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Friday, November 15, 2019

Flushing the Brain While You Sleep

I had written before about the breakthrough in studies of mice that showed lymphatic  flushing of brain tissue in mice while they slept. Now this phenomenon has been confirmed in humans. During human sleep, pulses of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) flush throughout the brain. You can see a spectacular real-time video at this site:

Midline brain scan showing flushed area in red at one instant, pulsing at about 1-2 times/sec. From Fultz, 2019.

Interestingly, the flushing seems to include most of the brain, except the brainstem and the cerebellum. These CSF waves presumably flush out unnecessary proteins and other redundant debris. It is likely that the microtubule lymphatic-like system inside of brain tissue that opens during deep sleep is part of the CSF circulatory system. CSF is generated in specialized regions of the cerebral ventricles and ultimately drains back into the bloodstream.
Another research group simultaneously reported in the same issue of Science that cerebral blood flow diminishes by about 25% during slow-wave sleep, and apparently this facilitates an increase in the volume of CSF that can flow through the brain.

Another research group simultaneously reported in the same issue of Science that cerebral blood flow diminishes by about 25% during slow-wave sleep, and apparently this facilitates an increase in the volume of CSF that can flow through the brain.

The CSF pulsing is associated with slow-wave pulsing in the field potentials (as seen in EEGs, for example) generated by brain during the initial stages of sleep. The electrical waves and CSF pulses are coincident in a shared rhythm. The amount of slow-wave electrical activity diminishes in most elderly, and this may be a cause of dementia, which results from accumulated metabolic waste products. Sleep clinics could easily determine the amount of slow-wave sleep and thus perhaps detect early warning signs of impending dementia. Research on drugs and sleep habits that promote slow-wave EEGs might forestall and even treat dementia.


Fultz, Nina E. et al. 2019. Coupled electrophysiological, hemodynamic, and cerebrospinal fluid oscillations in human sleep. Science. 366(6465), 628-631. doi: 10.1126/science.aax5440

Grub, Søren and Lauritzen, M. 2010. Deep sleep drives brain fluid oscillations. Science. 366(6465), 572-573. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz5191

Friday, November 01, 2019

Sleep Is Good for Your Heart

What are you doing to prevent a heart attack? Perhaps you do the things cardiologists typically recommend: exercise, eat less saturated fat, take statins and omega-3 supplements. Now, there is another recommendation: get 6-9 hours high-quality sleep each night.

One recent report of over 400,000 people who were evaluated over seven years  revealed that people who slept 6-9 hours a night had a 20% lower risk of a heart attack than people who slept less. However, sleeping more than 9 hours had a 34% higher risk.

Napping also seems to be a good idea. A group in Switzerland just reported from 3,462  people that
those who had two or more naps a week had significantly less cardiovascular disease than those who did not nap. The benefit was unrelated to the length of napping.

The reason sleep is beneficial has not been established, but two lines of reasoning could explain it. The heart gets a rest during sleep. Heart rate and blood pressure typically go down during sleep. Also, sleep gives us a break from the stressful events of the day, events which release hormones and activate the "fight or flight" system that put a strain on the heart.

As to the paradox of the harmful effects of too much sleep (> 9 hours), one possible cause is too much dreaming, which is tied to the amount of sleep. During dreaming, blood and heart rate can spike, depending on the nature of what one is dreaming about.  The incidence of unpleasant, and therefore stressful, dreams should increase with increasing amounts of sleep time. By the way, I published a theory that asserts that the purpose of dreaming is the brain’s way to tell itself it has had enough sleep and it is time to wake up.

Another cause of excessive sleep can be poor quality sleep. For example, insomniacs may need more sleep because they are not getting enough of good, restful sleep.

Sleep apnea is a proven cause of bad sleep. Apnea is extremely stressful and can raise blood pressure on a continual basis, even during wakeful hours.

So, sleep well, with pleasant dreams. If your dreams are disturbing, program your brain to stop that. Tell your brain its job is to nurture you, not beat up on you. See my Psychology Today post on "How Nightmares May Affect Us, and What We Can Do about It."


Daghlas, I. et al. (2019). Sleep duration and myocardial infarction. J. Amer. College of Cardiology. 74, 1304-1314.

Häusler, N. et al. (2019). Association of napping in incident cardiovascular events in a prospective cohort study. Heart. doi: 10.1136iuheartjnl2019-314999 (Sept. 9)

Klemm, W. R. 2011. Why does REM sleep occur? A wake-up Hypothesis. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 5 (73): 1- 12. Doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2011.00073

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Nerve Impulses: the Key to Understanding the Brain

One of the greatest, relatively underappreciated, discoveries in all of science was the discovery of the nerve impulse in the 1930s by the British Lord Adrian. Adrian did win a Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1932, but scholars underestimated its implications, which go beyond the fact that four later Nobel Prizes were awarded for work based on Adrian’s discovery. This included discovery of sodium and potassium ionic flux during impulses, the role of impulses in releasing neurotransmitters, and the role of membrane ion channels in impulse generation and second messenger cascades.

Like many discoveries in science, this one could not have been made without technological advance. In this case, the essential advance was the development of the capillary electrometer, which enabled detection of very small electrical pulses on the order of one millisecond duration. This instrumentation was crude and far inferior to later advances such as the oscilloscope and computer screens. Before Adrian’s use of the electrometer, scientists generally knew that peripheral nerves generated some kind of electrical signal, but nothing was known about the nature of the signal in individual neurons.

Nerves contain fibers from hundreds of neurons that produce a summed, relatively long duration and large wave that spreads down the nerve. No one knew how the individual nerve fibers contributed to this compound signal. Adrian answered this question by tedious microdissection of nerves into their individual fibers and recording stimulus-evoked responses in a single fiber. What Adrian saw was that the response was a series of voltage pulses, each about one millisecond long, all of the same amplitude in a given fiber.  Decades later, development of microelectrodes enabled confirmation of Adrian’s discovery in neurons in the brain.

