October 19, 2014

Killing Them Softly (Part Five): Rethinking the Holy Grail

rhodesThe Holy Grail of legal education has long been teaching law students to “think like a lawyer.” Most of us have a vague sense of what that means and how it’s accomplished, but turns out it’s an actual brain process known to neuroscientists as conditioning. Linda Graham’s book Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain For Maximum Resilience and Well-Being describes conditioning as follows:

Conditioning creates automatic habits of behavior by encoding the neural firing patterns of repeated responses to experience, stabilizing the neural circuitry of that learning, and storing those patterns of response in implicit (unconscious) memory. When you repeat a pattern of behavior often enough, eventually you don’t have to focus your attention on it anymore; the neural circuits underlying that behavior have stabilized in your brain, enabling you to respond to a similar situation automatically.

Creating habits of behavior through conditioning is your brain’s way of being efficient. Without conditioning, you’d have to relearn how to tie your shoes every morning. . . .

[F]ocused attention causes neurons in the brain to fire; focusing on the same object or experience causes repeated neural firings; and repeated neural firings create new and stable neural structure. When we focus our attention on cultivating a particular pattern of behavior, a character trait, or attitude or lens for filtering experience, we incline the mind toward that objective . . . We notice more readily the desired trait or behavior, register it more fully in our consciousness, and direct mental activity toward it,

[W]hen we formulate an intention, . . . the repeated focus on that intention begins to build new brain structure and circuitry that support us. . . . We turn a neural goat path into a freeway.

Thus the Holy Grail is pursued and realized. For three years, we condition law students’ brains, turning their lawyer-like neural goat paths (remember what it was like the first time you read a case or a contract?) into neural freeways (consider how you read them now).

No problem if that’s all that happened, but combine brain conditioning with the brain damage caused by law school stress, and ironically, it appears that too often we accomplish this educational ideal by turning out lawyers who all think in the same brain-damaged way. The Destruction of Young Lawyers describes this outcome as follows:

At the same time that law school breaks students, it also creates them, or rather, molds them in its image. But what does it create? On the positive side it creates people who have good reading and writing skills, who are diligent and hardworking, who can see both sides to an issue. Law students are hard workers, and they are typically very high achievers with above-average intelligence.

But on another level, law school churns out some very scared people. . . . [A]t the same time that [law students] are taught to act empowered, they are truly disempowered. . . . Despite the appearance of professionalism and self-sufficiency, law students are actually helpless and dependent when they graduate.

Thankfully, there is an antidote. Bouncing Back introduces it:

If conditioning is the process that encodes stable patterns in our neural circuitry, neuroplasticity is the mechanism that works to alter them.

As Prof. Austin says in Killing Them Softly:

The modification of neural networks in response to experience, such as legal education, is neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is why some (not all) lawyers’ brains and hearts recover from law school and avoid the impact of law practice stress.

More next time.

Prof. Austin provides another take on this topic with her upcoming law journal article, “Drink Like a Lawyer: The Neuroscience of Substance Use and Its Impact on Cognitive Wellness.” I will provide a link when one is available.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Killing Them Softly (Part Four) — Law School: Legally Inflicted Brain Damage

rhodesLaw professor Douglas Litowitz’s 2005 book The Destruction of Young Lawyers summarizes the law school experience this way:

The one thing that we know with certainty about law school is that it breaks people, that it is experienced as a trauma, an assault. Like other traumas, when it is actually taking place it is overwhelming and very difficult to understand. Only after it is already finished can it be pieced together in retrospect, like a robbery victim who later tries to reconstruct the features of an assailant.

When I say that law school breaks people, I mean that almost nobody comes out of law school feeling better about themselves, although many come out much worse – caustic, paranoid, and overly competitive. From outward appearances, the students churned out by the law school machine are shiny and bright, with a professional no-nonsense attitude, but inside that shell lies a nagging hollowness.

Law school is not transformative because it does not engage the students on an emotional or intellectual level.

