Grounded in Science

Embracing life at the molecular level.

Leave a comment

Seeing Math – Our Marvelous Brain

For math aficionados – March 14, 2015 (03.14.15) is a very big deal – it’s Pi Day!  Before you run to the bakery to celebrate – pi is a mathematical constant that you may remember from geometry class.  Don’t click off – I promise this gets interesting!

First, some background bits:  the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is approximately 3.14159, represented by the Greek symbol “π” and pronounced “pi.”  This is universally true for any circle.  A boggling factoid about pi is that mathematicians have defined it to over one trillion decimal places, yet the full number will likely never be known as pi is an infinite number.

But rather than dwelling on the numerical representation of pi, I ask you to imagine being able to see pi.  This happened to Jason Padgett – now an acquired savant in math – after experiencing severe head trauma following a violent mugging in 2002.

Before the attack, Jason Padgett was an iron-pumping, mullet rockin’ dude with no interest in math.  After the trauma,Padgett now views everything as a myriad of tangents and geometrical shapes; a mathematical world — in real time.  When an object moves, Padgett sees the shapes shift and spin as if on a grid.  Looking at trees he sees a dance of geometrical shapes and elegant fractals.  At first, Padgett found these visions extremely disorienting and a jarring experience.  However, over time, he realized what his brain was perceiving — mathematical equations in action — which prior to his trauma were operating hidden in his subconscious!

The brain views the world in tiny snapshots linked together like the individual frames of a movie.  Recall the early silent films where movement appeared jerky.  As film technology advanced, images were knitted closer together until they appeared smooth to our eye.  Similarly, our brain sees the world around us in frames, but there is also a smoothing function that essentially fills in the gaps between the edges of what we see.  This makes it much easier for us to navigate our surroundings.  Padgett lost this smoothing function revealing the raw images seen by his brain.

Your unconscious brain does calculus calculations all the time – effortlessly. When judging the distance of the bus coming towards your turning car as you simultaneously notice a child’s ball rolling into traffic, your brain instantly calculates the relationship of these moving items in space, their relative rates, and potential points of intersection (i.e. crash!).  The output informs your decision to brake, turn or accelerate.  That’s right, your hidden brain – or subconscious – is a mathematical genius!

Pi - Hand drawn visualzation of the irrational number pi; by Jason Padgett 2008 (Source:

Pi – Hand drawn visualzation of the irrational number pi; by Jason Padgett 2008 (Source:

Today Padgett shares his insights with physicists and other scientists to inform their research.  Moreover, he shares his visions through exquisite, freehand drawings revealing stunning manifestations of complex mathematical and physics concepts such as wave particle duality and even pi.  Watch here to see him draw the image of pi by hand and listen to him describe what he is seeing.

Padgett is also looking at ways to revolutionize teaching math. Children are naturally very receptive to seeing an image and grasping its subtle qualities. If children are exposed to mathematical concepts as visual images at an early age, they are much more receptive to learning the correlating mathematical equations and calculations years later.

Padgett’s injury has been lauded as giving him new abilities, but the trauma actually uncovered genius abilities that were there all along.  He may have lost the smoothing function in his brain but it revealed the magic underneath.  Just like removing the back of a watch exposes the mechanical intricacies of a timepiece, removal of the brain’s smoothing function exposed some of the inner intricacies of the mind.

On Pi Day – as we ponder the significance and now the beauty of pi, let’s also reflect on the marvel of the brain.  It directs, learns, changes, and calculates based on input from our senses and electrical signals from our neurons. There is much yet to learn about the dynamic brain and the less tangible “mind.”  Judging from Jason Padgett’s insights – the discoveries will be breathtaking.

Some wonderous resources:


Light & Health – Get In Sync

Sunrise, sunset – with it follows our internal rhythm for an array of functions including digestion and sleep. This circadian rhythm responds to  light and  is found in all living things – including plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria.  Each cycle is close to 24-hours length and resets daily.  Early birds have an inherent rhythm that resets slightly less than every 24 hours; night owls reset slightly longer than 24 hours – ah, nice to know my late night tendencies come honestly!

Melatonin – the Dracula of hormones. Induced by the dark and produced mainly by the pineal gland near the center of our brain, melatonin is also produced in the cells of the immune system, eye, reproductive organs, and skin.  Under normal, healthy conditions, melatonin levels peak at night and are lowest during the day.  As such, the ebb and flow of melatonin signals if its day or night and triggers a coordinated cascade of activity winding us down for sleep.

If circadian rhythm is disrupted, we not only lose sleep, but growing evidence tells us we’re putting our health at risk. In the dark, melatonin levels soar.  With light, melatonin levels sink and other hormones rise that increase alertness (dopamine) and prepare us for the demands of a new day (cortisol/stress response; GABA/calm). But that’s not all folks – melatonin also affects other molecules and cells that impact a bevy of physiological and psychological processes including heart rate, gene expression, metabolism and reproductive cycles.  For example, the internal signals that make us store fat or time ovulation in women, are turned up or down by the presence of melatonin.  When the circadian rhythm gets mucked up, the wrong players are on stage at the wrong time and the molecular dance shifts into a Twister game.

 Anyone who’s stayed up until dawn – cramming for an exam or just having too much fun (or stress) – is painfully familiar with the confusion, achiness and hunger that come the next day.  Once the exam is over you may drop into bed mid-afternoon and wake at 10pm ravenous for dinner.  Later that night with a full stomach and a shifted sleep pattern, you may be awake again until the wee hours.  With your circadian rhythm out of whack, your body’s systems run amok.

