Friday, July 31, 2015

Taming the Polar Bears - A Dedication




That is my daughter.

The photo is from 2006. I chose that picture because ... for reasons that are too personal. Anyway, she is older than that now. 

My daughter is the reason you are reading these words today and any of the tens of thousands of words that make up all the content of Taming the Polar Bears. She is the reason you are reading these words because without her, I would no longer exist. 

She is my sun, my moon, my stars, my galaxies, my everything. 

But most importantly, she is my anchor. She keeps me tethered to Terra Firma on Spaceship Earth. 

I'm not sure how to describe adequately what an anchor is in ways those who have never been there could understand. Most simply, an anchor is something that is going to keep you from stepping over the last and final line in to the deep dark abyss from which there is no return called death. 

There are several different ways a mind will take one over that last and final line. I went through almost all of them but the two most terrifying and closest to that edge are the most dangerous in my (well earned and well researched) estimation. 

One I liken to being like an astronaut doing a space walk. The only thing that stops the astronaut from drifting off into space, getting sucked into space where the laws of physics will quickly vaporize him or her, is that tether they wear. That's their life line, the most literal lifeline we can imagine. 

One form of almost going over that edge into the abyss is that your mind narrows down to such a narrow dark tunnel that you lose touch with every single thing in your life, in the world, in your mind - you lose contact with everything. And it feels like there is a vacuum sucking you further and further down that tunnel and away from Life. There comes a point where there is just no return. And it feels exactly like being that astronaut and the tether has been cut and you are being drawn out into that black void of space. And it's terrifying because you can sort of look back on where you were but the powers are drawing you away, slowly away, drifting, drifting, drifting until ... 

There were several times I was being pulled down that tunnel or that feeling of being pulled out to the dark void of space. It is unbelievably powerful, it is beyond your imagination. It's beyond the imagination of almost everyone because you have to a) experience it to understand it and b) survive. I don't think many people do. 

And the only thing that will bring you back is an anchor, that tether. That is what will pull you back and reconnect you to the world.

And for me, that anchor was my daughter. Somehow through the darkness of that tunnel, the darkness of space that I was being pulled in to, somehow, somehow her light would shine through, her image would come to me. Sometimes maybe her voice. And that would draw me back.

And for that reason and that reason only, I did not die that day. 

[I can't tell you how extremely hard it is to recall this and write it down]

Another way is psychosis. I'm not going to clinically define psychosis today but they are forces from I don't know where that just take you over. These are visions, voices, dialogues, scenes that you are just strapped into and cannot escape. You cannot turn it off, you cannot "wake up" from it, you cannot make it go away, you cannot dismiss it from your mind. There is no technique of psychology or anything that will make it stop once it passes a certain threshold. And in me, all those demonic forces were demanding and directing me to either cause myself great bodily harm or to in some way end my life (there were around ten of these episodes between July 2010 and the final one December 28th 2012). 

I have yet to talk to anyone (and you have no idea how many people I talk to seeking out similar experiences and answers to these episodes) who has experienced anything like it. Again, I believe, for the simple reason that there are so few survivors. I cannot even begin to relate to you how difficult it was to come out the other side of them. 

And again, the only reason I am here at this moment typing these words is because of my anchor, my daughter. 

For through all these terrifying visions and voices and commands that were like a tornado in my mind, somehow, somehow something about her penetrated the terror of it all to give me something to cling to, something that somehow - and I have no real idea how - gave me the strength to fight off those demons another time. The. Only. Reason.

Was her. 

She was my anchor. 

When I had my first episode of psychosis and subsequent break down in July of 2010 and was about to end my life, it was because of her that I walked into a hospital and started my road asking for help. At that time I was on a manic drive towards death and she was the only thing that stepped in the path of that drive and knocked me a different direction. The. Only. Reason.

Was her. 


*  *  *  *  *


From the day she was born on November 24th, 1994, everything I did was dedicated to making her future the best it could be. 

I did all the things you were supposed to do. I built equity so that when I passed away, she'd have something. For fifteen years almost my entire life was dedicated to building something that she could inherit so that her life could be easier than my life. So she could go to university, or start a business, or buy her own home in which to raise her own family. I just wanted her life to be easier than mine. That's what fathers do. 

Then in long manic swoop from the end of 2007 through 2009 when it all fall apart, I lost every single penny of the approximately quarter million dollars in equity that was to go to her (and would have been more; it was all very soundly invested). Every. Single. Penny. 

And then some. 

So now what can I leave her?

And not only did I lose all that, my daughter lost the father she'd grown up loving. 

I'll get to this another time, but it is now well documented the horrendous impact on children of those with severe mental health disorders. 

And as I crumbled and broke down and lost my mind and my sanity and everything I ever worked for and was losing her mother, she had a front row seat to every single minute of it. All the breakdowns, all the hospitalizations, the manic looniness, the weeks of dark depression where I never left my room, the loss of every single thing I used to be, the heartbreaking attempts to find a job - any job - and pull myself out of it that were all in vain: the whole sickening descent from the life loving, fully in control home owner father, to the man who ended up homeless and living out of an unheated 37 year old van. 

And she watched it all. 

At some point I realized the only thing I could leave her was my mind, the products of my mind.

I deeply desire for her to know that her dad was more than that person who underwent all those horrible breakdowns and lost everything and became a homeless man.

And since that time, every single thing that I study, that I write, that I photograph, that I envision and create is to build a legacy that I can leave for her.

And that's what this whole blog and my photography website are about - a written and photographic record of who her dad was, how his mind worked, what he did for people, how he saw the world, all of it.

Every single thought, every single word, every single photograph, every single effort.

When my fatigue is so bad and my mind so darkened by its inability to create the energy to turn on and function and I cannot get out of bed, or the circumstances of life are crushing me down it is for her and this legacy for her that I somehow find a way to.

Everything I do and all the passion that drives it for all of you - whomever is reading and gaining value from my words is

For her. 


For she is my sun, my moon, my stars, my galaxies, my everything. 

