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Scott Adams and Spasmodic Dysphonia

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Dilbert creator Scott Adams was stricken in 2005 with a rare condition called Spasmodic Dysphonia, which prevented him from speaking in a normal voice. The condition is somewhat bizarre, because sufferers can sometimes sing or speak in unusual circumstances, just not with their normal voices. The condition has struck a variety of famous people (according to Wikipedia), including Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC, and Diane Rehm from NPR.

For Adams, the condition meant he could still speak publicly, sing, or speak to himself while alone. But in normal circumstances his vocal cords would seize up and he simply couldn't speak. And to make it worse, Adams reported that no one has ever recovered from the condition. In late 2006, Adams noticed that he could speak perfectly in rhyme. So he repeated a rhyme ("Jack Be Nimble") over and over, and then...something changed. Since then, he has been able to speak semi-normally. It's not perfect, but he reported in January that he is still in a state of partial recovery.

After the jump, read Adams's report of his original recovery. I would just link to it, but his blog entries from that period have disappeared.

Good News Day

As regular readers of my blog know, I lost my voice about 18 months ago. Permanently. It's something exotic called Spasmodic Dysphonia. Essentially a part of the brain that controls speech just shuts down in some people, usually after you strain your voice during a bout with allergies (in my case) or some other sort of normal laryngitis. It happens to people in my age bracket.

I asked my doctor - a specialist for this condition - how many people have ever gotten better. Answer: zero. While there's no cure, painful Botox injections through the front of the neck and into the vocal cords can stop the spasms for a few months. That weakens the muscles that otherwise spasm, but your voice is breathy and weak.

The weirdest part of this phenomenon is that speech is processed in different parts of the brain depending on the context. So people with this problem can often sing but they can't talk. In my case I could do my normal professional speaking to large crowds but I could barely whisper and grunt off stage. And most people with this condition report they have the most trouble talking on the telephone or when there is background noise. I can speak normally alone, but not around others. That makes it sound like a social anxiety problem, but it's really just a different context, because I could easily sing to those same people.

I stopped getting the Botox shots because although they allowed me to talk for a few weeks, my voice was too weak for public speaking. So at least until the fall speaking season ended, I chose to maximize my onstage voice at the expense of being able to speak in person.

My family and friends have been great. They read my lips as best they can. They lean in to hear the whispers. They guess. They put up with my six tries to say one word. And my personality is completely altered. My normal wittiness becomes slow and deliberate. And often, when it takes effort to speak a word intelligibly, the wrong word comes out because too much of my focus is on the effort of talking instead of the thinking of what to say. So a lot of the things that came out of my mouth frankly made no sense.

To state the obvious, much of life's pleasure is diminished when you can't speak. It has been tough.

But have I mentioned I'm an optimist?

Just because no one has ever gotten better from Spasmodic Dysphonia before doesn't mean I can't be the first. So every day for months and months I tried new tricks to regain my voice. I visualized speaking correctly and repeatedly told myself I could (affirmations). I used self hypnosis. I used voice therapy exercises. I spoke in higher pitches, or changing pitches. I observed when my voice worked best and when it was worst and looked for patterns. I tried speaking in foreign accents. I tried "singing" some words that were especially hard.

My theory was that the part of my brain responsible for normal speech was still intact, but for some reason had become disconnected from the neural pathways to my vocal cords. (That's consistent with any expert's best guess of what's happening with Spasmodic Dysphonia. It's somewhat mysterious.) And so I reasoned that there was some way to remap that connection. All I needed to do was find the type of speaking or context most similar - but still different enough - from normal speech that still worked. Once I could speak in that slightly different context, I would continue to close the gap between the different-context speech and normal speech until my neural pathways remapped. Well, that was my theory. But I'm no brain surgeon.

The day before yesterday, while helping on a homework assignment, I noticed I could speak perfectly in rhyme. Rhyme was a context I hadn't considered. A poem isn't singing and it isn't regular talking. But for some reason the context is just different enough from normal speech that my brain handled it fine.

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.

Jack jumped over the candlestick.

