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). 

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