Fig. 1. Train of nerve impulses from a single neuron over 2.5 seconds, as recorded with extracellular electrodes. Amplitude calibration = 0.5 millivolts. The thick baseline is electronic noise, in which the spikes are embedded. The signal-to-noise ratio is vastly improved with modern electronics and intracellular recording. From Fromm and Bond, 1967, Electroenceph. clin. Neuro. 22, 159.

This provided the evidence of the basic similarity and difference between brains and the later development of computers. Both computers and brains convert the real world into representations. In computers, information is coded, in the form of 1s and 0s, and as nerve impulses in brains. Both computers and brains distribute and process this represented information, and can store it as memories. However, because brains are biological and use impulses to represent information, they can change their circuitry and can self-program. Unlike computers, brains also have will, including a likely degree of free will.

Brains have conspicuous functional states, ranging from intense conscious concentration to drowsiness, to sleep, to coma, to death. Neuronal electrical activity correlates in a systematic way with these state changes. The most conspicuous of these activity measures exist in terms of nerve impulse firing and the extracellular ionic currents they create at synapses, known as field potentials. As these field potentials reach the scalp, they produce the signal we call an electroencephalogram. Field potentials are technologically easier to record than individual nerve impulses, but more ambiguous to interpret because of the spatial summation of voltages from hundreds of heterogeneous neurons.

The original nerve impulse findings were that the rate of impulse firing governed the impact on neuronal targets, whether they be muscle or other neurons. Various labs, including my own, in the 1980s discovered that the intervals between impulses also contained their own kind of information. For example, my lab reported that some neurons contained statistically significant serial ordering of impulse intervals in a neuron’s impulse stream. The intervals, at least in higher-level brain areas, are not random. They are serially dependent, as if they contained a message. If you are familiar with Markov transition probability, you can understand our finding that serial dependences exist in as many as five successive intervals (Sherry et al. 1982). This led us to suggest “byte processing” as a basic feature of neuronal information processing. This view has not caught on, and most people still seem to think that firing rate is the basic information code, despite the well-established temporal summation that occurs as impulses arrive at synapses. Bernard Katz demonstrated temporal summation of impulse effects in neuromuscular junctions in 1951 and later J.P. Segundo and colleagues confirmed it in neuronal synapses (Segundo et al., 1963).

 It should not be surprising that there are serial dependencies in impulse intervals. For example, intracellular recording of postsynaptic potentials revealed that the polarization change caused by a single impulse input decays in a few millisecond. However, a succession of closely spaced impulse inputs allows the polarization changes to summate.

These days, the emphasis needs to be put on impulse activity in defined circuitry. All neurons are linked in one or more circuits, and the impulse train in any one neuron is only a small part of the over-all circuit activity. The function of any given circuit depends on the circuit impulse pattern (CIP) of the whole circuit. Researchers have developed microelectrodes that allow recording of impulse trains from single neurons, but the problem is in implanting a series of electrodes so that each one monitors the activity of a selected neuron in a defined.

I think that research should focus on CIPs and the phase relationships of electrical activity among cortical circuits, both within and among cortical columns (Klemm, 2011). Nerve impulses have to be at the heart of consciousness, inasmuch as impulses contain the brain’s representation of information and create the synaptic field potentials.

We know from monitoring known anatomical pathways for specific sensations that the brain creates a CIP representation of the stimuli. As long as the CIPs remain active, the representation of sensation or neural processing is intact and may even be accessible to consciousness. However, if something disrupts ongoing CIPs to create a different set of CIPs, as for example would happen with a different stimulus, then the original representation disappears. If the original CIPs persist long enough, a memory could form, but otherwise the information would be lost. The implication for memory formation is that the immediate period after learning must be protected from new inputs to keep the CIP representation of the learning intact long enough to form a more lasting memory.

Much current research shows that conscious awareness correlates with the degree of synchrony and time-locking of CIPs in various regions and within regions of cortex. The evidence comes from electroencephalographic monitoring of the oscillating field potentials in a given area. These are voltage waves that occur in multiple frequency bands. Phase relationships of voltage waves from different circuits surely reflect the timing of the impulse discharges that create those fields. I summarized the animal research evidence for this view in my first book, some 50 years ago (Klemm, 1969). Depending on the nature of stimulus and mental state, these oscillations of various circuits may jitter with respect to each other or become time locked. The functional consequence of synchrony has to be substantial, and many others and I suggest that this is a fundamental aspect of consciousness. The correlation between frequency coherences and states of consciousness is clear. Frequency coherence reflects a “binding” of neurons into linked and shared electrochemical activity, but how this relates to conscious awareness will require a next great discovery in science.


Klemm, W. R. (1969). Animal Electroencephalography. New York: Academic Press.
Klemm, W. R. (2011). Atoms of Mind. The “Ghost in the Machine” Materializes. New York: Springer.
Segundo, J. P., et al. (1963). Sensitivity of neurons in Aplysia to temporal pattern of arriving impulses. J. Exp. Biol. 40: 643-667.
Sherry, C. J., Barrow, D. L., and Klemm, W. R. 1982. Serial dependen­cies and Markov processes of neuronal interspike intervals from rat cerebellum. Brain Res. Bull. 8: 163‑169.

For more information, see my book, Mental Biology (Prometheus)

Monday, September 30, 2019

What Keeps Us from Action?

If you can do it, should do it, and want to do it, what are you waiting for? Many things in life that we excuse or misplace blame for are not created by what we do but by what we fail to do. Maybe we just procrastinate and just don’t get around to action. Or maybe it’s just a thought, something that we think would be nice to do, but we just aren’t serious about it.

