Life is a Mirror

I fully believe in the philosophy that those around us serve as mirrors, reflecting back what we like and dislike about ourselves. Recently, I attended the Canadian Positive Psychology Association conference. The meeting was filled with 400 people, many of whom clearly brought a sense of wellbeing, grace, humility, and love. For me, it was a perfect balance of science, applied knowledge, passion, curiosity, openness, and heart — each element (and person) reflecting back to me virtues I strive for and adore in myself.

I am light.

Then, not long after I was confronted with some unfortunate negativity. People failing to see the good in others. People disrespecting others. People talking down upon others. People being intolerant and incapable of offering compassion. Actually, those are all nice ways of saying it. At the time, it just felt like a lot of bullshit, over-dramatic crap that I did NOT want to hear about. Yet, I got consumed and drawn in feeling compelled to participated yet helpless just the same. 

Another reflection, this time not of my love and openness but a reflection of my own negativity.  I saw myself and my language shift from love to hate, heart to head, we to me, soulful spirits to shitty-ass people, and from light to dark. 

I am dark.

Two sides of me. One I strive for. One of strive against.  Mirrors all around me. Every one of you reflects back to me what I love, hate, ignore, improve, avoid, seek, appreciate, can’t tolerate, see, am blind to… Every one of you and your actions reflects back to me everything in myself, whether I like or not. 

And I to you. 

The Neuroscience of Social Innovation

As a neuroscientist, I canʼt help but wonder about what might be going on in the brains of my socially-innovating colleagues at CSI. As a result, I have compiled some ideas about what might actually be happening in your brain...

First, letʼs consider the ability to think innovatively. An angle some researchers took to understand it better was to study people during “Aha!” moments of insight. In one study, researchers were able to capture these Aha! moment in people while they were solving riddles. During the Aha! moment, several areas of the brain were activated, mostly within the frontal cortex. The cortex is a sheath of brain cells that essentially compiles and associates information from lower-level brain areas that feed into the cortex. The cortex is divided into several lobes of functional specialization, the frontal cortex being involved in a variety of higher cognitive processes like creativity, rationality, logic, and planning - all aspects of thinking that are required for innovation. Therefore, it is not surprising that the frontal area becomes active at the moment of insight! One of the areas in particular that was activated is called the precuneus. It addition to it being activated during “Aha!” moments, the precuneus is also activated during creative tasks.

To break this down just a bit further, consider two other areas that were also activated during insight: the left inferior frontal gyrus and the middle frontal gyrus (areas named due to their relative location in the brain). These areas get activated when mental sets are broken down. Forming mental sets is our mindʼs way of making things automatic and routine, to reduce unnecessary thinking. But when we are striving for innovation, they do us little good. Instead, we need to rid ourselves of habitual ways of thinking in exchange for creativity and insight.
But we know that innovative thinking is only one aspect of being a social innovator. At CSI, we have a social mission, in which case, we probably need to have some kind of empathy or compassion for the social issue we are seeking to alleviate. In a very eloquent TED talk, Neuroscientist Dr. Ramachandran describes the brainʼs mirror neurons as a possible neural theory of empathy. Mirror neurons seem to do what they are named after: mirror. They reflect back to the person a sense of sameness. For example, when we perform a certain act (like moving our arm) certain neurons are activated but more interesting is that when that same behaviour is reflected back to us, those same neurons respond, giving them the name mirror neurons. These neurons have been consider possible roots for empathy because they seem to represent the neural code for “I feel ya.”

As social innovators we may also value equality more than our non-social-activist counterparts, which means our insular cortex might be activated. In one study, people were part of a game in which random income was allocated to all members. But, members of the game could choose to re-distribute income more fairly, providing they paid a sum of their own income. Those who chose to pay showed greater activation in their insular cortex. Interestingly, the insula has been shown to be activated when
experience “disgust”. This makes me wonder if some of us really do become disgusted by the social issue we seek to resolve.

Another key aspect of social innovators inevitably involves change and action. We readily approach opportunities to make ripples (and sometimes waves) with a sense of adventure and fervor. In psychology we call this novelty-seeking behaviour. The key factor here is the response one elicits to novelty. Some people respond poorly to novelty and exhibit high levels of anxiety when faced with it. Others approach novelty, the unknown, and unfamiliar territory eagerly with little anxiety or stress response activated. The neural system that involves this approach-avoidance behaviour includes the hippocampus (also known for its role in memory) and the amygdala (well know for its role in emotion). Both of those are part of a greater emotional system called the limbic system, one that does well when we exercise regularly and keep our general life stressors down!

So there you have it. A few ways you can consider how your brain might work amidst your socially-innovative endeavors. Your brain is one of your must useful and delicate resources with incredible innovative power. I believe that the more we know about our brains, the better we can use them. And therein lies the mission of my company, the Centre for Applied Neuroscience. Visit us our library at for more brain bits. 

How Coffee Cured My Depression

I’m going to admit something here, which I have admitted elsewhere, but do so somewhat reluctantly: I like to feel stimulated. In fact, my entire life is built on the idea of having a passion- and purpose-driven existence, which is a formula for stimulation, at least for me. Similarly, I love the energy of the City of Toronto, the exhilaration of competition, and the tantalizing feeling of a good argument. Anyone who knows me well, knows this about me. 

What I don’t like is feeling depressed, apathetic, and without purpose. In fact, it devastates me to the point where I feel, myself, as somewhat pointless. But often it is an inevitably flip side to the stimulation I seek so often. Here is an example.

This week has been an incredible week. I had an intensely stimulating weekend of intellectual preparation for a full-day interview on Monday for a faculty position in the psychology department at the University of Toronto. The day itself was rather incredible, for the most part. Questions about pedagogy, science, and plans for future experiential-learning teaching - all wonderful topics in my opinion. On Tuesday, I prepped to teach again and then that night I had a dinner with faculty members as part of my interview. Essentially, I was “on” for several days in a row by that point. When I woke up Wednesday morning, it was different. I felt like I was without a clear purpose, largely because I had just devoted a significant amount of my energy to a very specific goal: get through the interview with flying colors. Wednesday, Thursday, and this morning all met me with a variety of depression-like experiences including tiredness, apathy, sense of purposelessness. 

By this morning, “enough was enough” I thought. What can I do about this? The psychopharmacology-interested side of me wanted to experiment, partially in honor of Brain Awareness Week and a series of “self studies” we, at the Centre for Applied Neuroscience just launched. The first one was on “Drugs and Behaviour: How Chemicals Like Alcohol, Nicotine, and Caffeine Make Us Feel”. So, in line with that, I decided to test myself (again). 

Background: I don’t drink coffee regularly (any more). I quit over a year ago. I occasionally have a cup of coffee on the weekends and every once in awhile the barista mixes up my decaffeinated order with a regular coffee - and believe me I can tell! Coffee normally does one of two things to me. It either puts me WAY over the edge, has my entire body buzzing, and makes me sick to my stomach with anxiety. The other thing coffee does to my is gives me a “liquid-high experience”, which involves a state of complete bliss, wonderfulness, and a deep sense that life is absolutely amazing and perfect. I yearn for that experience. It reminds me of moments laying a dock in the sun, a good yoga practice, or the time I took anxiety medication for 5 months. 

Today, I wanted to test the hypothesis that caffeine can cure my depression. So I walked down to a coffee shop and got myself a soya cortado — espresso-based drinks are the BEST for invoking a liquid high, in my experience. I began sipping all the way out the door, down the street back to my place, and as I continue to type right now. And then BOOM, just as expected (~ 45 minutes for peak caffeine to hit the brain), I am hit with my welcomed liquid inspiration. Bye-bye depression! Beautifully orchestrated. 

So why does this happen? Well, scientific evidence suggests that caffeine, although a stimulant, does not appear to work through the dopamine neurotransmitter system, like the other common stimulants, cocaine and amphetamine. Caffeine (and the similar stimulant, Theophylline, which is predominant in tea) appears to work on the adenosine neurotransmitter system. Outside of the brain, adenosine has a role in the basic biochemical energy process as part of the compound ATP (aka adenosine triphosphate). Adenosine is also one of the nucleosides in RNA. But in the brain, it seems to function like a neurotransmitter and plays a role in wakefulness. Adenosine is also responsible for the drowsiness we feel after a period of sleep deprivation. Adenosine has several receptors that it work on, one of which is denoted as A2A. Interestingly, caffeine blocks this specific receptor subtype. More interesting, is that blocking this receptor subtype also shows antidepressant effects in several animal models of depression. 

So… did coffee cure my depression today? Most likely. 

If you are wondering what coffee does to YOUR brain, observe your experiences over the next 7 days so you can get to know your brain too! Visit us here

Me and My Anxiety

I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember although I didn’t know it. It was just part of me. Part of what I knew as me. It wasn’t until my anxiety hit a peak that I really realized what it was. 

During my undergraduate degree I had begun a history of taking on way too many things, partially because I realized there was a world available to me with so many opportunities and fun things to do. I would immerse myself in activity after activity. I maintained that level of “to do” for quite some time, in fact I got through 2 degrees that way. 

Then I moved to Halifax to do my PhD and study the neuroscience of anxiety and fear behaviour. Not because I knew I had anxiety but because I thought the topic was interesting. But when I got there, things sped up. The research was demanding, the coursework was demanding, I started drinking coffee for the very first time, I stopped sleeping as much as I needed. I figured 5 hours of sleep was enough and that extra time would allow me to keep on top of my game. On top of that, my grandmother was dying of cancer and I was a few months away from breaking up with my boyfriend of 12 years, who was back in my hometown of Winnipeg. 

By January 2001 of that first year. I was anxious. REALLY anxious. My anxiety had hit an all-time high. My heart was pounding constantly, but I thought it was normal, at first. I stopped being able to go out with friends instead preferring to come home to my empty apartment and have a drink of wine and watch TV. TV was my social escape where I didn’t have to do any of the socializing but could feel it vicariously. Eventually, I realized that my anxiety was anxiety and that it was bad enough that I wondered about taking anxiety medication. I went to the university health services and sat down in the doctor’s office and started crying as I mustarded up the words “can I get a prescription of paxil?”.  

I started taking it that day and within 24 hours I felt relief. In fact, it was so surprising because I knew, based on my studies, that this wasn’t even really possible, neurochemically. But what I felt… or rather what I no longer felt… was my pounding heart. Instead, I felt a deep sense of calmness come over me. I felt like I was laying on a cloud looking down at a peaceful world. Everything seemed fine… so wonderful!!

I vowed to stay on till May, just to get through my courses. May 1st hit and I was off the meds. The experience was quite enlightening, in many ways. It provided me with the experience of calmness - an experience that I believed till then was only available through several isolated moments in an entire lifetime - moments like drifting away on a boat, hanging out on a dock, or just feeling the wind blow through your hair as you bike. Instances, not constances. It never occurred to me that this might be the norm for someone. It definitely never occurred to me that it could be the norm for me. It never occurred to me because my norm was so different for my entire life.

That experience didn’t end my anxiety but it changed is dramatically. It gave me a new baseline to seek and achieve. It gave me journey and a destination. I struggled with anxiety here and there afterwards. I had another episode in 2005, after I had finished my PhD and was in a new lab as a post-doctoral fellow, on top of which I began teaching my very first university course. My life instantly hit a whirlwind and I was spinning out of control. Lindsey and I were living together at the time and because she was an undergrad student wanting part-time work I hired her to mark the tests for me, to clean my room, and to do my laundry. I felt like I was going crazy… again. The term ended and I found my way out of the whole I dug, mostly because I knew that familiar land and didn’t want to stay there. 

But, this life and the struggles we encounter provide a journey for us. I may never live a completely anxiety-free life. In fact, stress (the basis of anxiety) is an important part of our existence. From a neuroscience and psychology perspective, stress is important for our survival. But too much stress is the culprit. So the challenge (and the reward) is about finding a path that meanders through this life with awareness of when we flip into that zone of “too much”. 

I realized I hit that zone again recently, actually. I currently run my own business, which is more than a full-time job, and on top of that I accepted two new teaching contracts at UofT. I thought I was managing this past month and a half fine but in reality. I’m not. I’ve been having problems falling a sleep because I’m up all night thinking about my performance and the performance of my students and how that will reflect on my performance and then a whole network of anxiety-provoking thoughts begin to spin out of control as I lay there awake in their presence. 

But it’s different this time. First of all, it didn’t take my 25 years to figure it out like the first time or a year the second time. It took me 6 weeks. It took me 6 weeks because I know the warning signs. I know what anxiety feels like and I know I’m in it. 

It’s hard for me to admit this tonight but that’s exactly why I share it. Because my life, my life coaching practice, my teaching philosophy, and an organization that Lindsey and I founded called Body Monologues is predicated on the very notion of openness and sharing. 

So that’s my story. That’s my Body Monologue: Me and my anxiety.

I'm an addict

I have a problem. I’m an addict and have recently fallen off the wagon. I’m addicted to work. And this isn’t one of those notes I write where I try to be provocative and turn things around and have a happy ending. I’m actually being quite serious. I am an addict and am here to admit it.  

I love the way work makes me feel. I get consumed with projects and never-ending to-do lists and books and papers scattered all around me. I am always thinking about the next thing on my list and coming up with grandiose ideas to chase. Working gives me a high. I feel it deep in my core. I feel energized, stimulated, and engaged with it.  I feel depressed, bored, and uncomfortable without it. I want more and more and more to the point where I overdose. I want to feed the good feeling that it brings me and evade the shitty feeling I get without it.

I neglect other aspects of my life in place of work. I chose work household responsibilities. You should see my house. It’s not clean and I only clean when I invite people over.  And I only invite people over when I feel I should clean. 

I even neglect commitments, like tonight I am suppose to go play ultimate but I emailed to say that I can’t because “I have work to do”. Others might see that email as unfortunate, but I wrote it with excitement. I get to do more work. Yay! I don’t want to go into my body. I want to stay in my mind. 

People with substance abuse also often neglect other important aspects of their lives like work and school. That isn’t a problem for me. In fact, I thrive there as a result. But I have neglected my children, so much so that I don’t even have any and at 38 years old I’m not even concerned about it. I wonder if I will be regretful if I don’t conceive. But if I am I know I can lean on my work and neglect the feeling of regret. 

Work is within my control.  With work, I’m not dependent on someone else, on having enough money, on having a dealer, or having a pack or bottle beside me. It feels like I don’t need anyone else or anything else. 

People with substance abuse problems also have recurrent legal problems. I haven’t been caught stealing or selling drugs or prostituting but I did have a conversation with the CRA today about my taxes. Apparently, I have not submitted HST/GST returns since 2009. I thought I had. Or rather, I thought my accountant had. And now I owe $10K. It’s not my accountant’s fault. It’s my fault. I am the neglectful one. Why do taxes when I could do other work, subconsciously motivates me. I also haven’t submitted my income tax return for 2012. Does this scare me? Hell yes. I have woken up many early mornings panicking about my taxes. My solution? Get up and do work. I have not yet been arrested for work-related disorderly conducted. I’m not sure what that would look like... but I’m sure it’s possible.

I even work when operating machinery like driving and biking. 

I have had persistent and recurrent social and interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of work, yes. I neglect relationships because I work instead. I’m too busy to maintain, to call, to visit. And often times I don’t even feel guilty about it. I feel justified. Because of course, I’m working. 

I know this still sounds like I am being facetious but in fact, I’m not. I’m actually quite disturbed about this and I can see it as a problem. But what is most disturbing is that I don’t really want to stop. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I stopped. True, yes, I have gone away on meditation retreats and do yoga and blah blah blah but I can justify them all away as “work”. 

What fears me the most about giving up work are the feelings that I am left with when if I do - feelings that go by the label of depression, boredom, sadness, hopeless, uncomfortable, lost, helpless, purposeless, and meaningless. I have even had suicidal thought during these times. I question every aspect of my existence and whether I am having any meaningful impact on society. 

Inevitably I am spun upward again, driven fiercely to be valuable. I yearn to make a difference and work tirelessly to do so. I wonder why others are working as much. There is so much to do everyone!  This world needs our help!  We must work work work.  I almost forwent my own wedding celebration because I thought it was indulgent and pointless with all the work that needed to be done. Fortunately, someone reminded me that celebration was an important part of humanity and that celebration time could ultimately rejuvenate us to... do more work!
I remember a moment in time when I said to myself (and I think to my mom as well) that I never wanted to feel bored (or any of those other experiences listed above). I was about 12 years old. I don’t know what provoked me to feel that but do know that I hated that feeling and wanted it out of me. I hated it so much that I made myself throw up, kinda like bulimia except it wasn’t always about food. Sometimes too much food would, indeed, make me feel that way, but mostly it was just a sick, awful, uncontrollable feeling that would consume me and I would want it out. I remember feeling it the moment my grandmother died in my presence. 

I felt this feeling yesterday in fact, twice. Earlier in the day when I felt paralyzed with all the work I had created for myself. I sat down and cried and cried and cried. That actually felt good. It was releases. Then later when I was talking to my dad about my grandfather I felt it again, only I hid it away from my dad because I didn’t want him to censor what he was telling me. I tried to hold it in, and did, but I got that sick feeling inside of me. I wanted to throw up. I got off the phone and began to sob. I didn’t need to throw up. It was coming out.  But in the end, I returned to my addiction. I returned to work that night. Then I woke up this morning with fewer than 8 hours of sleep, eager to work again. When I look back at my day, I see that all but 1.5 hours of it were spent not working, a short period when I biked to my chiropractor and an early morning meditation, a practice I am trying to maintain as I seek truth about my condition and existence.

Work is a mask that covers up these feelings. I know that. I can admit that. But I’m too scared to let it go. I’m afraid of what I have to face if I do: Dark nights.

What also scares me is the idea of posting this for the world to see. I’m afraid of what people will think. Will I be judged? Rejected? Viewed as crazy? Yes! I will! And yet, I am compelled to post anyway. Why? Not because I’m trying to offer some happy-go-lucky inspirational tale. In fact, this one is just for me. This one is about my suffering and my admission of it. And despite all else, there is always a glimmer of light in me that despite how awful I feel inside, it’s better to let it out, to expose it, and to share it. 

I post this today in honor of myself and many others who have been brave enough to share their stories despite what people will think. Like Dawn who just came out about her mental illness. Like Lindsey and Cathy who have spoken about suicide and Lindsey who braves the world daily with her openness and shared her monologue for Suicide Prevention Day when I know it scared her.  And the many people I know who have come out about their sexuality, sexual abuse, cutting themselves, being bullied, masturbation, abortion, self-hate, cancer, depression, anxiety etc. Coming out and admitting we aren’t perfect is really fucking hard! But I’m glad I do it. 

Process Setting for 2014

Last night, for NYE, I was out bowling with some friends. This one friend-of-a-friend turned to me and started telling about one night when he was out with a bunch of people and beside them walked in this couple, both of whom presented as avid bowlers their own balls, a bags for his ball, proper bowling gloves, and claimed that “bowling was their THING!”. The guy telling me the story continued to watch them bowl and noticed, to his astonishment, that they never broke 100. The point of the story was the huge insightful moment on the part of the guy telling me the story. My curiosity was piqued! Perhaps it was a moment of insight where one realized the value of life: the journey is the reward or something to that effect. Nope. In fact, I couldn’t have been more wrong. What the guy realized was that, in his opinion, some people out there really were losers who didn’t know how much they actually sucked and that he should never hire those types of people. Wow!! I responded with something like “well maybe he just really likes bowling and doesn’t care about the outcome?”. The guy turned to me with utter disgust saying “it’s ALL about outcomes”. “Life”, I said? “Yup” he said. All I could do was laugh.

I was shocked, yes, but I meet these people all the time and in all honesty, I have no argument for as to why life is NOT all about outcomes, unless I ramble off some mindfulness spiel, which I knew would be lost in translation to this particular fellow. 

The evidence, if it does exist, comes from experience, not my words. I’m sure this guy -- and all the people like him -- is very successful, if by successful we mean high salaries and high rankings. We all know these people. And we all know the people who climb the corporate, esteem, and fiscal ladder only to get to the top and realize they forgot to enjoy the climb. They were too busy looking up at the next rung to enjoy the view from the rung onto which they were latched. But like I said, I have no evidence that their path may lead them to unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or lack of meaning. I don’t even know if that’s true. 