And everything I now do is dedicated to

Her. 

My anchor. My everything. 

Thank you for reading. Thank you for being here.  


Support Taming the Polar Bears

 

If you enjoy or benefit from the information you gain from this blog, or see the importance of it for yourself or for others in understanding and working on your/their mental health conditions or if you're in the mental health professions or otherwise see the importance of the work done and presented in this blog, please consider donating and supporting it. 

All the writing and research is done by a single individual - Brad Esau - who himself has been disabled due to the long term effects of his condition and who lives on a very minimal pension and thus has great difficulty supporting himself. 

For a one time donation, you can simply follow this link and instructions there - https://www.paypal.me/TamingThePolarBears

Don't have a PayPal account? No worries, getting one is fast and free.

Your donation goes to a fund controlled by a third party team who support Brad and his Taming the Polar Bears project (Gregory Esau is his brother and the fund bank account is in his name). 

Or if you'd like to make a regular small monthly contribution, please contact this email address - lanina1101@gmail.com - and include in the subject line: monthly donation with the amount you wish to donate on a monthly basis. 

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On Belief - Introduction





On Belief


That's the Chinese (and Japanese, which borrowed from Chinese) character for belief. I happen to enjoy the study of Chinese characters and this is one of my favourites. Chinese characters can be elegantly simple or they can be enormously complex. I like this one because it lies somewhere in between, retaining an elegant simplicity while displaying some of the intriguing complexities that Chinese characters can also have. It's also one of the easier ones to decipher so it's quite fun as well. 

Most characters are combinations of what I call the 'basic characters' but which are formally known as 'radicals' (of which there are 214) and each radical will add meaning to the main character. In the character for belief, for example, there are two radicals. On the left, you can see a two stroke radical which is a variant on the character for 'man'. On the right is the seven stroke character for 'speech'. So together the character for belief might say 'man speak' or 'man speech' (I'm not sexist, by the way, but merely directly translating from original Chinese). So perhaps in ancient China (and Chinese language predates any modern western language by a good number of centuries if not millenia) the concept for belief was based on what a man spoke. He spoke what he believed, hence 'man speak' equaled 'belief' hence those two radicals becoming the character for belief. 

At any rate, Chinese characters are not only beautiful to look at, they're a lot of fun to study and I thought this brief and interesting (to me at least) preamble might be a fun way to introduce today's topic. 

Belief is a deep part of what makes humans "tick" and it is my position that critical parts of our belief systems become "broken" in long term mental health disorders and this broken or distorted belief system becomes a big part of the tangle in our minds that we have to sort out - and rebuild. I'd say with some certainty (and neuro-psychology evidence) that the powers of belief are also major components of how our brains 
create our realities but today I just want to stick to the concept of belief. 

I also consider belief - actually "remanufacturing" belief - to be critical in turning our mental disorders around and getting to a healthier brain and mental equilibrium, so let's start to have a little deeper look at what this thing we call "belief" is all about.

In studying neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience (as I like to say - and have several times in various pieces - the former is about the nuts and bolts of the brain, the latter about the mental phenomenon those nuts and bolts produce), understanding belief has become a favourite pursuit of mine. 

There is, I have found, no one way to strictly define "belief". The general concept covers a whole spectrum of human mental phenomenon which includes such things as trust, confidence, faith, feelings of assurance and credence, "hunches" and "gut feelings" and so on. The more one studies and observes human behaviour, the more one can see just how much various forms of belief are integral to and drive individual and mass human behaviour. 

We're not here to try understand all that too much today, however. What we need to do here is to get you the reader to a better understanding of how beliefs or lack thereof play a role in mental states and mental disorders and in order to do that we first need a basic understanding of what belief is and why we have the capacity for it. As well, we'll be looking at belief in all forms in more detail in numerous other posts and this is mostly just to set the table for that.  

Belief is actually an essential survival tool and that humans have this incredible capacity for belief is no evolutionary accident (I think certain animals, especially social animals with more evolved frontal lobes, have some capacity for belief but nowhere near the capacity that humans do but this is not the time nor place to get into differentiating between human consciousness and that of other species). 

In strict evolutionary terms, and why our species is endowed with the capacity to believe, is that throughout the millions of years of our evolutionary development belief is what pushed people to continue, and often ultimately thrive, despite what were very, very often overwhelming odds against survival or success. The capacity to believe was also an adaptive measure to conquer stress, anxiety and worry in times of shortages. 

For an example of the former we can imagine a time of conflict with a rival people. Your people may be greatly outnumbered, have inferior weapons and any honest and truthful evaluation of the situation would tell you that you were about to get slaughtered. This would mean just giving in to slaughter or surrendering, neither of which is ideal for the continuation of your people's particular genetic line (see Dawkins' 
The Selfish Gene or any of hundreds of sources on the basics of evolutionary genetics). Slaughter of course means your genes disappear altogether and surrendering means your genes get assimilated into the genes of the rival (and triumphant) tribe and thus all but disappear as well. In evolutionary genetics, where continuation of genes is the whole point, this is A Bad Thing. 

Chronic stress has always been both an outright killer or greatly impairs one's ability to act (acute stress response is a life saver, chronic stress response a killer). So in evolutionary terms, this was not ideal either. Chronic stress arises when a threat cannot be resolved. This could be a prolonged conflict, prolonged food shortages and other such threats to survival that keep the stress response system continually activated. Chronic stress kills or badly breaks down the brain and body, so this is obviously not optimal for genetic survival either. 

In either case, in either scenario of immediate or long term threat, there is one thing that will help overcome both the odds and the chronic stress - belief. 

The belief that you can defeat the enemy or threat (be it from a rival peoples or animal or environmental condition) will greatly up your odds of doing just that. It doesn't guarantee victory or survival of course, but it greatly ups the odds and in the world of genetic survival, it's all about increasing the odds. 

