How I Found My Inner Harpist On My Smartphone


Image courtesy of wallpaper

Ah, the image: I am seated at a magnificent golden harp, my flowing blonde tresses resting on my shoulders, my tall, slender body leaning slightly forward, long fingers playing glissando after glissando. I am just warming up, but I am already enraptured.

Oh, the reality: It’s true that I’m thin and have long fingers. The rest of the description is more problematic. I’m short (slightly shorter each year) and my hair, though longer than it was pre-COVID, is definitely untresslike—closer to distresslike.

It’s also never been blonde; it’s brown, flecked with what I’m sure is more gray since the pandemic began. In fact, if the folks from the Pantone Color Institute were seeking a new description, I think “pandemic gray” would be appropriate.

But that’s the least of my worries. In fact, I never really wanted blonde hair except as part of my harp fantasy.

To round out the picture, I guess it’s worth noting that as far as I know, I have zero musical ability. I’ve never studied a musical instrument and can’t carry a tune. ( I did, however, lead the band when I was the drum majorette as a high school senior.)

But I do love music—all kinds of music—and get a special chill when I hear the elegance of a harp. I’m also fascinated by the concept of music and the brain, so I did a little research.

Note: everything about this topic is complex. Indeed, there are actually nine areas of the brain participating in our hearing and/or making music, with different parts involving rhythm, tone, tempo, and the like. I have simply tiptoed into this complicated topic. (You can click here if you’re interested in a neat graphic depicting the various areas—where they’re located, what they’re called, and what they do.)

That special chill, the critical emotional component of music, is largely created through the nucleus accumbens (NA), the pleasure and rewards center of the brain, and is intricately related to the neurotransmitter dopamine (DA), which—depending on the amount and our personal makeup—has the potential to make us happy or sad.

So music can act on us like chocolate, or sex, or cocaine. One neuroscientist, Kiminobu Sugaya, said in the article cited above that “music can be a very addictive drug because it’s also acting on the same part of the brain as illegal drugs.”

My mind immediately went to the many talented young musicians who died prematurely of drug overdoses.

That’s simply an interesting aside that most of us needn’t worry about. And it has nothing to do with why it’s suddenly become very important to me to make music.

I’ve repeatedly heard that as we age, one very good way to forestall dementia is to learn to play a musical instrument. I wasn’t surprised to learn from the research that the musician’s brain is noticeably different from the rest of ours. The differences are so noticeable, according to famed neurologist Oliver Sacks in a talk on NPR, that they are apparent with the naked eye.

Musicians, who obviously practice many hours a day, have greater development in various parts of the brain. Sacks mentioned enlargement of the corpus callosum: the bundle of nerve fibers that connect the brain’s left and right hemispheres.

One scientist found that when musicians listen to someone playing the piano, about 25% more of the auditory regions in their left hemisphere respond than is the case with nonmusicians, a phenomenon associated with musical tones.

And musicians who play the keyboard have better development of a certain area (the omega sign of the precentral gyrus) of the left hemisphere that’s associated with hand and finger movements, while that portion was found to be more prominent in the right hemisphere for string players.

There’s an increase in the gray matter nerve cells in musicians, a very good thing. And, though I’m skipping a bunch of steps, once music has been learned, it moves into the cerebellum, which coordinates voluntary motor movements. This is the part that interests me most.

When music has finally taken up residence in the cerebellum, it remains, and can be called up even when dementia or a stroke has damaged brain function. The stories are remarkable.

Sacks tells of a man whose daughter had written to him about her father and then brought him for a visit. The man had played the baritone part in an a cappella singing group for nearly 40 years. He’d begun showing signs of Alzheimer’s 13 years earlier, when he was 67.

His daughter had written:

“He has no idea what he did for a living, where he is living now, or what he did ten minutes ago. Almost every memory is gone. Except for the music. In fact, he opened for the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in Detroit this past November.

“The evening he performed, he had no idea how to tie a tie…he got lost on the way to the stage—but the performance? Perfect…He performed beautifully and remembered all the parts and words.”