In stark contrast to this outcome-based philosophy I encountered last night, I also happened to be listening Jian Ghomeshi interview Bobby Orr on CBC radio earlier that day. I tuned in just as Bobby Orr was going on, very passionately, about how parents need to just let kids play hockey and not worry about whether they were going to the NHL. Orr said very convincingly that if a kid is good enough and dedicated enough by their own accord they WILL be noticed, scouted, and recruited, and that the parents really didn’t have to do anything except let their kids play as much as they wanted. He sees way too many parents pushing their kids toward expectations of a career that will happen, essentially, if it is meant to be. Orr later talked about how upon retiring from hockey he had to go to work... which he never felt he had had to before then. Sure, he had goals and aspirations, but he loved the game. He loved playing. He probably didn’t love his goals as much as he loved living them. 

To me, that’s process-based pursuits. Let kids be. Let ourselves be and see what happens. We may just end up with much the same achievements in the all the while enjoying the journey instead of letting it pass us by in pursuit of an illusive future. 

This doesn’t mean that having goals is not important. This guy I was talking to last night, clearly is successful by at least one popular definition. I can tell without knowing anything else about him than how he approached bowling. Within the short time-span of 2 hours of bowling he moved passed the rest of us to break well over 100, due partially to his solicitation of strategies and tactics from the real bowlers around us and also tracking his performance before and after switching his strategy. I’m sure his success last night is an excellent example of his approach to life. And if he is consciously choosing to pursue life that way then all the power to him. Perhaps my concern instead is, is it really conscious? 

On this first day of 2014, a day when many people consider their 2014 goals and resolutions, I offer you a thought: Do you want 2014 to be about goals or the pursuit of goals? Do you want to put off your self-satisfaction until you have achieved whatever it is that you seek to achieve or do you want to enjoy the process of change, of life, of living?  Choose wisely, consciously. 

Inheriting Our Father's Experiences

Last night I was out with one of my favorite characters from Dalhousie, and I say “character” because that’s exactly what she is. Rahia is creative, funny, outspoken, and has a great scientific mind. Rahia is also currently a PhD student at Columbia University in New York ( 

Over (great) beer at this off-the-beaten-path bar, Downtown Johnny Brown’s, Rahia was telling me about her research on the transmission of experiences from fathers, via epigenetic mechanisms to the offspring (see previous post: /mandywintink/2012/11/epigenetics-stress-science-review-part-1.html). That in itself is interesting but what was of particular interest -- both to me that night and to Rahia for the past year as she slaved away in the lab -- was whether or not the mothers could regulate the expression of the fathers experiences in utero such that it would change the fate of the offspring. Indeed, Rahia’s data suggest that moms can!  As Rahia put it, it’s like the mom looks at the dad and say “You sucks” and then compensates for that dad inadequacies!

One example of this is when moms may need to overcompensate is when the dad are food restricted and therefore not as healthy as one would like. When the female mates with the food-restricted male she ends up gaining significantly more weight during pregnancy and nursing the young more after birth, thereby compensating for the nutritional deficits of the dad. There are also corresponding changes in the brains of the mom, such as changes in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain regulating several hormones and their dependent behaviours of feeding and stress. This research is interesting indeed: Moms can compensate for the inadequacies of the dads. Like women didn’t already know that, right!?  ;)

But what if the mom doesn’t know that the father has inadequacies? That was the question Rahia posed wondering if moms would fail to compensate for those inadequacies, for example during in vitro fertilization when mating doesn’t actually happen the same way. Rahia tested this by mating females with an “adequate” male that were castrated (so it would not actually impregnate the female), then knocked the female unconscious and knocked her up with the sperm of another male that was food-restricted (a male that was effectively “inadequate”). Btw, this was all done in laboratory rats!  ;)

Interestingly, astonishingly, and super coolly, the females failed to compensate for the inadequacies of the biological dad! They didn’t gain weight or nurse the young more and the result were offspring that had several memory and attentional problems!

This line of research is incredibly interesting from a scientific perspective and I look forward to hearing about how Rahia’s studies evolve. But this work also fits into a greater field of study where several researchers are investigating these transgenerational epigenetic effects, i.e., the effects of experiences that are encoded (epigenetically) within the genome and passed on to future generations. I have written about these before, with respect to inherited stress and maternal care (see /mandywintink/2012/11/epigenetics-stress-science-review-part-1.html) Today, at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, scientist Tracy Bale was speaking about this some transgenerational effects she observed, particularly in male laboratory animals. However, we can see justification for this field of research from some historical events, such as the post-WWII calorie-restricted legislation in Holland that forced people, including pregnant women, to eat no more than 400 - 800 calories only a day. That is ridiculously low for those who don’t know. To compare, look up what a Cafe Mocha has and your jaw will drop. The Holland food-restriction, along with several other times of famines, have been investigated and revealed behavioural effects (like anxiety and chronic disease susceptibility) that can be detected in the grand children of people who endured these times. 

In the lab, this has been investigated again with rats under several different circumstances. For example, exposing a father to repeated social defeat results in altered social behaviour in the offspring (think the McFly family from the Back to the Future series). High fat diets in dads also results in dysregulation of glucose and several metabolic processes related to obesity as well as epigenetic changes in the liver. Chronic stress is another model, one that Bale uses in her laboratory. In the process she and her student have revealed some some interesting findings. For example, when dads are exposed to chronic stress (as adults and during puberty) they produced offspring that developed a maladaptive stress system reflected by a poorly functioning hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is a neural system that regulates the stress response, a response that is need for proper coping strategies. Essentially what Bale and her students have found is that the offspring of males who were chronically stressed themselves, were less equipped to deal with stress. 

Bale’s lab has begun to isolate some of the contributors to this poorly functioning stress system including changes in microRNA, a component of epigenetic changes. They identified 9 microRNAs that were expressed (or upregulated) in the offspring of dads that experienced chronic stress. In a creative set of follow-up experiments, Bale’s lab determined that these microRNA were causing some of the offsprings problems by  simply injecting the microRNA right into a developing zygote of non-stressed dads, effectively simulating an experience of paternal stress. The results were as predicted: similar dysfunctional changes in the stress system rendering the offspring less equipped to deal with stress.

Although much of this review was about the negative effects of transgenerational experiences, in fact there are adaptive circumstances that put the offspring in a better predicament, resulting in a more resilient start. Bale ended her talk by suggesting that whether or not one ends up in a resilient or a risky situation after birth is a matter of coping, i.e., how we respond to changes in the environment. Rahia would likely argue that part of these coping mechanisms begin long before the offspring are born and consist of biological and behavioural strategies used by the mom to compensate. 

Complicated and exciting work indeed! For me, this was interesting largely because of the hypotheses and how the researchers, like Rahia, tested them. But when I take a step back and wonder about what this all means I can’t help but think about that common rationale that floats around for why men are thought to be more promiscuous than women. You know the one that says males are biologically predisposed to spread their seeds where as women are biological predisposed to nurture? All of this data makes me wonder about the truth of that whether laboratory animal or human men. I wonder about those men who chose to invest in the seeds they have planted and who do a really great job at it. I think of many of my friends where the men are stay-at-home fathers. I wonder, what sort of things are the women doing to compensate for these really good men? Perhaps, if those men are offering a great nurturing experience post-natally, and the women can detect this - just like they can detect malnourished, chronically stressed, or socially defeated males - would those moms then go on to divert their resources to something else instead of compensating for the dad’s inadequacies? What if, instead, moms could focus on nurturing high-level behaviours of the offspring. It kind of reminds me of Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs. It also kind of makes me want to be back in the lab studying this stuff myself. But alas... I cannot discriminate against all of the wonderful fields of research out there!

Creative Culture with Ed Catmull of Pixar

I just heard an amazing talk by Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and president of Disney for the Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in San Diego.  After Pixar became a success and went public (a 20-year goal they had) Catmull
asked himself, “what’s next?” and came up with the idea that he wanted to make creativity sustainable. His thinking about it lead to several concepts that he now claims blocks creativity. He has come to believe that facilitating creativity is about removing the barriers to creativity rather than being more creative.

Ed Catmull Speaking at Society for Neuroscience,
San Diego, 2013
Not feeling able to be honest or candid was one of those barriers. He described ideation processes and brain storming sessions and how feeling confined by politeness and a respect for others prevents people form sharing open and honest reflections and ideas. As a result, Catmull worked to create more mechanisms to allow people to be more candid. He called this “Brain trust”. Removing the power dynamic was one necessity. He also said something that I thought was a brilliant conceptualization of the issue: In order to get at the “truth” and reduce the “distortion from power imbalance”, the structure of information flow needs to be separate from the structure of organizational hierarchy. His goal then, always make it a safe environment for people to fail and make mistakes, which was another one of his insights into facilitating creativity.

In a creative context he believes that zero errors is a ridiculous concept, which is different from other industries where zero errors does make sense, like the life-and-death scenarios ingrained in surgery and air traffic travel and control. He suggests that in a creative industry (or an industry that requires creativity like innovation and science perhaps) that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. He gave an example of a movie that he was doing that had 8 months left in the budget when they realized there was a problem - a problem that would require 6 months to fix just to get back to a place where they had 8 months of work left to do. Clearly, this was a problem. So he gave an hour lecture to his crew on how it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission in order to inspire them to do whatever it took to fix this problem now. After 2 days, 2 people came back with the problem fixed thwarting the 6-month detour. Refers to an acceptance of errors and mistakes, he also commented on how he believes it’s better to fix errors than prevent them because working to prevent errors take a lot of time and energy and impedes creativity.

Catmull also described the “notion of the hidden” and the unknown unknowns. What really struck a cord with me was when he said that he did not know a creative person who could articulate the vision they had at the outset. Instead, it was something that just rolled out when unobstructed and became an articulation, eventually. Many of us have felt that struggle of feeling forced to articulate an experience or an emotional or passionate pursuit that we simply could not describe. It gave me a great sense of peace to know that I do not -- and possibly should not -- force myself into articulation before I am done brewing. 

Catmull ended with a story about when Pixar joined Disney. Pixar was thriving and Disney was failing. So they decided to keep the two separate in order to maintain the health of Pixar. But with Disney they started shifting some strategies around, according to principles he just described in reducing the barriers to creativity. The result was a resurgence of Disney’s dominance in the creative world. And more interesting and more important was that they didn’t change the people. The same creative types were there, working away. But what they needed someone to let them be creative again and that’s what happened. 

