What’s your favorite sense?

My biological psychology professor recently asked us, “What’s your favorite sense?” I’ve entertained a similar question before: if you had to give up one sense, which would it be? Though I don’t have a ready answer to that question either, the one I often choose to place last in line is vision. Maybe this is because I am so affected by color. In fact, I’m often baffled by other people’s apparent lack of fine color discrimination (apart from the naming itself which is another topic entirely). My reluctance to give up vision might make it the obvious choice for favorite, but I’m going to skip the obvious and go for a much more subtle and, at least to me, complex sense: smell.

My fascination with smell has to do with the ways in which it rehydrates long dormant and seemingly forgotten ordinary experiences. Among the senses, it appears that olfaction has the most unique relationship to memory. While I might have strong visual and episodic memories of where I was and who I talked with on September 11, I do not remember a single thing about what I smelled though I might have if I’d noticed something in particular that day. Alternatively, events that are entirely mundane, unmemorable to the most imaginable degree, are summoned back in vivid detail by a smell. I had a most transcendent experience of this phenomenon when I opened an ancient blue-tinted mason jar full of buttons that I’d collected from my grandmother’s sewing room after she died. In that jar was a embodied experience of place.

What I find so intriguing about the power of smell is its ability to rekindle deep experiential memories — the feeling of being there. If you asked me to remember my grandparent’s house, the resulting tableau would certainly include smells I experienced over many years there – percolated coffee, german sausage, oil paint and lake water – but I could not have resurrected the experience of being there brought so vividly to life by smelling all those things, mixed together for years and years, and captured in a jar of buttons.

a twist on beet salad

steam beets until tender (stick a fork in ’em)
put ’em in cold water until cool enough to handle and slip off skins.
cut beets and place in bowl with diced avocado
add lemon juice,
olive oil
and lots of white pepper.

in a dry skillet, crisp up some dulse and crumble on top. dulse is a purple seaweed and adds salty crunch.


embodied scrum – a paper

I wrote this paper for school. My adviser liked it, despite not being familiar with either scrum or complex adaptive systems.

In a talk delivered at Google, one of the early collaborators responsible for the development of the scrum process, Jeff Sutherland described the basics of scrum, and some tips for creating hyper-performing scrum teams. Sutherland states that the most important thing a scrum master can do to increase the performance of a team is to learn the principles of complex adaptive systems. The basic principles underlying complex system are straight forward, and though they are easy to grasp, it’s not always apparent to see how they are relevant to the social and professional interactions of daily life. When applied to a professional team with goals and deadlines, the principles of complex systems run counter to much of what we believe to be true about how things get done. Most of us come to believe that organization and management generally work best when controlled from the top down. We have a strong perception that, in both individuals and groups, there is a central planner that holds the vision and makes it happen according to some plan. The interesting thing about this perception is that it persists despite the ubiquity of evidence to the contrary. In this paper I’ll provide a basic introduction to complex adaptive systems, providing examples of the ways in which bottom-up organization seems to work to well. I’ll also describe the ways in which we ourselves are embodied complex systems, and suggest some tools that you, as a scrum master, can introduce to take advantage of this fact, and make your team happier, more cohesive, and higher-functioning.

Read the rest of the paper…

your body helps you solve problems

new research on embodied cognition
“The results are interesting both because body motion can affect higher order thought, the complex thinking needed to solve complicated problems, and because this effect occurs even when someone else is directing the movements of the person trying to solve the problem.”

full article

the body has a mind of its own

Science writer Sandra Blakeslee spoke at the Zen Brain gathering of meditators and scientists hosted at Upaya Zen Center in January 2009. She’s a fast talker and frankly, I don’t remember too much of what she had to say other than that she reminded me of Bud Craig’s work on the insula & awareness and Antonio D’amasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, theories I was familiar with as a result of attending the Emotion & Cognition Symposium at U of Wisc in Spring 2008.

I was surprised to see a copy on the shelf at my not-so-well-stocked local library recently and grabbed it along with the books I’d come for. Wide awake at 3 a.m. last night I picked it up and was treated to a most unexpected explosion of my mental phase space (I might be addicted to these explosions).

This book is a revelation. The ways in which she clearly articulates the disproportionate allocation of neuronal territory to pretty much everything in our experience (all of which builds up from our motor and sensory maps) has changed the way I look at everything from emotional intelligence, to my sucky cello playing, to teaching yoga (I’m only marginally better at that). I can’t recommend this book enough.

The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better

self-organization, emergence, and adaptation, in other words… complexity

Since discovering the science of complex systems, I’ve been enchanted by the ways in which contemplative practices affect people (we are self-organizing, complex systems) from the bottom up. This is a heady topic to be sure (my Master’s program adviser described my paper on this topic as a heady salad), but it’s well worth investing the time needed to internalize these concepts as they beautifully illuminate so much about how our external and internal worlds assemble and operate. Here’s my take on self-organizing, adaptive, complex systems exhibiting emergent behavior and what this might have to do with meditation and intention.

self-organization, emergence, and adaptation (a pdf)

Jon Kabat-Zinn on Speaking of Faith

Every once in a while I stumble on the NPR interview show, Speaking of Faith, often during early morning road trip departures from my Dad’s house in Michigan. The show’s name might lead you to believe that the guests would be primarily theologians. Not so. Past guests include theoretical physicist Janna Levin and philosopher Eckart Tolle (both of whom blew me away). I’ve enjoyed these happy accidents so much that I’ve tried to cultivate a habit of listening, seeking out the show on their website or trying to remember to turn on the radio at home on Sunday mornings. It usually dawns on me that it’s speaking-of-faith-day at about 8 a.m., just as the program is ending. I’ve tried setting my alarm to make sure to listen, but these attempts at orchestrating illumination experiences seem to be missing something, so I have reverted to allowing the program to find me.

This morning, I was up early making cornbread when I realized the show was just about to start Today’s interview was a lucid dialog on the science of mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn. Score! It’s a gem.

You can listen to the this morning’s interview as well as the earlier ones mentioned on Speaking of Faith’s website:

Janna Levin: Mathematics + Truth = Purpose

The Power of Eckart Tolle’s Now

Jon Kabat-Zinn on the Science of Mindfulness

yoga nidra practice —- community of cells

Here’s a new yoga nidra practice. This one is a bit different from the usual practices but I’m hoping it’ll still works for you.

The practice runs just under 45 minutes. I recorded this at a higher quality than usual so you might want to stream directly from the speakers of your computer as downloading it might be time consuming.

As usual, if you enjoy the practice or have comments, I’d love to hear from you.
yoganidra at this domain (i.e. contemplatethis.org)

click to listen