Strong words indeed, but nine years after Prof. Litowitz wrote them, Prof. Austin’s “Killing Them Softly” article reveals that we’ve got a lot of new neuroscience to back them up, or in some cases clarify them. For example, Prof. Austin points out that it’s not that law school doesn’t engage the emotions, but that it does so through a filter of stress:

The intricate workings of the brain, the ways in which memories become part of a lawyer’s body of knowledge, and the impact of emotion on this process indicate that stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition. (Emphasis added.)

Stressed emotions warp neural function, debilitating and even destroying the very brain processes needed to achieve what Prof. Austin calls “optimal cognitive fitness.” She thinks we can do better:

Because the processes of learning, memory storage, and memory retrieval involve both the emotional and thinking brains, law students, legal educators, and lawyers should develop an understanding of the impact of emotion on cognition and the nexus between brain and body.

In other words, if we could get our minds around the idea that promoting law student brain and body wellness would be good for all of us, we would approach legal learning in a way that, instead of traumatizing law students, would enhance their learning and improve their overall health. In fact, we would emphasize helping law students be happy about studying law.

A prior series of this blog spoke about promoting happiness in law practice:

[H]appy lawyers are more likely to deliver the best of the competence, communication, timeliness, and sound judgment we’re ethically obligated to provide. It also means that the best-performing law firms – the firms that will also make the “best places to work” lists – could be founded on a single guiding principle: promote lawyer happiness.

The same could be true of law schools.

Now there’s a concept…

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Killing Them Softly (Part Three): What Stress Does to People

rhodesI’ve been quoting extensively in this series from DU Law professor Debra Austin’s “Killing Them Softly” article and neuroscientist John Medina’s Brain Rules book. Let’s hear more from both of them about what stress does to the people in the law profession.

Prof. Austin describes the impact of stress on cognition as follows:

The impact of stress on law student cognition includes deterioration in memory, concentration, problem-solving, math performance, and language processing. Curiosity is dampened, and creativity is diminished. A paralysis sets in, limiting motivation and the ability to break out of repetitive behavior patterns.

Prof. Medina elaborates:

If the stress is too severe or too prolonged, however, stress begins to harm learning. The influence can be devastating. . . . Stressed people . . . don’t do math very well. They don’t process language very efficiently. They have poorer memories, both short and long forms.

Stressed individuals do not generalize or adapt old pieces of information to new scenarios as well as non-stressed individuals. They can’t concentrate. In almost every way it can be tested, chronic stress hurts our ability to learn.

One study showed that adults with high stress levels performed 50 percent worse on certain cognitive tests than adults with low stress. Specifically, stress hurts declarative memory (things you can declare) and executive function (the type of thinking that involves problem solving).

Stress affects physiological wellbeing. From Prof. Austin:

Long-term elevated levels of glucocorticoids resulting from chronic stress have been associated with the following physical conditions:

  • Impaired immune response;
  • Increased appetite and food cravings;
  • Increased body fat;
  • Increased symptoms of PMS and menopause;
  • Decreased muscle mass;
  • Decreased bone density; and
  • Decreased libido.

Stress also affects psychological wellbeing. Again from Prof. Austin:

Chronic stress also produces the following emotional conditions:

  • Increased mood swings, irritability, and anger;
  • Increased anxiety; and
  • Increased depression.

Of particular concern to the law profession is the nexus between stress and depression. From Prof. Austin:

Law is a cognitive profession, and the legendary stressors in legal education and the practice of law can take a tremendous toll on cognitive capacity. Lawyers suffer from depression at triple the rate of non-lawyers.

Again, Prof. Medina elaborates:

[Depression] is a disease every bit as organic as diabetes, and often deadlier. Chronic exposure to stress can lead you to depression’s doorstep, then push you through.

[D]epression hobbles the brain’s natural improvisatory instincts the way arthritis hobbles a dancer. Fluid intelligence, problem-solving abilities (including quantitative reasoning), and memory formation are deeply affected by depression. The result is an erosion of innovation and creativity, just as biochemically real as if we were talking about joints and muscles.