What keeps us from action? Can, should, and want ought to be pretty compelling. A few years ago I was asked by a group of editors to write a chapter on “Neurobiology of Agency” for a scholarly book. Don’t worry. I won’t burden you here with what I wrote for the book chapter. But that task caused me to reflect on agency from the perspective of  the everyday issues of what we do and fail to do.

Have you pulled off the road of progress?
Souce: Unsplash
Some possible answers come from my own experience. One excuse is that we just can’t seem to find the time. That won’t wash. Whatever we do in life, we have found or made time for. Final choices are matters of priority, and sometimes we don’t prioritize well.

Fear is an obvious cause of inaction. There are many kinds of fear that cause inaction. There is:
  •        Fear of failure.
  •        Fear of being different or out-of-step.
  •        Fear of rejection.
  •        Even fear of success.  
Fear of failure arises from self-doubt. We may think we don’t know enough, don’t have enough time or energy, or lack ability, resources, and help. The cure for such fear is to learn what is needed, make the time, pump ourselves up emotionally so we will have the energy, hone our relevant skill set, and hustle for resources and help. These things can be demanding. It is no wonder there are so many things we can, should, and want to do but don’t do.

All our life, beginning with school, we are conditioned to consider failure as a bad thing. But failure is often a good, even necessary, thing. The ratio between failures and successes for any given person is rather stable. Thus, if you want more successes, you need to make more failures. This truth is recognized even the corporate world, and the most innovative companies practice it. Jeff Dyer, in his book The Innovator’s DNA, says the key to business success is to “fail often, fail fast, fail cheap.” It’s o.k. to fail, as long as you learn from it. Our mantra should be: “Keep tweaking until it works.” This is exactly how Edison invented the light bulb. Most other inventors and creative people in general have operated with the same mantra.

Fear of being different can cause people to join groups, causes, and lifestyles that are not be good for them or even harmful--criminal gangs are an extreme example. The corollary is that bad social commitments make it harder to experience better alternatives. Not everyone can be a leader, who by definition is different from the crowd. But all of us are better off when we are our own person, march to our own drummer, become “captain of our own soul.”
Fear of being different often arises from personal insecurity and lack of confidence. These are crippling emotions and one’s life can never be fully actualized until they are overcome. This comes to the matter of self-esteem. One thing many people don’t realize is that self-esteem has two quite distinct components: self-worth and self-confidence. Self-worth is given (by being valued and loved by others, by God). Self-confidence cannot be given−it has to be earned. People who lack the confidence to “put themselves on the line” deny themselves opportunities to enjoy the fruits of success. Their life becomes a vicious cycle that begins with lack of confidence, lack of agency, lack of success, and increased justification not to be confident.

If we are different, the in-crowd may reject us. Rejection is certainly depressing. Nobody in his right mind wants to be depressed. But no life can be fulfilling when it is lived to satisfy the opinions others may have of us. We need to be true to ourselves, to trust in our values and standards. If who we are is not worthy of such trust, we can certainly fix that. This dictum lies at the heart of Socrates’ great admonition: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Fear of success is often learned by watching how others have failed to adjust to success. Witness the entertainment celebrities who end up committing suicide. Most of us probably know personally some people who have become conceited, aloof, condescending, arrogant, or otherwise unlikable as a result of their success. We don’t want that to happen to us. But when we surrender to our fear of success, we affirm our lack of trust in ourselves. Do we really need to reinforce such lack of self-trust?

So, when life offers you the chance to do something you can, should, and want to do, just DO IT!

Are you concerned, conflicted, and confused about your life's meaning and purpose? Do you struggle with religious controversies? My new book (Triune Brain, Triune Mind, Triune Worldview) can encourage and help you think and feel anew in a mentally healthy way in pursuit of spiritual wholeness, fulfillment, and happiness. Get the paperback or e-book at Amazon or B&N.


Klemm, W. R. (2015). Neurobiological perspectives on agency: 10 axioms and ten propositions, p. 51-88, in Constraints of Agency, edited by Craig W. Gruber et al. New York: Springer.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

"I Observer"/"I Avatar"

As a young adult, I bought crime novelist Mickey Spillane’s premier 1947 novel, I, The Jury. Before it was made into two movies, the book had sold 3.5 million copies. In a flurry of action, Spillane wrote it in 19 days.

In ways generally unrecognized, the book captures the essence of the existential “I” that we all carry around in that three-and-a-half pound of mush inside our head. The protagonist of the book’s narrative, detective Mike Hammer, featured his “I, Observer,” who witnessed the deliberately intended painful murder of Jack Williams, a close friend who had saved Hammer’s life during a WWII combat incident. Hammer’s “I, Observer” felt the injustice, pain, and grief of the murder. Hammer’s “I, Avatar,” acted to achieve revenge on the killer.

All real live humans have these two “I’s.” Our “I, Observer” is a witness to the events of life. We experience life as if we were given a ticket to watch the game of life as it unfolds. Our “I, Avatar” responds to what it sees to act on our behalf. We take actions that we think are appropriate ways to respond. The difference is that the one I is “captain of its own ship,” while the other I is the sail of its own ship, unfurling as the wind blows.
One way to recognize one’s own dual I’s is in the dreams we have every night. Our “I, Observer” consciously witnesses a dream, whether we later remember it or not. In such dreams, we are aware of the story and maybe even of our role in it. Normally, however, we do not intervene to alter what happens in the dream. Even our own actions are just witnessed, not modified, as if we were watching ourselves in a movie.

Photo by Daniel Hohe on Unsplash
There are, however, other dream occasions, apparently relatively rare, in which “I, Avatar” takes over in a dream to steer its course in the real time of the dream. These so-called “lucid dreams” are apparently not the default mode of brain thinking in dreams. Maybe “I, Observer” is the default mode of operation in both dreams and in wakeful life.