After the talk, Huda Akil, a neuroscientist and past Society for Neuroscience President, made an analogy with the idea that humans are born dumb and some stay dumb suggesting that humans are also born creative and some of them remain creative. This is an important way of considering creativity. It is in all of us. Creativity is our nature as humans with these incredible brains. What we do when we lack creativity is prevent ourselves from exhibiting a very natural component of who we actually are. 

Full talk by Ed Catmull is now available online:

Sit With It

I post lots of lovely, inspiring, life-is-beautiful updates, blogs, and notes. I like these one, indeed. I am reminded of how easy life can be when we sit back and let it happen. Letting go, life, and where we are headed seems so easy. It makes me feel good to do this. It makes others feel good when I do this. I feel accomplished. 

However, every once in awhile I post unhappy, truth-of-the-moment, honest, raw, and real things that are not any of those above things. 

But every time I do so, I hesitate, not because I don’t want to post them and be truthful but because I don’t want the advice that comes with those posts. I don’t want to read how I can “cheer up”, “not to worry”, “it will all work out”, and even “I’m sorry.”  I already know it will all work out. I have a lifetime of experience that has proven this to me. I also know that I will cheer up, whether someone has told me to or not. I always do, eventually - the beauty of knowing that everything changes. And I will worry so don’t tell me not to. I will worry until I am done worrying. Sorry? What’s there to be sorry about? Some of the best things in life I have learned through being exposed to suffering. So don’t be sorry that I am living life and not pretend I don’t suffer. 

Why this happens, I think, is because people are so uncomfortable with suffering that they can’t sit with it, whether it springs up in themselves or in others. We instinctually try to move away from it when we happen upon it. And when we see it blatantly in others, we are compelled to tell them to move away from it too because we, ourselves, are so uncomfortable in its presence.

Suffering is such a dirty word, concept, and feeling that people don’t even like it when we use it. We think of suffering as being horrible and unspeakable. But the reality is that many of us are suffering everyday... little bits of suffering like when we get angry at someone else for the harm we think they are caused us, the sadness we feel when something we were attached to is lost, or the cravings we experience for things that we can’t have right now.  But suffering isn’t out there. It’s in here, in us. 

And when others mention it, it’s actually invoking our own suffering, even if the other person who spoke of it, isn’t even feeling it as suffering. 

The same is true of being happy. When someone is happy and expressing deep joy or enthusiasm and we feel it too, it is because it is inside of us. Happiness isn’t out there. It’s in here, in us. Joy isn’t out there. It’s in here, in us. 

These concepts are thrown around quite loosely these days in pop-yoga and pop-Buddhism jargon, but many of us (myself included) fail to recognize the nuances of when this is happening. Meditation and yoga are not practices of being blissed out. They are practices of learning to sit with our shit. And when we practice it off the mat and off the cushion, it is learning to sit with other people’s shit too, which includes mine! So next time we feel inclined to offer advice and words of positivity in hopes of easing someone else’s suffering, may be we can take a moment to sit, breathe, and observe what it feels like to not do that. Because it is in those moments that we start to observe that true nature of suffering... and not just the one inside others, but inside all of us.  That observation is what ultimately allows us to transcend the suffering that many of us try to ignore. 

What does Meditation, Joyce, Eating, Social Defeat, Ibuprofen, Infertility, and Lesbians all have in common?

They are all pieces of writing that I have yet to post. They sit partially on my computer and partially in my head. Most of them have been sparked over the past few months but I have not been able to devote time to them. Actually, I had to set my writing aside for a bit so I could focus on other work that I am doing. But as April rolls in, I am excited for this term to near completion and for my spring and summer to start! 

For fun... I wanted to share some things coming down the pipeline:

What Meditation Did To My Brain
It’s been about 5 years since I wrote my first piece, reviewing a bit of the science on meditation ( So much has developed in science since then. I also recently went on another course, back in December of last year, and was inspired to reflect again on what meditation did to my brain THIS time! So different. For one, instead of a psychedelic trip, I was forced to be “bored” and to sit with that. Patience is a virtue, apparently, but learning it has allowed me to be patient for April to roll around!  ;)

This one is named after a wonderful woman I met at my meditation course back in December. She was a French woman with a thick accent so when she told me her name (Joyce), I asked her why she didn’t have a French name. Well, I found out that she actually changed her name after leaving an abusive relationship (one of several in fact). She decided to turn over a new leaf and to truly embrace Joy into her life. She believes that Joy is a choice and changed her name to Joyce (Joy + Choice) to remind her of that every day. Beautiful and inspiring! Actually, not much else needs to be said about that one. That kind of sums it up, beautifully!

How to Eat
Inspired by the confusion over what to eat and prompted by a study that claimed one diet was better than another, I began to reflect on how difficult it is to know how to eat. The science is messy and so is the mound of opinions out there, from both credentialed authorities and non-credentialed. How is one to figure out “how to eat?”. Good question! Well... I have some rules I like to live by and thought I would share them. The simplest trust your gut, literally and metaphorically!

Social Defeat
Whether in our lives or in our minds, the effects can be devastating. Many people don’t realize how much “social defeat” or social failure (perceived or real) can affect our mental state. There is a wonderful body of literature in psychology and in neuroscience that talks about this. I have partially reviewed it to a point to be able to present but it needs a bit more work. I happened upon this while working some of my talks on Failure and the Brain, the next of which will be presented in Halifax at the Emergent Learning Conference:

My Old Friend Ibuprofen
This is a piece for UltimateRob  I came across a science paper that showed intestinal injury in athletes with ibuprofen use ( It reminded me of my years spent somewhat addicted to ibuprofen (like many of my ultimate friends are) and how my Naturopathic Doctor believed it was causing much of what is discussed in this paper, including a condition called “leaky gut”. I think ibuprofen use is an important thing to consider as we athletes struggle with our injuries and do whatever we can to keep playing. But we have to ask ourselves, at what expense? As someone who can proudly say that, at 37 years old, I have only taken ibuprophen about 5 times in the past 5 years, I know there are alternatives to this pain relief... and I would like to share them, while also educating a little bit on the side effects of these types of meds. 

Mental Infertility
This piece was inspired by a coaching session I had with Life Coach and Doula, Katina Garduno ( in Halifax a couple of weeks ago. The gist of it is that there are many ways that we can be infertile, and the power of the mind should not be ignored, whether it is through the stress that we place upon ourselves for wanting to have a baby or, like me, the inability to commit to wanting to have a baby. Part of this is my “coming out” piece about admitting that we may be... not trying per se... but not NOT trying to have a baby. It feels so odd to have this little secret. It feels so NOT me to keep this to myself!

My Life As A Lesbian
I just want to throw this is there but to be honest, it has been lingering for about 3 years. The problem with this one is that it is currently being debated by my best friend, Lindsey, who argues that I am not a lesbian. She gives me "bisexual" if I whine enough. But I like the title and have to get it through when she's not watching...   It’ll come out... eventually.  ;)

Anyway, just thought I would share. If you have a particular interest in one of these... let me know. I’d be happy to push it up on the priority list!


Creativity and the Brain

“Who here is creative?” I ask at the beginning of a lecture. Few put up their hand. 

Sadly, too many people don’t consider themselves creative. Yet creativity is in our nature, our genes, and in our brains! Look around you now... all the “stuff” around us did not emerge without the incredible human brain capacity to create. Buildings did not erect themselves. Books did not write themselves. Courses did not design themselves. Fashion did not walk itself down the runway. We can even see the creative capacity in every-day life: Relationships and friendships, jobs and job opportunities are created, vacations and trips, are created. New sports, teams, businesses, non-profits, all kinds of events, dinners and dinner parties, weddings, celebrations of life... all created through the power of our brains. Even this soya cappuccino didn’t create itself, some brain did.

We were born to create! In fact, before we were born, we, with the help of our mothers, exerted a significant amount of energy in creating neural connections among neurons (the brain’s major brain cells). These connections created a complex brain system, with some of the most interesting connections happening in our frontal cortex - the big protrusion at the front of our head. This part of the brain is quite distinct from other animals and often described as being responsible for many of the incredible abilities that we tend to consider “humanly”, including our creativity. 

Awhile ago I watched a great TED talk by medical doctor, Charles Limb. He was curious about creativity and began to study musicians ability to improvise, both jazz and rap, while their brains were being visualized with fMRI. He found that when musicians engaged in improv, brain areas otherwise known to be involved in self-monitoring (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and lateral orbital cortex) were deactivated, while at the same time, an area involved in self-expression (medial prefrontal cortex) was ramped up. Limb explains these neural findings as representing the musicians ability to shut down his inhibitions and let his inner voice shine through. In other words, neural evidence of an inner creative unsuppressed by an inner critic.

The medial prefrontal cortex (particularly the area on the right side of the brain) is an interesting area to pop up, or rather light up, largely because it is also known to be involved in the production of original ideas. Researchers Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues argue that creative cognition may be interfered with by our very dominant language areas of the brain. If that area becomes damaged, our creativity is unleashed. Oddly, or rather interestingly, there are several neurological conditions in which this does happen, i.e., in which creativity is facilitated through damage. This paradox happens in some forms of epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s kind of like killing the inner critic. 

The inner critic might also involve another area of the brain (the precuneus) that is activated typically during self-consciousness and some types of memory (episodic memory). This area isn’t in the frontal lobes, but rather resides in the cortex at the top of the brain, known as the parietal lobes. What is interesting about the precuneus is that researchers Takeuchi and colleagues found this area to have reduced activity in creative individuals, further suggesting a quiet “inner critic”, or reduced self-consciousness.

Ok, but how can we apply this to our brains? Well, let’s assume then that those of us who do not normally put up our hands when asked “who here is creative” are now convinced that maybe, just maybe, we have a dormant inner creative that is hoping to be unleashed. What are we to do now? Simple. 

Change our brains, of course!  

One of the most wonderful things about neuroscience is that we know that the brain has an incredible ability to change and to change itself (see below for some great books on this topic). In fact, that is what the brain does. It changes. It changes in response to learning, new information, insights, criticism, reward, and much, much more. What we do inevitably changes our brain. Therefore, it serves us well to be a bit more intentional about it.