Depression is a deregulation of thought processes, including memory, language, quantitative thinking, fluid intelligence, and spatial perception.

Depression not only impairs us in these ways, it creates a perception that things will never get better. From Prof. Medina:

This list [of depression’s effects] is long and familiar. But one of the hallmarks may not be as familiar, unless you are in depression. Many people who feel depressed also feel there is no way out of their depression. They feel life’s shocks are permanent and things will never get better. Even when there is a way out — treatment is often very successful — there is no perception of it. They can no more argue their way out of depression than they could argue their way out of a heart attack.

To be continued.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Killing Them Softly (Part Two): What Stress Does to the Brain

rhodesStress in the law is a given. We know that from personal experience, but if we need more authority on the point, we needn’t look further than the 2013 Colorado Lawyer Satisfaction and Salary Survey, which reported that 94% of respondents said the law is stressful sometimes (48%), often (37%), or always (9%).

Brain scientist John Medina describes the impact of long-term chronic stress on the brain in his book Brain Rules:

Stress hormones can do some truly nasty things to your brain if boatloads of the stuff are given free access to your central nervous system. That’s what’s going on when you experience chronic stress. Stress hormones seem to have a particular liking for cells in the hippocampus, and that’s problem, because the hippocampus is deeply involved in many aspects of human learning. Stress hormones can make cells in the hippocampus more vulnerable to other stresses. Stress hormones can disconnect neural networks, the webbing of brain cells that act like a safety deposit vault, storing your most precious memories. They can stop the hippocampus from giving birth to brand new baby neurons. Under extreme conditions, stress hormones can even kill hippocampus cells. Quite literally, severe stress can cause brain damage in the very tissues most likely to help your children pass their SATs.

The problem begins when too many stress hormones hang around in the brain too long, a situation you find in chronic stress, especially of the learned helplessness variety. . . . Like a fortress overrun by invaders, enough stress hormones will overwhelm the brain’s natural defenses and wreak their havoc. In sufficient quantities, stress hormones are fully capable of turning off the gene that makes [counter-stress hormones] in hippocampus cells. You read that right: Not only can they overwhelm our defenses, they can actually turn them off. The damaging effects can be long-lasting, a fact clearly observed when people experience catastrophic stress.

“Clearly, stress hurts learning,” Prof. Medina concludes. “Most important, however, stress hurts people.”

Some of the people stress hurts are law students and lawyers. Prof. Austin’s Killing Them Softly article talks about the specific stresses of law school:

The stresses of attending law school are legendary. After peppering seventy-five first year law students with questions about their experiences in their 1L year at the University of Memphis law school, Andrew J. McClurg asked students about their dominant feeling at the end of the year. The answers were disproportionately focused on anxiety and stress. Students reported grave concerns over upcoming finals, grades, and failing law school. They described suffering from “sheer, unrelenting exhaustion” and a “level of mental exhaustion I did not know existed.”

Four of the six universally recognized emotions are negative: fear, anger, sadness, and disgust. Stress involves some combination of these adverse emotions. Stress, a concept borrowed from engineering, “can be defined as the amount of resistance a material offers to being reshaped and reformed.” If too great a load is placed on the beam supporting a structure or the law student trying to learn the law, it/he is damaged or collapses.

When stress persists for a few hours or days, a law student may experience a bad mood. Longer-term stress can cause stress-related disorders such as panic attacks, anxiety, or depression; the physical effects include increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, breathlessness, dizziness, irritability, chest pain, abdominal discomfort, sweating, chills, or increased muscle tension. These symptoms are caused by the stress response originating in the emotional brain.

Next time, we’ll talk more about how stress hurts the people who study and practice law.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Killing Them Softly (Part One): The Attack on Lawyers’ Brains

rhodesI borrowed the title of this series from a Loyola Law Journal article by DU Law professor Debra S. Austin, J.D., Ph.D.: Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress And How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance.