It does seem clear that the mode sometimes switches to “I, Avatar.” Our I becomes an agent that intends to act in response to what happens to us. “I, Avatar” reasons on the issues, decides the most appropriate course of action, constructs an action plan, launches activity, and adjusts action in response to the emerging consequences.

Neuroscientists don’t know how the brain switches between observer and avatar. In fact, some neuroscientists believe that the brain has no avatar, only the observer. These scientists enlist this view to support their contention that humans lack free will. If your conscious mind has no capacity for agency, then it surely cannot exert free will. All willed action would have to be pre-determined or driven by uncontrolled forces, like the sails of a ship. Such a view precludes a captain who can adjust the sail positions.

Most neuroscientists likely agree that Observer and Avatar, if it exists, are creatures of the brain. The brain must construct those creatures the way that it constructs everything elsethat is, in the form of nerve impulse representations. This basic fact was made most compellingly by the Nobel Prize studies of David Hubel and Torsten Weisel, who noticed something astonishing as they moved recording electrodes up and down in the visual cortex of awake cats who were watching scenes on a screen. A given neuron was inactive most of the time, but occasionally fired off a burst of voltage pulses. They later proved that a given neuron was sensitive to only a small feature of the image, such as a small line segment. Other visual cortex neurons were sensitive to other small segments, and they likewise selectively responded with impulse discharge. Together, all these neurons could reconstruct the image. A key point is that the image is not in the cortex. Its representation is there, in the form of nerve impulses.

The logical extension of such facts is that the brain experiences and acts in the world via its nerve impulse representations. Both the observer and the avatar must be likewise constructed of patterns of impulses, likely differing depending on whether the I is operating as observer or avatar.

This way of thinking about selfhood also resolves the mind/brain enigma. Mind is not some ghost floating around in brain. Mind is the material existence of nerve impulse representations of experience and thought. The concept of “mind over matter” is nonsense. Mind IS matter.

No one knows how the brain decides which mode of operation to use. The Observer mode seems preferable as a default, because it is the collector of information and experience that can inform the Avatar should action be beneficial to the brain and body in which it is embedded. Without the Avatar, however, our personhood is a victim of circumstance, compelled to act in predestined ways that may not be beneficial or wise. We can argue that the Avatar is the brain’s way of saving itself from its own foolishness, of counteracting adverse circumstance, and of advancing one’s agendas. The trick of successful living is the ability to switch into Avatar mode when it is needed. When we fail in life, we should ask I, Avatar, “Where were you when I needed you?


Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Bad Dreams May Be Bad for Your Mental Health

Mental health professionals have historically thought of bad dreams (e.g., emotional distress, nightmares) as reflecting underlying mental dysfunctions that are buried in the unconscious and only become consciously accessible in dreams. Freud, Jung, and colleagues, popularized this view and assumed that dream analysis could unmask the mental problem and thereby open a door for treatment. There is an alternate way to think about dreams that is still compatible with the classic view, but adds a new dimension for improving mental health.

Freud’s Missed Opportunity

What classical psychiatry seems to have missed is the possibility that dream content has effects of its own that may be aggravating the very psychological problems that therapists were trying to treat. We humans consciously recognize what our brains are thinking about in episodic states of sleep interruption in which the brain becomes activated and the eyes show darting movements, as if the eyes are visually scanning the dream content. These stages of sleep are known as REM, for rapid eye movement. In REM, the dreamer is not only aware of the dream events but is often an active agent within the dreams. In these so-called “lucid dreams,” the dreamer may even be able to willfully alter dream content.

The transient state of consciousness that arises repeatedly throughout a night’s sleep enables unconscious influences to emerge in dreams. If that content is a “bad dream,” it has a reinforcing effect on the thought dysfunction that is causing problems during wakefulness. We all know that repeating negative thoughts during the awake state reinforces the flawed thinking. Conventional therapy aims to help patients redirect negative thoughts and feelings in ways that are more positive.  In dreams we normally just let the negative thoughts run their course, which has the effect of strengthening the undesirable thoughts. In fact, negative dream content during dreams may be more deleterious than the same content during wakefulness, because modern research has shown that a major function of sleep, both dream- and non-dream, is to consolidate recent short-term memories. The dream content of dreams is immediately reinforced during the return to sleep. Unlike memory consolidation during wakefulness, sleep blocks out interfering sensory and cognitive processes during the memory-vulnerable period immediately after learning.

Personal Anecdote

Because to our knowledge there is no research in this area, I can only provide anecdotal reports that this premise that dream content may be a cause as well as a consequence of emotional distress. I have had a lifetime of bad dreams, off and on. Some of my unpleasant dreams recur, such as forgetting where I parked my car, or being lost, or being in a complex, unresolvable situationall of which reinforce a feeling of inadequacy. In such dreams, my brain is teaching me to think of myself as inadequate. That is surely not healthy. No doubt there are others who have similar bad dreams, and assuredly there are other kinds of bad experiences that occur in everybody’s dreams. The point here is not to explore what these dreams mean, but to recognize that such dreams may be aggravating the emotional problems that cause the disturbing content in the first place.

In the example above, my brain is programming itself to reinforce a feeling of helplessness and inadequacy. Night after night, year after year, this becomes a psychologically destructive force. Clearly, a solution would be to make yourself stop having such dreams. How might this be done? One possibility is that you could decide to be more aware of the content of each dream, both during the dream itself and afterwards, as during a nighttime bathroom break and upon awakening in the morning. During wakeful periods right after a dream, you need to tell yourself that these dream ideas are wrong and unhelpful. Tell your brain to stop punishing yourself like this.

In wakeful states, we know that it is possible for positive self-talk to program the brain for more constructive thought. We ought to be able to program our subconscious in a similar way during its operation during sleep and in the dream review right after awakening. So in this case, you should chastise your brain for any bad dream, and consciously insist just before going to sleep that your brain only generate dreams that are entertaining, helpful, or at least neutral. The assumption is that your mind can tell its brain what to do. After all, the brain is programmable, and you get to do much of the programming. This simplistic strategy seems to be working, as the incidence of my bad dreams has markedly diminished.

No doubt, there are more robust strategies that could be developed. Learning how to have more lucid dreams could help ,because in that state the dreamer might be able to veto negative content as it starts to emerge. In addition, corrective positive reinforcement self-talk needs to be cemented in long-term memory and that can be strengthened by retrieving positive self-talk immediately after awakening from a bad dream. Also, it is important to hold such self-talk sessions under conditions where memory consolidation is not impaired by distracting activity or thought.
To learn more about how our minds work, see my inexpensive, lay audience books, Mental Biology, and Memory Power 101, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Monday, September 02, 2019

What Am I? What Are You?

I am an agent, one who does things like think, feel, believe, choose, plan, and does things. But what is it about me that makes me an agent? Obviously, my agency arises from my brain, as does yoursbut where and how?

The starting point for an answer has to be based on how the brain does everything else it does besides create my “I.” The principle is that the currency of brain function is the nerve impulse. More specifically, the brain models my inner and outer worlds by creating representations of sensation, memory, and thought in the form of patterns of nerve impulses flowing in specific neural networks. I call these Circuit Impulse Patterns (CIPs). For detection of a specific visual image, for example, the image is represented by one set of CIPS in the visual cortex. A different image will generate a different set of CIPS in the visual cortex to represent it. Documentary basis for this conclusion was provided in the Nobel Prize work of Hubel and Weisel. The same principle applies to all other mental forms of representation. That is, for example, one set of CIPS carries out the command of my “I” to type this sentence. Another set of CIPs carries out the command of my “I” to get up out of my chair and take a break. In short, everything my “I” chooses to think, feel, and do is implemented by a specific set of CIPs.

The circuit nature of the nervous system is fundamental. I have, for example, a circuit of neurons that begins in my foot, projects into a specific spinal cord segment of neurons, and these in turn project back to leg muscles that make me lift my leg if I step on a tack. Nerve impulses carry the sensory and motor information in this circuit. Additionally, this spinal circuit has reciprocal connections with various circuits in the brain that collectively inform me of pain and may also modulate my behavioral response to the pain. This information is likewise carried by nerve impulses.

So now we must examine my “I.” What is its nature? How does it get created? How is it that I know I have stepped on a tack, have generated a stream of cursing, and am aware of any other associated behaviors? Is it not likely that this “agent” of selfhood inside my brain is itself a set of CIPs? This set may operate unconsciously or consciously. I likely am not aware of what is happening in my spinal cord. I most certainly will be aware that my foot hurts and that “I” am responding to the pain. This “I” serves as an avatar that mediates my interaction with the world my brain is representing via CIPs.

Now, this brings us to the issue of conscious awareness. That too may be implemented as a set of CIPs. The CIPs of consciousness are equivalent to an avatar that the brain has instantiated to act consciously on behalf of its perceived interests. My avatar can reflect on the meaning of various sets of CIPs circulating within the global workspace of brain. The avatar can access and influence these various CIPs sets, because it too is a CIP set that connects physically to the other circuits and communicates in the shared language of nerve impulses.

This means that the conscious avatar can do things via its integral connections with other circuits. This capacity for agency refutes the contention of many scholars who have the unfounded belief that consciousness is just an “observer” that cannot do anything. Because the CIPS of my conscious avatar can do things, it means that it can implement choices and decisions that it makes.

This brings us to the issue of free will. The CIPs of my conscious avatar most certainly are affected in automatic ways by its connections to other CIPs. Thus, much of what my avatar does is not caused by free choice. Such actions result from inherent circuit connectivity and the programming of prior learning. On the other hand, because my avatar CIPs have their own existence, they can create representations for many alternative actions, including creative options that it had not been taught by prior experience. The avatar CIPs can reason about the pros and cons, and make a choice that is neither pre-determined nor inevitable. In short, my “I” avatar has the capacity for some free will.

The CIPs of my avatar allow me to be conscious, to think, feel, and choose with some degree of freedom. To reframe the dictum of Descartes:

I am, therefore I think.


1.       Klemm, W. R. 2016. Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will. New    
York: Elsevier.
2.       Klemm, W. R. 2014. Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate, New York: Prometheus/Random House.
3.       Klemm, W. R. 2011. Atoms of Mind. The “Ghost in the Machine” Materializes. New York: Springer.
4.       Klemm, W. R. (2015). Neurobiology Perspectives on Agency: 10 Axioms and 10 Proposition, Chapter 4. Constraints of Agency. Explorations of Theory in Everyday Life. edited  by Graig W. Gruber et al. Annals of Theoretical Psychology, Vol. 12, p.51-88.
5.     Klemm, W.  R. 2012. Sense of Self and Consciousness: Nature, Origins, Mechanisms, and Implications, p. 111-138, in Consciousness: States, Mechanisms and Disorders. Edited by A. E. Cavanna and A. Nani.  Hauppauge, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers. Open access available at
6.        Klemm, W. R. 2011. Neural representations of the sense of self. Archives Cognitive Psychology. Advances in Cognitive Psychology. 7: 16-30. DOI 10.2478/v10053-008-0084-2.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Learn How to Breathe for Better Health

What? I’m not kidding. Sure, you knew how to breathe as soon as you were pushed out of the womb. But you didn’t learn to breathe right. If you were slapped on the butt by the doctor, you probably learned to breathe too shallow and too fast, maybe even hyperventilate. All that screaming and crying you did after leaving the comfort of the womb taught your brain that stress and anxiety go with rapid, shallow breathing. So when faced with adversity as you got older, your automatic reaction is to breathe too fast and too shallow. This is a case of classical conditioned learning. That kind of learning actually helps sustain the stress, because your brain has learned that rapid, shallow, breathing is supposed to go with stress. The brain thinks this is normal.
About a month ago, I was having a large, benign growth on my neck removed by local surgeon, Dr. John Mason. The area was locally anesthetized, but so much tissue was involved that as he had to cut deeper, I felt pain. The nurse said, huffing and puffing with staccato rhythm, “Breathe. Breath in, breath out.” After several such reminders, I blurted, “Is there any other way?” Then, I realized the risk I was taking if my surgeon started to laugh while holding a scalpel to my neck. Dr. Mason did a great job. And I was reminded that there is a right and a wrong way to breathe under stressful conditions.
There are three principles to correct breathing for reducing stress:

1.      Breathe deeply. This means abdominally. As you inhale, the abdomen should protrude, filling the lungs better because the diaphragm contraction expands the chest cavity for more lung inflation.