The capacity for belief during a chronic stressor like famine is very handy too. Again, a raw, honest evaluation of the situation - years without rain, no crops, no animals to kill for food, nothing to survive on in other words - would tell you that the odds of survival are incredibly slim and as with a battle situation with overwhelming odds against survival, the natural tendency would be to give up and just die. Again, strictly genetically speaking in which the passing on of genes is the whole point, this is a Bad Thing. But with the belief that rain is just around the corner or that food sources might be found elsewhere, you will push on despite what all the evidence is telling you. 

So today, to get to the point, humans are endowed with the capacity for belief because over the millions of years of our evolutionary development, the power to believe played great roles in upping the odds of survival or success. Or a given people thrived more - and thus genetically dominated more and thus passed on more of their genes - because they developed stronger rituals around belief, this belief system helped them more through times of difficulty and thus accomplished more. 

So that's a crazily brief, concise and simplified summary of the human capacity for belief. I'm tempted to get into where we get beliefs from but as that is a vast topic, I think that may be stretching the boundaries of what can be contained in a single post. I do need to break it down into the basic elements though as these are important to understand in order to grasp what I mean by 'manufacturing belief'. 

Like most human capacities, in any one individual there are a number of basic sources for belief. They are:

  • "pre-loaded"
  • "downloaded" into you
  • what your own brain will manufacture at any one time

"Pre-loaded" is a bit hard to verify but there is some compelling evidence that the capacity for certain beliefs of the religious kind might be part of the "neuronal package" some people are born with (genetically speaking, this makes sense in a hereditary sense). Most brain functions are learned through environmental adaption but some come "loaded from the factory". Recognition of and reaction to certain objects is one of these (basic facial recognition is present immediately at birth, for example, and the recognition of and fear of things like spiders, snakes and fire is another). Certain tendencies of belief may be another; IE: certain people may come "pre-packaged" with a higher capacity for belief in a higher being, for example.

This kind of "pre-loaded" capacity for belief may also be true of the kinds of belief we associate with "optimism" and "positive attitudes". 

 Beliefs that have been "downloaded" into you would be any of the popular belief systems over the past several thousand years. These we are not born with, but are acquired through cultural exchanges or memes. These could be religious belief systems or beliefs as explanations for things. These are very malleable and changeable in the brain. We used to believe that the sun revolved around the earth for example. This form of belief is easily verifiable as learned or "downloaded" into us (though as noted, some people may come "pre-packaged" with a stronger neuronal basis for beliefs of these kinds). 

What your own brain will manufacture at any one time is perhaps most interesting. This will be how a number of specific, subconscious brain regions and systems evaluate incoming information. This information will be a combination of what you consciously perceive and actively seek (which would likely be a small minority) and what your subconscious perceives and compiles (the vast majority). With this conscious and subconscious information your brain will then come up with an inferred mental model to present to your conscious self about the chances of any given situation or thing you need or like happening. You "believe" you'll get the job, for example. You "believe" your team will win the World Series. And on and on in countless beliefs for which you have no proof, no way of knowing, but which are mere mental models on which you base future actions (like betting on your team to win the World Series for instance). This too is incredibly powerful (and as we'll see, perhaps the most dangerous). 

There are two other important basic components to belief that are very important for us to understand as well. And they are:

  • faith based belief
  • evidence based belief

While these are very simple to distinguish, I believe they are crucial to differentiate. The former is easy - it is belief in something despite a total lack of evidence. All religions are examples of this kind of belief. But this does NOT mean we can dismiss this kind of belief for this kind of belief is critical to our survival or success. This is the kind that helps us despite the evidence of overwhelming odds against us. These are sometimes considered by many to be "delusional" beliefs. Which they may well be, but research shows that this capacity for delusional belief - beliefs that one can win, succeed, move forward, accomplish, that things will work out - is enormously beneficial to one's overall mental well being and can indeed often help one to achieve levels of success that may not have appeared to be possible at first. 

Evidence based belief is the scientific or investigative kind. This system of belief comes from assembling the best known facts and inferring or extrapolating a conclusion. It's still considered belief because the absolute proof of the inferred conclusion is not before us, but through all the evidence, we can put very well founded belief in that conclusion. An example of this is detective work. Nobody saw "A" kill "B", for example, but through all the carefully accumulated and assembled evidence, we can strongly infer that "A" killed "B" and comfortably make a decision based on that. And the same process works with all our scientifically based understandings of how things work in nature. This form of belief is a relative new comer to the human operating systems that our brains are made up of, but it too is critical to modern day survival. Or at least I'd argue it is, though of course we can see that it is not completely necessary. 

All beliefs and belief systems are enormously powerful and influential drivers of our behaviours (and thus such a critical element of ourselves to better understand, in my estimation). 

Now I'm not just prattling on about all this philosophical stuff for the fun of it (though it is fun for me), for I believe (in the evidence based sense) that a firmer, more scientific understanding of how our belief systems work is absolutely critical for learning how to survive  mental health issues - and I literally mean surviving in the sense of not dying either through suicide or the more common slow death through drug and substance abuse. 

For it is warped, or impaired, or distorted belief systems created by the brain that we can see in mental health issues that can often lead to suicide and "death by bottle or needle". In fact, I believe impaired belief systems are the very crux of mental health issues. 

Examining my own suicidal episodes and suicidal blackness, so often it was that my brain was often incorrectly examining "evidence" and giving me false beliefs that was leading me towards being driven to suicide or having an inner reality so dark and hopeless that I wanted suicide. 

On the other hand, often I cannot block out the harsh truth of my physical health and prospects for survival in my world and circumstances and this will give rise to suicidal darkness. 

Bipolars in particular struggle greatly with belief because manic and depressive phases create two entirely different beliefs - polar opposite beliefs. These can yo-yo back and forth so much that we're left literally not knowing what to believe about our selves, our abilities, our worlds - and most importantly, our odds of moving forward. 

So my very firm position is that it is untangling how the brain - your brain - creates belief or not is a crucial thing for you to learn as part of your bag of tricks, your "rucksack of tools" (as one of my readers puts it). 

It is yet another critical and fundamental aspect of how the human brain functions that too many of those charged with our mental health somehow no longer understand or reject outright.