The phrase “neural self-hacking” comes from Google, which runs a class for employees by that name, plus other classes on brain well-being. Yeah, it’s a Silicon Valley thing, but don’t be fooled: the companies offering these classes mean business, and they think mindfulness is good for it. As Prof. Austin says:

Many innovative companies promote wellness to provide vibrant workplaces and thriving employees. Research shows that perks such as onsite gyms, work/life balance programs, stress management classes, mindfulness training, and nutrition coaching improve the bottom line.

Killing Them Softly makes the case for why the law profession might want to catch up with that idea, instead of mounting a systematic attack on law students’ and lawyers’ brains. Prof. Austin’s article describes in detail just how we do that, and the implications of this practice. Consider these excerpts:

Neuroscience shows that the aggregate educative effects of training to become a lawyer under chronically stressful conditions may undermine the efforts of legal educators by weakening the learning capacities of law students. Stress in legal education may also set the stage for abnormally high rates of anxiety and depression among lawyers.

The stresses facing law students and lawyers result in a significant decline in their well-being, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Neuroscience now shows that this level of stress also diminishes cognitive capacity. The intricate workings of the brain, the ways in which memories become part of a lawyer’s body of knowledge, and the impact of emotion on this process indicate that stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition.

Cognition, Latin for “the faculty of knowing,” describes the process by which humans perceive stimuli, extract key information to hold in memory, and generate thoughts and actions to achieve goals.

In other words, the way we initiate lawyers into the profession and how we approach law practice is counterproductive on the most fundamental neurological level. We make it hard for lawyers’ brains to do what we ask of them. We impede their ability to learn, to store knowledge and access memory, and to exercise sound judgment. Most critically, we restrict that essential ability to sort through the facts, discern what’s important, and figure out what to do about it. And while we’re at it, we also heighten susceptibility to the distressing psychological conditions that plague our profession.

And guess what? That’s what happened to all of us. It’s amazing any of us can function as our studies and work require, but our brains are amazingly resilient, and we’ll talk about how they get the job done in the face of all this neurological aggression. Before we get that far, we’ll look into how our brains learn, and how the stresses of the profession damage them. And we’ll take a look at the case for neural self-hacking.

Stay tuned.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Seven): Life in an Alternate Reality

rhodesThere’s a scene at the start of my running video where my wife and I are walking along, with a voiceover saying I never really wanted to run a marathon, I just wanted to be able to go on walks with her like we used to.

I can’t do that anymore. Walk like that, I mean. We shot that scene about ten months ago, and I can’t do that anymore.

When I saw my neurologist six months ago, I told him I’ve been surprised at how quickly my physical abilities are degenerating. It’s like there’s a timer running. I’m awesome on the machine at the gym, but when I walk it feels like time is running out. And running? Time ran out on that a long time ago.

That’s my reality. Or is it? No it’s not, but you already knew that. I don’t like living with that timer, so I relegate it to an alternate reality. Einstein said, if the facts don’t fit your theory, change the facts. That’s what I do.

The alternate reality with the timer is persistent, though. It wants to know how long I’m going to keep fighting, why I don’t just give it up as a lost cause. The people at MS Fitness Challenge have the fighting spirit. They inspire me, but I’m aware that fighting causes stress, and if what’s going on in your body is degeneration, you don’t need more stress. So instead of fighting, I relegate the timer to its alternate universe, and go on living in the reality I’ve chosen, where working out aggressively on a machine turns into healing.

The alternate reality with the timer also wants to know when I’m going to acknowledge that my experiment has run its course and come up wanting. I can’t answer that. Someone had to invent the light bulb, and we’re all glad he did, never mind how many iterations it took him. How would I ever know if I’ve tried all the possibilities of my experiment, tweaked it in all the ways it might be tweaked?

In the video I say, “I don’t have to get motivated to do this. I run from here [tapping my chest]. That’s what impossible feels like That’s what your impossible would feel like.” All the research in the world won’t give you that.

How long should you try?
Until.

Jim Rohn

I’m in this until. Pretty simple.

In the video, the guy behind the camera asks me if my experiment is working, and I admit it’s not. Because of that, I wondered out loud one of our planning sessions whether doing the video was worth it. He brushed my hesitation aside. “Everybody needs inspiration,” he said. End of discussion.