Music therapy has been used to enhance the lives of dementia patients even more severely afflicted than this man. It’s a wonderful field that has also improved the lives of many stricken with strokes, Parkinson’s disease, autism, and other brain-associated diseases or injuries.

I would love to write more about all this, but I fear I’ll soon be venturing too far into the reeds (!) for a blog post.

So I’ll move on to my personal musical quest, hoping you’re accompanying me.

I concluded that though I can’t fight whatever may lie ahead, and it’s probably too late to flex my corpus callosum muscles, it surely won’t hurt to try to tackle a musical instrument and put in some time each day—even if it’s just for the hell of it.

Briefly, very briefly, I considered seeking to fulfill my longheld dream and trying the harp. A nice young woman on YouTube promised that some people had become professional harpists even though they’d started in their mid-20s. Well, I’d passed that threshold quite a while ago.

But then she added kindly: “even people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s…” can learn to play the harp (under her tutelage). I listened to a few beautiful examples, considered for a nanosecond, and realized I simply didn’t have it in me to pursue that particular grandiose dream.

We have a piano sitting in our living room, once played beautifully by my older daughter. For a while, our answering machine message contained her rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in the background, which never ceased to delight me.

Yet with my current musical knowledge confined to “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” I found the piano too daunting. At least for now.

Then I stumbled, truly stumbled, on GarageBand, the music composition app that had all this time been mutely residing within my iPhone. Suddenly there was a keyboard, and I could plunk away to my heart’s content.

New worlds opened up. I am actually making music—indeed, even composing a little bit. Not a harp in sight, but I have been on the keyboard and the guitar—played some minor blues last night. And GarageBand is certainly easier on my delicate fingers than real strings would be.

I’ll acknowledge that I don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes I’m faced with a page that is filled with arcane stuff. I knew this effort wouldn’t be a snap when I found YouTube video how-tos for GarageBand that were definitely not for my newbie level.

And when I saw the telltale ad for the book GarageBand for Dummies, I was reminded of the weeks when I was first thinking about starting a blog, and my techie daughter suggested Blogging for Dummies. I dutifully bought the book, eagerly opened it—and understood not a word.

But with GarageBand, I get immediate feedback because I can make sounds. Mastery is not my goal. I may not even be increasing my gray matter or strengthening my corpus callosum. But I’m making music, dammit, and that’s a joy. If some of it finds its way to my cerebellum, that’s all to the good. In the meantime, a little more dopamine is a very lovely thing!

And I can still listen to this—and dream.

Have a lovely weekend, stay safe, and wear your masks!



Continue reading “How I Found My Inner Harpist On My Smartphone”

From Three Cookies to One–or None: How Do We Break Our Bad Habits?


Did you know that Facebook Addiction Disorder is really a “thing”—and not a FAD? (Sorry, another bad pun—and so soon!) It’s not in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but it, and obsessive Internet use in general, is increasingly drawing the attention of psychiatric researchers.

I plead guilty. Not to checking Facebook frequently, though I do look at it most days. But I am heavily Internet-dependent—so much so that I recently had to upgrade my iPhone because I ran out of space and couldn’t get access to many of my apps (including my mindfulness app, which is, coincidentally, supposed to keep me in the moment).

There’s just so much stuff out there to learn, including what all the wonderful bloggers I’ve become acquainted with are up to, and why the plural of octopus is octopuses, not octopi (which I’ve written about), and what’s the name of that movie I saw years ago/last week, and, in truth, how many people are visiting my current post?

(My new phone has a feature that I could live without—almost as though it’s in league with these researchers [?]: it tells me my average daily screen time from the previous week, in hours and minutes.)

None of this may sound very serious, but it’s all tied up with how our brains function. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s connected to all those other areas of our lives that we know we should better control—such as overeating, smoking, and stressing about things real or imagined.

Why, if we’re so smart, and we know what we should do, is it so hard for us to follow through? Are there ways that we can take better control of our lives—without investing a fortune of time, money, and energy?

Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, thinks there are. Brewer is an addictions expert, an associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University, where he serves as the Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center, as well as a research affiliate at MIT.