This is all very important to understand as we learn to recognize and work through 
cognitive distortions as well as things we can begin to work on in our sessions of Mindfulness Meditation Cognitive Behaviour Therapy where we can begin to question and push back on some of our negative or distorted beliefs and begin to build more positive and optimist beliefs. It's a process, and a slow one, but the more we begin to do this and to "manufacture" more life affirming beliefs and to tie those to the new core values that we are building in our CBT sessions, the more we can build defenses against the dark times or a brighter and stronger light to lead us out of the dark times. 






Support Taming the Polar Bears

 

If you enjoy or benefit from the information you gain from this blog, or see the importance of it for yourself or for others in understanding and working on your/their mental health conditions or if you're in the mental health professions or otherwise see the importance of the work done and presented in this blog, please consider donating and supporting it. 

All the writing and research is done by a single individual - Brad Esau - who himself has been disabled due to the long term effects of his condition and who lives on a very minimal pension and thus has great difficulty supporting himself. 

For a one time donation, you can simply follow this link and instructions: paypal.me/BradEsau

Don't have a PayPal account? No worries, getting one is fast and free.

Your donation goes to a fund controlled by a third party team who support Brad and his Taming the Polar Bears project. 

Or if you'd like to make a regular small monthly contribution, please contact this email address -TamingThePolarBears@gmail.com - and include in the subject line: monthly donation with the amount you wish to donate on a monthly basis. 

Please state your PayPal address and name in the email.

Thank you so much for your support from the Taming the Polar Bears team!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Neuroscience in Focus - An Introduction to Neuroplasticity



Neuroscience in Focus:
An Introduction to Neuroplasticity





I cannot tell you what a dark and hopeless state I was in at the end of 2012 and I won't describe here the full extent of that state and why. 

But I started the year of 2013 full of fresh hope in looking for answers to my severe neurospsychiatric disorder(s) and the several years of hell it/they had put me through. As regular readers know, I took up studying neuroscience and it was not long into that study that I came across the concept of neuroplasticity. 

Probably because I was able to approach the study of the brain with such a "blank slate", and thus did not have to trouble myself with "unlearning" a lot of decades and centuries old outdated (and flat out wrong) notions that clog up the brains of so many older generation scientists and doctors (and, ahem, psychiatrists and psychologists), I immediately grasped the enormity of the possibilities for healing brains (and thus psychiatric disorders) using the principals of neuroplasticity. 

I can honestly say that no other event in my long and eventful life gave me such a tectonic shift in life perspective than did the discovery of and grasping of neuroplasticity (okay, I'd better make it Number Two and put the birth of my daughter at Number One). 

Even though it was discovered nearly forty years ago, the term neuroplasticity is still kind of a sexy new kid on the block term that's become quite trendy to throw around in the "brain biz" (especially by those flogging brain training games - though I introduce in this post my own very popular Brad's Brain Training Exercises that are more specifically designed for what us mental health peeps must work on). The problem is that few people really understand what it means and the full implications of what neuroplastic activity means in the brain. 

There are numerous aspects to neuroplasticity and how it works in the brain and what this means but I'm just going to introduce a few of the basics for our purposes today. 

In a real crazy brief nutshell, it means that however your brain is right now - and I don't care how "messed up" you think it is - it does NOT have to stay that way. Yes, your brain - and thus your habits, your reactions, your intelligence, your memory capacity and yes, your "zombie programs" - can be changed. The very wiring and programming of it can be changed. And thus YOU  can change. 

Everything I teach in this blog is based on this principle. 

So what is it? Very, very basically and briefly for now it is:

Neuroplasticity is how your brain responds and changes to adapt to its (and your) environment, which is a great deal of what I was introducing in Genetics and Environmental Factors in Brain Development

Neuroplasticity is how your brain responds to your own thoughts. 

Neuroplasticity is how your brain learns new tasks.

Neuroplasticity is how your brain responds to catastrophic injury and heals itself (like a stroke in which entire brain regions will cease to exist because of full neuronal death due to oxygen starvation). 

And neuroplasticity is the key to how you're going to change your brain and thus your behaviour(s), thoughts, responses, emotions and and many (if not all) of the symptoms related to whatever it is you may be suffering from. It is - or at least could be - the key to how you can change everything about your life (and no, this is not a feel good corny phrase to blow smoke up your ass and make you feel like you're dancing on sunshine (as we'll see as we go along)). 

However, we're also going to see how the same principles of neuroplasticity are responsible for most (though not all) of the things you don't like about yourself. This is what some call the "dark side to neuroplasticity", something I'll have to get to in a separate post.  

Understanding the basics of neuroplasticity and how the brain adapts itself to conditions within you and around you is, I'll argue, one of the most important fundamentals in understanding human behaviour and most psychiatric and mood disorders. It is the basis for both how we improve and learn and for how we "go downhill" when we experience mental health problems. Solidly establishing my argument is going to take far, far more than we can get to today so for now we're just going to have a very brief look at what the term means and what's going on in your brain. 

Okay, so lets have a little bit of a (very) basic look at how it works and why. 

Firstly, back to some basic neuroanatomy. Remember Neuroanatomy 101? Okay, probably not (I'd suggest rereading it for the fun of it but it's okay if you don't). 

First of all, you have in the neighbourhood of eighty-six billion of these:



Those are neurons and as we saw in Neuroanatomy 101, neurons "store stuff"; all the tiny little fragments of details of everything you are seeing, thinking, remembering, hearing, feeling and so on are stored in neurons. Now, those tiny little details in each neuron are of no use if a given neuron's particular set of details cannot pass its information off to neighbouring or task related neurons (to contribute to making bigger pictures, thoughts, words, images, ideas and all that stuff and getting it into broader networks). That happens through the axon (the longer branch you see coloured in yellow and sheathed in myelin and the axon terminals which are connected at neighbouring neurons' dendrites (those shorter spiky looking branches). The actual "hand off" of information happens in the synapses via a nifty little neurochemical transactions. 