So the timer ticks away in its alternate reality, while I keep working out in this one. I get a lot of benefits from doing this. Discipline. Perseverance. Amazing overall good health. Not to mention lots of material to blog about and use in my workshops. Plus the joy of trying to hit a training goal that has me sweating buckets and willing my errant foot back into line, then finishing and barely making it to a nearby chair to sit down and massage the feeling back into my feet. If I quit, I’d miss all that. Honest.

But I’d trade it all for a walk around the block with my wife.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Six): Science and Snake Oil

rhodesA friend shared a TED talk with me about how a rat with a severed spinal cord had its nervous system regenerated so it could run again. The researchers used a combination of chemical and electrical stimulation to get the rat’s legs moving involuntarily, but that wasn’t enough. So they created a robotic harness that allowed the rat to move if and when and where it wanted. After that, the rat’s spinal cord grew new connections. The scientists created an opportunity for healing, but the rat’s desire to move took over and made it a reality.

No wonder some scientists built a statue to honor lab rats. God bless that rat. It’s my hero; I want to be just like it. We all know you can’t move again after your spinal cord is severed. The rat proved us wrong. We also know you can’t win a marathon if your MS makes it hard to walk. How about if I be the lab rat who proves us wrong?

The rat needed scientific help, and so do I. Seriously, now: if by any stretch you know someone who is seriously researching MS and exercise, would you please email me with an introduction? Let me be honest: I don’t want ideas, like have I contacted the National MS Society. If you can think of it, I probably have already. What I’m looking for is a real relationship handoff to a real person. If you can do that, then many, many thanks.

Once we’ve got a research lab on board, we need a committed rat. No problem there. The rat introduces the X Factor: how does the desire to move generate healing? The scientists don’t know, and the rat’s not talking. If it could, it would probably sell us snake oil, and we’d probably buy.

Last year I wrote about “the placebo effect”: believing yourself into an altered state in which the healing you want actually happens, even though it’s not supposed to, there’s no rational reason why it should, and you’re actually putting your faith in a sugar pill.

I know one guy who got rid of his MS by visualizing miniature beavers chewing up his brain scarring (“Multiple Sclerosis” means “multiple scarring”). I’m not making that up. If that’s not a placebo I don’t know what is. I’ve haven’t tried his approach, but I’m not above a daily practice that includes mind tricks, even though I honestly believe some of what I do is pure snake oil.

Is it still a placebo if you don’t think it will work? The authors of a book on personal growth called The Tools answer that question by telling this “famous story about Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist and father of quantum physics”:

A young physicist visited him in his home and saw a horseshoe hanging on the wall over the hearth. “Surely, professor, you don’t believe that a horseshoe will bring you good luck,” the young physicist exclaimed. “Of course not!” Bohr replied. “But I’ve heard that you don’t have to believe in it for it to work.”

(If you’re like me and wonder if this story is apocryphal, check this out. Sounds valid to me, both because Niels Bohr was quite a quotable guy, and because the story is in the spirit of quantum physics. Moving right along….)

And so we’ve got science, and we’ve got snake oil. Should work.

The next installment will be the last in this series. We’ll tackle the feeling that time seems to be running out on this experiment, and then we’ll be done.

For this year, at least.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Five): A Random Idea Gets Scientific

rhodesIn the video I told you about a couple weeks ago, a friend of mine (his name is “Angel Vigil” — no kidding) describes my workout routine as “his own self-invented alternative treatment to keep the nerves and his muscles and everything working as long as he can, and fight the progressive, debilitating nature of MS.”

Angel didn’t know it, but he was summarizing two neurological concepts that underlie what I’m doing. The first is neuroplasticity: our brains rewire themselves when we learn. The second is myelination: if we use those new neural pathways often, our brains coat them with a substance called myelin, which acts as a learning and skill development supercharger.

