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Flipping the coin: what I really got out of grad school

Grad school saved my life. Whoa. It did. It completely upended my thought process, spun me around a few hundred times, threw a whole slew of new information at my brain and said, "Now go. Change the world."

It certainly changed mine.

Back in college, when I was applying for one of my more exciting educational endeavors known as study abroad (read: adventures that gave me never-ending wanderlust), I remember using the quote “I find the pursuit of knowledge fascinating.” (It’s actually the “learning new stuff” part that gets me, but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?) Which is probably why I find myself a continual student of something. Always. Most recently it’s been yoga, German, and now coding. And everything in grad school, of course. But “learning this stuff” didn’t save my life.

And anyway, the world is filled with tools that make this pursuit possible outside of the brick-and-mortar we know as universities. Wikipedia, Kahn Academy, TED. You can find just about anything on YouTube. But the subject matter of my program was very specialized (with a lot of questionable Internet content), and for that I am eternally grateful to each and every one of my teachers — faculty and peers.

Speaking of peers. You guys are seriously incredible.

Speaking of faculty, instructors, guest lecturers. You guys are seriously inspiring. 

You are all blazing trails left and right. Breaking down walls. Abolishing convention. Blowing minds. (Blowing mine, at least.) Integrating. Subtle, but somehow super intense. (Like the integration I was in pursuit of in Rome and Cape Town those oh-so-educational winter breaks.)

Networking is fantastic, and these people make it fun. But they didn’t save my life.

The secret to grad school is kind of like the secret (I’m learning) to coding. It teaches you how to think. It taught me how to think. How to keep an open mind, but be a skeptic. To look at the facts, hard and long. Then, realize there is a horizon beyond them. Allow space for paradigm-shifting content. It will happen at some point, it always does. Then all of the sudden the world is no longer flat. Who would have thought?

This quote by Steve Jobs about his life-changing encounter with LSD pretty much sums it up: “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it.”

That’s what grad school did for me. Psychedelic insight. It opened my eyes and illuminated my mind. It said, “Hey! There’s a million other ways to do this thing that we’ve until now only done this one way. It might be better, it might be worse, but it exists. Let’s consider it. At the very least, recognize that it exists.” There is an alternative treatment option. There are other places to live in the world. There are many spiritual practices that provide meaning to people. There are other planets, galaxies, perhaps universes.

There is another side to the coin. 

And that, my friend, has made all the difference.

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As I write this I’m realizing that’s exactly what spending time in other cultures does. It flips the coin. So when you’re back at home ordering Greek takeout and dreaming of warmer weather, you might not remember how many goats crossed the road on your trek to lunch or what ridiculously fantastic cuisine you ate at that electricity-less restaurant by the sea or why exactly your rental car mirror was taped on (working hypothesis: rocky, rocky roads), but you do remember that experience. You acknowledge that existence. And maybe it helps you think a little more deeply about the world. 

So I guess that wanderlust isn’t ceasing anytime soon… 

CAM Series: Psychoneuroimmunology

The second in a series of posts on CAM topics. I spent a year studying the integration of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) into the Western healthcare system at Georgetown; here I share my thoughts. See this post for some background on the biopsychosocial model as it's related to all things CAM.

 

If I had to pick a favorite, this would be it. It's right up there with 11.1.13 set two, acai + blueberry Ombar chocolate, and sunsets at Grand View Park.

As the name so eloquently implies, psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) lies at the intersection of several scientific fields. If neuroscience is the intellectual older brother, PNI is his hip, younger sibling (likely dancing around barefoot listening to 11.1.13 and dreaming of summer tour.)

Illuminating an intricate web of the body's circuitry, PNI involves the physiology of the brain, activity of the mind, communication and integration with the endocrine and immune systems. While the entirety of PNI is much beyond the scope this post (and our current understanding), there are aspects that I have found quite compelling. Simply put, thoughts and emotions have meaning and tangible, measurable effects on the body.