So our thoughts and various kinds of memories, being able to place names to faces, to be able to assemble pictures in our minds and countless so on are the results of billions of tiny packets of information in neurons being connected through wiring and synaptic connections working together in localized and brain wide networks to make up the bigger "pictures" or thoughts, ideas, concepts, etc. 

Follow so far? So those synaptic connections between neighbouring neurons (and even far flung neurons, some of their axons are very long) are really, really important. And while the neurons are permanent (for the most part), the connections are not. The connections and dendrites can be and will be "pruned back" - or perhaps rebuilt and rearranged all throughout our lives depending on various internal and external experiences. 


This is a very, very crude diagram but it serves well enough for us to get the basic idea. See that on the left? The more connections there are, the more networked communication there is between neurons, the fewer the connections there are, the less communication between neurons. 

Now, obviously the one on the left is better and the one on the right worse, right? 

No, not necessarily. It depends on what brain function we're talking about for that particular group of neurons. If that more densely connected group on the left happens to be in the "math function" region of your brain (and it's not actually a single region, but a network of regions), then it's a good thing. If it happens to be in the region of your brain creating really negative self-appraisal and really beating yourself up self-dialog, then it's decidedly not such a good thing. A group of neurons all well interconnected might be responsible for a good memory, or it might be responsible for a bad memory. It might be responsible for a positive aspect of your conscious experience or an negative aspect. It might be for an area that helps regulate emotions or areas and networks for generating negative or inappropriate emotions. And much, much so on. 

And see where it says "stimulated" and "unstimulated"? Neither of those are necessarily good or bad either. There can be "good" stimulation or "bad or unwanted" stimulation. And the stimulation can come from your external environment or from your own inner thoughts and perceptions. 

And how these connections grow or prune back is based on one of the great fundamentals of neuroplasticity - "neurons that fire together, wire together". In other words, the more that particular group of neurons is "stimulated" - and thus stimulating neurons firing - the more they'll seek out those connected axons and dendrites and synaptic connections and "wire together". And again, this can be for good or bad. If it's a good skill we're learning (a new piano piece for example), that's a great thing. If it happens to be in parts of our fear or emotional pain circuitry, then it could well be a bad thing. 

And just to remind you, at any one time in your brain you'll have as many as one hundred and fifty to two hundred trillion connections like that. And they are never, ever static. They are breaking down, reforming and "reaching out" all the time and can happen in split second time frames as you're thinking. Yes, a single thought can cause connections to re-organize themselves. This is really, really important to bear in mind. 

Okay, that's at the "neighbour to neighbour" level of neuroplastic connection building. 

As we saw in Neuroanatomy 101, we also have "long distance wiring" and a "wiring harnesses" that look like this:



These are "high traffic" and "long distance" axon bundles that carry major "communication" loads between major regions (the "
connectome" that I first introduced in Neuroanatomy 101). 

Many perform relatively mundane tasks like whisking data from your eyes to your various "image processing" centres in the brain (mostly at the back in the occitipital lobe) and all kinds of other boring tasks involved in getting your body and self through life. But a good deal of them are involved in our emotional responses and regulation, the connections that make up our higher human intelligence and all the really important stuff involved in making us human and our behaviours in the world. These are the "trunk lines" that are chiefly of interest to us. 

The "connectome" has been the subject of some breathtaking research in the past several years and some very exciting discoveries have been made. And some of these findings are strongly indicating that many of these "trunk lines" appear to be heavily implicated in all the major disorders from schizophrenia to major depressive disorder to ADD and much so on. 

These major communication channels as well are subject to neuroplasticity albeit under somewhat different principles than what we saw with "local" wiring at the synaptic level. The major wiring can change and adapt as well but at a much slower pace. When we hear some sort of behaviour or reaction is "hard wired" in, it is more in these major trunk lines that we are talking about. But that does not mean that certain key "highways" cannot be changed, it just means that it takes more time. 

Now, to further understand the implications and meaning of this to change who you are and all those reactions, emotions and habits you want to rid yourself of, we'll have to look more at brain regions and what they do and how they work together. 

But for now I hope you have at least a bit of an idea of what neuroplasticity is and what's going on in that noggin of yours. There will be several other pieces in a series on neuroplasticity so we can learn better how to use this amazing brain function to heal our selves and our minds, but in time. 

This is but the first of a series of many posts on neuroplasticity and how to utilize it. Please stay tuned. 

Brief Overview of Sources:

I've many sources for my studies of neuroplasticity, but none more important than the book that introduced me to it, the literally life changing 
The Brain that Changes Itself. 

The works and writings of neuroplasticity pioneer and expert 
Dr Jeffrey Schwartz.

And many posts by Yale University's 
Dr Jon Lieff such as this excellent primer on neuroplasticity. Dr Lieff's blog is considered one of the top sources for neuroscience on the Internet. 

Plus the dozens and dozens of research papers I come across or am introduced to by one of my trusted personal sources.  





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All the writing and research is done by a single individual - Brad Esau - who himself has been disabled due to the long term effects of his condition and who lives on a very minimal pension and thus has great difficulty supporting himself. 

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On Consciousness, Thoughts and Meditation



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All the writing and research is done by a single individual - Brad Esau - who himself has been disabled due to the long term effects of his condition and who lives on a very minimal pension and thus has great difficulty supporting himself. 

For a one time donation, you can simply follow this link and instructions there - https://www.paypal.me/TamingThePolarBears

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus - An Introduction to Meditation




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All the writing and research is done by a single individual - Brad Esau - who himself has been disabled due to the long term effects of his condition and who lives on a very minimal pension and thus has great difficulty supporting himself. 

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(1) Though these experiences were "personal", it is certainly not hard to find others with similar experiences among those with a psychiatric condition and those among the general population (and I'll be getting to examples of this when we further explore the brain's subconscious functions and how they direct our behaviours). 

