The ties that bind, the separations that connect

separate goldfish in bagsA couple of years ago, I wrote this book, Beloved Distance, about how we’re essentially separate from each other… and we can never be in direct contact with anything.  Our billions of neurons, which transmit the data that connect us with the world around us, are always – by definition – separate. They don’t touch. They’re almost impossibly close to each other, yet they’re not in direct contact with each other.

Synapse IllustrationAnd yet, that very separateness is what connects us. Because the gap between synapses makes room for neurotransmitters, the biochemicals that pass along the information we need to make sense of the world around us. And our neurotransmitters provide a richness, a sort of “analog” data transmission that’s qualitative, as opposed to the “digital” electronic signals that pass along the incredibly complex (and long) network of our nervous system.

Like light, we are both particle and wave. We’re both neuron/synapse and neurotransmitter. That’s what makes us what we are. That’s what makes us how we are. And if our neurons were in direct contact with each other, we’d both short-circuit (because the data transmission would be too much, too soon) and never have the varied experiences that our biochemicals give us.

So, yeah. We’re like light, in that respect.

And now that quantum computing is getting all kinds of press (at least in the circles I run in) and other AI/Machine Learning/Deep Learning is picking up speed in active development and deployment, this whole concept segues nicely with the spirit of the day.

I wrote this book about 2 years ago. And I figured it would be a number of years (say, 10+) before other people would notice that it mattered. I’ve been a strong believer that it matters, all along. Ever since I first grasped what that picture of the neuron was telling me, oh, about 12 (?) years ago, I’ve believed it matters. And since I’ve been reading about quantum physics for close to 20 years*, a lot of what I’ve uncovered in the past decade or so really has some nice correlations with the quantum world view. Or maybe my quantum worldview came first and helps me make sense of the biochemistry and neurology…? Who knows?

Anyway, it’s all connected, as some like to say. And yeah, from everything I can tell and have observed in my half a century+ on this planet… It is.

*I’m a huge fan of David Bohm, and on some level, quantum concepts all make total sense to me. Why is it taking so long for everybody to catch on? 😉

So, what does this have to do with anything that matters to anyone else?

Isn’t this just some rambling of an inquisitive mind who loves to explore the reaches of PubMed, ArXive, Frontiers and more? Isn’t this just some philosophical hoo-hah that’s an indulgence at best, an annoying distraction from what really matters, at worst?

Well, I believe that this isn’t just about me, and it’s certainly not something that I came up with. I just noticed it and realized how much it matters. And yeah, I do believe it matters… especially today. We’re relentlessly inundated with a constant stream of disruptive, interruptive, disjointed, unconnected, random data points that scream (and I mean scream) for our attention. And we’ve become increasingly unhinged from the world we inhabit and the lives we want to lead.

We mourn, on the one hand, for oceans that are dying from too much plastic… and yet, we don’t hesitate to go out and buy all kinds of stuff packaged in plastic that never gets recycled. We bemoan our political fates, yet we don’t actually engage with the people or the process. We curse all sorts of forces around us, as though we have no control or influence… at a time when the average person has more control and influence than maybe ever in the past hundreds, even thousands, of years. The cognitive dissonance is deafening. And yet, we persist in making choices that go directly against our own best interests, even survival.

I’m not saying we need to each radically up-end our habits, and do away with every offending act and thought. It’s an idea, but it’s probably not all that sustainable.

What I am suggesting is that we just might be able to get more of a connection with our larger lives, by looking within our systems and better understanding how we — each and every one of us — functions at the cellular level. You can learn a lot from looking at the drawing of a synapse… especially if you really think about what you’re looking at.

The human race has always looked up for meaning. We’ve looked to the stars… to big-picture concepts… mythology… beliefs… religions… philosophies… storytelling in books as well as on the small and big screens… we’ve searched high and low for ways to make sense of our world. And now, since we have the equipment and the capability, we can also look within — literally — to find new clues from our cellular makeup about what it means to be us, what it means to be human… what it means to be here.

That’s ultimately what Beloved Distance is all about — looking at some very, very tiny stuff, to see if there’s any big meaning there.

I’ve found a lot of it.

You might, too.

Penultimate draft of Beloved Distance is DONE

Beloved Distance proof copy cover
Beloved Distance – coming in 2018

I just finished the next-to-last round of edits on this book. I started it in the beginning of 2016, which isn’t so terribly long ago. But it’s taken me a lot longer to finish than it probably should have.

It’s not a long book. Roughly 150 pages. With a pretty straightforward (albeit radical) premise:

We crave Unity and Connection, believing that Separation is an illusion.

