Friday, February 13, 2015

Thoughts on a healthy brain

For those who follow my blog, you might have noticed that the past few weeks I've seen quite a lot of progress.  What has changed?  I'm not certain.  My regimen has not changed much at all for the past eight months of Diplopia and tDCS.  My guess is that my eyes have aligned to an extent which allows my brain to turn off suppression.  Now that my convergence and divergence are so quick and facile, there's significantly less overall visual conflict and therefore less need to suppress.

But anyway, I wanted to make a post about the topic of brain health and mind awareness.  It's something that I've always been interested in, but that I've gotten more interested in as of late.

My main interest lies in the building scientific evidence of the positive effects that meditation has on the brain and, through the brain, the body.  Some of the benefits include improved concentration, mood, and immune response.  Studies done on longterm practitioners of meditation report having a stronger ability to cope with physical pain.  They will report the same amount of pain (on a number scale) as non-meditators, but they're not as bothered by it.  There is evidence that meditation increases brain mass, and causes the release of GABA (gamma amino butyric acid--a calming neurotransmitter).  Everything that's said about meditation seems to indicate that it's really good for the brain and body--and in all ways in which something can be said to be 'healthy'.

In Sam Harris's book, Waking Up, which I recommend to everybody, he talks about how meditation causes the deactivation of the default-mode network.  This is a network which lies primarily in the medial pre-frontal cortex and medial parietal cortex.  He says that this is a region of the brain which becomes active during the resting state in which one is waiting for something to happen.  This network is associated with the daydream state.  When one is fully engrossed in an activity, this region goes dark, and the subject will lose one's 'self' in the activity.

It is this sense of loss of one's self that happens when one successfully meditates, and when one is able to experience consciousness without a ceaseless onslaught of apparently random thoughts over which he has no control.  In my own experience, this is very difficult.  It requires a lot of persistence, will, and concentration in order to have a strong command over one's own mind.  But the rewards are immense.  Even for me, just ten minutes of meditation will have an enormous impact on the quality of my life for the rest of the day: better mood, improved concentration, and the ability to enjoy sensations, seeing and noticing things around me.

The really surprising thing to me about all of this--and this shouldn't be all that surprising, and yet somehow it is--is that it's just a change in the way of thinking.  It's a completely internal commitment.  You're just sitting there, cross-legged, and committing some time to yourself for 10-20 minutes.  And yet this invisible internal commitment has an enormous, apparently disproportionate return on investment.  It shouldn't be surprising.  Everything is mind stuff, created by minds, especially in an industrial world.  Everything that we use and operate--the bottles at my desk, and computer that I'm working with right now, are products of someone imagination--the invisible internal state of another person.

These facts point strongly to the idea that the mind matters a lot, that it's worth it to develop a discipline of the mind, and to practice mindfulness--an awareness of one's mental state for as much of the time as possible.  This way you can be aware of what you're doing to yourself internally.  This way you can avoid having useless repetitive thoughts which serve no function, but only cause anxiety.  You're aware.  You can see yourself and realize 'Why am I doing this?  This is stupid and futile'.  Being aware, you can then return to where you currently are.

In Waking Up, Sam says that the quality of your mind is the single greatest determining factor of your quality of life.  Sam says, paraphrased, "If you can overcome the problem of the mind, you'll be able to avoid almost of all of the problems you'll ever encounter in life."

I think Sam is right.  The vast majority of our problems are self-created, as a result of not taking taking control of our consciousness--the single most important thing over which it can be said that we are the owners.  To have a high quality life and a healthy brain--based on what all of the studies about mindfulness indicate--is to have a healthy mind.  It pays, in concrete material terms, to be kind to yourself, to be aware of what you are doing to yourself.

I have achieved a significantly improved quality of life as a direct result of improved mindfulness in only the past four months or so, since I'd rediscovered meditation.  I can't help but wonder if this improved mindfulness might have improved the health and strength of my brain, and this has helped with vision therapy.  It is certainly not out of the realm of plausibility.

Many people's lives are repetitive.  They wake up, eat the same meals every day, drive the same car to work taking the same route every day.  The work they do is repetitive.  There is no challenge.  They become comfortable.  The brain deteriorates.  The default-mode network is engaged for too much of the time.  But this mind complacency is a choice.  You can choose to have a healthy brain by paying attention to your internal state.

There are studies that show that if you drive to the same place every day, but you practice taking a different route to that place, you can slowdown the onset of dementia.  Likewise, there are studies which indicate that actively speaking two or more languages promotes brain health.  Learning new skills, like dancing or martial arts will likely also promote brain health, especially if you're a programmer who sits down at a computer all day.  Lately I've been going out for walks while listening to podcasts, and bouncing a tennis ball, alternating between my two hands.  It looks silly, but the experience seems to give my brain much needed stimulation that it wouldn't likely otherwise get.  I know this because it's awkward as hell, trying to bounce a tennis ball with my left hand.

While I'm doing this, there is a part of me that's watching it all happen, as a result of my practice with mindfulness and meditation.  I swell with excitement at the thought that there is something inside of me which is in control of the experiences that I have.  I can choose the quality of my mind, and by extension, my brain and body.  As far as I can tell, this is true for everyone.

"Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain" - Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Plugging away--getting better at Breaker

I'm still getting better at Breaker.  It's pretty awesome.  I've still been beating the game with regularity--just about every time that I play the game.  I seem to have broke through a wall--or that's at least the perception.