I repeated it dozens of times, partly because I could. It was effortless, even though it was similar to regular speech. I enjoyed repeating it, hearing the sound of my own voice working almost flawlessly. I longed for that sound, and the memory of normal speech. Perhaps the rhyme took me back to my own childhood too. Or maybe it's just plain catchy. I enjoyed repeating it more than I should have. Then something happened.

My brain remapped.

My speech returned.

Not 100%, but close, like a car starting up on a cold winter night. And so I talked that night. A lot. And all the next day. A few times I felt my voice slipping away, so I repeated the nursery rhyme and tuned it back in. By the following night my voice was almost completely normal.

When I say my brain remapped, that's the best description I have. During the worst of my voice problems, I would know in advance that I couldn't get a word out. It was if I could feel the lack of connection between my brain and my vocal cords. But suddenly, yesterday, I felt the connection again. It wasn't just being able to speak, it was KNOWING how. The knowing returned.

I still don't know if this is permanent. But I do know that for one day I got to speak normally. And this is one of the happiest days of my life.

But enough about me. Leave me a comment telling me the happiest moment of YOUR life. Keep it brief. Only good news today. I don't want to hear anything else.

SOURCE: The Dilbert Blog (link currently dead) 10/24/06.

See also: an MSBNC article on the situation.

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Live Smarter
5 Tips for Becoming A Morning Person
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You’ve probably heard the term circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is an internal clock that influences your daily routine: when to eat, when to sleep, and when to wake up. Our biological clocks are, to some extent, controlled by genetics. This means that some people are natural morning people while others are night owls by design. However, researchers say the majority of us fall somewhere in the middle, which is good news if you want to train yourself to wake up earlier.

In addition to squeezing more hours out of the day, there are plenty of other good reasons to resist hitting the snooze button, including increased productivity. One survey found that more than half of Americans say they feel at their best between 5 a.m. and noon. These findings support research from biologist Christopher Randler, who determined that earlier risers are happier and more proactive about goals, too.

If you love the idea of waking up early to get more done, but you just can't seem to will yourself from out under the covers, here are five effective tips that might help you roll out of bed earlier.

1. EASE INTO THE HABIT.

If you’re a die-hard night owl, chances are you’re not going to switch to a morning lark overnight. Old habits are hard to break, but they’re less challenging if you approach them realistically.

“Wake up early in increments,” Kelsey Torgerson, a licensed clinical social worker at Compassionate Counseling in St. Louis suggests. “If you normally wake up at 9:00 a.m., set the alarm to 8:30 a.m. for a week, then 8:00 a.m., then 7:30 a.m.”

Waking up three hours earlier can feel like a complete lifestyle change, but taking it 30 minutes at a time will make it a lot easier to actually stick to the plan. Gradually, you’ll become a true morning person, just don’t try to force it to happen overnight.

2. EXERCISE IN THE MORNING.

Your body releases endorphins when you exercise, so jumping on the treadmill or taking a run around the block is a great way to start the day on a high note. Also, according to the National Sleep Foundation, exercising early in the morning can mean you get a better overall sleep at night:

“In fact, people who work out on a treadmill at 7:00 a.m. sleep longer, experience deeper sleep cycles, and spend 75 percent more time in the most reparative stages of slumber than those who exercise at later times that day.”

If you don’t have much time in the morning, an afternoon workout is your second best bet. The Sleep Foundation says aerobic afternoon workouts can help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often throughout the night. “This may be because exercise raises your body’s temperature for about four to five hours,” they report. After that, your body’s core temperature decreases, which encourages it to switch into sleep mode.

3. MAKE YOUR BEDROOM IDEAL FOR SLEEP.

Whether it’s a noisy street or a bright streetlight, your bedroom environment might be making it difficult for you to sleep throughout the night, which can make waking up early challenging, as you haven’t had enough rest. There are, however, a few changes you can make to optimize your room for a good night’s sleep.

“Keep your bedroom neat and tidy,” Dr. Nancy Irwin, a Los Angeles-based doctor of psychology on staff as an expert in sleep hygiene at Seasons Recovery Centers in Malibu, suggests. “Waking up to clutter and chaos only makes it more tempting to crawl back in bed.”