2.      Breathe slowly. Common breathing rates are around 16-20 breaths per minute. This is fine when you are very active physically, but remember that the brain has spent decades of conditioned learning to associate rapid breathing with distress. When you are trying to relax, you can shut down stress by slowing down to three to five breaths per minute.

3.      Exhale through the mouth. A good way to automate this method is to slightly open the mouth and move the tip of the tongue behind the front upper teeth during inhalation, then relax the tongue during exhalation.

You can use these principles in two well-known breathing techniques:

1. The Navy Seal box technique. When they are not raiding a terrorist cell or on another similar stressful mission, Navy Seals train themselves to stay calm by taking a four-step breath cycle of inhale, hold breath, exhale, hold breath, and then repeat the cycle. Each step lasts 4 seconds. This would yield a total breathing rate of about four per minute. With practice, you can make each step last 5 or more seconds. Now you would be breathing like a Yogi.

2. The hum technique. Here, the idea is to make a soft, guttural humming sound throughout each exhalation. You can even do this during the exhale stages in the Navy technique. This may have a similar effect as using a mantra during meditation. Sometimes, people tell me I am humming when I had not been aware of it. I guess I have learned to associate humming with calming down and feeling good. Perhaps it is similar to why cats purr. Cats purr for two seemingly conflicting purposes. One is that the purring sound has a conditioned association with a calm state. When the cat is calm, it purrs. The other cause of purring is anxiety. In an anxious cat, the anxiety acts as a cue that retrieves the memory of associated purring, which then helps to calm the cat.

If you are trying to train yourself to be calm, I recommend that you employ and combine the three principles and the two techniques during mindfulness meditation. All of the principles (deep and slow breathing, and exhaling via the mouth) and the two techniques (4-step and humming) can be synergistically combined during mindfulness meditation. In such meditation, the idea is the block out all thoughts in order to focus on breathing. You can achieve further synergism by mediating in certain yoga postures, which have their own mental relaxing effects. If you are like me, you are stiff and sore when you awaken in the morning. I deal with this by combining yoga stretches with mindfulness meditation and stress-relieving breathing. It is a great way to start each day.
There is a biological explanation for why all these ideas work, but few scholars explain it. The whole constellation of beneficial effects is attributable to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a huge nerve that supplies most of the visceral organs: lungs, heart, and the entire gastrointestinal tract. Usually, when biology or physiology teachers explain the vagus nerve, they focus on its “motor” effects, that is initiating secretions, slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and promoting peristaltic movements in the GI tract. What usually gets left out of teaching is that the vagus is a mixed nerve; it contains sensory fibers. These sensory fibers are activated by all the breathing functions mentioned above. These impulses signal the part of the anterior hypothalamus that contains the neuronal cell bodies of the so-called parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS suppresses the “fight or flight” system of the “sympathetic nervous system,” which is triggered by certain neurons in the posterior hypothalamus. Thus, feedback signals from proper breathing serve to keep the PNS active and in control of a relaxed physical and mental state. So, CALM DOWN. TAKE A DEEP BREATH.

These ideas are part of the issues raised in my new book on mental health, neuroscience, and religion, Triune Brain, Triune Mind, Triune Worldview, by Brighton Publishing, available in paperback or e-book form at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Five Ways to Make Yourself Smarter

As a "Memory Medic" committed to helping people improve their learning and memory capabilities, I am often asked in the on-line forum questions like: "How can I make myself smarter?" I am stunned to see so many people struggling in school or the workplace who perceive a need to become smarter. Nobody seems to know how to become smarter. In fact, it is commonly believed that you cannot change your IQ, that you are stuck with whatever level you happen to have. This belief is wrong. Experimental evidence demonstrates that IQ often improves with age as infants progress through elementary school. However, by middle school and later in life IQ seems to become fixed in
most people. As far as I know, there has been little research to test this assumption. Even so, in my own experience, and others have similarly reported, going through a rigorous Ph.D. program does make you smarter. I think other things can work too.

I became sensitized to this point when I was in Graduate school at Notre Dame. I barely gained admission, because my test scores did not match their usual acceptance criteria. My major professor chastised me on multiple occasions for not being smart enough, with the comment, "Strive for insight."  If I was short on insight capability, it meant that I am not smart enough to be at Notre Dame as his student. I believed that at first. After all, my IQ score, determined in middle school, was 113, only a little above average and certainly not up to the level of Notre Dame Ph.D. graduate students. Yet my professor was also telling me that I could make myself smarter. Otherwise, what’s the point of “striving?” He couldn’t explain how to become smarter, but no doubt he had discovered this was possible from his own experience as he progressed through the rigorous education of becoming a Notre Dame priest and a earning a science Ph.D. in a prestigious University of Chicago program.
Eventually, I learned he was right on both counts: I was not smart enough, but by striving for insightfulness, I could make myself smarter. Eventually, I think I figured out how to become smarter. I know my IQ is higher now, even in old age, than it was when I was 13.  I don't know how high, and don't care to know. What matters is that I found what works for me to become smarter. I think I can explain some of that to students.

