Thursday, December 28, 2017

Understanding and Taming Imagination






It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of imagination in the human mind, spirit, cognition and how we go about our day to day lives. It is in many ways essential for our understanding others and the world around us. It has been and is critical for every human achievement. 

As with all human mental functions, however, it is vastly misunderstood much to the detriment of us mental health peeps for, like any and all human mental capacity, there are the beneficial aspects of imagination and the dark side of imagination. So today we will have a look at understanding more about it and - as the title suggests - "taming" it. 

Also as with many human mental functions (as with one of the Holy Grails of neuroscience endeavours, consciousness itself), there is no one "center" in the brain for imagination. Nor is it, as long has been popularly believed, exactly a "right brain" thing (though this remains not completely resolved and not without controversy and numerous opposing views). Nor is there any one definition for "imagination" or any one way for how it is utilized by various of the human race. 

As for its location in the brain it is - as can be said about many things in life - "everywhere and nowhere". Which drives many a scientist batty as they have this wont to pin everything down into definitive knowable "facts" that they can point to with certainty which is what gives rise to many a pitched battle between camps in the neurosciences (of which there are many, often with very little overlap in the approach to understanding this wild and wacky 3.1 pound tofu like blob between our ears that produces - somehow - everything that is "us").

Because "everywhere and nowhere" is not a particularly satisfying answer and we need a better understanding than that, let's try a different way of looking at it.

There's a substance we're all familiar with that may prove a useful analogy. 

It is at once one of the most benign and destructive substances on earth. It can buoy us or drown us. Not enough of it and we shrivel up and die. Too much of it can sweep us to our death. The human race learned to exist on its surface to carry itself to every reach of the earth. The same surface dashed many to their deaths. All other substances contract when cooled, this substance expands both when heated and cooled. Either extreme will again kill us. Yet we can't live without it.

I am talking, of course, about water. 


Like water, imagination is essential to "who we are" but it can also be one of the most destructive forces the mind can create. Like water, imagination has many beguiling qualities seemingly at odds with one another.

Like water, imagination can buoy us and carry us almost anywhere we wish to go. Or it can sweep us up and dash us against rocky shores. 

As with any cognitive function, there will be much disagreement and many ways of looking at it which is all quite normal. For now then I'm going to ask you to put all that aside along with any of your own prior notions on today's topic. All that matters is how you see this, how it opens up your mind to better understanding you and how to move you forward. Nothing else really matters. There are some difficult truths here to recognize, grapple and come to terms with and the only thing that matters is that you begin this path, one of several you need to take to get that pernicious mind of yours to stop giving you so much grief. Anything else is abstract philosophical hair splitting and navel gazing and frankly we don't have the time or energy for that. 

It is a path I had to take. I cannot say it was an easy one but the most necessary paths we must take never are. I think I can say, however, and if I may be a bit immodest for the moment, that I have at least somewhat blazed the trail for you and if you'd like to follow that trail I'd be happy to try guide you along. 

I have, to remind, what one might call the "high end of the spectrum" bipolar mind. I can well assure you that the bipolar mind is capable of some pretty nuclear grade imagination that runs to the extreme edges (and tragically, often beyond) of human capabilities. It has both buoyed me and carried me through troubling and challenging times and at other times been the greatest threat to my continued existence on earth. 

I can say - with one hundred percent certainty - that "understanding and taming" my imagination was utterly essential to my survival. Like everything else I do in order to survive (and now to thrive and reach my life goals and ambitions), it is something I have to work at daily. Like all mental functions it has to be trained and trained daily in order to be of optimal use to us. 

With those thoughts in mind then, let's get to it. 

As regular readers will know I am considered a bit of a dab hand at the study of neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience (and to remind, the former is about the "nuts and bolts" of the brain - the physical anatomy and biology - the latter is more to do with all the mental and cognitive phenomenon those nuts and bolts and biology produce or not). Today's piece is less about the former and more about the latter, meaning we're not going to get too much into all the possible anatomical and biological basis for this weird concept known generally as "imagination". As I mentioned at the outset, it is one of those mental functions that is "everywhere and nowhere" in the brain so attempting to pin down where it is in the astronomically vast tangles that is the human brain and what it "looks like" in there would be, I don't think I need to elaborate, quite beyond what we can accomplish here today (not that I wouldn't like to try and I always do but I won't inflict that upon anyone here). 

