Life Enrichment 2013

Life Enrichment Club: 2012 to 2013


Sung-Peng Hsu (徐頌鵬)

May, 2013


This is the fourth year since the Life Enrichment Club (暢樂人生社) was formed on June 22, 2009 under the Taiwanese American Senior Society.   We have held nine sessions in 2012-2013, focusing on some topics related to our DNA and brain.  It is our hope that a good understanding of our DNA and brain can help us better understand who we are as human beings.  These two fields of modern science are among the most exciting advancements in the last couple decades.  They are very much different from what we learned 50 or 60 years ago in high school and college, even graduate school!


Listening to Henry Yu’s talk on our neurons


We started the subject of our brain on April 26, 2012 when Henry Yu (游宏仁) gave an introduction to human nervous system, as already summarized in my earlier report for 2011-2012.  The first meeting of 2012-2013 on June 21, “Introduction to Human Brain: Nervous System, Part 2” (神經系統 II), was a continuation of his earlier lecture.  Having been trained in the field of neurophysiology with a Ph.D. degree, Henry was very knowledgeable about the inner working of different pathways in our brain.  Since it would be impossible to cover everything about our neurons in a few or dozens of lecture, he focused on our five senses.  In this way, he provided the first steps for most of us to enter the door of our own brain!  He emphasized the plasticity of our brain.  After we know our brain better, we may find some good ways to control and improve our brain.  This insight becomes more and more important in our later meetings.


On July 26, we had a panel discussion on “DNA, Brain, Food, and Sex” with Jim Cheng (鄭昭任), Henry Yu (游宏仁), and Stephen Hung () as panelists.  In this meeting, we faced squarely on two most important desires that have driven our human life, i.e., food and sex.  We invited Jim, our resident geneticist, to talk from the standpoint of our DNA, and Henry, our resident neuroscientist, to talk from the standpoint of our brain.  Stephen, our photography leader, served as the moderator and also talked from the standpoint of a photographer who chased after migrating snow geese year after year.  One may say that food and sex are the two primary desires that have driven the migration of all animals.  These desires are imbedded in our brain, mainly in our reptilian and limbic systems, which must have millions of years of evolutionary history.  Of course, our brain must have been developed from some instructions from our DNA.  Since I was unable to attend the meeting in person due to my trip to Taiwan, it is hard for me to report about the meeting without any memory in my brain.  I have heard that it went very well.  Why not when it comes to food and sex?


It has been said that our brain is nothing if it were not able to store our experiences. In fact, our personality must have been shaped by our memory.  We were fortunate to have Wen-Yen Chen (陳文) to give us a talk on “Memory” on August 30.  Wen-Yen has a Ph.D. degree in psychology and was a professor for many decades.  He is also a former Executive Director of Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA).  We have known him for some time as a famous person of public affairs.  Few of us know that he is also an expert in psychology.  He introduced to us the study of human memory from psychological perspective by summarizing how contemporary psychologists treat memory as a part of information processing, from our sensory inputs to short-term memory and to permanent long-term storage.  He presented a few clinical cases to illustrate where human memories are possibly stored.  He also discussed the opposite process of memory, i.e., forgetting, and pathological memory loss such as amnesia and Alzheimer’s disease.


On October 23, we switched to the topic of how neurons might be switched on and off.  This interesting question is the subject of potentially revolutionary experiments carried out by Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University.  His research has become so important that it is called “Optogenetics,” in the sense that light can be used to switch a specific neuron on or off by employing certain microbes.  We watched a video available on YouTube, called “Cracking the Neural Code: Speaking the Language of the Brain with Optics.”  In the video, Karl himself, in 2008, presented his own research vividly with appropriate details.  In the September issue of 2012 of Discover Magazine, Karl’s research was reported in the article “Controlling Brains with a Flick of a Light Switch.”  Henry Yu presented an introduction and led the short discussion afterwards.  Many of our members responded enthusiastically.  It showed that our members are very well educated, including many with Ph.D. and long career in biology or microbiology.  Very likely a record number of people, about 60, attended this exciting meeting.


The topic for the meeting on November 27 is only remotely related to the questions of DNA and brain.  It is on “History and Geology of American Southwest.”  The reason for the topic was that on the same day, in the afternoon, the Photo Club would cover the photo trip to American Southwest led by Stephen Hung.  Since I was in that group, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about its history and geology.  The Life Enrichment meeting in the morning was mainly to watch a video I purchased during our trip, i.e., “Timeless Impressions: Petrified Forest/Painted Desert – A Story in Stone.”  Somehow, I decided to give a short introduction to the video and prepared a PowerPoint Presentation.  In the process, I became so absorbed in the subject that I connected the dots from American Southwest, to Great Falls in Maryland, and then to Taiwan.  After the meeting, I expanded and refined my presentation and wrote an article called “Geology of American Southwest, Great Falls, and Taiwan,” sprinkled with many photos I took at these different places.  The article is now available at my website (, in the webpage of “Exploring Nature.”