He’s the author of a book with the less-than-succinct title: The Craving Mind: from cigarettes to smartphones to love, why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits, published by Yale University Press in 2017.

Brewer has successfully used mindfulness training to get people to stop smoking, lose weight, reduce anxiety, and break all sorts of bad habits. I haven’t read his book, and none of the three videos of him that I watched mentioned “love,” so I regret that I can’t enlighten us in that regard. The quotations in this post are primarily from a TEDMED Talk he did in 2015. The bolding for emphasis throughout is mine.

It’s no small irony, by the way, that he’s now creating apps to bring this training to people where they’re most likely to use it. See;; He offers free trials, but I’m not endorsing these, and I haven’t tried them.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, Annie, not another thing about mindfulness,” I can tell you that although I am a practitioner and I believe both individuals and the world would be better off if more of us were, I think you can put some of Brewer’s insights to work without getting deeply involved in the practice.

Let’s start with the brain because that is, of course, central to this approach. The prefrontal cortex, which Brewer points out is “that youngest part of our brain from an evolutionary perspective,” is where cognition resides.

So we can figure out, for example, that having a dozen brownies in a single sitting is not a smart thing to do. But they taste so good, and if we’re sad, or stressed, we just keep that hand-to-mouth action going. Sometimes we don’t feel very good afterward, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it again.

This behavior is linked via evolution to our needs for survival. In a convoluted way, here’s how we get to that dozen brownies. Calories equal survival. And sugar, as we’ve increasingly learned, holds a special allure. As Brewer explains, our bodies send a signal to our brains:

”Remember what you’re eating and where you found it…See food, eat food, feel good, repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward.

Then we learn that the food we began eating for survival can serve other purposes:

“You know, next time you feel bad, why don’t you try eating something good so you’ll feel better? We thank our brains for the great idea…and quickly learn that if we eat chocolate or ice cream when we’re mad or sad, we feel better.”

What began as survival has become something more complex.

“We’re fighting one of the most evolutionarily conserved learning processes currently known to science, one that’s conserved back to the most basic nervous systems known to man.”

That is positive and negative reinforcement. And the problem is that, as sharp as our thought processes may be, they’re simply not strong enough to hold back the forces of stress. As Brewer says:

“We’re using cognition to control our behavior. Unfortunately, this is also the first part of our brain that goes offline when we get stressed out.”

Of course, the process is more complicated than this, involving the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, as well as other portions of the brain, but I think we can get the idea without a detailed neurology lesson.

Brewer doesn’t mention the reptilian brain, the oldest portion, the one that enacts the fight/flight/freeze response under stress. When we need cognition the most, the reptilian brain slithers to the forefront. (I’ve written about my personal struggle between my prefrontal cortex and reptilian brain previously. Guess who won?)

To find out how to break this cycle, it’s worth looking at the success Brewer and colleagues have had in helping patients stop smoking, which is the toughest addiction of all to overcome. They tested whether mindfulness training could help people quit.

Brewer has explained that when he started practicing mindfulness meditation, it was a terrible strain to keep his focus on his breath, to try to continue paying attention. I think anyone who’s ever tried mindfulness understands this challenge; I certainly do.

But he resolved the struggle when he realized that he needed to turn to the “natural reward-based learning process” of “trigger, behavior, reward,” adding what he called “a twist: What if we just got really curious about what was happening in our momentary experience?”

He applied the concept of curiosity to the smoking research. Instead of telling their patients not to smoke, he and his colleagues said the reverse. “Smoke, but be really curious about what it’s like when you do.” And here’s a report of how it worked. One woman said:

“Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. YUCK!”


Says Brewer:

“Now she knew, cognitively, that smoking was bad for her; that’s why she joined our program. What she discovered just by being curiously aware when she smoked was that smoking tastes like s—t.

“Now she moved from knowledge to wisdom….the spell of smoking was broken. She started to become disenchanted with her behavior.”

This happens over time, he emphasized: “as we learn to see more and more clearly the results of our actions, we let go of old habits and form new ones.”

