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I Heart Neuroscience

Needing a little good news in your life these days? Well, a new brain atlas was recently released that has sent my neuroscientist heart aflutter. This edition of the Leader's Campfire offers a glimpse of why neuroscience is so damn cool.


STORY: Why I love neuroscience (and travel). Read the opening pages of my upcoming book sharing my love for neuroscience and travel, and what it means to come alive.

READ MORE: Additional Resources. Directions to a free online course on how to come alive in your everyday and more info on the recently published brain atlas.

BOOK STUFF: Book Club. Join me at 4PM Pacific Time on Thursday, Oct 26, 2023 to discuss Joy is My Justice by Tanmeet Sethi.

 

STORY: Why I love neuroscience (and travel)


Stanford University - Spring, 1995

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.


I twiddled the fine focus on the microscope to bring them into sharper view. My eyes widened in wonder, then moistened with tears. Wow. Pinch me.


Neurons.

For years I’d been obsessed with the gorgeous pictures of neurons in my high school and college biology textbooks. My favorite brain cell pictures belonged to Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Spanish anatomist and physician, who won the Nobel Prize for his meticulous work observing and cataloging the structure of silver-stained neurons from different regions of the brain.


Cajal’s textbook images on crisp, glossy paper showed delicately branching tree-like cells that make up the brain, spine, and nerves. There were ‘branches’ called dendrites on the top, a ‘trunk’ called an axon down the length, and ‘roots’ called axon terminals at the bottom.


Neurons from different parts of the brain were as different from one another as the plants at the garden store. Purkinje cells like cherry trees blossoming in springtime profusion. Granule cells like potatoes sprouting tentacles after being left too long in a drawer. Pyramidal cells like a skinny palm tree erupting out of the peak of a pyramid.


And here I was, looking at brain cells with my very own eyes for the first time in the dim, windowless attic laboratory of Stanford University's psychology building. A chill ran down the entire length of my body as every cell inside of me sang. I wished I could see my own neurons like I could see these cells here on a slide. I wiped away a tear.


The cells I saw came from the hypothalamus of an African cichlid fish. I’d been studying them as part of my college honors thesis, extending the work of others in the laboratory of Russell Fernald. I’d spent weeks watching fish swim round and round and round, taking notes when they finally did something interesting, stressing out the dominant males with artificial stress hormones, and then more waiting and watching to see how their brains and behavior changed.


Preparing the slides required painstaking hours with my back bent over a microtome, a machine like a miniaturized butcher shop meat slicer set inside a chest freezer that can make slices just a few cells thick, 0.004 centimeters to be precise. Each slice of frozen brain curled up off the blade like a translucent flower petal. I laid the delicate slices of brain tissue carefully on a glass slide like a Michelin chef laying prosciutto on a platter. I added a drop of stain and a cover slip. Finally, I put my eye to the microscope and saw…blobs.


Hopeless, shapeless, unremarkable blobs. Not the delicate branching cherry trees of Ramón y Cajal's Purkinjie cells. Not even gnarly potato-like granule cells. These neurons resembled splotches of ink dribbled onto a soiled piece of butcher paper.


Yet I was enchanted. Mesmerized. Completely, hopelessly, utterly enthralled.


And that is the thing about curiosity, insight, and science. It’s messy. It's a process. It's nothing like the clean pages of the textbook diagram. Even the work of a brilliant Nobel laureate like Ramón y Cajal was messy. Each of his freehand drawings integrated hundreds of observations of blobs like mine into a single representative image. Real science, real insight, real creativity is so much more than a single aha moment.


After perusing dozens of slides, I sat up and stretched. I felt so alive. I just saw neurons in a microscope. For the first time. For my very own research project. On slides I prepared myself. The day’s glittering high punctuated the countless dull, rote, humdrum hours watching fish in a tank and preparing slides at the microtome. The aliveness made the whole scientific love affair worth it.


Why wasn’t there a better word for this feeling? Aliveness. Was that even a word? It’s not like I’m dead the rest of the time. Again, I wondered what’s happening inside my own brain, to my own neurons, when I felt alive like this.


The feeling reminded me keenly of one particular electric moment from a recent spring break trip to Israel with my parents. We had visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Hushed voices and prayers had swirled all around us like a heady perfume spiced with Hebrew, English, Russian, and a dozen others scents I couldn’t name. I hesitated as I got closer, trying to copy the actions of others so that I wouldn't accidentally commit a massive religious faux pas.


I saw cracks and divots amongst the meter-high stones, into which hundreds of thousands of slips of paper had been lovingly tucked. This was the most sacred place that Jews may pray, a portion of the retaining wall that once surrounded the Second Jewish Temple, built by Herod the Great in 19 BCE. Prayers and wishes shared here are said to have the best chances of being heard by God. All around us, people had transcribed their prayers onto strips of paper, nestled their notes amongst the others, then leaned their foreheads against the wall to whisper their deepest hopes, dreams, and wishes to God. Tears fell.