School lessons can be intimidating and sometimes “over the head” of many students. Students get discouraged when they don't understand things. When they don't understand, they struggle, and their grades suffer. They come to believe they are not smart. They may quit trying, because they wrongly conclude they don't have the ability. They become underachievers. Their belief in their incompetence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I recently took on a task of writing a curricular item for science teaching of eighth graders. The curricular item I was writing involved a "Simulated Peer Review" learning activity in which middle-school groups work together to role play being peer reviewers of a scientific research report. I give them scaffolding questions to show them what to check for, and I also totally reconstruct the report so it could be understood by middle schoolers. The published research paper I needed to re-write posed a major problem: it was so complex that even I didn’t understand it.

Figure 1. Diagram in the original research report used to explain the purpose of the study and how it was done. Original legend presented the full chemical names. From Guedes et al. 2018.

This paper was a report on drug development for pain relief. The paper was ideal for a variety of reasons, but it was unbelievably complex, with lots of chemistry and arcane acronyms, as illustrated in Figure 1. In figuring this out, I reminded myself how I was going about this task, which crystallized as five steps or principles that anyone can use to figure out most anything, and in the process develop the mental algorithms that will make you smarter.

How am I supposed to explain the ideas in this figure to 8th graders? The legend explaining all these abbreviations and relationships only made things still harder to comprehend. Here maybe was a chance to track my strategy for figuring things out, and I could formulate and explain simple steps that would be generally applicable. I kept track of the sequence of the steps I used, and now I can specify a specific sequence of tactics for developing understanding.

Step 1. Believe You Can Become Smarter. When I formulated the "Learning Skills Cycle" in a book I recently wrote for teachers and parents, the very first step in that cycle was "Motivation." A learner who is not motivated to learn will not make the effort needed to learn much. They become under-achievers. If you don't believe you can become smarter, you won't be motivated to “strive for insight.”

Step 2. Look for the Big Picture. Look first for over-all patterns. The original legend of Fig. 1 explained in an overly complicated way that damage to cell membranes triggers three chains of chemical reactions that stem from breakdown of the phospholipids that form cell membranes. Think about the purpose of the diagram: the three pathways may reveal points in the pathways where a drug might alter the response to pain. The pathway on the right is not very relevant, so you don’t have to think about it. Focus on the meaning of the other two paths.
he breakdown products of these membrane phospholipids, as explained in the original legend, included three relevant enzymes (COX, Cyp450, and sEH), and a host of chemicals, some of which cause inflammation and pain. The figure also indicates that enzymes are targets: anything that inhibits them would stop their action. Note the diagram shows inhibition with lines that end in a line segment instead of an arrow. We see that inhibition of only one target enzyme, COX, can help to alleviate pain (such inhibitors are already in medical use). In the other pathway, the so-called epoxy fatty acids (EpFAs) could, in theory, block the COX enzyme or have a direct inhibitory effect on inflammation and pain. However, the EpFAs are destroyed by the enzyme soluble epoxy hydrolase (sHE), so they are not available for pain relief. Note, however, that a second enzyme (sEH), if it could be inhibited by the drug t-TUCB, it would stop the destruction of EpFAs, enabling them to accumulate and exert their anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effects. This is the purpose of the study, that is, to test to see if t-TUCB can actually reduce pain, as a previous study had suggested.

3. Simplify. For thinking purposes, temporarily strip out the information that is non essential. Be discerning in what you temporarily omit from your thinking. Sometimes, small items of information (as the three lines that end in line segments) are crucial for understanding. The other key elements here are the two over-all pathways, the three enzymes they contain, and the steps in the path they i

For the moment, I can ignore most of the names of the compounds. They just clutter my mind with more information than I can hold in working memory to think with. I can also ignore for now the genetic mechanisms, which though important, are not central to the purpose of this present report. Likewise, I can also ignore the glucocorticoid inhibition of enzymes that break down membrane phospholipids, because these enzymes are blocked by drugs like cortisone.
The reason we need to simplify is that we think with the information that we can hold in conscious working memory (as when you try to remember a phone number you just looked up). The capacity of working memory is very limited (4-7 items at any one time). Thus, to think clearly about any confusing matter, you must not clutter your mind with more information at any one time than your working memory can handle.
Figure 2. Simplification of Fig. 1

Step 4. Reframe the Issue. Einstein was famous for reframing his problems in the form of thought experiments, such was watching movement of trains relative to each other or riding on a moonbeam. We don’t have to be as imaginative as Einstein. In this example, all we have to do is re-draw the diagram in a form that captures the essence of the key information.  So, to help my understanding, I sketched a simpler diagram that captures the big picture" in the simplest possible way (Fig. 2). Note that I gave blue color to emphasize the enzymes and red lines to indicate their inhibition. Two inhibitory influences were shown with dashes to emphasize that this was only theoretical, because the anti-inflammatory chemicals in the right-hand path are usually destroyed and thus not available or inhibition. The test drug had been shown earlier to inhibit the enzyme in the right-hand pathway. What we don’t know is if this drug actually reduces pain. Now I have the ideas framed in the most meaningful and distinct ways. At this point, I could see the crucial points, unobscured by all the detail.

Step 5. Identify the Crucial Details. The first objective is to understand the principles, and then add in whatever level of detail that is necessary. No more, no less. One of my cardinal principles of learning is flagged with the question: What is the point of learning if you don't remember it? In this particular case, learners need to put back into those details that are crucial and may have practical relevance. As I show in Figure 3, students can now see that a drug that inhibits COX could alleviate pain, as could any new drug that could inhibit sHE (soluble epoxy hydrolase) by preventing destruction of the anti-inflammatory epoxy fatty acids. Counteracting the inflammatory chemicals (prostaglandins) would also alleviate pain, and this is what many known pain relievers do. At this point, I understand the principles of pain biochemistry, and I bet 8th graders can do so too, even if they haven’t yet learned chemistry.
Figure 3. Essential detail reinserted into Fig. 2

This reminds me to tell you that in my Learning Skills Cycle, I always put the "Understand" step before the "Memorize" step. Two reasons explain why: 1) understanding allows you to simplify and reduce the amount of detail that will burden your memory, and 2) the very act of striving for the insight about the issues is helping to encode the relevant information and is rehearsal practice that will help consolidate the memory into long-lasting memory. Thinking, rather than rote repetition, is the most powerful way to memorize.