To begin, let's first look at a very brief definition of "imagination". To quote Marriam-Webster, it is "the act or power of forming a mental image of what is not present to the senses or which has never before been wholly perceived in reality". This is quite inadequate for what we're here for today but it will do for a working model to start with. Let's break down the three main parts of that definition to see what we need to better understand. 


  • the act or power of forming a mental image (it's useful here to note that image is the root word of imagination)
  • is not present to the senses 
  • has never before been wholly perceived in reality

These are three distinctly different aspects to look at more closely and get a deeper understanding for our purposes here today. 

There are many different ways to perform "the act of forming a mental image" as we'll begin to see below. This is the crux of understanding the power of mind and where the lines blur in what constitutes our individual subjective perceptions of life around us. 

"Not present to the senses" is something I will return to in more detail at the end but this is critical to keep in mind when sorting out what our own minds are doing to us and what to do about it. 

Aaahh, "reality". As long time sufferers/readers will know, the study of "reality" is one of my favourite neuroscience topics and one that I firmly and deeply believe is a cornerstone to understanding the mind and all mental health disorders. Which is why we're here looking more closely today at the power of imagination, in particular yours. As we have learned, whatever our experience of "reality" is, it is created by our brains. In other words, whatever you perceive about the world around you, that is what your brain and your brain only creates. There is literally nothing else on earth quite like it. Very important to keep in mind. 

In the worlds of philosophy and physics (and more recently neurophilosophy), "reality" is a very thorny subject indeed (again, with several wildly opposing camps who routinely engage in all out academic warfare with each other). Far be it for me then to attempt to pin down any definition of "reality" that will satisfy everyone. But for you and I to get anywhere we do need some sort of fairly agreeable working definition so for now we're just going to think of reality in the two following ways:

Consensus reality: this is as opposed to "individual perceptions and experiences". For our purposes here today we're going to think of this as some of the most basic facts. We live on a planet called earth. It revolves around the sun and rotates in such a manner as to give the appearance of the sun "rising" in the east. The basic colour spectrum as the human eye sees it and the basic sound spectrum as the human ear hears it. Fifty degrees Celsius is very hot and fifty degrees below zero Celsius is very cold to our skin. Various tastes such as salt, hot spices, sweet, etc. The experience of general odors - most feces and rotting foods "stink", the smell of fresh air is pleasant. And so on along those lines. 

Physical reality: physical objects that exist independent of our individual being; trees, rocks, buildings and so on and the physical realities of the effects of these on other objects. Real basic physics involving mass, gravity and velocity among other physical properties of the "stuff of earth". If a large boulder or tree drops on you it will crush you to death. A small lead projectile traveling at 1,200 meters per second will cause great damage to whatever it comes in contact with. We become deprived of oxygen or water and we will die. A large number of substances if ingested will lead to quick and horrible deaths. Contact with high voltage electricity will also lead to a quick and unpleasant death.. Water or air moving en mass and at speed will cause great damage to all it comes in contact with. And nearly countless etcetera along these lines All of these, you will note, will occur regardless of any individual belief or concept of "reality".

There is a third - "practical reality" - but we'll get to that at the end.  

Seemingly mundane, I know, but to fully and really grasp what something "is" we must be very clear on what it is not. For our purposes here today then we need to understand how independent imagination exists outside of "consensus reality" and "physical reality".

Now, let's look further at what imagination is in the human mind (1).


The human capacity for imagination is on one level or another interconnected with:

- belief

- creativity

- intelligence and abstract thought

- future predictions

- expectations

- hopes and dreams

- memory

- individual concepts and experiences of "reality"

- thoughts

- escapism

- drives and motivations

- delusions of all kinds

- empathy


Bearing in mind that I could go on in long mind numbing detail on all of these, let me try to briefly talk about each (long time sufferers/readers will recall and understand - with humour, I hope - my challenges with "brevity"). Some of this will appear obvious to many but it is important to your deeper understanding for us to go over these and for you to at least a bit "come in my direction" of understanding these. This is the ten years of classroom experience "teacher me" talking. Trust me, no shortage of students get tripped up on their own assumptions of the basic building blocks of what they think they know about a larger topic. 

