The Space Between the Lines Is Your Life

By Elizabeth KochJuly 15, 2012

The Space Between the Lines Is Your Life

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

1. NEUROPLASTICITY: Change your brain, change your life!

On a plane to Russia for a writing seminar, I was petrified. I’d moved to San Francisco to write, but couldn’t manage a sentence. I’d just ended a relationship, but the guy was still living with me. Several career paths presented themselves, but I couldn’t make a decision. About anything.

I’d brought along one book. Three pages in it became clear that I’d fundamentally misinterpreted how reality works. The book was not The Power of Now. It was not Man’s Search for Meaning or The Bhagavad Gita. It wasn’t Tolstoy or James Joyce. It was a book on brains, with a title so bad I almost didn’t buy it: The Brain that Changes Itself.

Before the hope, though, some history.

It used to be that neuroscientists didn’t believe adult brains could evolve much. Property lines, once fixed into topographical brain regions, were thought to be non-negotiable. If serious damage occurred — say, a stroke or sustained cocaine use — that was it. Scorched earth. For life.

But this guy — Dr. Norman Doidge — was saying the “locationists” were wrong. Studies show that if one area is injured, the adjacent properties take over. If a particular region is under-utilized, the neighbors set up shop. A far cry from static, the brain seems to be an ever-changing, inter-connected globe of synergistic activity and fluctuating communities, with neurons swapping roles and taking on new tasks depending on what the structure as a whole required. Neurogenisis, it’s called. Creative destruction in the brain.

The key to change is the quality of your attention: “Divided attention does not lead to lasting change.” For plastic changes to occur, you have to really care.

Care. I’d spent the last ten years of my life training myself not to care.

On a plane to Russia hurtling through space with the eerie feeling I had not gone anywhere.

2. “We live in a molten reality of change.” — Sharon Salzburg

After a lot of thinking, drinking, and little writing, I returned from Russia and decided it was time to make myself vulnerable. If I was going to figure out what really mattered, I’d have to put myself out there.

I ended up at a nudist colony.

There I met a man who could look into direct sunlight without burning his retina; another whose diet was so pure he could drink his own urine. I started reading a book called The Dancing Wu Li Masters. “An elementary particle is not an independently existing thing. It’s a relationship.” That seemed significant. I asked the sungazer to explain karma to me.

“Every action causes a reaction,” he said.

“I thought that was thermodynamics,” I said.

“It is,” he said. “Nothing is only one thing or the other. As the great Yasutani Roshi said, ‘The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.’” He tried to kiss me. I left, and accidentally took the book with me.

These lines — “all matter is active and interconnected. The discrete and separate body is an illusion” — began to haunt me.

3. “The system has a fault in it […] It is not a fault here, there or here, but it is a fault all throughout the system. Can you picture that? It is everywhere and nowhere.” — Dr. David Bohm, quantum physicist

The sungazer had no boundaries. But The Dancing Wu Li Masters was onto something.

I entered a three-week OCD therapy program at UCLA.

Did I have OCD? I had circles. My thoughts spun as closed units, each unaware of the other, nothing coming or going between them. The woman in charge of the program was Russian. She wore bright red lipstick and slicked-back hair, revealing the gray in her temples, which she touched up mid-session with her mascara.

“Only an American would have such a goal,” she told me. “Everyone else thinks unhappiness is normal.”

Philosophy: Not the same as progress.

We set to work. All the exercises had to be hand-written, in cursive. Apparently handwriting, as opposed to typing, activates multiple brain areas simultaneously — not just the visual and sensorimotor, but also the temporal, memory, Broca, and many others. The more areas activated at once, the more enduring the change.

“Keep the pen on the page — if you remove it for too long it’s easy to fall into the mind and lose the recursivity, lose the connection to what came before.” — Gordon Lish

Keep your pen on the page, my instructor told me, and you will see a map of your life. The map is made of thoughts. The thoughts follow a code. To get on with your life, you must create a new code.

“Language holds the world as we know it together. What little we know of it.” — Dr. Niels Bohr, physicist

4. “The urge to connect pieces that do not seem to fit together has fascinated me all my life.” — David Shields

Plato said reality is shadow. Art, a shadow of a shadow.

Science says this:

-1/3 of the brain is devoted to constructing the illusion of vision.
-we cannot take in the immense array of shapes and structures all at once, so we reduce things to their general outlines.
-the brain creates a story out of shapes and shadows to reflect back what it already knows.

This is not a metaphor. It’s a way of seeing that colors everything that comes next.