We have now arrived at the final and most practical stage in the Learning Skills Cycle, namely, Problem Solving and Creativity. Now we can get to the practical matter of using this new understanding to plan the exploration to find drugs that can alleviate inflammation and pain. Drugs that block the path on the left should reduce pain, and this is the mechanism of action of aspirin, Tylenol, and other non-steroidal drugs. In theory, we could alleviate pain by preventing the destruction of anti-inflammatory epoxy fatty acids by blocking the enzyme (sEH) that destroys them. Epoxy hydrolase is a new target for drug development, which the research paper I was rewriting aimed to test with an inhibitor of this enzyme.

I invite you to join my LinkedIn group on 
"Neuroeducation: Promoting Cognitive Development" 

Guedes, A. G. P. et al. (2018). Pharmacokinetics and antinociceptive effects of the soluble epoxide hydrolase inhibitor t -TUCB in horses with experimentally induced radiocarpal synovitis. J.  Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics 2018, 41 (2) , 230-238. DOI: 10.1111/jvp.12463.

Klemm, W. R. 2017. The Learning Skills Cycle. A way to Rethink Education Reform. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman& Littlefield. Lanham, Md., Rowman & Littlefield.

Klemm, W. R. 2013. Teaching beginning college students with adapted published research reports. J. Effective Teaching. 13 (2), 6-20.           

Friday, August 09, 2019

Belief about Memory Ability Can Become Self-fulfilling Prophecy

If you think you don’t have a good memory, you probably don’t. It is not just a matter of self-awareness. People often think they are stuck with whatever memory capability they have, for better a worse. Not true! The fact is that anybody can improve memory ability, if they learn how (I have four books that explain how; see reviews at
On the other hand, if you believe you have a poor memory, you may not do what is necessary to improve your memory capability. Thus, believing you have a poor memory contributes to a self-fulfilling prophecy.


1. Memory “athletes” who participate in memory tournaments train to improve their memory. Joshua Foer, author of the memory book, Moonwalking with Einstein, was a journalist with an ordinary memory. In his reporting on memory athletes, he became enamored with how they achieved amazing feats of memory. So he learned how they did it, trained, and in  2006 won the U. S. Memory Championship. 
2. Another line of evidence comes from the elderly in China. There, old age is venerated and researchers have noticed that older Chinese do NOT have diminished memory ability, as is the usual case in other countries. Picking up on this theme, Harvard University researchers studied 90 people, age 60 or older, and found they could change memory task performance by manipulating the beliefs about their memory skills.The manipulation involved creating a biasabout memory ability. Subjects viewed a list of about 50 words that either represented senile behaviors (“absent-minded,” “senile,” etc.) or represented “wise” behaviors (“sees all sides of issues,” “smart,” etc.). The lists were presented on a computer screen, and the subjects were asked to notice whether a flash occurred above or below a bulls eye that they were to focus on. Subjects were to signal the location of the flash as soon as they could with a computer key press. The rate of stimulus presentation was slow enough to allow the subliminal messages to be encoded but fast enough to keep them from being registered consciously. This was a way for the experimenter to make the conditioning subliminal and implicit. Messages were presented in five sets, each containing 20 words. Before and after the intervention, subjects were given three different kinds of memory tests that are known to assess the kinds of memory decline that occur in old age.
Test results revealed a correspondence between memory performance and the conditioned bias. Compared with their pre-test memory scores, post-test scores increased in the group that was primed with words signifying wisdom and were lower in the group that was primed with words suggesting senility.


Belief changes attitude, and attitude changes performance. Psychologist Martin Seligman wrote a magnificent book, Learned Optimism, Beliefs about poor memory ability can cause poor memory. which points out that both optimism and pessimism are learned explanatory styles that people use to evaluate the causes of their successes and failures.
Seligman even has a test that measures one’s explanatory style, on a scale ranging  from an optimist style (where people consider negative events as temporary, specific, and external) to the pessimist style  (where people regard negative events  as permanent, pervasive, and personalized). Optimists believe they can fix what is wrong. Pessimists don't try to fix things, because they have concluded that their shortcomings are permanent, pervasive, and characteristic of themselves. The effects of these contrasting styles clearly affect one’s view of the capacity for self-improvement. The good news is one can learn a more beneficial explanatory style, in effect, changing one’s attitude.
It doesn’t take long to learn a limiting explanatory style that says you are as good as you can get. I see this all the time in students, many of whom don’t really believe they can improve their memory capability, even when I show them how. Instead of using the new approaches I teach, they fall back on their old ways of learning, which usually involves no particular strategy and the use of rote memory.


The point is this: if you are motivated to develop a better memory and believe you can, you are much more likely to do what it takes to have a better memory. The implications for real-world memory performance seem clear. Believing can change our attitude and motivate us to do the things that will make it so.


Klemm, W. R. 2012. Memory Power 101.

Klemm, W. R. 2011. Better Grades. Less Effort. Benecton.
Levy B. R, and  Langer,  E. (1994) Aging free from negative stereotypes: Successful memory among the American deaf and in China. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 66:935–943

Dr. Bill Klemm. a.k.a. “Memory Medic,” is a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University. He has spent a career in brain research. His 50 years of experience with students and his own aging have given him additional insights into how memory can be improved. 
                   If your memory is ill, Dr. Bill is your pill