Unleashing Your Neural Creative:

  1. Change our mind and silence your inner critic.  When you hear it say “I’m not creative” argue with it. Explain to him/her all the reasons that you ARE creative. Re-write the script in your brain and let your brain change itself. This may sound strange but in fact, there is a huge body of literature that shows that “cognitive reframing” is highly effective for many things including reducing symptoms of depression and relapse of depressive episodes. See below for book ideas on related topics.

  1. List the creative activities that you have engaged in that day or that week. Actually, why not do a gratitude journal each night giving thanks to all the creativity activity you engaged in. We know, in science, that gratitude journals are effective for increasing wellness and quality of life, so it likely won’t hurt to try! And I can guarantee that it will change your brain.

  1. Practice being creative. Take a paper clip. In a classic psychology exercises that look at divergent thinking processes, participants are asked to list all of the ways in which a paper clip can be used for something other than keeping paper together. Kids can come up with about 100 in 1 minute.  Adults... well, they need practice. Their inner critics are much more... mature. So practice away. 

  1. Admit you are creative. Next time someone asks “who here in creative?” put up your hand confidently knowing that a neuroscientist once told you that you are creative! :) And then let me know how it goes...  

Scientific References:
Limb, C. & Braun, A. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PlOS ONE, 3(2). e1679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001679  (you can also watch TED talk:
Shamay-Tsoory, SG., Adler, N., Aharon-Peretz, J., Perry, D., Mayseless, N. (2011). The origins of originality: The neural bases of creative thinking and originality. Neuropsychologia, 49(2). 
Takeuchi, H., Taki, Y, Hashizume, H., Sassa, Y, Nagasse, Tl, Kawashima, R. (2011). Cerebral blood flow during rest associates with general intelligence and creativity. PLoS 6 (9). e25532. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025532

Great Stories of Brains that Change Themselves:
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doige, MD
The Woman Who Changed Her Brain by Barbara Arrowsmith, MA
My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD

Books Involving Cognitive Reframing & Gratitude:
Mindful Way Through Depression, Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness by J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. 
Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar

For Further Reading on Applied Neuroscience Topics 
Check Out the Science Page at the Centre for Applied Neuroscience:

Does Openness Scare You?

I am often asked, and sometimes criticized, about why I share so much personal information and ideas through social media. Today a friend also asked me if I ever felt a fear of rejection or ridicule through sharing what I share. The truth is that I do fear those. Not only do I fear them, I am privy to them. I have been outcasted, rejected, marginalized, de-friended, and laughed out because of what I share. Many people don’t believe in sharing personal experiences so liberally. Many fear it. And many are faced with their own fears as I share my experiences.

So why do I keep doing it? The answer is rather simple. I feel absolutely compelled to do so. The process of reflecting and understanding my own mind, behaviour, thoughts, emotions, and my own brain is deeply therapeutic. I might even say it is my path, a path of jnana yoga perhaps. But why do I share and keep sharing? That answer is even simpler. Because of the rewards I get from others. As I share my experiences others feel compelled to do so as well, whether it be publicly or privately to me. Social media has actually been a tremendous opportunity for me to connect with people that I otherwise would not have. The most unsuspecting people have come forward to share their stories with me, stories of sexual abuse, self-hate, rejection, fear, anger, love, excitement, inspiration, gratitude, and compassion. These experiences are part of the human experience and yet so many of us keep them to ourselves. For what purpose, I wonder. Like money, we cannot take these experiences with us when we die... at least not as far as I can tell.  

The idea of sharing and exposing myself comes quite naturally to me, now, although it wasn’t always the case. When I posted my first Body Monologue note in 2008 I almost had a panic attack. In fact before I posted it I couldn’t even read it allowed to my partner Mike without my heart racing out of control. It felt like it took me an hour to read out loud. Now, some 5 years later, I go on stage and tell this very same story in front of hundreds of people as part of Body Monologues, the organization Lindsey White and I founded as a result of that original writing piece. With 12 other people we share our experiences and as a result people come to Lindsey and I both - and the many other wonderful body monologuers - to share their own stories. They speak with a sense of “I no longer feel alone”. For Lindsey and myself, these open conversations simply have to happen... for global health and wellbeing.

I believe that sharing our experiences is a natural part of being human. Language is a neurological tool that we developed in order to communicate with other human beings, likely for survival purposes in its infancy. But this tool also allows us to communicate our thoughts, our emotions, our selves, our experiences, and the contents of our minds, albeit with varying degree of real representation. Nonetheless, this higher-level neurocognitive and neurolinguistic capability is a gift that has allowed us to transcend our simple need for survival. We are now able to appreciate the greater subtleties of being human - the subtleties that come with sharing our experiences and connecting with other human beings. 

This connecting-with-others is really why I share what I share. And when people respond by sharing their own stories, their experiences, or with gratitude, my actions are affirmed. The most amazing of which are those who I barely know respond having found solace in my exposé. Fear is really a small price that I can pay for this deep reward and for even minute amounts of benefit to others.  

This attempt at openness is how I ended up on stage for Body Monologues and how NeuroPsychoidiology also emerged back in 2003. I coined neuropsychoidiology while reflecting (and studying) my own brain, behaviour, mind, emotions, and thoughts and wrote intensely about experiences with my own brain, mind, behaviours, emotions, and thought patterns. I shared it with a few people back then and feared similarly - judgment, ridicule, and looking stupid were the ones I remember most poignantly. But again, I was compelled to share it. NeuroPsychoidiology is a description of neuroscience and psychology through the lens of oneself and in this way it is meant to inspire people to learn more about themselves, their brains, their minds, their emotions, their behaviours, and their thoughts, by offering myself as an example first. Although reflecting on my experiences IS for my own benefit, the sharing of them goes far beyond me. 

So does openness scare me? Without a doubt, it does, and at times quite significantly. But fortunately, I am more drawn to the possibility that if I open myself up it will inspire others to do the same and, in turn, those openings will inspire even more people to do the same. Because my idealistic hope for us humans is that we walk this world presenting, not our deliberate selves, but rather our authentically-human and flawed selves and that we stop pretending we are not the latter. Because really, who are we fooling?  

It’s no secret that I want to change the world. Many of us do. My method of attempting this ridiculous feat is at least partially through my own attempts of openness and the promotion that we are all one by virtue of our shared experiences. In the process I will continue to sacrifice my own comfortability and control over what people think of me.

Wedding Day

First of all, getting married is not something that happens during one day or at any one point in time. Getting married is a process and during the process of getting married there is a particular day upon which ceremonials typically occur. 

I want to describe the events surrounding mine and Mike’s wedding day because some people out there want to know about it. Part of sharing this is to remind people - or let you know - that it IS possible to create a very authentic, personal, and conscious wedding day to celebrate marriage, love, commitment, community, or whatever you think marriage means. I want my story to remind people that our spirits, passions, and beliefs can shine through every thing we do in this world - a wedding being one prominent opportunity. That being said, it is not without its own set of challenges. I did not agonize over colors schemes, seating arrangements, which dress to buy, demo hair styles, or learn new make-up strokes. I did however agonize over what the purpose of getting married was, how to afford a socially and environmentally responsible dinner, and the ridiculous amounts of gender stereotypes that perpetuate a woman’s disempowered role in society.  Here are my thoughts. I trust that I will insult some people along the way. Such is life... or at least such is my life. 

Why get married?
For me and Mike the process of getting married began at least 3 years ago when we first started talking about getting married, about whether we wanted to get married, and what marriage meant to us. Actually, our marriage probably started before that in the many subtle ways as we evaluated each other as potential partners. For me, and many young girls, the process was well underway as we grew up fantasizing about the princess wedding dress and a prince charming who would sweep us off our feet as he presented a diamond engagement ring and requested our hand in marriage. To be honest, I don’t really remember much of that, which may have had something to do with my parents divorce. That was when I remember first questioning the whole institution of marriage in the first place, as I grieved my own parents divorce becoming privy to the devastation embedded within broken vows. Then, throughout several serious relationships, from high school onward, I was continuing to question the idea of marriage entirely. I began to see many inequalities, both covert and overt in the institution, the ceremony, and the process and frankly some of it pisses the hell out of me. Sadly (IMO), I realized how many people are ready to accept these inequalities in order to uphold a tradition they have yet to think deeply about or to uphold a tradition simply because they do not have the time to think about it. Caveat: I will offend some of you reading right now, in fact, that is my hope. This is a serious issue of equality.

The questioning around the wedding was, admittedly, excruciating, and not just for me. I judged and I was judged. I even worry right now that some readers are reading because they just love to hate my ideas, arguments, and ridiculousness or just think “oh Mandy, give it a rest.” But these issues are important and I absolutely believe without a doubt that any human who believes in social justice and human rights should seriously look at the marriages and weddings around them and ask some deep questions about how they exist and manifest. 

Let me go into further detail, starting with the engagement.

Will You Marry Me?
Mike did not propose to me. He did not get down on one knee and ask me to marry him.  He did not ask my father (or my mother) beforehand if he could have my hand in marriage. Had any of that happened, we probably would not be married today. In fact, it blows my mind to think that anyone in their right mind would even consider that a man has the right to ask the woman’s father permission to marry the woman. Sidenote: asking both parents is hardly reconciliation for this perpetuation of a practice that implies a woman is not her own person. This is not just an innocent tradition. It says very strongly that women are owned and given from parents to husband. 

What did happen was that we were in a cafe in Toronto when we found ourselves in a very heartfelt conversation about whether or not we wanted to get married, not whether it was practical or logical or reasonable, which had been our typical conversations up until that point. This conversations was different. This conversation came from our hearts (not our heads) and was marked with a very distinct YES on both our parts. We, in every sense, asked each other if we wanted to get married. It wasn’t planned as such, it just happened. 

Mike also didn’t hold out an engagement ring for me and we didn’t go buy one for me to wear afterwards. I didn’t get him one either.  A woman I knew once referred to an engagement ring as “putting the woman on lay-away”. I (dis)liked that analogy very much and hence forward decided not to get one. Mike and I did discuss each wearing engagement rings, to reconcile this inequality, but it just never happened.  

Not having an engagement ring was an interesting experience in and of itself. Awkwardly, when it would come up that I was getting married, people (women) would look toward my hand. Either they would notice nothing or I would say out loud “I don’t have an engagement ring” and then proceed to say why.

We had no engagement party either, had no showers, and no bachelorette. At the time, I didn’t know what this wedding was going to look like and, I think, I was resisting falling down the rabbit hole. I don’t really have any big issue with engagement parties, except that they likely require the showing off of the engagement ring. But I didn’t have time to think about it so opted out. Showers were a can of worms too, IMO. The commercialism embedded within them nauseated me, although as far as I can tell the Jack & Jill showers are a good attempt at removing gender inequality. But to me, showers were another portal down the rabbit hole and I wasn’t sure if I would survive. I like things and gadgets and towels but what did we really need? I try to avoid buying them because most things, stuff, and gadgets aren’t really helping our world out that much.

I had no bachelorette party. Lindsey and I talked about this a lot and we went back and forth about it and its purpose. If we had more time we probably would have figured something out. But I didn’t have any extra time to think up and appropriate bachelorette that suited my philosophy. However, I still can’t wrap my head around how we think strip clubs are acceptable for bachelor party’s so I kind of think the whole premise of bachelor(ette) parties are actually a little ridiculous! What exactly is the purpose of partying in an atmosphere of pseudo-sex before getting married? The last chance at romance before getting hitched I think. Is this something we should condone? 

Nevertheless we made it through the engagement phase and on to the wedding day. But getting there also had it’s set of challenges. Everything from planning the day to planning a ceremony was questioned. 

The Wedding Industry
The money associated with this day was probably one of the hardest things for me to come to terms with. On any given day I resist commercialism. I fall into it’s clutches often, I admit, every time I buy a new shirt or pants that I don’t actually need. Make-up, a new bike, new runners, all of these commercial goods get me. A wedding felt like commercialism on steroids for me. There was just endless amounts of things one could buy for the wedding and all events surrounding. I don’t think I need to list them. As a result, I know I personally had to be extremely conscious of what we were buying. But in the end, what we did spend money on was: 
  • Venue ~ $400
  • Local, Niagara Organic Wine that we bottled ourselves ~ $900
  • Hard alcohol & Champagne ~$200
  • Local Beer (actually we got that for free)
  • CO2 cartridge for our soda machine + water flavoring ~ $50
  • Local-produce Catering with free-range, ethically treated animals, and gluten-free/vegan options ~$6000
  • rings that Mike made himself in Toronto using recycled silver ~$300
  • fabric for a dress that my mom made for me ~$30 + pattern 
  • shoes ~$100 (I splurged!) 
  • alterations to a suit Mike bought at Value Village ~$35 + ~$8 suit
  • a few fresh local flowers + vases ~$200
  • a few decorations ~$160
  • polaroid film ~$60 
  • evites with digital envelopes ~$75
  • manicures & pedicures ~$130
  • rental car to pick up family from airport ~$120
  • probably a few other things I can’t think of. 

Minimalist to some, but possibly even a bit more than we really needed. We could have just gone to the beach and had a potluck... we thought about that but admittedly, I got scared of the unpredictability of the weather. 

All of these commercial items incur expenses, not too surprisingly. For the first while I could not imagine spending an exorbitant ($10K) amount of money for one single day. After some reflection, I did come to realize that spending $10K in one day that was for and many others a wonderful celebration and community event was actually well worth the money. I think many of us in our society typically look for the acquisition of items as good in exchange for our money. But paying for an experience was, and is, very rewarding. 

That being said, weddings are not very accessible to those without a great deal of disposable income. We were fortunate to have support from our families and were fortunate to let go of some major expenses (e.g., paper invites, table-service dinner, photographer, expensive venue, DJ, wedding gown, engagement ring, wedding bands NOT made by Mike...), hair salon, and probably lots of other things down that rabbit hole that I didn’t go find.  We did our wedding for about $10K, with 65% of our money going catering. If we had done a potluck (which was considered), it would have been well under $5000. But not everyone has $5000 to spend on a wedding, never mind the $50K that many people spend. Many people take out loans or simply cannot afford it. And the gap between those people who cannot afford it and those who can bothers me immensely. I feel for the women who want the princess wedding gown for a day they have waited their entire life for but cannot afford it. I feel similarly for children who want a new pair of Nike shoes for Christmas but who’s parents can’t afford that either. The commercialism of our society sickens me on any given day and is heightened at Christmas and apparently during weddings. The fact that some people are not able to celebrate a union easily without money is very sad to me (even a justice of the peace and all the documentation is around $250 - $500).  

I say all this seemingly very righteous but the reality of it is that I struggled very much to succeed in keeping our wedding costs down. And like I said above, I could have been consumed by consumerism. But I did what any addict does to stay sober. I didn’t put myself in the situations that would cause me to crumble - no wedding shows, no dress shops, no decoration places, no wedding magazines. Actually, it really wasn’t that hard to stay away from all of that. It kind of makes me sick!  ;)

After coming to terms with the money, Mike and I were able to design our ceremony, which I first I personally could not even call a wedding ceremony. Now, after the fact, and slightly leading up to it, I felt confident enough that we had reclaimed the word wedding to be true for us. But until then I couldn’t even say we were having a wedding or getting married. And I never ONCE called myself a bride - still can’t stomach that.  

The Ceremony Sets The Tone
Our ceremony was created by myself, Mike, Bronwyn (our dear friend who married us), and Lindsey (my soul sister and Bronwyn’s partner). It was not traditional. To start, Bronwyn is not a minister or a justice of the peace. She is our mutual friend who’s ideologies we relate to and she knows us well. The theme was love, community, and commitment and we wanted that to come out in the ceremony. Bronwyn spoke to each of those in her sermon, which she developed thoughtfully and delivered eloquently. She used her own words, our words (through an interview she conducted with us), words of friends and family, and words of other great beings. It was absolutely beautiful and memorable.  

The ceremony started with Mike and I standing up at the front with Bronwyn. There was no isle for me to walk down. For me, I could not get past the tradition of where the isle came from. The last thing I wanted to represent was a veiled woman being walked down the isle and then given away by one man (her father) to another (her groom). Now, for those of you who want to say “hey, sometimes both parents walk the bride down the isle” I have to ask, do you really think that makes it all better? Mike’s brother and his wife both had their parents walk them down the isle. That was pretty good. But what I would love to see (or hear about) is a ceremony where the bride and bridesmaid’s are waiting for the groom and groomsmen at the end of the isle. But that in itself is still plagued with gender stereotypes that I won’t get into.

It’s also worth noting that in a traditional Christian ceremony the minister asks “Who gives away this bride?”. Seriously?  Still?  When I have questioned this I was told of some bride’s having both their mother and father answer the question. Really? That’s better? I guess the fact that mothers, not just fathers, get to own people is a step in the right directions. Or at least that’s what proponents of that adoption would have to claim to justify it.  Sorry, I’m not convinced. Some other things in the ceremony I find funny:

Do you promise to obey?” Hahaha! No. I don’t. 

Do you both come of your own free will?” Hahah, I surely hope so!

The groom may now kiss the bride.” as the bride is unveiled for her new husband. Hopefully he likes what he sees. Oh the agony a bride must once of felt hoping she was accepted. 

So what did we do? Well, I certainly did not agree to obey anyone and decided not to have vows. This promise of forever after is frankly bull shit. What is the purpose of this when 50% of people break their promises? Vows have lost their integrity and worth. In fact, IMO, weddings themselves have. I have sadly seen too many people get married because corporations like DeBeers have successfully marketed weddings with “Diamonds are forever” and convinced too many people that the hoopla of weddings IS what getting married is all about. For more on this, see below about “money and commercialism”.

So, after much reflection on our ceremony, we decided to write our own set of intentions, rather than make promises we couldn’t keep. And we committed to those in front our friends and families as witnesses. Here’s how that went:

Bronwyn, our MC, after a sermon on love, commitment, and community said: Mandy, what is your intention in marrying mike?

Mandy says to Mike:
For me, love is a practice, with the hopes of finding and achieving unconditional love. My intention is to love you unconditionally and in so doing, let our relationship serve as a practice of offering unconditional love to all beings. My love for you will teach me to be love.

Bronwyn: Mike, what is your intention in marrying Mandy?

Mike says to Mandy:
For me, I know our relationship, like all relationships, require hard work and attention in order to succeed. My intention is to work with you during those difficult times, turning toward you, rather than away. This love will teach me to be love.

Bronwyn:  Mike and Mandy, over the course of your relationship will you cause each pain or hurt?

M&M: Yes

Bronwyn: Is that your intention?

M&M: no
Mandy: our intention is to ease that pain when it does occur.

Bronwyn:  Will you cause each other anger or frustration?

M&M: Yes

Bronwyn: Is that your intention?

M&M: no
Mike: our intention is to ease that anger when it does occur

Bronwyn:  Will you cause each other to worry or be burdened?

M&M: Yes

Bronwyn: Is that your intention?

M&M: no

Bronwyn: What are your intentions?

Mike: Our intention is to grow together as one, while also growing as individuals, and to devote meaningful attention to growing our relationship.

Mandy: Our intention is to encourage and support each other’s paths, unselfishly.

Mike: Our intention is to be open, honest, and understanding.

Mandy: Our intention is love each other unconditionally, to exist in a state of love, and to bring love and kindness into the lives of others through this practice.

Mike: Our intention is to remain together as a couple through good times and difficult times.

Mandy: Our intention is to seek help from our community when necessary.

Bronwyn: do you both commit to these intentions?

M&M: We do

Exchange of RINGS...

Mike and I found these intentions in a Pagan wedding and we both really resonated with the idea of intentions. We also loved the fact that it point-blank exposed the fact that we will not be perfect partners and that we will cause each other pain and hurt and anger. 
This happened to us before we got married and we certainly weren’t going to delude ourselves into thinking that some magical fairy wasn’t going to make us perfect partners when we got married. So we laid it right out there. An important theme for us was that we would turn toward our challenges, not away from them, and the Pagan expose of that was wonderful. In the end, our wedding day was wonderful

After The Wedding Day
We had few regrets... although the classic “not getting to spend time with everyone” emerged. But what surprised me was that some of those terrible industry things popped up in my head. I actually had several really disturbing thoughts after seeing the photos including: 1) I should have whitened my teeth, 2) I should have gone on a diet, and 3) I should have had my make-up and hair professionally done. My choice not to do all those things was actually quite simple - I wanted to look like me and be able to still recognize myself 20 years from now rather than looking back at some photoshopped fake, anorexic woman that was never me except for a day. But the fact that those thoughts popped up in my head at all is suggestive of how disturbing our society is.