5. I ran into an associate of the Russian woman at a UCLA coffee shop. He was also Russian, a neuroscientist and an inventor. He told me about his brain machine:  

If you think of each neuron as a 'chip' that produces a magnetic field, when you get all these chips together, the correlating fields interact and create a new frequency — each individual has his own sequencing — disturbances occur when parts of the brain are oscillating at either too rapid or too mild a frequency – fMRIs help us understand how various parts of the brain communicate —

My own thoughts kept intruding: quantum physics is the study of the structure of consciousness – not confined to a region in space — you can never simply observe, you are always participating —  

“If space is made up of oscillating fields,” I said, “and our brain communicates by means of similar frequencies, then it is possible that the frequency of our thoughts interact with the frequencies out there? That our thoughts change matter?”

“It simply depends where you hook your attention.”

He told me about the novel he’d written about fleeing the KGB. He said he struggled with what to leave in and what to take out. It was bad, he said. Maybe it just needed a new translation, I suggested.

“What I’m saying is, it is all connected, and it all matters. But you can’t care about everything at once. That’s what your brain is for — to help you find the through line. The through line is your path.

“It is in this way that thoughts change matter.”

6. Do you care about the story? Or how the story is written? To choose one or the other is practically a metaphysical decision. Tolstoy’s wormwood. Chekhov’s gun. Everything circles back.

7. My father, a science geek, was in the hospital. He was getting his shoulder replaced for the second time. He was my captive audience.

I said, “Quantum physics is the energy of thought influencing behavior.” I paused. “Get it? Thoughts change matter!”

“You’re not being logical,” he said.

“'What lives between electrons is not logic,’” I read from my notebook. “'To explain is to falsify, because the truth is, we cannot know all the factors that brought us from here to there.’”

“Are you sure you’re busy enough?”

He wasn’t giving me what I wanted. I should have known. In grade school I told him those little dots vibrating in my ceiling were atoms. He told me our brains were too puny to see atoms. I told him mine wasn’t. “Humility, Kiddo,” he said. “You’re special, but not that special.”

“But immaterial thoughts change the physical structure of our brains, I sputtered. “I mean, if it’s all connected, and the unifying force is care — ”

“Let me get this straight. You’re investigating the interconnected nature of all things while freelancing alone in your apartment? How does that work?”

You cannot have plasticity in isolation. It’s an absolute impossibility. — The Brain That Changes Itself

8. I entered grad school. An MFA program in fiction. Hallelujah, I could write again.

The writing quickly became compulsive. Every single thing I read gave me a story idea. Nearly every conversation, every lecture, every joke over every beer found its way into my work.

It’s not that I thought all the ideas were good. It’s that they all seemed relevant. I saw connections everywhere, as if the sentences were neurons and the spaces between were Connectucums, and to paint an accurate picture of reality I had to get it all in.

System: A means of connecting things or parts

Structure: A hierarchy, a network, or a lattice featuring connections between components that are neighbors in space.

I showed a story to a guy I was dating at the time. “Learn to discriminate,” he said. “Not everything matters.”

Right, but:

How do I figure out which dots to connect in this stream of words I have written?
How do I figure out the order of events that will convey the most meaning?
Moreover, did I want to live in a world where not everything mattered?

Anxiety: The attempt to see both the whole and the parts at the exact same time.

I called the neuroscientist inventor at UCLA. Help, I said.

“You are putting too much pressure on the word,” he said. “Language is merely a code. It is a representation of a state of being. You’re acting like it’s the thing itself.”

But isn’t communication how we learn—

“We learn by mimicking,” he said.

He told me about mirror neurons. A subset of “motor command” neurons, mirror neurons fire up when we watch someone else perform a task. Someone takes a hammer to a nail, and thanks to our mirror neurons, we are able to adopt that person’s point of view. If the hammer slips and smashes the person’s finger, our own mirror neurons go crazy, thinking for a moment that the damage has happened to us.

This must be how storytelling works. A vividly articulated scene produces a picture in our minds, and — no matter how incomprehensible the character’s challenges, or how dissimilar her circumstances are to our own — we are able to experience what she is experiencing. We feel as if what’s happening to her is happening to us.

“The only thing separating you from them is your skin.” —Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran, neurologist

I made a decision. If I couldn’t find a place out there that connected dots the way I saw them, I’d have to create it myself.

A community. With people. Making things. Books.