(2) - Not to worry, I was able to talk them through it. I do not and will not let people flounder like that. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Zombie Programs - An Introduction



I mentioned at the beginning of the post Neuroscience 202 - Brains as Reality Creators that two of my favourite subjects about the brain are how they create reality and the other was "zombie programs". I've introduced the concept of how our brains create the realities we experience and now I'd like to introduce and talk about the "zombie programs" that create and run our "conscious experience". 

This topic, I have found, is very difficult for most people to accept and it's not hard to understand why - nobody wants to accept the fact that they are not exactly the "agent" in control of their very self and actions but in reality whose life and whose very essence is produced and run by mechanisms in their brain over which they have little actual awareness, let alone control. It certainly didn't make me comfortable and I railed against it at first, but the evidence trumped my desired beliefs and I came to accept the facts. My own acceptance aside, I do understand the natural repulsion towards the idea but I'm going to ask that you put that aside in the spirit of learning how brains - and thus "us" - really work. 


When we are looking at mental health problems a lot of what we are looking at is various what those in various fields would call behaviours, even in such serious disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder or addictions and addictive tendencies of all kinds. But what gives rise to the behaviours (AKA: outwardly observable symptoms)? Psychiatry would tell us that these are caused by "chemical imbalances" for which their prescribed medications will "correct" or "put in balance". I will get to another day deconstructing the myth of chemical imbalances but suffice for now to say that when I started doing my own research and investigation into what was going on in the brain to cause symptoms of mental health disorders, I could quickly see that there was a 
whole lot more going on than just "chemical imbalances". Though neurochemicals do indeed play roles - we get an introduction to the roles and functions of a couple of major neurotransmitters in this post on dopamine and this one on serotonin  - it is simply incorrect and terribly incomplete to subscribe all wayward human behaviour and the great number of symptoms of the various mental health problems to just the actions of neurochemicals alone. 

But aside from outward behaviours, what we are looking at in mental health disorders are mental experiences - something that is not outwardly observable. All mental experiences lead to behavioural changes. The question is how obvious those changes are. In bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, the behavioural changes can be quite stark and dramatic. For many, however, it is much more subtle. Many, many people suffer behind a veil or facade they learn to present to the world to cover their inner suffering but this too will ultimately affect behaviour, decision making and interactions with others in negative ways. On the other hand, there are those whose very minds shield them from from what is not right about their mental experiences and behaviours and carry forth in their lives in a sort of blithe denial of inappropriate behaviours in ways that may be harmful or disruptive to themselves and those around them.

What gave me a burning desire to study neuroscience is that I deeply wanted to understand what was going on in the brain to create symptoms of both outwardly observable behaviours and our inner mental experiences. One important aspect I discovered early on is that our mental experiences are largely the "reality" that our brains create; how we perceive both the world around us and our own inner world. From that I realized that the torturous inner mental experiences we suffer from (that can cascade into behavioural changes of all kinds, actual physiological damage and an overall decline in health) are, I'll posit, the result of "distorted realities" that our brains are creating. 

We can also think of our "realities" as at least part of what creates our "conscious experience" so let's have a look at what I mean by that. 

Our "conscious experience" is - we'll say for our purposes here - what we "see" and "hear" in our minds when we wake up in the morning and that inner screen in our mind comes to life and our inner thought dialogues start to roll. We'll also include what we visually see and audibly hear as these will become all part of what we consciously experience at any one time. As an analogy for understanding conscious experience we'll use the monitor screen and speakers of your computer. Although your computer (along with an Internet connection) can produce enormous and widely varied amounts of information, calculations and much so on, you only experience a small fraction at a time on your computer screen and speakers at any one time. The same is true of the brain (and even more so - the human brain still dwarfs any computer and mainframe on earth for computing power) - your inner screen and dialogue - your conscious experience - only represents a tiny fraction of what's going on "beneath the surface" of your conscious awareness. 

And like what you see on your computer screen, your brain has all kinds of impressive doo-dads and programming that create what you see on the screen and through the speakers (I outlined some of those "impressive doo-dads" in my 
very popular basic primer to brain anatomy - Neuroanatomy 101). 

And also like what you see on your computer screen and hear on your speakers, we don't think much – if at all - about what creates what we see and hear and smell and feel (tactically and emotionally) and think and so on: our conscious experience. Which becomes very unfortunate when our conscious experience is going way off the rails and we're melting down with anxiety, depression, heart pounding inner pain, auditory and visual hallucinations, delusions, self-hatred and wildly negative thoughts and all that other fun stuff that completely messes our lives up. 

There's a tremendous amount going on in the brain that creates all that but today we're going to look at "zombie programs". 

"Zombie programs" is a term coined by the neuroscientist 
David Eagleman in his book Incognito which he uses to refer to the vast and enormous numbers of neuronal circuit programming that hums away below our conscious awareness controlling all of our physical movements, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, actions, decisions and so on. When I talk about our "subconscious" running our lives (as I have repeatedly throughout this blog), this is for the most part what I am referring to, not in the Freudian subconscious sense (which is what will generally spring to most people's minds when they hear the term subconscious). What we are experiencing consciously is but a very small fraction of what's going on beneath the surface (or in the guts of the computer in our analogy). 

For an easy example, take walking. All those foot placements, leg movements, balance, how your place in space is marked, and sense of direction and so on that we take for granted are taken care of by all kinds of autonomously running networks of highly complex brain regions. Walking is one of our "pre-loaded from the factory" “programs”; in other words, it's not something we have to be explicitly taught - there are programs that we are born with that even take care of the learning process of walking (the human species are rather slow at this, however. In herd animals, for example, newborns have to almost literally hit the ground running). 

That moving picture show you experience as "sight" is another. This entails vast amounts of circuitry located mostly in our occipital lobe that takes the blizzard of light photons pounding the retinas of your eyes that are then relayed by electrical impulses through the optic nerve to the back of your brain where it assembles them into geometric shapes, colours, distance perception, 3D perception, movement and so on into what you experience as "sight". And as we saw in 
Brains as Reality Creators, we only "see" a fraction of what's going on within the light spectrum (this can be a bit of a philosophical quagmire so don't start getting worked up about what you're "not seeing". Your eyesight and inner picture show has evolved just fine to equip you with all you need to know to get through life). Everything we experience as sight and further, what is "remembered" (yes, even what you think you are consciously remembering), is taken care of by a completely autonomous set of "brainware" programs. 