After our wedding we also had several people ask if we were “really” married. I find it kind of funny to think about how much we rely on these external institutions to dictate our experiences in life. No, we did not get married in a Church and we have not had the government approve of our commitment to one another. But we assure you that spending money and inviting our friends and family to take time away from their busy lives and spend money to travel to see us and shower us with love and generosity is the institution to whom we feel most accountable. In fact, we asked that our community indeed support us in our marriage, as we recognize that we will have troubling times. I suspect that this institution will support us more than the government or a church we don’t attend.  And if God is up there judging us for doing it our way, perhaps he/she should consider revamping his/her way because it’s only about a 50% success rate last time I checked.

One last thing that I can’t help but mention. Many people asked me if I was going to change my last name. My answer is simple: “It’s not 1950”.  Mike and I considered several options... including him changing his name, flipping a coin, and us creating a new name. All of these have been done but I still think we need some better options, particularly when offspring come into the picture. 

I have been working on this piece for over a year and still haven’t completely figured out what my view on weddings is; but I present it nonetheless recognizing that just like a wedding day becoming conscious of issues and of ourselves is a process. On that note, I will conclude with... nothing further at this point. I do, however, look forward to hearing from those who "Like" these thoughts and those who adamantly oppose it. 

No Shortage on Opportunities, Just a Shortage on Direction

When I first moved to Toronto (from Halifax) I was completely blown away with all the STUFF out there (i.e., information sessions, skills workshops, lecture series, freebies, classes, networking opportunities, summits, new friends, old friends...)!  The landscape was both exhilarating and exhausting, so much so that I actually earned myself a serious stress-related eruption of eczema. It kind of reminded me of being back in university when everything was SO exciting... and there was so much to do.

Luckily for me, I ended up finding my way by learning how to gauge the opportunities that were most directly aligned with my immediate and long-term needs and desires. Yes, learning Nuit Blanche is a huge exciting event in the city and so are all the amazing lectures at UofT but they don’t make my cut. TEDx Toronto, Improv Classes, and Ultimate Frisbee did, for me. 

How does one decide which ones do and which ones don’t?  IMO, through being firmly connected with one’s path in life.

But finding a direction or path in life is not always easy. In fact, as I watch more and more “opportunities” and career development services emerge I really feel for the young people of our society. They are confused, overwhelmed, and seeking endlessly for their perfect careers. IMO, they are missing a few key elements to help them navigate this path - mentorship. 

I was incredibly fortunate when I started university. I had a very clear interest and passion. Not long after that I ended up with a mentor who supported me for the next 4 years. Actually, I didn’t have just one, I had a few. And then when I went to grad school I had more, some of whom I still correspond with over 10 years later. And when I left university and went on to start my own business, I had another mentor. And thank god I did because without my mentors I can’t image where I would be. And I can’t imagine how less rewarding this path would have been. My mentors inspired me, guided me, encouraged me, got me out of my head, and got me in my head.  They even pissed me off some times, which I think is a good thing. They challenged me to go deeper. And they were always there to check in with so I knew I wasn’t alone.

I have been part of mentorship programs since 1995, when I first started working as a mentor with a program at the University of Winnipeg called Fostering Women’s Success and Persistence in Science. I continued similar work throughout my entire university career mentoring and being mentored in a variety of domains. Now, I run my own mentorship programs, formally.  For example, I run a life-coaching mentorship program to support the emerging careers of life coaches who take my course. And I recently started a post-secondary education program based on principles of mentorship, called UExperience. 

To me, mentorship is an important and necessary component for sifting through the growing mountains of career possibilities and training opportunities. And my personal perspective is that all of this should be done in ways that are rewarding, fun, personalized, creative, and engaging. When I mentor, I mentor people and their projects that I enjoy so that I can enthusiastically support my mentees work. Every meeting I have with them is engaging and rewarding and re-invigorates my own work. It’s actually quite an amazing opportunity to collaborate, exchange, and share.

If mentorship interests you, join Uexperience, a unique learning community. We have student positions available, we host dinners, and run free lecture events all there to support mentoring personalized and experiential paths!  We also seek enthusiastic mentors.  

Twitter @UExperience21st

Calorie-Restricted Diets (Science Review)

N.B. This science review was originally published in Optimyz Magazine in March 2012 by Mandy Wintink, PhD

Restrict Calories to Prolong Life

Calorie-restricted diets are known scientifically to offer a variety of health benefits, including lowered metabolic rate, which lowers reactive oxygen species and the rate of oxidative damage to vital tissues. Lowering metabolic rate decreases the biological rate of aging and extends life expectancy. Calorie restriction (CR) is so compelling that there is a society named after it, which exists to support people’s efforts for longevity and good health through CR. CR also improves markers of age-related diseases (e.g., insulin resistance for diabetes), lowers obesity rates, alter neuroendocrine activity, and reduce cancer rates.

CR has been studied extensively in non-humans and to a limited extent in obese individuals as a non-pharmacological treatment for obesity and diabetes. A multi-centre study funded by the National Institute of Aging is currently underway examining the benefits in obese, mildly overweight, and normal-weight individuals. The study is called the Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake Energy, or CALERIE, study.

A few results from this very comprehensive study are already available, for example, 6 months of a 25% CR diet increased anti-oxidant levels such as glutatione in overweight individuals. It also lowered levels of fasting glucose, of total cholesterol, of core body temperature (a marker of metabolic rate), of body weight, and of fat, all correlates of longevity and reduced incidence of obesity and diabetes. The diet also reduced DNA damage, all within the first 6 months. Full results won’t be available until after 2 years of such diet. Also important, is that this study will be the first to study the long-term effects of CR diets in healthy, non-obese individuals. Individuals of the CR Society may be happy to hear the results because as of right now their efforts are theoretically motivated, but with a theory that warrants the good science soon to be available.

CR also offers benefits with cancer prevention. In an article published in February of 2011, the authors summarized many studies showing that CR protects cells through reducing stress-induced damage, keeping inflammation down and regulated, regulating the immune responses, and ensuring adequate metabolism and energy expenditure. CR also enhances DNA repair, while preventing its damage, and ramps up the clean-up process when damage does occur. CR’s protection likely involves regulating gene expression in tumor-suppressor genes (a process I described 2 issues ago on epigenetics), among a host of other biochemical processes.

Fasting - no calorie intake - also produces changes that offer protection to cells and is currently being investigated as a potential clinical intervention in cancer, partially because there is little to no weight loss with fasting but some of the health benefits are achieved. The benefits appear to be meditated though a differential stress resistance. Normal cells respond to fasting by inducing a variety of mechanisms to protect cells from damage. Cancer cells do not appear to have this ability because of changes in gene expression that effectively ward off the protective effects allowing for their own death and thus reduces tumor growth. This idea was reviewed in the scientific journal, Oncogene, in July 2011, and also as a more lay version in the February 8th issue of Scientific American, suggesting that 5 days of fasting around chemotherapy may optimize the treatment.

Whether CR, fasting, or some other diet is your diet of choice, one thing seems clear. High-caloric intake is not healthy. Many evolutionary scientists believe that our bodies adapted to a food-shortage environment. The problem is that we are actually living in a food-abundant environment, at least that’s true for many of us who live in developed countries. CR appears to offer health benefits because it is capitalizing on a system that is geared to work well under food-restricted circumstances. That being said, these same bodies probably also evolved to be less sedentary that we typically are. Exercise and physical activity are also important elements of healthy living. However, exercise does not appear to extend life expectancy in the way that CR does.

One final thing to keep in mind is that the benefits of CR have been studied while maintaining proper nutrition. CR does not imply starvation!

Men are Men and Women are Women? True or False? (Science Review)

N.B. This science review was originally published in Optimyz Magazine in February 2012 by Mandy Wintink, PhD. 

My academic grandfather (i.e., my PhD supervisor’s supervisor), Dr. John Pinel from UBC, was the first person I heard argue that males and females are better considered along a continuum of maleness-femaleness rather than as a dichotomy. Considering sex along a continuum may, indeed, may be difficult, but there is substantial biological reason to suggest we are better off doing so if we are interested in more accurately understanding male-femalesness.

First, consider the genetics of sex. We categorize sex according to the chromosomes X and Y. Males have an X and a Y and females have two Xs as their 46th chromosome. Mothers pass on their X chromosomes to offspring, because they only have Xs, whereas fathers pass on both their X and Y. When the combine during fertilization, they give rise to either a male (XY) or female (XX). During normal development subsequent  sex-specific hormones - testosterone and estrogen - are produced and circulate through the body to give rise to what we typically think of as males and females, respectively.

At face value, this is simple to understand, until, of course, we consider that there are conditions under which there is a discrepancy among the genetic sex, the individuals response to sex hormones, and physical sex-specific characteristics like genitals and body type - medical conditions called “intersex”.

Here’s one example of intersex. A person has XX chromosomes and ovaries, but developed male external genitals. This results when a female fetus receives too much exposure to the masculinizing sex-hormone testosterone during critical periods in the womb. The labia (lips of the female external genitalia) fuse forming a scrotum and the clitoris enlarges to form a penis. Both of these tissue can develop in either direction, normally, and do so in response to circulating sex hormones (the default is female, btw). The most common cause of this is Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, a condition in which the individual lacks the a specific enzyme and effectively increases androgen (a hormone group that includes testosterone).

A similar condition, Aromatase Deficiency, happens at puberty. Aromatase is an enzyme that converts androgens to estrogens. This conditions goes unnoticed until XX girls hit puberty and respond to the excess of testosterone by beginning to develop into teenage boys!

Similarly, there are individuals who look like a woman but are genetically XY male. We tend to hear about these women around the time of olympics when questions concerning their exceptional performance evolve. In this condition, the individual is biologically unable to respond to androgens and therefore develop as females (the default remember). This condition, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, can go unnoticed by women until they attempt to have children and realize they have male, not female, internal organs.

These examples beg the question, what constitutes men and women? Is it genetics? Physical characteristics?  Gender identification? And I didn’t even get to touch on individuals who are XYY or XO genetically!