Belief 

The concept of belief is where we begin to voyage outside of consensus or physical realities. As such, it is very much a product of what our individual brains will produce. I shouldn't need to point out, but I will anyway, that a great deal of what we "believe" will be very rooted in what we can imagine and how we imagine that. The more powerfully we can imagine a given concept the more we can believe that. 

We are not here to judge or dismiss others' beliefs. This is very touchy and difficult ground, I can assure you, so we best keep away from any such temptations in that regard and in any case we are here to better understand your beliefs and their basis. 

Creativity 

Creativity means to create what did not exist. Needless to say, we cannot create what did not exist if we cannot in some way imagine it first. Yes, I can see the "well, d'uh" eye rolls from here. Trust me, you do not understand this as well as you, well, imagine. Like all aspects of imagination this can be for the good or it can destroy us. More later. 

Creativity is not, as commonly assumed, just about "the arts". It involves literally anything that can be created. It is essential in engineering and architectural design and construction. 

Intelligence and Abstract Thought 

Much of the products of higher intelligence means solving problems of all kinds, often in novel ways and which involves higher order abstract thinking. Before you get to the solution it is very handy to be able to, like creativity, imagine or visualize what the solutions might look like. We can see this throughout mathematics, the sciences and so on. The better you can imagine the "end goal" - the solution for a particularly pernicious math problem, for example - and the individual steps for getting there (the formula, in the case of a math problem), the better the chance of getting there and/or learning to get there. 

We can see then how important imagination and the development thereof is to education and learning.  

This is where we begin to understand the "practical reality" I mentioned above, however. It is not enough to merely imagine a solution; you have to have or be able to learn the chops to get there. 

Future predictions 

The very nature of the future is that it does not yet exist therefore anything about the future is by necessity "imagination". It does not matter how clever the devices are that are employed to "predict" the future, the fact remains that nothing about the future yet exists or has happened yet. We can get into all kinds of laws of probabilities and so on but it doesn't matter. Regardless of what anyone tells you, or whatever you believe or would like to believe, the future is not knowable with 100% certainty. When we are attempting to "know" the future it is in fact the product of our imagination; we can only imagine what may or may not happen. 

To understand this is to understand in great part what leads to crippling anxiety. Or at the other end of the scale, delusional optimism that can lead to ruinous decision making or actions. 

Expectations

Quite closely tied to future predictions, expectations are feelings we have about how we anticipate certain events or endeavors will turn out. Our individual powers of imagination will have enormous effects on both how future events will play out or not but, more importantly to mental health, the crushing disappointments we can experience if things didn't work out as we expected or anticipated. 

Hopes and dreams

I hardly need point out that all our hopes and dreams rest entirely on our powers and abilities of imagination. Hopes and dreams are the very essence of what it means to be human and to exist in meaningful ways and indeed to move forward in life. You want to whistle down into the depths of despair, let this ability get fucked up. Yes, I know; if you are reading here there is a good chance it already is. Bear with me, though, we are starting along a different path now. 

Memory 

Imagination can take many forms and spring from many "wells" in the mind but I would hazard to guess that the great majority will be tied into whatever exists in our memories and a great deal of what you imagine is your brain taking past experience and projecting that into present experiences or your future. I have written about memory functioning in depressive disorders before and how our brains tend to project the past into our future. 

Why this is super critical to understand about creating our future and how we first imagine what that may be is that we want to learn to be very careful about understanding where our imagination of that future is coming from. If it is based too much on past failures, disappointment and so on this is going to create very dark "imagination" of our futures and sap us of hope and dreams creating yet more anxiety and depression. It is therefore really, really important to know that regardless of how powerful our imagination is of our future (both immediate and long term) it doesn't necessarily have to be like that. 

Trust me, this is something I worked like hell on. I would NOT be here had I not. 

Individual concepts and experiences of "reality"

Okay, we are now heading into uncomfortable territory for understanding imagination and its power within and over us. I don't particularly like being the bearer of "difficult news" but I'm afraid there's no choice. So we're going to be brave here and bite the bullet of truth here; the vast majority of what you perceive of as reality, what you believe to be reality is in fact the product of your imagination. 

You may want to read that over a few times and let it sink in some.

Very easy to see in others, a whole different matter in our selves. How much and to what degree will depend a large amount on your grasp of consensus and physical realities. Yes, I know; that pain you feel is of your toes being stepped on. But if there's one thing I learned in all my journey in moving from broken down and penniless in psychiatric hospitals to where I am today is that we have to face and deal with truths about ourselves that we don't like. Painful truths, in other words. This is one of those and probably, I would argue, the most important one. 

Let's think this through then. One, it is not possible - for you or anyone - to know with absolute certainty all there is in this vast and complicated world of ours all that is "real". It is not possible to have had first hand sensory experience with anything more than a tiny, tiny fraction of it. Much of your understanding of it by very definition then must be the product of your imagination. You haven't been, for example, to China but you can form a concept of it, one that is based on your imagination. In truth, however, you have never been there and it would take years of living there and intense study to really "know" that area. It is therefore impossible for your concept of that place to be factual in any meaningful way. Your concept of it then is based entirely on imagination. This is true with the vast, vast majority of your concepts of "reality", what you "think" you "know", what in fact you imagine you "know".

Relax, though. It's not just you, all brains do this. Even a good deal of what we "see" with our eyes is by necessity "filled in" by our brains (the neuroscience of this is quite fascinating). This is part of where "reality" gets all mucked up as seen through a philosophical lens. 

It is here that we need a gentle reminder of what I wrote above about about "reality" - whatever your perception of the world, it is created by your brain. As your brain is completely unique to you and you only, your experience of and perceptions of reality is unique to you and you only. However, there are billions of other people in the world each with their own unique one of a kind brains and perceptions of reality. How is it possible that any one of those could be "more real" or "more right"? 

The answer is quite simple - it is not. 

Which is why objective reasoning and the sciences have been so important and why we need concepts such as "consensus reality", understandings of "physical reality" and practical reality but most importantly the understanding that our individual subjective experiences are very unlikely to be a completely full and accurate "picture" of "reality". 

There is a double edge to this painful blade of truth, however. Chose well and it becomes not painful but opens up vast expanses of positive possibilities. More later. 

Thoughts 

More troubling news, I'm afraid. Like your concepts and experiences of reality, the vast majority of your thoughts likely come from your imagination. In other words, again, they are not well rooted in consensus or physical reality but the stuff of your imagination. Great if you're Einstein, not so much if your thoughts are driving you batty (as they likely are if you're reading here). 

Escapism 

A mental skill of the human mind that rests entirely on the ability to imagine for which the very point is to escape the reality of unpleasant immediate or long term life circumstances. Many will dismiss this mental strategy but it is in fact an essential tool to keep at bay otherwise unbearable and soul crushing suffering and circumstances (when I get into this in more detail when we examine all this further, I have some amazing examples from POW survivors). Here we see a great deal of popular fiction ranging from sci-fi and fantasy to romance novels and so on. Again, there is a whole scale to this and what "works" for any one individual. 

Like any such mental tool, however, it can be come a trap in itself when people are unable to - ironically - "escape" the imaginary worlds in their minds and deal properly with their circumstances. On the other hand, many mental breakdowns or chronic anxiety and emotional distress may be as a result of an inability to employ this strategy effectively. 


Drives and motivations

Okay, now we're starting to move into territory where we begin to really understand the power of imagination over us and how disastrous it can be. This where the rubber meets the road in understanding imagination and many mental health disorders and negative behaviours. It is here where I must insert some basic neuroscience and the biology of human behaviour. I have written before on dopamine pathways and their roles in motivation and drives (in this piece and this one in my other blog if you are so interested). As I outlined in those, dopamine pathways play enormous, essential and powerful roles in keeping us motivated and moving towards goals. 

Future goals. 

Goals that don't yet exist. 

Goals then that are completely the products of our imaginations. 

Dopamine pathways - like a great deal of our subconscious brain machinations - are "blind robots"; they just do what they do without our conscious awareness or input. Yes, I know, scary. Which is the point. As I pointed out in the piece on dopamine in this blog, there are a couple of key anatomical areas in dopamine pathways - the ventral tegmental area and the nucleous accumbens - that "jack up" dopamine signalling and drive us or motivate us towards something. These don't just operate out of the blue, they need some sort of input. 

And that input is - tada - what we imagine. We imagine those spiffy new pair of sneakers. We imagine all the prestige and future income from that college degree we're toiling through. We imagine what that sexual encounter is going to feel like. And countless, countless, countless so on. None of these things yet exist in our actual world outside our imaginations. 

Healthy realistic imagination equals higher probability of success. Unhealthy unrealistic imagination and visions and how they "program" and amp up dopamine pathways is what virtually all addictive behaviours are about, run away mania is about, the destructive delusions we see in schizophrenia, the roller coaster up and downs we see in many mood disorders and so on. 

At the other end of this spectrum is imagination that is filled with too many fearful and painful images of past failures (of ourselves or others). This is what kills motivation and drive and keeps us frozen to where we are, that drive us instead to the depths of hopelessness and lost despair. 

This is the imagination that can sweep us up in towering waves and mercilessly dash us upon the rocky shores of life. This kind of imagination will destroy lives. 

Delusions and delusional thinking

Now we're venturing into the extreme - but a more very real possibility for both you and many others within your world than you would care to admit - ends of the dangers of imagination.

First off, delusions are not all bad and are in fact common in almost all people. "Positive delusions" are, as this excellent piece in Brain Pickings illustrates brilliantly, a great part of what keeps us sane and moving forward confidently. In truth, we very often don't "know" with absolute proven certainty that we can perform a given task or role successfully but if we imagine we can, we can do it reasonably well regardless of whether we are good at it or not. Are we good? Maybe not so our belief and confidence that we are is at least somewhat imaginary. It is, as the piece points out, a necessary delusion. Not having this ability is why many people melt down with anxiety and stress over their ability to successfully go about their day to day lives.  The key is that it is grounded in a good dose of practical reality, some realistic skills and abilities. 

Now, lets look at the other end of the scale. Here is where we have grandiose delusions (with which I am on more than a passing personal acquaintance, I shall say), paranoid delusions, the delusional disordered thinking seen in schizophrenia and so on. If you think these are only about someone else and you are "safe" from them, think again. Almost all people are prone to them (and there is no shortage of evidence for this), including some of the most brilliant people in history (such as the famous case of John Nash of A Beautiful Mind fame).

This is imagination - the ability of the mind to produce mental concepts and visions that are not real - run very amok but one we must look at carefully and truthfully. Again, this kind of "imagination" gets too tied into our dopamine pathways and it can lead to the very driven and self-destructive behaviours we see in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. 

Empathy 

write elsewhere about empathy in some detail but briefly for now empathy is the ability to "put ourselves in the shoes of others to understand their mind and feelings". To state the obvious then, our abilities to feel empathy would be rather limited without the powers of imagination. But we must also remember that it is imagination and therefore quite possibly not a completely true or an accurate representation of the actual reality of the other's situation. As I outlined in that post, it is another human function that can really run out of control and get us into great mental health trouble. 

The untamed power of imagination will play great roles in creating powerful cognitive distortions and faulty reasoning


*   *   *   *   *

I fervently hope, dear reader, that you are beginning to grasp the complexities, wonders and dangers of this broad mental concept we generally know as "imagination". Like water it is necessary for our existence but also like water we must fully learn to understand the full breadth of its powers. To learn that in the right amount it keeps us alive, too much of it can drown us. The right type can be life saving, the wrong type (sea water) will poison us or that in impure form it can make us gravely ill. We need  to learn how to harness those powers to carry us to distant lands or to be an incredibly useful tool in our lives. Perhaps most importantly for us mental health peeps, is how when stormy it can also drown us, toss us around, lift us up and dash us against rocky shores and - I mean this quite literally - drive us crazy. 

So then, what to do. 

Firstly, let's take a different tack for understanding this mental power of ours. With this we can then look at some strategies to work on. 

It's important to understand that, like all the capabilities of the human mind, there is a whole scale and spectrum of the powers of imagination. At one end we have more "reality grounded" imagination. This is the creative power of imagination we harness when problem solving (like math or physics problems), when we are conceiving something we are going to build or create (anything from a carpentry project to knitting a sweater), that engineers and architects or car designers employ and so on. For these things to be "reality grounded" the solution to the problem or the project has to be viably doable, produce a  provable solution, a real product or thing and the one with the creative vision must have the necessary skills and means to bring the vision to fruition. 

Here also, of course, we have the creative arts; painting, writing, poetry, dance and so on. 

Many of us may have the powers to envision all kinds of solutions or physical or artistic creations but if they're not viable or doable or if we don't have the skills, means and abilities to make them happen, then these visions of imagination are closer to the realm of fantasy. This is where we need an at least somewhat solid grounding in what I referred to at the beginning as "practical reality".

The next important aspect of imagination is how it helps create mental models for understanding the world around us and events at which we can't directly attend or experience. This is where imagination can be both enormously helpful and horrendously destructive. Leaps of imagination can lead to terribly wrong assumptions and actions based on them. This is where it's critically important to bear in mind "not present to our senses" and to realize just how much our minds - this power of imagination - is "filling in" our concepts of what may or may not be happening. Think then of powerful runaway emotions based on these and actions based on them. Think of, as just one of hundreds of possible examples, jealous fits of rage based on nothing more of a "vision" of what the sufferer "believes" is happening. Think of many, many times in your own life when you were powerfully emotional about something that wasn't present, wasn't happening but was only a vision of imagination in your mind. 

Most people, I find, tend to only think of the positive powers of imagination. Not me. I have been through - horrendously so - and seen too many others go through too much of the negative powers of imagination in the mind, this ability of the human mind to create - harmfully, dangerously and destructively so - "what is not present to the senses". 

This is the stuff of crippling anxiety, fears, depression, despair and being controlled by emotions. 

Overly powerful and unharnessed imagination plays large roles in creating false memories which in themselves create vast misconceptions of reality and life around us which can also lead to disastrous actions or circumstances or further exacerbate or mire people in existing ones. 

I must firmly point out that there are no "bright lines at the borders" of any of this in the brain (and hence why it's important to understand that it's "everywhere and nowhere") nor is it restricted to any one type of person we are tempted to label (such as "schizophrenic" or "bipolar" or "mentally ill", etc). These are all common phenomenon of the human mind regardless of social class, race, gender, place in the world and so on. All minds do all of what we looked at above to one degree or another at various times. Any aspect of what we looked at might be a part of a conscious strategy or more likely - as with 98% of all brain function - subconsciously function. 

I cannot tell you - and you likely wouldn't want to know - how much the darker edges of some (though not all) of this was "my world" and how hard I had to work to escape it. 

Many people now are familiar with my story of overcoming an extreme bipolar mind, being broke, homeless, in and out of psychiatric hospitals and so on and not only survive that (in the very real sense of not dying or living the very unpleasant fate of many others who'd been through that) and how I am working to leave that behind to once again grow and thrive. Virtually all without medications of any kind and almost entirely outside the mental health care system. I get asked again and again how I did it. 

Well, folks, this is a huge part of how I did it. A massively huge part I now realize as I have worked all this through into this piece. A very great deal of how I "tamed my polar bears" - the wild and incredible powers of the bipolar mind - is how I learned to understand and tame the powers of imagination. 

I had to learn and sort through what was more reality based imagination, the positive powers of imagination and what was "less reality grounded" and was harmful and creating - in a sort of literal sense - my worst bouts of suicidal darkness and crippling anxiety. 

This is NOT to say that your sources of anxiety and depression are "imaginary", only that it is very important to be able to identify what constitutes a real threat and what is not. Trust me, what are "imaginary fears" and real fears gets very, very tangled up in the mind. 

I had to learn to find, accept, and then work through some very, very difficult truths of the human mind and my mind; those which I am now passing along to you. 

That was the hard part. Nobody - and I'm sure you can attest for this - wants to admit that much of what is in their mind is a product of their imagination. Yet it is a fundamental truth of the human mind and it is a fundamental truth of yours. The inability to see, accept, admit to and work on this is a product of another powerful part of the human mind - the ego. 

Perhaps my greatest "stroke of luck", as it were, was that my mind, the difficult circumstances that became my life and the world around me utterly destroyed my ego. I had no choice. 

I prefer you not have to go through that (trust me, you really, really don't want to).

But this is life, people - real life, not the fantasy concept all too many people exist in - the facing and dealing with hard fundamental truths. The truths of your flaws. This is not about anyone else, this is about you and what you are going to do about you. 

This, I see, is going to require a second part to fully outline but briefly for now, this is how I approached taming the powers of imagination in my mind and learning to better harness them. 

Everything - and I mean everything - you see in this blog and my now improving life is the product of those efforts. 

This is how I climbed out of the depths of despair of broken hopes and dreams to create - step by step - more realistic and doable hopes and dreams and to see them, as events of this year attest, slowly realized. 

This in great part was how I learned to "tame" the towering overwhelm that used to often crush me - or drown me to use our water analogy. 


I spend an inordinate amount of time studying science and basic building blocks of fundamental facts. This is where I better grounded my mind in consensus reality. You don't have to be as dedicated as I am but I suggest you start. Also along these lines, I am ruthlessly careful about what I allow into my mind for "news" or information. An enormous part of this blog is reading material for you intended to help you get started. I intend on putting up much more fun material and teach much more along these lines in my upcoming new website. 

Dedicating most of my days to and staying emersed in mindfulness activities. This is being as present and mindful as one can with what is "present to the senses". This includes music therapy, cooking therapy, my housework, my research and writing, daily exercises and so on. This played tremendous roles in "grounding my reality" to the present, the here and now reality. I learned to apply this not only to "fun stuff" like above, but in facing my problems and challenges. Again, there is much more in store for learning tools coming in my new website. 

My Brain Training Exercises. I used these in great part to help work on the "creative solution" aspects of imagination as well as keeping me grounded to the here and now present. 

Learning to understand and tame empathy was critical as well as learning to prioritize my daily actions around realistic doable goals. 

Learning to daily let go of what was to allow for what may be and working daily on creating the best positive outcomes out of whatever I faced that day. Positive outcomes doesn't always mean "getting what we wanted" but is more about learning lessons for better moving forward and improving one's mind and self. This is also how I daily created better memories which helped build solid realistic visions for my future. 

As I alluded to above, choosing to accept that much of what is in our minds is "imagination" which is likely not completely true or useful to us and is indeed harmful to us and to let it go can be incredibly liberating, enlightening and can open up vast areas of both your mind and its power but also in your life. This is where we can open our minds, hearts and lives to beautiful growth and learning. Again, this is what took me from the horrors of my past to where I am today. 


All of this can be very difficult, I know. But I am going to ask you to be brave - I can tell you that if you are here reading this you have much more courage than you know - and to believe that you can do this. That you can make this part of your own incredible journey and path. 

Yes you can. 

Yes. You. Can. 


Thank you as always for reading. Your being here means more to me than you could know





(1) There is, needless to say, controversy on whether various animals possess the ability to "imagine" and thus have "imagination". Any kind of concrete proof of this is, of course, quite difficult to ascertain with any certainty but as one who studies all brains and their abilities and the evolution of the human brain, I feel I can say with some confidence that yes, animals of various kinds possess the ability to imagine, albeit in limited ways useful to their survival in their particular environments. Before you come to any conclusions, however, I must caution about reading too much into your own observations and bear in mind that conclusive proof is rather hard to come by.



Saturday, December 16, 2017

Season's Greetings and a Message of Gratitude




For the first time in ten years I can say that "it's been quite a year" in a good way. 

As I sit here to type this, I - and Mrs Bean too, of course (who is on my lap as I type) - am safe and secure in new lodgings with the luxury of warmth and comfort. This is the first winter in five years I've been able to say that. Three years ago I and Mrs Bean were living out of a 37 year old run down camper van being harried and harassed from one location to another surviving weather as cold as -20 Celsius along with fierce winter storms. Other living arrangements were fraught with difficulties, more harassment, a complete lack of long term security and poorly heated (if at all). 

This year from this post of a safe and secure home I have met - and plan to wed in the new year - a woman who surpasses anything I could have dared imagine even six months ago. 

I have met and begun a working partnership with a gentleman - I use that term sparingly but it truly applies in this case - who has the expertise, know how and can do spirit to take Taming the Polar Bears in directions that I could not have dared dream even a month ago. 

In the previous ten years while battling what would turn out to be a severe case of one of the most difficult psychiatric disorders there is (type 1 bipolar in a male over age 50) and a variety of difficult life circumstances brought on by that condition, I'd lose everything I spent a lifetime working for (a quarter million dollars in home ownership and savings while plunging well into debt), in one way or another all of the meaningful relationships I had spent a lifetime building and cultivating, my mind and sanity, my health - almost everything. 