Jet lag causes similar agony.  Boarding a plane in one time zone and landing several hours later where the local time is different, the body’s circadian rhythm will be out of sync with the new location and will likely result in indigestion, sleep problems and a rotten mood (you can’t blame the airline for everything!).

Late night or jet lag, the best way to reset your internal clock is to get outside into daylight.  If it’s already night, aim to go to bed and rise at the same time you would at home.  With groggy exposure to the early morning light, the body will soon reset its internal clock and with it the body’s internal systems.  The resiliency of our circadian rhythm is something to celebrate – but trouble arises if the gears remain stuck.

Shift work, stress, or frequent jet lag pours sand into the gears of your body and mind. Night shifts expose you to artificial light throughout the night and disturb the normal light/dark cycle. To compound things, shift workers often alternate their work schedules from overnight to early morning and late afternoon shifts.  The result is an utterly bewildered circadian system.  Worse yet, research indicates a link between this bewilderment and metabolic disorders, such as obesity and diabetes, as well as hormone-dependent cancers such as breast, ovary and prostate cancers. In addition, those suffering from chronic circadian disruption experience mental fatigue with confusion and memory problems which lead to a significant increase in accidents – at work or on the road.  Clearly light is important for our well-being but moreover is essential to our health.

So how is light perceived by our bodies?  The eye detects colors and the grays of night when light is absorbed by photoreceptors in the eye called rods and cones. Contorting upon the absorption of light, the rods and cones convey information to our brain about the shapes and colors around us. Researchers recently discovered a third photoreceptor – melanopsin – which detects the intensity of light and modulates the release of melantonin.  The discovery of melanopsin may explain how some blind people with severe degenerative eye disease have intact circadian rhythms.  In these cases, the rods and cones may be damaged resulting in blindness, but the melanopsin functions and perceives the presence of light.  Stop and think about that for a moment — amazing!

Electromagnetic (EM) spectrum:  Visible light is the only part of the EM spectrum that we see and appears to us as colors of the rainbow.  (Source:

Electromagnetic (EM) spectrum: Visible light is the only part of the EM spectrum that we see and appears to us as colors of the rainbow. (Source:

Blue light matters most.  When it comes to circadian rhythm, not just any light will do.  Visible light is the portion of electromagnetic radiation that we can see and appears to us as colors of the rainbow.  This light corresponds to a wavelength range of 400 – 700 nanometers (nm) and a color range of violet through red. Research has shown that blue light provides the strongest stimulation of the circadian responses in animals.

Sunlight, particularly morning light, provides an abundant supply of blue light.  But lo and behold, the LED screens in our computers, smartphones, and televisions also emit mainly blue light and therefore are perceived as morning sunlight by our brain.  This is fine if you limit the use of these devices to daytime, but your late night binge watching of the latest House of Cards season will fool your brain into thinking its daylight and your circadian hormones will run amok.   Not only will your body try to keep you awake, but your metabolism, reproductive and immune systems will also be affected.

Be bold - turn off those devices and TV a few hours before bedtime.  Your partner may thank you!

Be bold – turn off those devices and TV a few hours before bedtime. Your partner may thank you!

We live in a 24-7 world — fueled by an ever-increasing use of electricity to light the night.  The known health risks of disrupting our circadian rhythms combined with growing evidence for the link between circadian light exposure and reproductive cancers (e.g. breast cancer), warrants a societal call to action to improve our relationship with light.

Heeding the science, architects are now designing living and work spaces that support our circadian rhythm.  Innovative designs create daytime space that optimize blue light exposure with skylights or artificial lighting. For evening spaces in our homes and restaurants, non-blue light, such as incandescent lighting, is being incorporated to promote melatonin release and relaxation. The approach has transformative implications for other environments that are typically ensconced in artificial lighting such as hospitals and the international space station.

How can you find the light to better health?

  • Avoid looking at bright screens starting two to three hours before bed. This advice may be akin to “avoid desserts” – what matters is making exposure the exception rather than a habit.
  • Use incandescent lighting instead of fluorescent lighting at night. Fluorescent lighting and many energy-efficient light bulbs emit significant amounts of blue light and suppress melatonin.
  • If you work night shifts or use a lot of electronic devices at night, consider wearing blue-blocking glasses.  Screens or blue-blocker glasses will coax the release of melatonin and thus sleep.  Melatonin supplements may also help, but timing and dosage is critical and can be tricky.
  • Seek out blue light to offset jet lag or social jet lag. Get your groggy self out into the sunlight, ideally morning light, to reset your circadian clock.
  • Get your daily dose of bright light.  Walk the dog, shovel the snow, or have your morning tea on the balcony.  You’ll improve your sleep quality, mood and daytime alertness. Hallelujah.
  • Melatonin supplements are not a cure-all. Some research suggests a benefit to taking melatonin supplements to support sleep.  Timing and dosage are important and can bring side effects including nausea and headaches. Moreover, more than melatonin is needed for proper circadian rhythm. Remember – the light cycle conducts the entire circadian hormone orchestra.

We have evolved and developed in concert with our environment.  By embracing the rhythms of nature we support our bodies own wisdom for vibrant health.  Go greet that morning sun!


Some nifty resources & references: