Friday, February 27, 2015

My "Education" Credentials and Sources





My Sources, Major Influences
and Base Material

This is something I've been wanting to get to for some time; somehow outlining how I know what I know. Or, in perhaps another way, my “education” and my “qualifications” and what lies behind the subheading of my blog that states "A Blog in which I promise to be as honest and scientifically sound as possible in understanding and dealing with the mental phenomenon of what is termed "bipolar disorder" and other psychiatric conditions and mental health problems [AKA - what your "doctors" won't - or can't - tell you].

I put the words "education" and "qualifications" in quotation marks to indicate that in each I fall outside of anything one would expect as normal. I am not sure how many of my readers are aware of this but I'm sure some will be taken aback to learn that I lack any kind of formal education whatsoever (other than graduating high school by the skin of my teeth on the barest minimum of academic standards). I know that some in the neuroscience communities where I take part in discussions (and have posted articles from my neuroscience blog) were shocked. Assuming that I had a degree from somewhere some would ask – out of curiosity – where was I educated? For a time this was a very uncomfortable question for me (for a variety of reasons most people would not assume) but I had no choice – I'd have to admit that I was completely self-educated.

I think the story of my self-education will have to wait for another day (I think it is a story that might be of some interest to many readers and, is my hope, also an inspiration) but I will briefly state that I am a classic manic autodidact. My definition of a classic “manic autodidact” is something else that'll have to wait for another day (for when I explore the “upsides” to bipolar mania (1)) but briefly, an autodidact is one who a) has an insatiable curiosity and b) an unquenchable thirst for knowledge - not for just any knowledge, but for the best knowledge possible from the most reliable sources possible. A “manic autodidact” is someone like myself whose quests for knowledge tend to come in manic bursts and are greatly aided by certain mental benefits that may come during manic episodes for a certain percentage of bipolar people (which is something I'll explore and establish further when I write about mental illness and genius).

Autodidact is somewhat fuzzy to define but a hallmark is an ability to learn on one's own without necessarily needing teachers and guidance (at least not the traditional flesh and blood type). But again and because I think genius and mental illness is important to explore (and it is indeed deeply explored by some dedicated souls in the science community, not the least of which is the renowned Nancy Andreason), this is something I'll write about in greater detail at some future point (my list of “to write about in more detail at a future point” is distressingly long, I'm afraid).


Aaahhh, “genius”. This is not a term I am completely comfortable with and I can assure you that it is not something I put on myself. That I have a genius level ability to grasp not only the finer details of neurobiology and neuroanatomy but the larger implications of the details and philosophical questions surrounding the great mysteries of brain function (considered by many to be the last great frontier in science) has been pointed out to me by certain members of the neuroscience community who read my early work and/or with whom I engaged in discussions, exchanges and … errr, “debate” (okay, heated debate) on matters pertaining to neuroscience and/or the neuroscience of psychiatric disorders.

And it is not so much what I know but the fact that I learned the vast majority of it within a span of a few months in late winter/early spring of 2013 (the exploration and explanation of which will again have to wait for those pieces on the upside of bipolar mania).

This did not come completely out of the blue, however, and I'll try to briefly outline some of my autodidact background and why and how I am able to think the way I do.

For starters, I was blessed with a very high IQ. The question of the value of IQ numbers is not without controversy (and not without reason) but the fact remains that IQ scores can indicate something, emphasis on “can” (I have met complete imbeciles so in love with themselves over their mensa level IQs that they were blind to any fault in their reasoning or the basic underpinnings of their thoughts. It became clear to me early on how there might be a link between genius and madness). No worries for me there though; my life has supplied ample opportunities to be humbled and stay humble (which we'll look at when we explore the considerable downsides of bipolar mania and depressive cycles, my current situation and circumstances being a somewhat excellent example thereof).

Anyway, I've twice tested for an IQ over 140 (146 on one test, the other the tester wouldn't say exactly, only that I scored in the top 2 percentile). Each time I finished the test in about two thirds of the allotted time, something which astonished the aforementioned tester (because human intelligence is such a big (not to mention touchy) question, I'll have to explain intelligence and IQ tests and so on some day).

My self-education started when I was twenty-three and during – ahem – my first manic episode (following about an eighteen month bout of severe depression). It was then that I started studying logic, higher reasoning and my thirst for knowledge took off, all of which I did completely on my own.

The life and good times of a fun loving gregarious young man in his twenties with a very full social (and love) life sort of intervened and it wasn't until I decided at about age thirty that I was going to be an English teacher without the bother of umpteen years of the dreadful tedium of university that my self-educating ways took off again (I actually somewhat jest. Truth be told, I fervently wished to attend a university at the time; not so much for the degree but to have access to the libraries, mentors and stimulating environment. Alas, it was never to be and this long pained me. It was that pain, however, that drove me to seek it all for myself and on my own terms).

My desire to teach English led me to Asia and the intense crucible that is the education system and incredibly high standards there drove an uneducated ex-logger (a fact I kept utterly to myself, I can well assure you) to work harder at learning the business and art of teaching than anyone else and be better than anyone else. I also fully immersed myself into the people and the culture there, taking great pains to learn the language and all the deep and mysterious nuances of Chinese culture, the Chinese mind and thought systems. I had very few foreign friends or acquaintances there and lived entirely within Taiwanese society with almost entirely Taiwanese social circles (all of which was perhaps my greatest education of all). (2)

Meanwhile, through all of that, I developed a great love for science (which was a logical consequence of first studying logic and seeking only the best, most objective knowledge possible). I studied evolutionary theory on my own and dabbled in other areas of science and scientific thought.

But I have long held that studying science alone is a rather narrow endeavor. Furthermore, my greatest love and source of my insatiable curiosity has always been the study of the human spirit, mind and soul. As such, it has long been my position that anyone lacking an at least decent exposure to and reading of literature and literary classics is bereft of great sources of insight into the human mind and condition and I am at least decently well read in the great classics of literature and of many other luminaries in literature and fiction (which, for the sake of brevity, I'll not list here).

It has always been my curiosity into and my desire to understand all things human that led me to develop and nurture perhaps my greatest asset in what I put into Taming the Polar Bears and my understandings of human suffering and mental illnesses – and that is my unusual ability to truly and deeply “hear” people's stories and what is in their hearts. Since childhood I have always loved to listen to people's stories. Since childhood I have always loved reading people's stories. And I always (or almost always) did so without judgment or prejudice. Over my lifetime I have listened to the stories of countless people (I'm talking at least into the hundreds) from all walks of life from the gutters of Vancouver's notorious Downtown East Side to some of the richest people in Taiwan and all points in between. I can listen with great compassion, understanding and empathy to anyone.

I apologize for seeming to toot my own horn (though I've come to the position that for most of us, if we don't toot our own horns at least sometimes, who will?) but I do think it's important in establishing both my credibility as the writer of this blog (and coming book) and to give some idea as to the vessel into which all of my knowledge has been poured and continues to be.


Being self-educated and in relentlessly seeking self-education, I consider the following to be my “professors”, “mentors” and “thought leaders”. I have, I must emphasize, very high standards (and I'll outline the credentials of some of my sources as I list them).

Okay then, without further ado, my sources.


On Logic, Reasoning and Critical Thinking:

Shoot, I'm afraid I can no longer remember any of my original source materials (this mostly goes back to the 80's, bear in mind) but they were all college or university level books. I make no claim to be expert in logic and reasoning but I do strive to adhere to the basic principles of both and am greatly influenced by everything I have learned over the years.

I can say that the late great Carl Sagan was and remains a great source and influence in the basics of scientific thought and critical thinking. I've read a good deal of his works (and was a big fan of his TV series Cosmos) and his A Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark remains a valued source that I keep close at hand to help keep me grounded.

This part is critical to understand for it's a firm grounding in logical reasoning, critical thinking and pursuit of scientific objectivity that helps in separating the “wheat from the chafe” in the wild and wooly world of science as well for sorting through the tsunamis of bogus claims that daily flood the Internet, air waves, TV and cable lands and print media. As great as science is and as far as it's advanced humanity and the world we live in, there remains a lot of bad science and being able to differentiate the two is one of the skills I have that helped me earn the “genius” title. This is also what's going to be the greatest benefit to you, my readers, as we sort through what to believe and what needs to be tossed out when we examine neuropsychiatric disorders.


On Evolution, Evolutionary Anthropology and Evolutionary Theory:

I was a great fan of the (then) great and highly regarded Stephen Jay Gould and a number of his books used to be constant reading companions.

My other great sources and influences have been none other than two of the greatest philosophers and/or evolutionary biologists of our time, Daniel C Dennett and Richard Dawkins.

Bill Bryson's A Brief History of Everything (which covers a great deal of our evolutionary past and gets into some detail the study of anthropology) is also a very handy resource and guide to further reading.

With minds such as Gould's, Dennett and Dawkins to help train my mind, it was then that I could read countless articles and research papers related to these subjects and make deep sense of them.


General Science:

Geology and plate tectonics used to be a great interest of mine (through my twenties back in the 80's and I used to have some great textbooks that I greatly enjoyed). I remain a casual but enthusiastic “rock hound” and studier of geology to this day (I can spend hours poking around rocks and trying to trace their origins – oh, if only rocks could talk and tell their stories!). Not much to do with neuroscience or psychiatric disorders, but a good training ground for scientific method and thought nonetheless. 


On Neuroscience:

I have to make clear that in a field such as neuroscience with an object so mysterious and difficult to study as the human brain (or even that of worms!), there is no real “final authority” on matters of the brain but the following are all very highly respected and regarded. Some are not exactly neuroscientists themselves but are regarded as very respectable compilers of neuroscientific knowledge and writers thereon.

This will be only a very incomplete list as it would be impossible to list all my sources of reading. As such, I'll only list my basic sources, what I regard as “textbooks” and greatest influences.


My first exposure to neuroscience was the wonderful book The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, which I picked up in 1994 when I was teaching myself how to teach languages. A bit over my head at the time, it did however help set the table for my interest in brain functioning and neuroscience. It is a fascinating and meticulously researched and detailed look into how our brains construct and perceive language. Since then I have picked up several other books by Pinker, the most valued to me of which is How the Mind Works.

Pinker is by no means a leading authority on the brain but his books are very well constructed, extremely well researched from impeccable sources and are excellent resources for learning and getting a grasp of “the basics” and it his writing and descriptive/explanatory skills that I most value. A great “professor” of mine.

I have also been in email contact with him (3) and he's been most kind in not exactly answering my very specific and probing questions, but providing me with some great sources for further study and lending encouragement.



Basic Neuroanatomy and Other Brain Basics:


For very basic brain anatomy and interesting facts of neuroscience research and history, I have a beautifully illustrated book by Rita Carter called, simply enough, The Brain Book. Her book Mapping the Mind has also proven an invaluable resource for brain basics. 

For all the basics on stress, the stress response system, glucocorticoids (and other stress hormones), the dopamine pathways and influences on human behaviour thereof, and all about human behaviour biology, my absolute go to source is Robert Sapolsky. I have his book on human stress, I watch his university lectures online at every opportunity and peruse any other material of his that I can get my hands on. Sapolsky ranks fifteenth on a list of the Thirty Most Influential Neuroscientists Alive Today (You can bet your booty I'd be hunting down more of the others' work if I had better online access).

I am massively interested in neuroplasticity and my top source of understanding the basics of neuroplasticity is Michael Merzinich. Merzinich is considered by many to be the "father of neuroplasticity" having done much of the breakthrough pioneering research in the 70's and having authored the very first papers on it. He is ranked fourth on that list of leading neuroscientists. 

My introduction to neuroplasticity was the book The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. The profound effect this book and its contents had on my life is incalculable. It literally changed how I saw the world and human potential. 

And speaking of that book, it was through it that I discovered V. S. Ramachandran, who's perhaps my favourite and most influential neuroscientist personally. His story is fascinating, his approach to neuroscience even better. I can't explain why briefly, but he just feels like kindred spirit with his unbounded enthusiasm, low tech approach to problem solving (he solved the heretofore unsolvable chronic pain of phantom limb syndrome with a five dollar assembly of an ordinary mirror and cardboard box) and, like me, his mind has a hilarious lack of capacity for everyday details like the date of his wedding anniversary or those of his kids' birthdays. His writings and online talks and lectures are must have stuff. 

The works of psychiatrist Jeffrey M Schwartz and his views on neuroplasticity, disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the power of the mind and meditation have also been hugely influential (though not exactly key source material). 

Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beaurogard has also been deeply influential as he bravely explores difficult phenomenon about the brain in his book Brain Wars along with the effects on the brain by meditation and other brain exercises as well as the quite promising neurofeedback. Again, not a big source of base material, but his views are very mind opening and there are aspects to his research and approach to the brain I find quite valuable. 

Lastly on neuroscience today is Jon Lieff and his renowned science blog Searching for the Mind in which he presents some of the most cutting edge research available. He is my go-to "professor" for explaining some very difficult concepts about the finer workings of the brain. He's also a personal favourite because he has answered my emails, given me guidance and very, very kindly read some of my more science orientated blog posts and "signed off" on them as "very well written" and "excellent resources" for my reading audience. His blog is on a list of 100 of the best resources for neuroscience on the Internet (blog division). 

I have many more books, sources and influences but I'll leave it at this for now. 

In addition, I read countless, countless research papers and scientific articles related to neuroscience and neuropsychiatric disorders that I either search for on my own or get through my wide network of "brain buds" from various online neuroscience communities, all of which I can read,  understand and discuss at a very deep level with virtually any member of the neuroscience community. 

I am blessed with having a ruthless "bullshit detector" (AKA 'bad science' detector), something that brought me to the attention of two of my early online neuroscience mentors. I can hack and slash a shoddy research paper to bits and WILL call out anything that even remotely sniffs of bullshit claims or inferences or scientific research tainted by corporate interests. 


On Psychiatric Disorders and Pharmacological Treatments:

Gads, I don't even know where to start on this. 

No, that's not true. While I was already well on my way in reading up on psychiatric disorders and pharmacological treatment thereof, it was coming across Robert Whitaker's Anatomy of an Epidemic that really got me going on the right path. I was very, very blessed to meet Robert in Vancouver during one of his lecture tours and was able to talk at length with him then. We stayed in email contact and he very, very kindly read several of my early essays and gently nudged me away from the manic rage I was feeling and expressing in word at the time and towards a more scientific and even approach. His affect and influence on me and the writing on this blog cannot be understated. His work is meticulously well researched, balanced and fair and he has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for science writing. 

It was through Robert that I was able to meet Tony Stanton, an expert in psychiatric disorders and treatment in children. I was able to attend a talk of his in Vancouver where we were able to talk at length and exchange views on subjects such as pediatric bipolar disorder and the drugging of children. For many years Tony ran a treatment centre that specialized in getting children off of mind damaging and addictive psychiatric medications. 

The works and research of Peter Breggin  were invaluable in helping me understand the devastating effects psychiatric medications can have on the human mind and soul. Breggin is renowned for having testified before congress and congressional committees looking into misdeeds and false claims by the pharmaceutical industries and the American Psychiatric Association. 

The writings of the psychologist Bruce E Levine were also very influential and mind opening in understanding the pharmaceutical industry and their products. He too very kindly was open to email exchanges and reading my early works and he, like Whitaker, helped nudge me away from my angrier writings while encouraging my blossoming ideas and approaches to the human mind and psychiatric difficulties. 

The works, research and writings of men like Irving Kirsch and Loren Mosher were also hugely influential. 

It is also hard to understate the influence of the work of the Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme and the work he did that led to the formation of the Hearing Voices Network in understanding the phenomenon of hearing voices and of schizophrenia. He and his fellow researchers produced an enormous body of ground breaking research that runs counter to the powerful and influential American Psychiatric Association and Diagnostic And Statistical Manual's definition of and approach to schizophrenia. I am deeply well read on the material produced by Romme and the HVN and it was through these two that I was able to read dozens and dozens of case studies of schizophrenia and hearing voices. I was also able to join the HVN and meet many people who suffered from one or both of these phenomenon and learn their stories, approaches and personal triumphs. 

The frank and open talks and writings of the former top pharmaceutical rep Gwen Olson were also very eye opening and illuminating into how the pharmaceutical industry operates and sells their products in alignment with doctors and psychiatrists. 

Speaking of how the pharmaceutical industry operates, I did much, much reading and research into how they conduct their "research". Along those lines, the book Bad Pharma (a play on the phrase "bad science") by the British physician and academic Ben Goldacren was enormously useful in understanding the process by which all pharmaceutical products get through the research phase and to market. 


Phew, that's about it for now! But this represents only a fraction of my source materials. And I'll have to get to in a separate post how I conduct or have conducted my personal research and do case studies into those with psychiatric disorders and my enormous personal experiences. 


(1) Bipolar mania can be many things but every now and again the inner stars of our neuronal galaxies align to produce a phenomenal ability to learn and retain material. I have studied a bit of the process of this and it is indeed phenomenal and fascinating. I hope to get to it when I further explore all the aspects of bipolar disorder. 

(2) The influence of my years in Asia and of studying the Asian mind, mindset and thought systems will show up again and again when I discuss spirituality and mind systems. 

(3) One of the "benefits" (though more often a downside) of bipolar mania is that it utterly obliterates doubts and fears. I was thus fearless in writing everyone and anyone in doing my research and looking for answers on the brain or psychiatric disorders or pharmaceutical issues which led me to contacting some pretty impressive people and getting a lot of help (Pinker, Whitaker, Levine, Stanton, Lieff, among others). 




Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus: Spirituality



Positive Difference
Making Fundamentals in Focus:
Spirituality


This is further riffing off the previous post on the emotional you and what to do about it.


When I say I investigated all angles to mental health problems I mean I investigated all angles; within myself and within the population at large. There are, as I've said many, many times (and will say many times more), numerous factors involved in any one case of mental health difficulties. I've also hammered away at the psychiatric and medical community's stubborn adherence to the chemical imbalance theory (and resultant drug therapy strategies) as being way too overly simplistic (ludicrously simplistic but that's an ax I'll grind in future columns). 

It is my position (though I am far from alone in this position) that our thoughts are one of our worst enemies. The human mind is a powerful generator of thoughts (by some counts up to 70,000 per day) and there is an enormous amount of evidence that it is our thoughts that are going to drive our mental states. This is of course a bit of a chicken or the egg question, however. In a chapter coming up very soon I'll get into the neuroscience of thought and a bit about what creates our thoughts. 

Briefly, however, it works something like this; maladaptive brain loops and regions create negative and distorted thoughts, these create worsening mental states further creating more negative and distorted thoughts, these become embedded in our memories creating a massive negative inner thought process which creates massive amounts of negative inner energy and on and on it goes. You know the drill. I'll demonstrate in future chapters how this is all created by how are brains developed and environmental conditions (AKA: "life" conditions).

It is also my position that any given “mental illness” is, at its core, a brain that is producing unusually difficult distorted thoughts and mental perceptions and furthermore that those distorted thoughts create further poor mental states in what becomes a self-perpetuating loop.

There's a large scale as to the severity of both the thoughts and mental illness outcomes, of course. Schizophrenia and bipolar rank at the top. Somewhere just below those, but no less unpleasant, is major depressive disorder. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (which, by the way, is NOT what most people erroneously assume it is) ranks quite high and down the list we have the various forms of everyday depression and anxieties that plague many people.

Distorted thoughts are nothing new of course. Distorted thoughts have plagued humankind since probably not long after we evolved both the capacity for thoughts and the language to give them form in our minds.

In ancient times – and to this day in many cultures – it was believed that distorted or unhealthy thoughts were caused by “evil spirits”. Thousands of cultures throughout history observed that members of their tribe or group could be “possessed” by “evil spirits” and thus developed all manner of rituals for “casting them out” (or maybe just all manner of ritualistic deaths).

As … ahem … “modern” religions (yes, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, I'm looking at you) developed, the seers (prophets, whatever you want to call them) that were involved in writing their scriptures also observed the danger of thoughts (which they tied into their early ideas on “morality”, a subject for an essay that will have to wait for another day) and they came up with various ideas for controlling “bad thoughts”, “evil spirits” and so on. These amounted to admitting that the “flesh is weak”, the “devil” is strong and full of tempting powers and the best way to deal with the “flawed” human spirit (1) was to turn control over it to higher powers. These are themes that run through countless belief systems in cultures all over the world and throughout history (with only the individualized incarnations of the “god” or “devil or evil spirits” changing). And thus ritualistic forms of thought control were developed, almost all of which involve some sort of prayer, the following of some list of basic tenets (the Ten Commandments, et al, the basics of which are remarkably similar throughout hundreds of religions all over the globe and history), regular gatherings in “holy” places (churches, mosques, synagogues and what have you) and so on.

And the whole basis for all of this was at its core to control thoughts (particularly those thought to be evil, which in most religions implies “immoral”).

While many modern secularists and atheists scoff at the idea of ritualistic prayer to “higher beings”, the truth is that this form of thought control works – more or less – for a very large percentage of the population (I get into the psychology of prayer in an essay in one of my other blogs if you're so interested).

Another truth that's hard to avoid when one actually studies all this business of spirituality, beliefs and religions (as I do) is that the human brain is pretty wired for some form of all of these things and this is part of what I was referring to at the end of Evolution, Life and Why Our Brains Developed the Way They Are when I said that I strongly believe that many of our mental health woes are on account of our modern and radically changed society having gotten so far away from things our brains evolved over hundreds of millennia to need.

Which brings us to our point today – the need for spirituality in the human mind.

I am not arguing that spirituality is the “cure” for all “mental illnesses” but in reading hundreds of case studies and observing cases first hand myself (I'll get to another time how I have gone about this) as well with examining my own difficult case, it is hard to ignore that the human mind can severely veer off the rails without some sort of guidance system and without sticking to certain routines that will keep our pernicious human thoughts at least somewhat under control.

Bearing in mind that I suffer from the worst form of one of the two worst forms of mental illness (schizophrenia and bipolar), I do not propose these things lightly. I am extremely aware of the powers of these disorders to take over our minds (all too aware). But in searching for ways to gain control over my mind without relying on the soul and mind destroying drugs that psychiatrists rely on, I left absolutely no stone unturned. I also realized I needed to approach the problem from many different angles.