I find this topic really interesting to bring up for several reasons, particularly as a reminder that categories, although helpful in many circumstances, limit our understanding. I also hope, in highlighting this science, to promote tolerance for those who don’t fit into such categories, which can include varying sexual orientations. On that note, I will leave you with this final science tid-bit: There are several brain areas that specifically correspond to being male or female and develop later in prenatal development compared to genitals, suggesting a potential a mechanism by which gender and physical characteristics can be misaligned, like in transsexual individuals who undergo sex-reassignment surgery. There is significant evidence that these areas correspond to the sex felt, not born as (see research by scientist Dr. DF Swaab for many studies in this area). 

Blog Info:
In 2009 I reviewed how hormones work and discussed the effects of pseudo-estrogens (like Bisphenol A) on reproduction. I have reposted it on my A Science Perspective blog for those interested.

Epigenetics and Cancer (Part 2 Science Review)

N.B. This science review was originally published in Optimyz Magazine in January 2012 by Mandy Wintink, PhD.

Epigenetics & Cancer

We have all likely been touched by cancer either directly or indirectly. The most prominent time for me was when my grandmother was diagnosed with colon cancer 13 years ago. It forced me to evaluate the role my diet could have on the development of cancer inside of me.

Although the exact causes of cancer are unknown, it is clear that cancer cells have an abnormal capacity to divide uncontrollably and form tumors. More recently, epigenetic changes are becoming important pieces of the cancer puzzle. Epigenetics are giving us insight into how cancer is triggered and progresses and how we can intervene in the development of cancer.

Epigenetics, as mentioned last issue, is the study of heritable changes that lie outside of the DNA sequence. Whereas genetics involves the code of the DNA, and for example, whether a gene is present or not or whether a gene has undergone a mutation, epigenetics primarily involve 1) the silencing and activation of genes through altered DNA methylation patterns, 2) histone modifications, and 3) chromatic remodeling - all of which alter gene expression.  Genetics are relatively stable, but epigenetics provide a mechanism for how the environment (including diet) can have an effect the expression of a person’s genes.

DNA methylation is the best known epigenetic marker. It’s the footprint the environment leaves on the DNA. It is also well known for its role in many forms of cancers. For example, hypermethylation in specific DNA regions silences genes that suppress tumor growth (known as tumor suppressor genes), which leads to tumors (and cancer). Alternatively, hypomethylation activates specific genes that are known for their potential to be cancerous. These genes are known as ‘oncogenes’ and their activation also leads to cancer.

Diet can affects DNA methylation and can affect some types of cancer, like colorectal cancer (CRC). There are recent estimates that diet can prevent up to 80% of CRC. The relationship between CRC and diet was first recognized when scientists noticed that CRC was much higher in Westernized societies, where people consumed high-calorie diets and were less physically active. It was then discovered that there are specific parts of a diet that both promotes and prevents cancer. For example, red and processed meat, substantial consumption of alcoholic drinks, body fat and abdominal fatness are believed causes of CRC, as is food containing animal fats or sugar. On the other hand, foods containing dietary fibre, garlic, milk, calcium, folate, vitamin D, and selenium,
as well as non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and fish seem to protect against CRC.

The dietary effects on cancer seem to happen two ways: directly, by affecting the gut lining, and indirectly, when the blood content of specific nutrients and hormones shift the body homeostasis in a negative way, resulting in genetic and epigenetic changes, including the silencing of tumor suppressor genes.

Altered DNA methylation in many cancers, not just CRC, show promise as a biomarker for cancer susceptibility. This is important because some of the methylation changes occur prenatally and in childhood long before cancer develops. By having a marker, lifestyle changes could be adopted to reduce future incidences of cancer manifesting. This concept coincides with Dr. Alfred Knudson’s 25-year old 2-hit theory of cancer, which is currently a popular way of understanding that it is not just one factor ultimately causes cancer.

Alterations in DNA methylation is also reversible, even through diet, and potentially under some of our control. This exciting area of epigenetics and diet have paved the way to a new field now called ‘nutrigenetics’. Needless to say, epigenetics serves as a promising areas of cancer research in everything from causes to biomarkers to therapeutic intervention. If this interests you further, I would suggest checking out 

Epigenetics & Stress (Science Review Part 1)

N.B. This science review was originally published in Optimyz Magazine in September 2011 by Mandy Wintink, PhD.

Inheriting Our Parents Life Experiences

Still wondering about the nature-nurture debate? It seems rather clear by now that what we end up as is an interaction between our genes and the environment in which we exist. One of the ways in which this interaction happens is through a phenomenon called ‘epigenetics’. Whereas genetics has to do with the structure of the DNA sequence that codes for our genes and is passed on from generation to the next, epigenetics has to do with genetic changes and inheritance that lie outside the DNA sequence and involves biochemical changes that affect the expression of genes.

Epigenetics is a sort of imprinting, whereby the environment leaves its footprints on the DNA. This happens through a process called “DNA methylation” (an addition of a methyl group to the DNA sequence) or “histone deacetylation” (a transfer of the acetyl group to Co-enzyme A). The consequence of these two mechanisms is a suppression in gene activity, or the reverse effect if DNA demethylation and histone acetylation occurs. In the former case, the DNA stays tightly wound and is less able to express itself resulting in a suppression, whereas during the latter case, the DNA loosens and is more free to express itself resulting in heightened gene expression. What’s really interesting about epigenetics is that these changes can also be passed on to the next generation, providing a biological mechanism for a parent to pass on life experience.

How we respond to early life experiences is a great example of some current epigenetic research. Montreal researcher Michael Meaney has been using a rat maternal care model to investigate this. He has shown that when rat pups receive good maternal care (i.e., lots of licking, grooming, and nursing) they grow up to be less fearful, show fewer signs of physiological stress, and, if female, provide better care for their young.  He has also shown that these behaviours run in families.  Having a good mom means that rats are more likely to be a good moms themselves and that her offspring are less fearful, show fewer signs of stress, and also become good moms.

These behaviours continue across generations unless of course, you’re swapped at birth!  Meaney placed pups born to bad moms with good moms and vice versa.  Surprisingly, the pups took on the behaviours associated with the maternal care they received, not the behaviours associated with the maternal care of their biological moms.  What this meant was that the environment had a greater impact on how rats would turn out as adults than did the genetic lineage.

These results were so fascinating that they were published in the very prestigious journal, Science, in 1999. Then in 2004 Meaney’s group showed that these effects were happening epigenetically and were passed on to subsequent generations. They found changes in DNA methylation and histone deacetylation that were associated with both the rats’ early life experiences and the behaviours and physiology they developed in adulthood. And even though they changes were passed on, if they pups were swapped at birth, the effects were reversed, further confirming they were epigenetic and not just genetic.

Even more convincing of an epigenetic mode of inheritance, was when Meaney’s group chemically blocked the DNA methylation and histone deacetylation in the pups raised by bad moms. When they blocked these epigenetic changes the pups grew up to behave and show signs of stress as if they had been reared by good moms! This showed, without a doubt, that epigenetic changes were necessary for the early life experiences to dictate the future of the pups. And when those changes were blocked, the environment could not leave its footprints. 

Homeopathy (Science Review)

N.B. This science review was originally published in Optimyz Magazine in June 2011 by Mandy Wintink, PhD.

In my sports bag, I have my frisbee gear, cleats, band-aids, hair elastics, and cliff bars. About 3 years ago I swapped my Ibuprophen for Arnica Montana, upon consultation with our team Naturopathic Doctor. 

Arnica Montana is a homeopathic remedy for injury and inflammation. Homeopathic remedies are often scrutinized, largely because the medical philosophy under which they are prescribed are counter-intuitive to the way many of us think.

Homeopathic remedies function on the like-cures-like philosophy. The best analogy with Western medicine is to vaccinations, where small amounts of a known causal agent (like last year’s flu bug) are given to a person to help stimulate his or her own immune system and to develop antibodies, with the hopes that those antibodies will launch an attack should that foreign invader enter the body in the future. Homeopathics, on the other hand, are given to stimulate a person’s own healing processes at the time of the illness or injury. Another main feature of homeopathic remedies is that the amounts given are exceptionally small. In fact, according to its philosophy, lesser, not greater, amounts produce a more potent therapeutic!

These very small amounts are, in fact, so small that the actual substance itself is not even present, just the molecular or energetic resonance of it once being there. Homeopathics are prepared by diluting the original substance over and over and over again. The more diluted, the greater the strength, and the higher the number on the homeopathic container (e.g., 6C, 30C, 200C).

General skepticism exists among medical doctors and scientists believing that there cannot possibly be any biological effects in such diluted substances. However, Nobel Prize Laureate Luc Montagnier, the scientist who discovered HIV, disagrees. Dr. Montagnier is currently researching the structural changes in water produced by the DNA of bacteria after really high dilutions. Although he does not study homeopathy himself, in an interview with Science magazine in December 2010, he was specifically asked what he thought about homeopathy, because of the parallel to his research. He responded by stating that what he knows is that high dilutions are not just nothing. They leave residues in the form of electromagnetic resonance. He did qualify his answer by saying that his own research was not using as high of dilutions as homeopathy does but that even at 10-18, when he cannot detect a single DNA molecule of the bacteria he can still detect the electromagnetic signals.

This line of research is actually quite exciting for homeopathy. Until recently, the science on homeopathy hasn’t been so hot. With hundreds of homeopathic remedies out there, some researchers have attempted to answer the simple scientific question “does homeopathy work?”  Many studies, and studies of studies (i.e., meta-analyses) suggest it does not. There are a limited number of both good- and bad-quality studies demonstrating therapeutic effects of several homeopathics, but an even greater number have yet to undergo the scientific scrutiny. All of this just goes to show that us scientists don’t know the answers yet!

So why do I still carry arnica in my bag? I did read a few convincing studies. For example, a 2007 study did show that topical arnica was as effective as corticosteroids for reducing edema following surgery. Given that corticosteroids are known to have negative side effects, an alternative would be welcomed. Also, a research group in Brazil has focused on Arnica 6C and shown many positive results, for example, in an animal and cell-culture model of inflammation, arnica reduces a variety of inflammatory chemicals in the body. In a study published this year, they also reported that the therapeutics effects were only visible in those who had a delayed inflammatory response, rather than an immediate response, which begs the research question, why is this? The authors suggest individual differences are important factors to consider. And so would homeopathic doctors!

Homeopathy is actually much more complicated than our current way of doing medical research can handle. We also must remember that science is a tool, not the final answer, and together with other pieces of evidence, science helps form the big picture.