Developmental molecular biologist John Medina describes neuroplasticity this way in his book Brain Rules:

Eric Kandel is the scientist mostly responsible for figuring out the cellular basis of [the process of how the brain learns]. For it, he shared the Nobel Prize in 2000… Kandel showed that when people learn something, the wiring in their brain changes. He demonstrated that acquiring even simple pieces of information involves the physical alteration of the structure of the neurons participating in the process. Taken broadly, these physical changes result in the functional organization and reorganization of the brain. This is astonishing. The brain is constantly learning things, so the brain is constantly rewiring itself.

Myelination got a huge popular boost from Daniel Coyle’s 2009 book The Talent Code. As the Amazon book blurb says:

Drawing on cutting-edge neurology and firsthand research gathered on journeys to nine of the world’s talent hotbeds—from the baseball fields of the Caribbean to a classical-music academy in upstate New York—Coyle identifies the three key elements that will allow you to develop your gifts and optimize your performance in sports, art, music, math, or just about anything.

These three elements work together within your brain to form myelin, a microscopic neural substance that adds vast amounts of speed and accuracy to your movements and thoughts. Scientists have discovered that myelin might just be the holy grail: the foundation of all forms of greatness, from Michelangelo’s to Michael Jordan’s. The good news about myelin is that it isn’t fixed at birth; to the contrary, it grows, and like anything that grows, it can be cultivated and nourished.

Put neuroplasticity and myelination together, and you’ve got brain flubber. Both are at work in our brains all the time, whether we know it or not. My approach is to harness them consciously and intentionally. Technically, what I’m after is re-myelination — when damaged neural pathways get rebuilt. I need that because MS has a destructive effect on — you guessed it — myelin. Therefore, in neuroscience terms, my exercise routine is an attempt to use neuroplasticity and re-myelination to restore my MS-damaged neuro-pathways.

Just like Angel said.

I didn’t know any of this three years ago when I began my “self-invented alternative treatment.” I just had an idea. Turns out I got the idea about the time neuroscientists were hot on the myelin trail. Apparently I somehow got on somebody’s memo routing list.

Now that I do know about these things, I have a new goal in life: to become a lab rat.

More on that next time. 

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Four): Running Just Because

rhodesAnd sometimes you run just because.

Forget the inspiration, the challenges, the training techniques, the goals.

Forget researching neurology for scientific support. Forget constantly recalculating the odds, feeling like they get worse every day, wondering how much life this experiment has left in it.

Forget all that. This morning, just be that 12-year old racing a friend home after a Friday night small town football game, suddenly noticing that his feet aren’t even touching the ground and he’s leaving the fastest kid in town far behind.

Or just be that 17-year old running wind sprints on the football field and coming in just a few yards behind the fastest kid ever to play running back in your town, the holder of three conference championship records as a sophomore, and all the coaches are looking at their stopwatches and saying, “Who’s that kid in second place?”

Or just be the kid the varsity track coach pulls aside one day and says, “You’re built just like Jim Ryan — we should make a miler out of you.”

That conversation never went any further. Every now and then I wonder what might have happened if it had, and I always end up being glad it didn’t, because like Jim Ryan I might have walked off the track in the middle of a race one day.

But never mind any of that, not now. Just be who you are, right here, right now: a kid’s soul living in an adult’s body. Step on the machine and you’re out of that body, running like your younger self, running for the pure joy of it. All the struggle and trying to figure things out fade and fall far behind, like the fastest kid in town who couldn’t keep up with you. There’s nothing but the movement, nothing but the stride, over and over, churning up the invisible ground under your feet. Machine metrics? Who cares? Moving is all that matters.

Your heart swells, you’re just so grateful you can do this.

Jim Ryan had the perfect stride. I’ve studied it frame by frame. I visualize it when I run on the machine, patterning my brain, telling it, “Make me look like that.”

This past Sunday, I looked like that for two hours and ten minutes. It was only during those last ten minutes that I noticed the machine was telling me my heartbeat was up in the “high performance” category, that my right foot was starting to spaz out and turn sideways, that I was feeling tired.

It didn’t matter. I was running. My long legs were put on this planet to run; there’s no other explanation for them.