All of which led to compiling my Positive Difference Making Fundamentals. (2)

I've long wanted to get into those in more detail and as I work closer with people who want to follow the ways of Taming the Polar Bears and I observed their difficulties in following my fundamentals, I realized that I'd better get my butt in gear on getting into them in more detail. I've also been greatly observing my own ongoing struggles and difficulties with practicing them and in doing so I realized that each time I start to go off the rails, it's because I'm not practicing my fundamentals enough.

Now, I said in my original post on my Fundamentals that they work on the basis of neuroplasticity; the ability of the brain to change in response to its environment and – more importantly – its behavioural environment.

So we're going to look at that in a bit more detail today and examine more how practicing spirituality can not only help control your thoughts, but help in small ways reshape your brain for more optimal use and consistently better mental states.

I'm not going to get into today in any great detail how to define spirituality (that's a larger philosophical question I'll have to tackle another time. It is, however, one that I think is very important). I think for now it's just important to know that spirituality is a connection to something bigger than oneself (briefly, I'll say that my own thoughts on those connections is that they are to humanity at large and the world of nature). I think what's more important today is to just look at a few simple ways to practice spirituality and what it'll do for us and – briefly for today – why.

There are many, many ways to practice spirituality but today we'll just look at two; gratitude and compassion, both self-compassion and compassion towards others.

Gratitude:

Of the two, gratitude is the easier to practice daily so we'll start with that.

Gratitude is basically expressing thanks for things we have in our lives and is the basis for many, many forms of prayer and religious thought (think Christians saying grace before dinner, as just one example. Muslims are constantly thinking “thanks be to God” for all kinds of things they believe are going right). 

The thing about expressing gratitude is that we don't need to believe in a god to express gratitude. We don't really need to thank a specific being at all. Without question it helps most people to do this but for those of us who do not believe in a god what is important to understand here, what we need to practice regularly to change how our brains produce thoughts, is that we only need to practice forming thoughts of gratitude in our heads and express them inwardly or to others in order for the habit to form and thus change how our brains habitually form thoughts.


How to practice it:

There are many ways, both public and private. For those who enjoy using social media, it's been at times popular to post a gratitude list or a do a seven days of gratitude challenge and so on. I think this is a terrific way to start. It works well because not only are we gaining practice in thinking about the things to be grateful for in life but it also connects us to a greater whole which, as mentioned, is a huge part of spirituality (many people like to refer to the greater whole as “the universe”).

So right here, right now, I'd like you to start your own social media seven day gratitude challenge, listing each day three things that you are grateful for with each day being three different things. That's twenty-one things over the next week that you're going to publicly express gratitude for.

Ha-ha! I know what you're thinking! I know you're right now in a panic! You're (quite probably) thinking, “oh my effing god, my life is an effing gong show. What in the hell is one thing I am going to express gratitude for, let alone twenty-one things?!”

You're thinking this because if you have the kind mental health problems I've seen and dealt with, there's a good chance your life does feel like a huge effing gong show, it feels like nothing is going right and you hate the whole bloody shebang.

Yes, yes, I quite understand the feeling. As I was going through years of severe bipolar mental states, losing everything I owned, losing or badly damaging all social connections (permanently or at various times) with all my friends and family (and the quality of the relationships of virtually all of them remains damaged or changed to this day), losing the ability to work and earn a living, losing everything that had ever brought me pleasure and – to top it all off – losing my very mind itself (in a much more literal sense than the vast majority of people understand), and was locked up in psychiatric hospitals several times at various points, I sort of had the same feelings myself. To the point of being driven to end my life.

Not to mention that my condition and resultant consequences led to me being essentially homeless and living in the wilderness through a Canadian fall and winter in an unheated old run down van (albeit a camperized one with at least some basic amenities like stove and fridge).

So yes, I do understand how challenging it is to come up with things to be grateful for.

And - and! - I have seen and observed that many people have adapted the "victim role" and the curse of self-pity (and it is not only I who have observed this, the psychology of learned helplessness, the victim role and self-pity are all well studied and documented). There's a thought - probably not voiced but heavily influential nonetheless - that "oh my god, if I express gratitude for things that will mean people will look at me and think that my life is not that bad after all!"

Yes, yes, I understand that well. I am not unfamiliar myself with feelings of being the victim. If you have suffered mental health problems for some time and have suffered the life impacts and stigmatization of that, this is going to be a very real feeling. And feelings of self-pity are a very natural and almost inevitable byproduct of severe and prolonged mental health problems. And in a very real and practical sense we do need people to understand that a great deal of our lives is not going well and that our mental health - and even our physical health - is not what it should be.

But if we're going to achieve better and healthier mental states, these are the challenges we have to overcome (and my brain training games help build our ability to overcome challenges). And if we are to improve ourselves and our minds and mental states - and thus hopefully the quality of our lives - we really must grow past feeling the victim and feelings of self-pity. We mustn't blame ourselves for feeling these things - they are real - but we do have to grow past it. And grow stronger from it. 

Learning to see things in our lives - however small and seemingly insignificant, or even fleeting - to be grateful for is a very powerful way of not only growing as a person but growing past the difficulties of our past, of rising above them and - with time, patience and regular practice - overcoming them (in each our own relative way)

The whole idea, and the part that "exercises" your brain, is to wrack your brain coming up with things to be grateful for! If you start to think harder on it, you'll find that there are tons of things to be grateful for; having a roof over your head at night, a warm bed to sleep in, food in your kitchen, some form of good health, some sort of people in your life, something. 

And even if it's not ideal - like my old van being my "home", for example - you express gratitude for it anyway. 

There is no shortage of things to feel grateful for if one puts their mind to it. When homeless out in the harsh winter conditions, I would express gratitude for sunny days, days that weren't too cold, for all the people who'd helped me attain what I did have, for the company of Mrs Bean, my companion cat and so on and so on. Once we get the hang of it, it's not as hard as one might at first fear. 


How and Why it Works to Change Your Brain:


I will get to this in more detail later when I more closely examine thoughts and what creates them but all of our thoughts are created by specific brain regions and the networks they're wired into. When our brains are generating too many negative or distorted thoughts, there are specific brain regions that are doing this and furthermore, the more these regions dominate your thoughts and mental states, the more powerful they get (this is the dark side of neuroplasticity - the more a "negative" brain region and network is activated, the more powerful and dominant it/they become). 

Practicing gratitude daily in deliberate and directed ways exercises the "neuronal muscles" that recognize and acknowledge good things in our lives. When our brains become too dominated by negative thoughts and focusing on all the bad things that our lives are creating, we sort of literally lose the capacity to recognize the good things that are in our lives. So when we practice gratitude, we are working to reverse the decline in these regions, starting to "build neuronal muscle" in the brain areas that recognize and acknowledge good things in our lives and making these regions a more dominant part of our inner mental landscapes. 

When we are only "seeing" and feeling the negative things in our lives or in the world, this is what is meant by the psychology term distorted thoughts - it's literally a distortion of the overall "reality" in our lives and how we perceive ourselves and the world. It's a great part of what a good therapist would try to change in a patient.

So when we practice gratitude, we are beginning to change our perceptions and bring more balance to our realities. This is not to say that the negatives in our lives do not exist. These "negatives" are often very real aspects of our daily challenges and lives. But what we want to do is to not let those have too much dominance over our selves and individual realities and to balance them with some of the good in life and in our selves. 

The other thing practicing gratitude does is that it changes our focus. Changing our mental focus is critical in turning around negative mental states and mental processing. When we make deliberate efforts to remind ourselves of the good things we have in life and express genuine gratitude for those, we are changing our focus from the negatives in our lives to the positives in our lives. It also develops within us (by the process I described first two paragraphs of this section) the ability to create more positive circumstances in our lives. 

It also helps changing our distorted inner perspectives of ourselves. It helps focus on what we do have rather than all the things we imagine that we don't have (these are distortions that plague many of us - too much focus on the "not have", "can't do" and so on). 

Regularly practicing gratitude has played a huge role in getting my mental states into good enough shape to handle my challenging living conditions and getting me through very, very difficult weather conditions. 

For a brief look at the neuroscience of gratitude, please see this 90 second video from Scientific American - Gratitude and the Brain

See also this list of the benefits of practicing gratitude


Compassion:

Practicing compassion is a huge mental state changer and for many of the same reasons practicing gratitude is; it shifts our mental focus and it exercises some very key neuronal muscle that, again, if "exercised" and "built up" is going to greatly contribute to improved mental functioning along with more positive and balanced states. 

So many people needlessly beat themselves up for what's going on in their lives for what are really quite normal and universal human frailties. Once more, there are specific brain regions that are responsible for doing this and there are even good reasons why we have brain regions that create these "inner critics" and perceptions of the negatives of life. But again, because these regions are allowed too much free reign they become too dominant and thus dominate - and distort - our overall thoughts, perceptions and mental states. 

Self-compassion is really a form of self-forgiveness. This is another area that religions evolved to perform (the whole concept of a man dying for our sins, the Catholic confessionals, many forms of prayer, etc) and again it is something that many secularists and atheists may be lacking. 

So in lieu of religion, we must learn to practice these things ourselves (or if you are religious, to practice them more). And it has to be with ourselves as well as with others. To remind all readers once more, a major theme of this blog is to create and nurture more compassion for those who suffer mental illnesses and indeed for all people who are "imperfect". This is why I go on at length about neuroscience and how and why our brains developed they way they are. 

Not only does practicing compassion exercise our neuronal "forgiveness muscles", it is also another powerful way of shifting our mental focus away from the negative towards the positive (or at least neutral). 

You see, our human minds can be very driven towards negative emotions such as hate, disappointment, anger, judgment and so on. We naturally jump to these feelings with others but for those of us plagued with negative mental states, we especially jump to these emotions with ourselves. And if you are suffering or have suffered from a mental illness and have experienced all the stigma and mistreatment, you'll have no shortage of reasons to be really pissed off at humanity and society and everyone in it. 

But what I've found - as many, many life philosophers and now psychologists have - the only person you're going to hurt with negative feelings and emotions towards others is YOU. For the sad, and sometimes hurtful, truth is that nobody gives a fig about your (or my) emotional turmoil towards humanity. The boiling inner anger and inner negative emotions only serve to further your own considerable emotional pain, something observed (and now explainable by science) by Buddha several thousands years ago:




This is something yours truly can absolutely vouch for. For some years I carried nuclear grade anger towards certain people, society, the psychiatric profession and so on. And the only person I ultimately hurt was - ME. And the best way I found to deal with my anger was to practice compassion with others no matter how badly I felt they'd hurt me or were hurting me. Admittedly, studying neuroscience as I do helped me with this. As I outlined in Genetic and Environmental Factors in Brain Development, we can't "choose" (exactly) what we've become and if I can't help being bipolar and all that can come with that then I have to accept that others didn't choose to be what they are and act and think as they do either and perhaps there are all kinds of reasons they are the way they are. And if I expect compassion for who and what I am, then I have to practice compassion towards others. And as I did this what I found was the the more I practiced compassion - no matter how challenging it was at times - the more inner peace and calm I felt. Which, if I'm not mistaken, is the goal for us mental health difficulties peeps. 

Compassion towards others and compassion with myself has been one of the biggest difference makers that keeps me going despite considerable mental health and life challenges. 


I know - I KNOW - how tough it can be but look, I spent a decade and a half working my ass off to overcome the fallout from earlier manic depressive periods (early to mid nineties). I managed to buy and almost pay off a home, build up considerable retirement savings, a great credit rating and relationship with my bank along with savings to help pay for my daughter's college education. 

And in the years of manic depressive episodes from mid 2007 to 2013 I pissed away every fucking penny of it (about $250,000 in equity, savings and assets in total) to the point that when I was hauled off to the psyche ward by the cops in the summer of 2013, all I had left of that quarter million dollars was about two bucks in change and NO home. 

I would not have survived the immense and powerful suicidal drive that had possessed me along with the horrendously powerful negative thoughts and self-flagellation that would beat me to a pulp at times had I not begun to practice and master compassion and forgiveness - for myself and towards those that greased the skids of my decline. 

I also would not have been able to escape the nuclear powered anger and fury I had within me. 

Practicing compassion and forgiveness is a massive changer of one's mental states and thoughts. 


Back to the topic of the post - spirituality - it is not necessary to belong to a religion or religious sect to be spiritual. Spirituality is merely a mindset and one that humans are deeply wired to need (for the vast majority of us at least). Practicing gratitude and compassion are just two ways to build the spirituality within us that I strongly believe many of us mental health peeps are desperately lacking. 

And if you begin practicing these, you'll notice more good things "come your way" (there's a whole basis for this that I'll have to describe and outline another day). The more you practice them, the more your life will improve. The more your life improves, the more you'll have to be grateful for and on and on it goes until one day you look back and you realize that "hey, my life isn't has bad as it used to be!"

I'm not saying your life is going to become some sort of fantasy come true, but it will improve along with your improved mental states and better self-image. 

- BGE, February 24th, 2015. 


(1) There is not much doubt that our "flesh is weak" and given to temptation, that we were born "sinners" and that we are fundamentally "flawed" and all the other stuff that holy books purport to "observe" but modern science and especially neuroscience is revealing the real reasons for all of our human flaws and less than ideal behaviours. 

(2) My Positive Difference Making Fundamentals has long needed updating as there are some key ones missing. I hope to get an updated version done before not too long



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