Brewer refers to one study they did that found mindfulness training (MT) was twice as effective as the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking (FFS) treatment, which is considered the gold standard. The MT group both reduced their smoking and showed continued greater abstinence during followup.

It’s still not easy. The prefrontal cortex, Brewer says,

“understands on an intellectual level that we shouldn’t smoke. And it tries its hardest to help us change our behavior, to help us stop smoking, stop eating that second, third, fourth cookie. We call this cognitive control.

And then we fall back into our old habits. But like the woman smoker, once we understand our habits on a deeper, more visceral level, our interest in pursuing them lessens.

With mindfulness, instead of turning away from unpleasantness or fighting it, we turn toward it and regard it with curiosity, which is naturally rewarding. And it helps us see that cravings are discrete sensations that come and go, so we can manage them from one moment to the next, “rather than getting clobbered by this huge, scary craving that we can choke on.”

In an interview, Brewer differentiates between intellectual curiosity and experiential curiosity. The one that makes a difference is the latter.

Our curiosity, he contends, permits us to

“step out of our old, fear-based reactive habit patterns, and we step into being. We become this inner scientist where we’re eagerly awaiting that next data point.”

So people who smoke or eat due to stress or feel compelled to do any of a myriad of things they know they shouldn’t can be encouraged to be curiously aware when the urge hits them. To paraphrase an old adage: Curiosity becomes its own reward.

And now we return to the Internet. Do you surf or check your email when you’re bored, or lonely, or just feel you have to? And then feel bad about all the time you’ve wasted, and what else you could have accomplished, but didn’t?


Brewer suggests trying instead to be curiously aware of what’s happening in your body and mind at that moment. You’ll have the chance either to “perpetuate one of our endless and exhausting habit loops—or step out of it.”

He concludes:

“Instead of ‘see text message, compulsively text back, feel a little better,’” he says, do this:

“Notice the urge, get curious, feel the joy of letting go. And repeat.”

How does all of this strike you? Do you find it feasible? Are you tempted to try it? Do you have stories to share about how you have overcome bad habits—or have failed to do so?


Should We Get Smarter With Our Smartphones?


If you’re like me, you’ve come to regard your smartphone as an appendage. My favorite use of my phone is to replace my memory lapses with instant gratification: Who’s the guy who appears with Steve Coogan in those British “trip” movies—the one who created a tiny voice-in-his-throat “man in the box” that sounds like a ventriloquist who’s swallowed his dummy? Google, google: Rob Brydon. Voila! (If you’ve never seen him, I recommend his offbeat humor and his movies with Coogan.) But I’m veering off-topic.

Because I tend to catastrophize, I occasionally worry what all that zapping with radio frequency radiation is doing to my body—and specifically my head. So I took notice in December when the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued guidelines on “How to Reduce Exposure to Radio Frequency Energy from Cell Phones.” (Note: there is a link, but it doesn’t seem to work. However, If you Google the title, the article comes right up.)

To be sure, this issue has been around for years, and there’s certainly no consensus among scientists that cellphone use is dangerous, as the CDPH acknowledges. However, a press release on the topic quoted Dr. Karen Smith, the CDPH Director: “Although the science is still evolving, there are concerns among some public health professionals and members of the public regarding long-term, high use exposure to the energy emitted by cell phones.” (Here, too, the link didn’t work. But the press release is titled “CDPH Issues Guidelines on How to Reduce Exposure to Radio Frequency Energy from Cell Phones.” On, it’s dated December 13, 2017.)

If there is a risk, no matter how small, it could affect many people. Roughly 95% of Americans own a cellphone today, and 12% (myself included) use their smartphones daily to access the Internet.

The greatest concern involves children, many of whom start using smartphones by the age of 10 and keep them with them all day long. “Children’s brains develop through the teenage years and may be more affected by cell phone use,” according to Dr. Smith, who encourages parents to consider limits on their kids’ cellphone use and definitely turning them off at night. Continue reading “Should We Get Smarter With Our Smartphones?”