And so, this past Sunday, that’s what I did.

I ran.

Just because.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Third Annual Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Three): Mission Impossible

rhodesA friend who’d been involved with making a documentary film got interested in my running regime. We shot a video one fine day last October. It’s short: 7:15. Go ahead, we’ll wait while you watch it.

The video begins with me challenging our conventional notions of what’s possible and what’s not. “Impossible is just a label we put on things,” I say. “It’s state of mind. There are people doing impossible things everyday. I think it’s time we all stop believing in impossible.”

The idea that “impossible” might not be hack-proof was first embedded in me at a Cirque du Soleil show called Varekai, which premiered a year and a half after 9-11.The Varekai story is loosely based on the Icarus myth: the manmade wings and failed flight too close to the sun, the familiar parable of the human race outstripping its own aspirations and crashing down in its pride.

Yes, humans can’t fly like birds; we all know that. But Varekai went beyond the myth and ended in triumph. Pride was forgiven, love and courage restored the fallen, and the joy of aspiration and the magic of the dream were reclaimed. The impossible became possible.

Dominic Champagne, writer and director of Varekai, began his program notes with these words:

Puisque les temps sont fous Since these are crazy times
Et que nous avons le devoir And it is our duty
De ne pas abandonner le monde To not surrender the world
Aux main des nullités Into the hands of fools
Je fais le vœu que ce spectacle soit pour vous I wish that this show may be for you
Comme il a été pour moi As it has been for me
Une célébration A celebration
De la rencontre des fraternités Of the coming together of friends
Et de la joie des dépassements And of the joy of challenging limits
Pour dire au monde In order to tell the world
Que quelque chose d’autre est possible That something else is possible

 

I put those program notes in a frame that still hangs on my wall. I live them everyday. They inspire me, keep me centered, keep reminding me that something else is possible.

We want things that appear to be impossible. Maybe they aren’t. Maybe the only reason they’re impossible is because we haven’t done them yet. Okay, so we ran a search of our brain’s memory data base and it came up “no match found.” No big deal. That doesn’t mean what we want is impossible on some grand cosmic level; maybe it’s a possibility waiting for us to make it happen.

I feel that way about my personal impossible of overcoming MS with exercise. I’m sure the other people in the video felt that way about their impossibles, too. And yet they did them, just like I intend to do mine.

The video ends with a series of questions: How about you? What’s your impossible? What would you be like if you did it? What would our world be like?

If you haven’t done it yet, go ahead and watch the video now. You’ll be inspired, I promise.

To be continued.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Third Annual Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Two): A day (and Week) in the Life of an MS Athlete

rhodesSomeone told me about MS Fitness Challenge. Great organization; you should check them out. The founder David Lyons is in showbiz, so they get a lot of celebrity endorsements. David did a terrific interview of me for his blog. I just looked at it again, and it gave me the idea for this post.

All MS athletes share symptoms that would stop us if we let them. The trick is to make them irrelevant. Well-meaning people at the gym sometimes ask how I’m feeling, whether I’m having a good or bad day. I’ve learned to pause and explain that I don’t think in those terms. They aren’t helpful. If I paid attention to how I feel, I’d never show up, and I sure wouldn’t keep going when it gets tough.

And it does get tough. You do this, you suffer. Not whining, just sayin’.

The MS symptoms create practical challenges beyond the workout itself, too — like getting off the machine when I’m done. I can barely walk; it takes all my focus to cross about 20 feet to sit down. I drag myself along and hope nobody is noticing, and one time I took a facer. Lately I’ve been wondering if I should just bring my cane. Same thing with walking down the stairs to leave the building. These days I mostly take the elevator.

I work out 5 days a week on average, with goals for every workout and for the week. I alternate strength, stamina, and speed workouts, and something I call “heart elasticity” training. (Did one of those yesterday. Two hours all out. Looked like I was standing under a rain spout, which is something for a guy with MS, because one of things you lose is your body’s ability to cool itself. Guess my training has reversed that.)