The same is of course also true with sound and a subset of sound called speech recognition. Again, all kinds of very complicated circuitry is required to take the disturbances in the air (sound waves) caused by a person speaking to you through vibrations of their vocal cords and translate all those air waves into what we experience as sound, then into individual sounds, then words, then groups of words and then assembled bits of meaning which you experience as a person verbalizing some sort of (presumably important but maybe not) information to you. Yet other groups of neuronal regions and circuitry will, if yet another program detects possibly important meaning, churn all that verbalization around looking for deeper or wider meaning or any possible connections to other stored bits of information (of which only a small percentage may or may not make it into your conscious experience). Yet other completely autonomous programs will be assembling your own words and groups of words and sets of meaning to verbalize in response (while yet other regions filter possible responses and decide that no response at all is perhaps better). 

Yes, we may believe we are "thinking" of all those clever things we are saying (or perhaps wisely keeping to ourselves), but in actuality, that's all subconscious "zombie" programs doing all of that for us. Even if you consciously try to think deeper of what to say, all that's happening is different programs are (hopefully) being called on to produce something (hopefully) more clever. 

The vast, vast majority of our thoughts - our non-verbalized inner self-dialogue - is created subconsciously by far flung networks of brain regions and speech regions. The words I am typing on this page translating my thoughts and knowledge into words? I am experiencing them as a conscious process (and it sort of is) but it's really all subconscious autonomous programs whirring away furiously inside my brain that is creating all of this - though most people, unaware of this process, would gladly take conscious credit for it all! Ditto with much of song writing and music composition - that's all subconscious programs stitching together fragments of this and that the artist's mind either consciously stored away (a small fraction) and subconsciously stored away (the vast majority) and presenting it to the artist's conscious mind at the moment of creation (what they experience as "inspiration"). 

And on and on and on we could go for all of our actions, reactions, emotional responses, things we say, hear, do, think, believe, create and so on and so on. What makes it to our "conscious mind" is but an infinitesimally small fraction of what your brain is really up to. 

Our subconscious programs may well be running all kinds of programs our conscious selves may not even approve of! Take certain prejudices and biases. The public persona we present and what we consciously want to believe may say one thing, but tricky psychological tests may reveal quite something else beneath the surface! 

Most of what we experience as "choices" and "decisions" in fact are almost invariably the product of a dizzying amount of background calculating going on in your mind and very likely what had been going on for hours, days or weeks or longer prior that hummed away well, well below the surface of your mind. 

Memory functions (including storage, retrieval and importance attached) all run largely way below our conscious experience and control.

Everything we think of as "habits" or habitual actions would be autonomously running programs. 

Not only all that, but we get very little choice into what programs all of our programming! Gadzooks! 

Now, having established that (and this is all beyond a shadow of doubt among any credible neuroscientist current with the latest findings), this begs a few questions. 

One, why - if we humans are blessed with higher states of consciousness than our animal brethren and fore-bearers (as we indeed are) - does so much stuff run below conscious awareness?

This is a very good question, indeed. And the answers aren't all that difficult and will completely make sense. 

One, is that our consciousness - as nifty as the human version is (and it is human consciousness and the cognitive flexibility it provides that sets humans apart) -it 
is limited. The cognitive scientist Bernard Baars in his landmark (and very widely cited) paper on Cognitive Theory of Consciousness explains part of consciousness as a "global workspace", a sort of "workbench" where we can put things while we work on them and like a workbench, there is only so much we can put on it at any one time (to put this breathtakingly briefly and simply). We can also think of this as what we can run on our "working memory" at any one time. This too is limited. 

So if you consider the astronomical amounts of tasks your brain needs to do at any one time to guide your fanny through life - movements, short term and long term planning and decision making, thinking, creating (if that's your bag), blah-blah-blah ad nauseam and try to imagine going over every single solitary detail of all of that - your brain would melt down and run out your ears. And I only mean this partially facetiously - when we examine what's going on in mental breakdowns, this is almost what is literally going on; your mind - your conscious experience - literally does break down in overwhelm as your mind, or consciousness, is flooded with too many things your conscious self can't handle (as mine did spectacularly on several occasions requiring emergency 911 calls and hospitalizations in psych wards). 

Back to our computer screen and speakers analogy, it is much the same way - you can put only so much on the screen at one time and if we look at the brain's working memory and think of it as our computer's RAM, this too is limited. Put too much on there, and your computer will crash (we'll avoid Windows/PC vs Apple products wars here, thank you) and so it is with your brain and mind (or consciousness). 

So this is one reason why so much of our lives, behaviours, decision making and so on is largely handled below your conscious awareness - your conscious mind and working memory can only handle a tiny, tiny fraction of what needs to be done by your brain. If we look at this through the lens of evolutionary benefits, having your brain melt down from conscious overload is unquestionably a Bad Thing and would have, in the past, meant that you became tiger dinner and your genes - or that of your offspring - would not get passed on. Yes, yes, speaking in evolutionary terms, this is a Very Bad Thing. So the brain evolved Not To Let That Happen thus it just takes care of the vast majority of stuff required to guide your fanny through life autonomously below the surface on its own, thank you very much. 

Two, is for the simple reason of energy economy. The brain - that three pound blob of soft tofu like substance between your ears, approximately between 1 and 2 percent of your total body weight - burns up a whopping 20% of the energy you consume through calories and about the same amount of the oxygen your lungs draw in. Consciously churning through things, it turns out, radically ups the draw on those (limited) energy reserves. So again, if we look at it through evolutionary terms, even though human consciousness has been a great thing, the rest of your brain is too smart (or well programmed) to let you burn up too much energy that way. Again, to have you be a tiger's dinner and not pass on your genes because you didn't have the energy to deal with the tiger or you burned up too much "RAM" pondering over what to do would be - in evolutionary terms - A Bad Thing. So it evolved to run the great majority of things on "auto-pilot" because that is the most energy efficient way - not to mention fastest - of crunching incoming data and generating responses (movements, thoughts, etc, all of the above we looked at). 