Let's illustrate a sliver of this web by looking at natural killer (NK) cells, a powerful immune component fighting cancer and viral infections. Studies of depressed individuals show diminished NK cell activity, while guided imagery and relaxation techniques have been shown to increase NK activity (as well as providing a slew of other augmented immune responses) in women undergoing breast cancer treatment. NK cells also have receptors for different hormones that can further modulate their activity. Let's refresh. Depression = less NK. Relaxation = more NK. Hormones can change NK. These dynamic responses exist due to the integrated nature of all of the (previously characterized as separate) body systems. Elements of each system have the ability the enhance or suppress elements of the others via direct signaling, secretion, and/or the the presence of receptors, and this communication is far more comprehensive than originally characterized. 

If that was a bit too much on the science front, take away the connection between the mind and body. Our immune system is stronger or weaker based on the state of our mind. That's pretty amazing. Utilize your mind and its untapped potential to be well. I often find the hashtag #healthyishappy on popular health and wellness sites. While I agree with that (#obvi), I think we underestimate the power of #happyishealthy. (CheckItOut.)

See what I mean? PNI is just the hippie little sib of neuroscience. And you thought that was just a labored metaphor into which I tried to incorporate Phish. It really is all peace + love, people.

But really, who's ready for summer tour?

CAM Series: Acupuncture

The 1st in a series of posts on CAM topics. My MS degree focused on the integration of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) into the Western healthcare system; here I share my thoughts. See this post for some background on the biopsychosocial model as it's related to all things CAM.

Acupuncture is one of the major therapeutic components of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). One of the most common methods involves placing extremely thin needles in various parts of the body to manipulate the flow of qi, or the body's life force energy, which according to TCM theory gets blocked or out of balance, causing any array of symptoms. 

Yes, I've had acupuncture a number of times (and currently still receive treatments). Yes, I have worked at a TCM wellness clinic. You already know about my master's program all about CAM. Does this make me an expert? No. Do I have insights and connections based on my education and experiences? I think I do.

The first, and often most challenging, hurdle to clear when understanding acupuncture via the Western thought process is the concept of qi or the idea of energy imbalances. If you're having trouble with the latter, see my post on energy and why it is also the foundation of the scientific theory we know and love in the West.

Qi is a difficult concept. There really is no exact translation but it might be thought of as "life force energy" -- which usually doesn't translate in meaning much better than the Chinese character. If you are familiar with Ayurveda, you might think of it like prana. If you are not, I like to think of qi as a specific energetic fingerprint that sustains me. The summation of all the physical and mental processes that are simultaneously occurring in my body, brain, being. (Heart beating, blood circulating, water balance, lymph movement, nerve conduction, respiration + all of the less characterized processes such as thoughts, emotions, and other somewhat esoteric elements.) When this is happening at a near optimal state, I feel healthy, balanced, and invigorated. When it's not, I may be tired or sick. Why does this happen? Possibly an outside pathogen, extended period of ignorance or neglect, or an intense emotional experience or trauma. And what exactly happens? Qi is thought to flow through the body in meridians (pathways); an imbalance might be an excess or deficiency of qi in a certain area or a blockage of its flow. 

A staple in many alternative modalities is the body's innate ability to heal itself; acupuncture is no different. The needles that an acupuncturist uses guide the body toward salutogenesis. But how, you ask? The needle acts as a conduit connecting you to the universe, allowing you to tap into its energy and giving you the power to heal. But how, you ask? Right? Sounds a little loco. Or maybe not at all...

You see, when you start to wrap your head around the whole energy concept you may start to see connections. 

Think about about a simple circuit. Different metals conduct electricity to a different capacity. For example, silver has a lower resistance than copper or aluminum, and will as such function in the circuit to a differing effect. In the same manner (maybe) there are different kinds of acupuncture needles. Gold, silver, or copper can be used by the acupuncturist to evoke a different response in a patient. So you might think of the needle as a conduit of energy in relation to the metal used to conduct electricity in a circuit.

One therapeutic means in acupuncture is via the circulatory system. For example, muscle tightness or constriction is an excess of cold and is treated by adding heat, i.e. by bringing blood flow to the affected area. Straightforward enough, right? Now take this thought process a step further. Blood circulating through our bodies is a form of energy movement. You can think of it as governed by the laws of fluid dynamics, or perhaps electromagnetic flux. Either way, energy is moving, flowing, changing.

And maybe, just maybe, those metallic needles had something to do with the way it did.

 

 

Background image by Sebastian Glasl.