Depending on what needs to be improved, you might consider investing in some slumber-friendly items that can help you sleep through the night, including foam earplugs (make sure to use a vibrating alarm), black-out drapes, light-blocking window decals, and a cooling pillow

Another simple option? Ditch the obnoxious sound of a loud, buzzing alarm.

“One great way to adapt to rising earlier is to have an alarm that is a pleasing sound to you versus an annoying one,” Dr. Irwin says. “There are many choices now, whether on your smartphone or in a radio or a freestanding apparatus.”

4. TAKE THE TIME TO PROPERLY WIND DOWN.

Getting up early starts the night before, and there are a few things you should do before hitting the sack at night.

“Set an alarm to fall asleep,” Torgerson says. “Having a set bedtime helps you stay responsible to yourself, instead of letting yourself get caught up in a book or Netflix and avoid going to sleep.”

Torgerson adds that practicing yoga or meditation before bed can help relax your mind and body, too. This way, your mind isn’t bouncing from thought to thought in a flurry before you go to bed. If you find yourself feeling anxious before bed, it might help to write in a journal. This way, you can get these nagging thoughts out of your head and onto paper.

Focus on relaxing at night and stay away from not just exercise, but mentally stimulating activities, too. If watching the news gets your blood boiling, for example, you probably want to turn it off an hour or so before bedtime.

5. GET YOUR DAILY DOSE OF LIGHT.

Light has a immense effect on your circadian rhythm—whether it’s the blue light from your phone as you scroll through Instagram, or the bright sunlight of being outdoors on your lunch break. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, scientists compared the sleep quality of 27 subjects who worked in windowless environments with 22 subjects who were exposed to significantly more natural light during the day.

“Workers in windowless environments reported poorer scores than their counterparts on two SF-36 dimensions—role limitation due to physical problems and vitality—as well as poorer overall sleep quality," the study concluded. "Compared to the group without windows, workers with windows at the workplace had more light exposure during the workweek, a trend toward more physical activity, and longer sleep duration as measured by actigraphy.”

Thus, exposing yourself to bright light during the day may actually help you sleep better at night, which will go a long way toward helping you wake up refreshed in the morning.

Conversely, too much blue light can actually disturb your sleep schedule at night. This means you probably want to limit your screen time as your bedtime looms closer.

Finally, once you do get into the habit of waking up earlier, stick to that schedule on the weekends as much as possible. The urge to sleep in is strong, but as Torgerson says, “you won't want your body and brain to reacclimate to sleeping in and snoozing.”

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technology
New Device Sanitizes Escalator Handrails While They're in Use
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LG

If you have ever hesitated to touch a well-used escalator's handrails for fear of contracting some disease from the masses, LG Innotek has an answer for you. The company just released a handrail sterilizer that uses UV light to kill nearly every germ coating the rubber belts, according to The Verge.

As the railings move with the escalator, they pass through the UV light, which kills 99.99 percent of germs, according to tech developer LG Innotek. The sterilizer is placed just before escalator users hop on, ensuring the handrails are still relatively clean when you grab on at the bottom. The device is a little bigger than a regular hand sanitizer dispenser (around the size of a piece of paper) and starts automatically when the escalator begins moving. It runs on power generated by the movement of the escalator.

UV radiation is used to kill super-germs in hospitals (and one company wants to bring it to planes), but it's relatively easy to use on your phone, your toothbrush, or anywhere else in your house. You can already get handheld UV sterilizers online, as well as aquarium-specific ones. In April 2017, LG Innotek released a faucet that purifies water by UV-sterilizing it inside the aerator. However, the fact that escalator railings are constantly on the move makes them easier to clean automatically than subway railings, door handles, and other potentially germy public surfaces we touch every day.

Bear in mind that while nobody likes getting a cold, germs aren't always bad for you. Some types can even help protect you against developing asthma, as scientists found while researching the health differences between Amish children and their counterparts on more industrialized farms. Whether you touch the handrails or not, cities have their own unique microbiomes, and those ubiquitous bacteria are pretty much guaranteed to get on you whether you like it or not. On the bright side, if you are a germophobe, UV sterilization has been touted as a possible alternative to other antibacterial treatments that cause supergerms.

[h/t The Verge]

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