The second question, if we don't consciously decide what programs our brains (and it is mostly an illusion that you believe you do program much in there, as clever and bright and as "in control" as you think you are), what does program your brain?

I'm actually not too sure you want to know too much about this but here we go anyway. It's in fact kind of impossible to know in any precise terms (though at times we can recall specific experiences or lessons), but in truth it's possible that every single thing your five senses ever brought in for your entire life may have played a role. If you want to put that in some perspective, if you are an average adult your brain will hold something like 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes) of "data". To put that in perspective, if your brain worked like your TV recorder, that would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for three hundred years to play all that back. And by some estimates, that's conservative. Oh - and it turns out that everything you've ever put in your gut may play a big role, too. Yikes. 

This data is a rough summation of everything you've read, heard, experienced, seen, smelled, touched, and felt along with all the myriad of cultural and environmental experiences and influences you've had throughout life and through school, not to mention almost endless amounts of thoughts and feelings your own brain has produced (and what you shoveled down your throat all your life - urp) - and all of that has at least some potential to have become “inputted” into the zombie programs that in turn run "you". 

Try go back and put all that on your "conscious plate" and deal with it. I think you can imagine now how impossible that would be.

And what filters through all that data (and blocks out astronomically more data) itself is determined by subconscious autonomous programs that hum along way well, well below the surface. These themselves are part of what I was getting to in the posts 
on "ego defenses" as well as in Genetic Factors and Environmental Factors in Brain Development

This is why it's important to be more aware of what we're "consuming" every day in the way of "input data". You may recall in 
my Positive Difference Making Fundamentals that I made big changes to my "data input" and this is what I'm talking about. If we give our brains better material to run on, they will create better programs and they - and thus us - will run better, at least to some degree. 

So that is a very brief introduction to the programs that whir and twirl and whiz away in your brain well, well below your conscious awareness. 

What, you are probably thinking, does this have to do with mental health and conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and depression and so on? 

A couple of things. 

One is that I believe - my theory is - that a lot of what goes wrong in mental health disorders is that these subconscious programs are in some way or ways running amok and are messing with your "conscious experience" (producing auditory or visual hallucinations, as just one example). Or, as we'll see, it may be that some of our most important programs have been poorly programmed (by "bad data" that we've absorbed throughout our lives or at key times or in key ways) and these are in some way running our lives and mind very poorly (the negative/self flagellating thoughts programs would likely top this list in many of us).

It is my idea - and approach - that any given mental health disorder is in fact a "distorted" conscious experience - our programs have encountered problems or were never programmed right in the first place and are messing with what's on the "computer screens and speakers" of our conscious minds that we are experiencing and as a result, our mental states, behaviours and actions are being messed up (to put it very mildly). We'll also see that it could well be some very important programs are actually "offline" - such as key behavioural regulating regions and programs and this may be greatly involved in what's going on in acute or long term mental disorders. 

Two - and more important - is the very exciting news that very many of these programs 
can be reprogrammed. The brain - even late in life - will respond to retraining "commands". It takes a lot of specific dedicated work, but it can be done. When we look at neuroplasticity, we are going to learn some very encouraging things about how we can "reprogram" or retrain our brains. And this goes for even the most severe neuropsychiatric condition (though it is true that the longer the condition has been present, the harder the work it is to reprogram it. I will get to some very interesting cases studies on this to show how possible it is). 

Three - it is again my belief and theory that a good number of our mental health disorders and mental meltdowns are the result of warring zombie programs. And this can indeed happen as we'll see in Part Two of this series. We'll look at how all these programs running our brains and minds don't always "get along" and these inner wars, these "regional battles", can produce - in our conscious experience - a lot of our difficulties. Thus, examine what's going on in these "inner wars", understand what's going on and why they're at war, straiten them out - or retrain some of them, as we'll learn - and it's entirely possible that a good deal of what's messing with your conscious experience and causing you grief and depression and anxiety or what have you will greatly settle down. As a bipolar person with borderline personality disorder and at times social anxiety disorder, I have lots and lots and lots of "war stories" to relate. 

Four - in further understanding how our brain uses and regulates energy, we will see that having most of our functions and reactions handled by autonomously running subconscious programs is the most efficient in terms of best utilizing available energy and that having so many of these programs out of tune or at war with each other plays a large role in what leaves us drained of energy. 

And perhaps most importantly, understanding these programs and in turn what triggers them is going to be huge in understanding perhaps the most important zombie program of them all when it comes to mental health disorders and suffering - 
the stress response system

That's it for today. I needed to introduce the concepts of subconscious autonomous programs - AKA: zombie programs - and how they run our worlds and create our conscious experience before I moved on to explain other things we'll look at and learn in understanding and dealing with mental health disorders. 






Support Taming the Polar Bears

 

If you enjoy or benefit from the information you gain from this blog, or see the importance of it for yourself or for others in understanding and working on your/their mental health conditions or if you're in the mental health professions or otherwise see the importance of the work done and presented in this blog, please consider donating and supporting it. 

All the writing and research is done by a single individual - Brad Esau - who himself has been disabled due to the long term effects of his condition and who lives on a very minimal pension and thus has great difficulty supporting himself. 

For a one time donation, you can simply follow this link and instructions: paypal.me/BradEsau

Don't have a PayPal account? No worries, getting one is fast and free.

Your donation goes to a fund controlled by a third party team who support Brad and his Taming the Polar Bears project. 

Or if you'd like to make a regular small monthly contribution, please contact this email address -TamingThePolarBears@gmail.com - and include in the subject line: monthly donation with the amount you wish to donate on a monthly basis. 

Please state your PayPal address and name in the email.

Thank you so much for your support from the Taming the Polar Bears team!