Back to DNA and brain, our topic on December 18 was “Brain, Sleep, and Dreams.”  We must be often wondering why we spend about one third of our short precious life in sleep and how we make sense of our strange dreams.  We chose the video “What are Dreams?” previously aired on PBS on June 29, 2011.  In this video, NOVA joined leading dream researchers as they embarked on a variety of neurological and psychological experiments to investigate the world of sleep and dreams.  After watching it, there was an exciting discussion.  Since there was so much interest, we decided to continue it in our next meeting.


Sie-Ling Chiang leading a discussion on dreams


The meeting on January 29 was the second part of “Brain, Sleep, and Dreams.”  Sie-Ling Chiang (姜西淋) led the meeting, and started with some basic ideas he learned from the book “Dreaming Your Real Self” by Joan Mazza, a psychotherapist and dream-worker.  According to Joan Mazza, we dream about what is important in our life at the time of the dream; and we dream about our core values.  By analyzing our own dreams we will better understand our real self, and hence can take steps to correct or adjust our self to improve our thinking, belief and/or behavior for better harmony in the society.  During more than an hour of discussion, many participants eagerly shared their dreams, and we attempted to interpret their meanings.  It was not easy to reach agreement about interpretation, but in general it may be said that our dreams partly reflect our past, partly our current situation, and partly preparing ourselves for the future.  During our deep sleep, our short-term memories are consolidated into our long-term memories.  Through all these processes, our dreams may serve as our sources for insight and creativity.  They may also enrich our life!


As some kind of conclusion to our long series of learning about DNA and brain, the topic for the meeting on February 26 was “DNA, Brain, and Life Enrichment.”  We started by watching the video “Super Brain” previously aired on PBS on December 9, 2012.  It is a presentation by Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard University, a well-known researcher in the field of Alzheimer’s disease.  His main thesis is that we are not our brain, but the user of our brain.  He stresses that our life should not be passively dictated by the current wiring in our brain because we can also take control of our brain by taking advantage of the facts of neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, and epigenetics.  He also proposes several ways of improving our brain for the better.  In a sense, it is life enrichment with “super brain.”  The second part of the video consists of dialogues between Rudolph Tanzi and Deepak Chopra, a well-known doctor and author.   The video greatly captivated many people in our meeting, so we decided to continue the topic next time.


During the discussion on “Super Brain” on March 26


In the second meeting on “DNA, Brain, and Life Enrichment” on March 26, we watched another video by Rudolph Tanzi and Deepak Chopra on “10 Steps to Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease.”  They applied some of the basic principles explained in the earlier video to one of the most serious and perplexing diseases of our brain.  Our resident neuroscientist Henry Yu provided a short introduction and led the discussion afterwards.  While some members declared that the videos were the best they had ever watched, others made some reservations here and there.  That’s what should be expected in any discussion.  It is just too bad there was simply too little time for lengthy discussion.  Some unsettling or unsettled questions are questions about “matter,” “consciousness,” “self,” “soul,” “mind,” “God,” and even “super brain.”  Some of them belong more to “religious,” “speculative,” “metaphysical,” or “philosophical” questions than to strictly “scientific” questions.  In general, Chopra is more “metaphysically” oriented in his overall thought, while Tanzi is more scientifically oriented.  Yet there is some common orientation between them, to the extent that they could work together and produced a series of DVDs and co-authored a book.  It is hoped that we will deal with the more metaphysical questions some time in the future.


In my conversations with Sie-Ling Chiang, we feel that after the series of exploration about our DNA and brain, we could start a series of exploration about astronomy (questions about solar systems, galaxies, etc.), but he expressed the wish that we should at least cover the topic of “consciousness” to some extent before going to the next series.  In that spirit, we plan to cover it in our next meeting, mainly from the scientific and neurological point of view.  In general, it may be said that any religious, metaphysical, philosophical, or speculative view would be more meaningful on the basis of as much scientific understanding as possible.


After learning about our DNA and brain, we may wonder why and how our brain or consciousness can understand brain or consciousness itself.  We may also wonder why and how our brain or consciousness is capable of probing the mysteries of the things around us on earth as well as solar systems and galaxies as far as billions of light years away.












© Sung-Peng Hsu 2011