I had a really strange sensation when I began playing Breaker today.  There seemed to be some weird rivalry going on between my two eyes.  It seemed like for a moment that my brain couldn't decide which eye was dominant, and what I was seeing was split--like I was seeing the input from the perspective of two different people simultaneously.  It was confusing, but thankfully it didn't last.

Just now when I played I had some perceptual differences. One is that the paddle seemed absolutely huge.  I'm pretty sure that's a perceptual change.  Nothing in the program changed.  I changed.  Also, the amount of compensating that I do is decreasing.  By compensation, I mean this: Before when I would try to hit the ball, in some areas, I would have to hit the ball with the paddle off to the side so that it would appear to me as though I was hitting the ball with nothing. I have to do significantly less fudging.  Also, my accuracy is becoming way better.  It's great.  Because I perceive the paddle to be so much larger now, it feels as though I'm using a much larger portion of my fields.  Like, there is a much larger amount of space that I'm aware of which I have to try and hit the ball.  The paddle is much larger, and now it's way easier to hit, and to hit the ball with different amounts of deliberate angle.

Apparently the paddle is supposed to appear to be really large.

The other day I brought my laptop and Oculus Rift over to a friend's house.  The reason is that she has a small child (three year old) with strabismus.  I wanted to see how he would respond to the Oculus Rift.  He was a really high energy and boy-like three year old, but when I put the Rift on his head, he stayed still, and he seemed to be impressed.  But he had difficulty holding on the HDM, and using the mouse.  It was also a little difficult to communicate with him.  The result?  I think three years is a bit too young for Diplopia.

However, I offered to give the mother a try, so that she could see what her son was doing.  I was explaining the objective of the game to her and asked her if she could see the paddle.  She said no.  Then I moved the mouse around a bit, and then she exclaimed 'ohhh, so that's the paddle?  It's so close!'  She didn't notice the paddle because, apparently for people who have normal stereoscopic vision, the paddle in Breaker is so close that it's hard to notice.

I told her to try and close her right eye, and then the left eye.  She noticed that closing the right eye made the paddle disappear, and that closing the left eye made the ball disappear.  As I explained to her that this is how the game works, she emitted an 'ahhh' of apprehension.  She said that the game looked really cool.

So yeah, as the vision improves to the point of proper binocular function, it seems that the paddle gets bigger and bigger.  That's certainly seems to be true in my case.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

I'm now beating Bricks with regularity and I seem to have a new level of vision stability

I'm now beating Bricks with regularity and I seem to have a new level of vision stability.

I'd beaten Breaker (that's the real name of the game, I don't know why I'd called it Bricks before) sometime last week.  Then the next few times I failed to beat it.  The last three times I've played it I beat the game.  What does this tell me?  It tells me that something must be changing with my vision.  This is causing my accuracy to be much better.

I was just on break walking down a hallway and it occurred to me that my singularity of vision has improved a lot in the past few days.  I think I'm fast approaching a day when it becomes appropriate to say that my vision is truly single.  I had that thought just a few minutes ago.  My vision is pretty damn singular.  Wait, look at your thumb.  Single.  Look into the distance.  Single.  It struck me as amazing as to how relatively effortlessly, automatically, and quickly my eyes converged and diverged.  This is amazing.

There is some waviness as the left-hand image sort of wavers in juxtaposition to the right-hand image.  You might say that it's sort of 'swimmy', sort of analogous to a kaleidescopic effect, but not as trippy or distracting.  That is obviously my diplopia.  It is still there.  But it's becoming less and less significant.

Breaker, by far, has produced the most powerful stereo experiences I've yet had.  The fireworks exploding in my face struck me as particularly impressive this time.  Things are going splendidly.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

I beat Bricks for the first time

I finished the last level of Bricks within the allotted 20 minutes for the first time.  Pretty cool.

I'm going to use that to plot my progress.  I'm going to plot the days in which I beat the game and see if I can find a pattern.  As I beat the game more and more, I'm going to make it a challenge to see how quickly I can beat it.

There is something weird that I noticed happening.  Today, I got to the last level very quickly.  I just plowed through all of the levels like it was nothing.  I had about five minutes left for the last level, then I started sucking when it came to destroying the last few bricks.  It was odd.  It was like my reference was gone.

The game works testing your ability to resolve the relationship between the ball and the paddle.  The more accurately you can judge their location, the more control you have over the ball.  If you want to hit the ball to the left, you have to hit it with the left side of the paddle.  To hit it up, you have to hit the ball with the top end of the paddle, and so on.  Well, sometimes I have to cheat, because in some areas of the screen, I hit the ball as though I'm not hitting it at all.  I know where it's supposed to be.  I'm strong in some areas.  And in some areas, it's really unpredictable.  Like I'll hit it thinking that it should go relatively straight, when in fact I hit it with the very extreme edge of the paddle, causing the ball to go to the extreme left or right.

Weird.  I think what may be going on is that my vision is getting stronger and I'm coming to trust my visual input more.  That has helped me get further in the game.  But not all areas of my vision are good, and my pseudo-fusion, let's call it, combined with my increasing trust in my visual cues, sometimes completely throws me off.  Weird stuff.  So I beat the game one day last week.  Since then I have been plowing through the game.  It will feel as though I am going to beat the game easily because I have so much time left to finish the last level.  Then the last few bricks come, and I have a hell of a time with it, and for some reason I just can't do it!  Weird.  It'll come again.  I'm counting on it to happen again and become more easy.  We'll find out.

"All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better." - Ralph Waldo Emerson