet get wet, or a body part is injured. As tricky as a snowy forest is, it still pales in comparison to the cloaks all humans wear. As tricky as joggling in the snow is, figuring out humans is far more challenging. Snowy terrain is easy. Navigating the icy terrain of the human mind is something else entirely.

What is real and what is illusion? Our senses aren’t always reliable. We are so easy to fool, and we fool ourselves better than anyone else can. Who can we trust, when we sometimes can’t even trust ourselves?

Wait, so that is a small tree ahead and not a person? I thought that was a shrub in the distance, and not a dog. How was I to know this snow concealed a small pond? If only it were always so easy.


Doukhobor vegetarianism

Doukhobor women pulling plough. Source: Wikipedia

Doukhobor women pulling plough. Source: Wikipedia

As a vegetarian and history buff, I am fascinated by the history of vegetarianism and why certain groups and individuals chose a vegetarian lifestyle. Vegetarianism has very ancient roots, especially in India where observant Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus all generally practice vegetarianism, with the Jains being the most strict about it.

Various other religions and mystical sects outside of India practice vegetarianism, but they are generally much smaller in number and not as well known. Seventh Day Adventism is a protestant Christian denomination that advocates a vegetarian diet, though not all of them follow it. Many Christians from various sects are vegetarian, but for individual spiritual, ethical or health reasons, not because their church advocates it. I’ve also met many Jewish vegetarians over the years.

Among the more obscure Christian sects that practice vegetarianism are the Doukhobors(Духоборы). They split off from the Russian Orthodox Church several centuries ago due to their pacifism, anti-authoritarianism, non-belief in churches, priests or most religious rituals, and were persecuted by the Russian authorities as a result, when they weren’t too busy persecuting Jews I suppose. Their beliefs make them similar to Mennonites in many ways, and they were also vaguely similar to early hippies, but without the drugs, among many other differences.

A large portion of them eventually emigrated, with the help of Leo Tolstoy(who had a lot in common with the Doukhobors) and Quaker sympathizers, to the welcoming prairie regions of Canada, where they practiced communal farming and by the late 19th century, became vegetarians. They also forbid alcohol and smoking. Sounds like I would almost fit right in! Although they were mostly left alone, they did occasionally have problems with the Canadian authorities.

So why are Doukhobors vegetarians? According to Jim Popoff, a Doukhobor representative:

In striving to attain their expressed basic goal of “Toil and Peaceful Life,” the Doukhobors touched upon the very essence of the Doukhobor life-concept, which is a state of universal love for all of God’s creation. Thus, they found they could no longer participate in any form of violence, especially the taking of a human life, for any reason. This led, of course, to their decisive renunciation of militarism and the Burning of Arms in 1895 – historic events being honoured during this year’s centennial

It also led to their realization that if they could not take the life of a fellow human being, neither could they kill any other of God’s living creatures. Since animals had to be killed before they could be eaten, the Doukhobors resolved to stop using the flesh of animals for food. This step was taken even before the dramatic events of 1895, by which time they had already become strict vegetarians. Thus, their vegetarianism had an ethical origin, but Doukhobors soon realized that there were also distinct health benefits to a vegetarian diet, especially when it consisted of simple, unrefined, and naturally grown foods. Peter Lordly Verigin frequently counselled his followers about various healthful dietary practices. Doukhobors who grew up in the wholesome lifestyle conditions of those times became living proof of these benefits in the forthcoming decades, with their sustained vitality and remarkable longevity.

In other words, it was the next logical step in their spiritual/cultural evolution as a religious community. It also helped that one of their leaders was very health-conscious.

While the descendants of the Doukhobors have largely moved on from the self-sufficient, communal lifestyle their ancestors came to Canada to practice, at least a few still practice vegetarianism and some are still farmers. As they have assimilated into Canadian society, the Russian language has slowly disappeared, but a few are doing what they can to keep it and other Russian customs alive.