The differences in workouts are a matter of metrics: varying machine settings such as stride height, length, and resistance, and watching how they interact with body metrics such as stride frequency, target heartbeat, breathing pattern, even how much I sweat. On stamina runs I can zone out, but the other workouts require constant attention, changing the machine settings and monitoring body metrics.

Daily workouts are a couple hours, weekends take longer, but training is really 24/7. It’s a whole, integrated practice embracing details like how much I sleep and when and what I eat. Mostly, there’s an action/recovery cycle to be observed. Cut corners, you suffer. Like I said…

The weekly cycle culminates in a major weekend workout. This past Sunday I went three hours, in one-hour segments. The first was for speed, the second (my fastest, as is usually the case) for combined speed and strength, and the third for stamina. Around 2:50:00 I hit the point where my right foot spazzes out so entirely it turns out like a ballet dancer’s. I’ve learned to pull it back straight by sheer focus, and can keep it there for 20 minutes; on Sunday I only had to deal with it for the final 10.

The Open Stride machine is stingy about mileage: best I can tell, it credits just under half what a regular elliptical machine gives you. Sunday it gave me 15.35 begrudging miles — not much to show for 3 hours and 2,000 calories. Curiously, when I go that hard that long, my feet and legs often work better than they do after a shorter workout. That was the case yesterday.

So I took the stairs instead of the elevator.

To be continued.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Third Annual Running Past Our Limits Update (Part One): Time to Get Personal (Again)

rhodesThe past two years, I’ve taken a summer break from topics like lawyer career satisfaction and legal entrepreneurship, and instead have gotten personal.

The first year, I worried about doing that, but justified my departure from objectivity by telling myself I’d stumbled onto something so powerful it could change the world. Honest. I was using it to meet a challenge in my own life, but thought it was much bigger. (Actually, I still do.) The series told my story, but also talked about believing in ourselves, finding our internal “coach,” doing the impossible, and other inspiring things. A couple readers said they thought it was my best series ever.

Changing the world wasn’t the focus last year, mostly because I’d learned that the challenge I face goes by the big hairy scary name “MS.” I focused not on changing the whole world, just my world with MS. Still, getting personal was okay because there were plenty of lessons to extrapolate to other kinds of challenges, and again readers liked it.

At a recent CLE seminar, I got one of those intuitive hits to share some of my Running Past Our Limits story. My departure from the script paid off: it was an energizing moment (right after lunch!) that drew several comments on the evals.

Do something once, it’s a novelty; do it twice, it’s a tradition. So here’s the Third Annual Running Past Our Limits Update.

If you like, you can get caught up by going here for the 2012 and 2013 editions. Briefly, this adventure started because I was frustrated with what I thought was an unresolved injury rehab issue. I’d tried pretty much everything to no avail, until one day I got the idea of using an elliptical machine to reprogram my body into moving again. (Where do we get crazy ideas like that, by the way? We’ll talk about it.) In the first year, I ran several marathons on the machine, some at world record speed. By the second year, however, it was clear my rehab theory wasn’t proving true: the faster and further I ran, the less I could walk. I went to get checked out, and found out I have MS. Immediately I went into denial, determined to fight the disease (if I even had it, which I wasn’t willing to admit), and doubled down on my workouts.

And this past, third year? (Take a deep breath.) Even though I’m not in denial anymore I’m still not ready to give up, although to be honest it gets harder all the time, but there’s some cutting edge neurological research to back up what I’m doing, and in the meantime my workouts and what I’ve learned from them have turned into a whole new way of approaching life that has made it better in ways I never could have imagined, not to mention giving me all kinds of new insights I regularly use in this blog and in my workshops… and did I mention that some people have gotten inspired by what I’m doing?

Against that background, the real question for me at this point is:

And I’m supposed to be okay with that?

Seriously, am I just making lemonade because life gave me lemons, reaching for the consolation-less consolation prize I warned you not to accept in a post not long ago? And what’s the difference between conceding defeat/failure and the practice of pivoting I’ve been talking about? And how DO you move from denial to acceptance without giving up?

Good questions. Let’s tackle ’em.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.