The thing is, Separation and Distance are very much an in-built part of our lives, and we can’t reject them without rejecting our fundamental selves.

But if we look within at how our microscopic neurology handles separation we can learn some useful lessons on how to productively deal with Distance on a macroscopic scale.

Heady, perhaps. Yeah, that’s my thing. But it’s worth the effort in thought and consideration

Anyway, I’m pleased with how the book has wound up. The Conclusion is particularly satisfying for me. It just has a good feel. Complete. Wrapped up. Concluded — with an invitation for where we can go with this new understanding of ourselves.

Now I need to type up the handwritten edits, get the galley formatted properly, and forward review copies to my waiting readers (some of whom have been waiting patiently for months).

But first, lunch and a nap are in order.

And a shower 🙂

Three days to read and write about applied neuroscience… sweet!

Blausen 0843 Synapse Types
Source: Wikimedia

Well, the Thanksgiving holiday has turned out to be a lot busier than expected. I was probably being unrealistic, in any case. If I’ve been too busy to regularly work on Beloved Distance for months, I’ve certainly been too busy to work on other necessary things, as well — which means…


Plenty to do, errands to run, chores to catch up on, in the time I have off for the week.

Which means less time than I’d like devoted to writing.

But I’m probably just being greedy. Jealous of that beyond-my-control thing called Time. Not to mention a little unrealistic.

But truth to tell, I actually have gotten more work done on the book than I’ve done in months — maybe a year. It just doesn’t feel like it, because I feel so far from the conclusion. I’ve got the Introduction and first two chapters (of 8 total) pretty well sorted out. I’m now working my way through Chapter Three — which I have to say is really getting me pumped, because it’s all about what drew me to this work, in the first place.

What fascinates me? Neurology. Neuroanatomy. Biochemistry. I got into this subject over the past 10 years, as neuroscience has leap-frogged ahead in a series of really amazing advances. Technological / imaging progress has been paralleled by an ever-increasing body of scientific literature — some of it even Open(!).  And then there are the kind researchers who have forwarded me copies of their papers, when I read the abstracts but couldn’t afford the $35 to buy the whole thing outright. I’ve had a steady “drip” of neuroscience in my life, for years now, and the fact that I don’t actually make my living at that type of science (I’m a technologist), has definitely freed me up to explore areas that many a self-respecting PhD with a reputation to protect would never dare enter.

Such fascination. There are some amazing brain / neuroscience projects going on, these days, including some very cool free courses available online from places like MIT and Coursera. Of course, you have to have free time, to do a course justice — even the online ones — and with my packed schedule, it just hasn’t been possible to dig deeply into them.

But at least I have imagery. And maybe that’s for the best. Because reading all the words and listening to all the talks points my attention in a certain direction (as it should). But finding the ever-evolving imagery piques my interest in visual-spatial ways that and get me thinking, “Hey! Wouldja look at that!”… and that sends me off in a glorious reverie of ever-deepening appreciation of just how intricately and amazingly we’re put together.

Looking at neuro images, and then thinking about what that tells us about our lives and the way we work — and could work better — has morphed from a passing interest to a persistent passion… a continuously burning flame that never seems to fade. I might get distracted by things like… oh, earning a living (yeah, that)… and I might not have as much time to write about it as I like, but I always come back to it.

And when I do, it lights up parts of my life that tend to go a little dim in the crush of existential necessity.

Beloved Distance is an exercise in this fascination with our neurological makeup, and what it means for our interpersonal lives. It’s about neuroanatomy. And politics. It’s about separation. And connection. It’s about how the dualities of our lives interplay back and forth with each other in an ongoing feedback loop of longing, deprivation, fulfillment, and transformation. It’s about our innermost cellular secrets, and the public dramas we can’t help but stare at like some awful train wreck, shaking our heads, wondering, “Why? Oh, God — Why?!

I find this line of inquiry so fascinating. I’d say my fascination is almost beyond words, except that I’ve got about 150 pages worth of words about it, so far. 😉

Bottom line: The closer we look at things that can only be seen with an electron microscope, the more we can learn about all that stuff that’s larger than life and obvious to anybody who’s paying attention. Beloved Distance is about how we function in relationship, from the smallest scale to the largest. And the more I study the pictures in my Neuroscience textbook (by Bear, Connors, and Paradiso), the more it holds and strengthens my interest.

This is seriously fascinating sh*t, and I really hope I can convey this to my readers.

It’s not just fascinating. It’s essential.

And it’s fun.

Okay, back to reading my textbook and getting my numbers trued up.

More to come…