9. I co-founded a publishing company.

Our first project was a food and music compilation with a CD in the back of recipes turned to song. It was chock-full of chef interviews, essays by famous food writers, recipes, restaurant playlists, and illustrated portraits of rock star chefs. It was not a recipe book. Not a music book. Not a food biography. Not a kids’ book. It was all and none of these things. We made an app — a recipe finder with a spinning LP and a lyrical excerpt.

We got killer reviews. Booksellers gave us prime shelf space. Customers?

Weren’t buying it. They weren’t sure what it was. A hard-back magazine? A gift book? A gimmick?

Turns out just connecting dots was not enough.

I heard about what would become our second title at a Christmas party. It was a book on brains, a memoir about a beautiful young woman who suffered a massive brain bleed that left her with facial paralysis, jumpy vision, and a dragging foot. At twenty-two, this woman was forced to learn in a span of two years what the rest of us may or may not comprehend over a lifetime — that this body, this face, these things we call “ours” are not ours at all, but part of some incoherent system of creation and destruction that gives and takes without warning or reason.

I read her manuscript. She had taken on the perspectives of her loved ones. Their perspectives had changed her. Her perspective changed them. We saw each perspective changing every other. Structure and content were so intricately bound as to be rendered practically indistinguishable.

I called the author up. I asked her questions. About identity. Loss. Letting go. Her manuscript, although incomplete, pointed to the most astonishing things —

I waited.

10. We had this interactive book idea. Let readers choose which perspective to read — straight through, as the manuscript was originally written, or one perspective at a time. A fun idea. Cute, even if it was nothing ground-breaking.

It was by accident of proximity and the looming pub date that we lurched in a new direction. We interviewed a single app company — the one with an office next to ours. They’d never done a book before. Their platform was meant for magazines — weeklies, mostly — with evolving content. Material that would need amending. It wasn’t ideal for a static manuscript.

Which gave us the idea.

Evolving books are not new. Bob Stein and Robert Coover pioneered that ground long ago. But the idea of an evolving book for this book — Louise: Amended — an evolving book about an evolving identity —

Louise had a family now, a husband and a baby. She was gaining mobility and confidence, and her perspective on herself, her face, was changing. She had new experiences to share — she could document it all in real time — readers could interact, ask questions, share their stories — we’d see how conversations amend us; how they mend us — the app would mimic, by means of language, life as it’s lived —

Moreover, it didn’t have to end.

11. I used to do this thing. If I really loved a book I’d purposely leave the last few pages unread. Endings, to me, often seemed arbitrary to the point of violence.

Louise and I had already rewritten the Epilogue three times. We’d reworked every section, revised every line, re-imagined every scene with such meticulous intensity it was beginning to feel like my story.

 It was not my story.

But in a sense —

12. Every action creates an impression on somebody. Every conversation has the potential to change someone’s mind. Every interaction is a whisper that might lead to a revolution.

Someone sent me the video of Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk. Her stroke was a special kind of stroke. It silenced her intellect — the portion of her mind that divides and separates, calculates and nit-picks — the side that talks and talks and talks.

“As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent, my consciousness soared into an all-knowingness, a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will.” — Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroanatomist

She no longer saw boundaries between objects. The atoms and the molecules of her arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. There was no barrier anymore between herself and others. There was nothing separating anything.

Through this terrifying incident that threatened to erase her memory and destroy her identity the most beautiful truth was discovered —

13. We don’t need to keep adding addenda to a book to keep it vital. Our own ever-changing minds will do that.

But to create an evolving book brings up interesting questions about our relationship to change. How comfortable are we with knowing that the person we are right now, in this perfect moment, will soon vanish, never to return? That the through-line we’ve settled on as the story of our lives is both completely fabricated and uniquely ours?

If we could develop an electronic book that, on some intuitive level, could bring attention to the false divisions that make up our world — the camps and legions, roles and identifications, mentalities and mindsets that were designed to make us feel safe, but in fact chop everything up into punishing units ruled by codes that alienate us from ourselves and everyone else — if, through evolving books, we could somehow shock ourselves awake enough to recognize that we hold the power to narrate, and live into, a different story of our lives — well, that would be really neat.

14. “Experience teaches us about discrete elements without shedding light on the secret connection that combines all events and renders them inseparable.” — David Hume

15. What are we looking for in a book? The meaning of life? Or the feeling of being alive?

Q: How do you change your brain?
A: Pretend you are the person you love most.


LARB Contributor

Elizabeth Koch is a writer whose stories appear or are upcoming in One Story, FENCE, Glimmer Train, Guernica, the Columbia Journalism Review, the New York Observer, and others. She sometimes writes under a pen name. She is currently working on two novels.


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