Now, I was not Jewish. I wasn’t even religious, but I too had written a wish on a slip of paper. I couldn’t quite remember exactly what I wished for, but I remember precisely how I felt. I gently laid my hand on the sun-warmed stones and everything fell away. A spiritual force wrapped me in its arms. I felt part of something much larger, connected to all the people around me through our common humanity. I felt small and insignificant, yet simultaneously expansive and tingling with life. I felt the wonder of seeing myself through a microscope for the first time.


Though we didn't know one another, though our clothes were different, though I couldn't understand their prayers, the longing of our hearts within the current of history was the same. There was a widened awareness, a connectedness, and a spirituality that I'd never felt before. I slowed down. Way down. I found a little crevice, tucked my wish amongst the others huddled in that corner, and added my voice to the chorus rising up toward the Gates of Heaven.


This. This was what being fully alive feels like. This was living with a capital L. I wanted more of this.


It’s the exact same aliveness that I felt when captivated by the wonder of science. While science had fascinated me since childhood, this new thing with travel was flash, bam, ala’kazam love at first sight—hot, passionate, and giddy. Wanderlust. Ever since I touched that tear-stained wall in Jerusalem, I found myself thinking about travel all the time. Fantasizing about my next trip. Reading international news and travel stories. Daydreaming.


I picked up my research notebook and began to scribble notes. Although the ink on the page detailed descriptions and measurements of fish neurons, very different research questions were being written in my mind. Why do science and travel make me feel so alive? What was this aliveness? Was there a definition? What’s going on inside my brain? Was it activity in a specific brain area, a particular neurochemical, a pattern of activity, or what? How did that moment at the Western Wall change my brain so dramatically? Was wanderlust really the same as my slow-burning love for science or not?


These were good questions that I couldn’t even begin to answer. I was just an undergrad who should be thinking about fish brains, not all this big, heady stuff.


And deep down within me was a voice so buried and quiet I could barely hear her. She called out from the darkness in a soft whisper thin voice. She desperately wanted to know how to keep that aliveness around in my everyday so that the hours between the glittery highs weren’t so rote and humdrum. So that I wouldn’t have to travel all the way to Israel in order to come alive. Please, she cried, I want to feel alive every day. How do I do that?


Tiny voice. Big question. She deserved an answer, but whatever the answer might be, it was not going to be anything like the crisp, clean page of a textbook. It’s like creativity and discovery itself. Messy. So much more than an aha moment. The questions simmered like my grandmother's duck stew. They incubated like an egg under a robin. They marinated slowly for over two decades until insight struck like lightning in Rome.


 

READ MORE: Additional resources


How DO you feel alive every day? Since it's a long wait until my book to come out (hopefully 2025... hurry up book deal...) I recommend this free online course from the Greater Good Science Center which offers both science and strategies for transforming rote, humdrum, every day life into something rich, meaningful, and joyful. Thrive. Don't just survive.


In the story above, I describe growing up mesmerized by Cajal’s drawings. When I saw neurons for the first time through a microscope with my own eyes it made me cry. Previous brain atlases had to shine a tiny flashlight on one single brain area at a time, each with less than a 100 different cell types. This time, a massive research consortium assembled by the National Institute of Health has developed a 3D atlas for the human brain as a whole. Instead of a tiny flashlight in the dark when you shine a floodlight across the entire brain we can now see over 3,000 types of brain cells and can compare them across adult and developing brains, and across humans, nonhuman primates, and mice.


This is truly a groundbreaking moment in neuroscience that introduces a whole new, publicly accessible tool. It opens the door to a completely different understanding of the brain. It's like what the Webb telescope did for physics, and what the Human Genome Project did for biology. I've got chills!


Learn more with this short video and article from the Allen Institute. And if you really want the details, the entire brain atlas is accessible to the public.


 


BOOK STUFF: Book Club


If you'd like to practice coming alive in your everyday with me, join me at book club to discuss Joy Is My Justice by Dr. Tanmeet Sethi. Each month I lead folks through an experiential activity drawn from the book and then we talk. It's totally okay to join even if you haven't read the book.


Our next meeting is 4 pm PST on Thursday, October 26, 2023. Learn more about and sign up for Book Club here. Or send an email to irene@irenesalter.com and I'll add you to the calendar invite.


 

GOING FURTHER: A single opening for one-on-one thought partnership.


My practice is full and opportunities for one-on-one leadership coaching are rare. BUT lucky you, there's an opening coming up at the end of October. This is true thought partnership, not just hourly coaching. We start with a leadership 360 to help you see the best of yourself through the eyes of the people most important for your growth. We’ll turn those people into allies for you success as you get a white glove experience including regular individual coaching and four hours of custom designed team development. If you’re curious, reach out ASAP.


Also starting in November is the Heroine's Circle! This women's leadership circle is designed specifically for female leaders with a really big challenge, goal, or role ahead of them ending with an all inclusive retreat in Hawaii. Reach out today if you wish to find out if this might be the right fit for you. Enrollment closes this week!


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