It was - in a word - humbling. 

But I can also say it's been - in three words - quite a journey. 

The details and lessons of that journey and how I survived all that to arrive at where I am today are for elsewhere in this blog (and soon to be dedicated website), however. 

Today, as the holiday season in the western world approaches, I wish to take this time and opportunity to express my gratitude to all those who in ways great and small made possible this journey, survival and the current safety and security where I have arrived. 

A well known part of my story, a part of my narrative, is that I conquered all of this "on my own". This is how many people see my story and I have said this myself numerous times. It has for some time, however, haunted me that this is not entirely true. It is true that I did this largely without the aid of pharmaceutical medications, psychiatrists and the mental health care system. What is absolutely not true is that I did all of this "alone". I may have often been in apparent solitude and without direct hands at my side but in fact there was enormous amounts of help and support that in one way or another helped me through this at times harrowing journey. 

I have struggled for some time with how to address this - how does one personally reach out to and thank all of the literally hundreds of people who in one way or another have helped? - and after a time, this post is what I had to decide would best do that though I know it remains far from adequate.

It is a rare day indeed that I don't spend at least some time reflecting back on all those who have contributed to this journey of mine and enabled me to get through it all and not just to survive but to plant the seeds that now make it possible for me to once more grow and thrive and become all that I can be. I can think back on specific individuals which would form a list growing into the hundreds. This is a great deal what I meant above by humbling. There are times I am overwhelmed and choked with emotion by it all. 

I cannot convey how much I strongly desire to reach out to each and every one of you and tell you in detail how you touched me, how you buoyed me, how I learned from you, how you encouraged me - all, in other words, of what you (yes, you) mean to me and the difference you made to my (now our, as I'd prefer to think of it) journey. As much as I would dearly love to do this and to mention each and every one of you by name, practically speaking, I know this is not feasible. If you are among the following, you can be well assured that you are someone one way or another to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude. 

People I am deeply grateful to include:

- those who read and encouraged my early writing nearing five years ago that would eventually form the basis for what became Taming the Polar Bears

- those who mentored my early desire to study the brain and neuroscience

- those who shared my posts

- those who sent personal messages of encouragement and thanks

- those who graciously shared their own stories with me

- those with whom I engaged in at time acrimonious debate on mental health and brain matters

- those who graciously allowed me to try to help them in some way

- those who have made donations of all kinds over the past several years 

- and many, many others who have contributed in ways too numerous to list


I can honestly and sincerely state that I could not have survived, let alone gotten to where I now am without all of these contributions. Sometimes it was the smallest gestures or words that helped me through a particularly dark time or situation. No matter who you are or where you are, if you are reading here it is most likely you contributed in some way. 

For better or worse, Taming the Polar Bears has become my vocation, my "calling" in life, my purpose in life. It is an enormous undertaking with much, much work yet to be done. Many a time I felt sure it was too much for me, that I couldn't go on with it. And again, it's the countless kind, encouraging and supportive words or gestures I've gotten from people around the world and from all walks of life that in one way or another has kept me going. 

So to one and all, great and small, I want to extend a warm heartfelt thank you and deep gratitude. 

When I think of you all and how much all of you have done for me in one way or another, these words do not seem enough and I feel deeply overwhelmed. All I feel I can truly do to repay all of you is to forge ahead as best I can and make as much of a difference to those in need as I can. It is my hope that you can see your contributions as being much more about me but play an important role in reaching out to all and any of those who struggle with mental health issues.

I would also like to ask you to reflect on the difference you made in a life - this particular life of mine - and be inspired to wonder if you (yes, you) made such a difference in this life of mine, what possibilities exist for you to make similar differences in other lives? Many lives need what I have gotten from you all. I'd like to propose that it is very possible for you to do for others what you have done for me. 

There needn't be a weight of responsibility to this (as I know it will seem for many of you). As with me, so often it is the simplest gestures, words, deeds and so on that could make a difference in someone's struggles - and, I would dare wager, in your life. 



As we approach the holiday season in the western world it is my hope that all can put aside religious differences, political differences, lifestyle differences, ideology differences, gender differences and indeed all differences and think more kindly of your fellow humans no matter how much you differ from them or disagree with them. 

As I study humanity, human behaviour and life on earth and reflect on the estimated 7.6 billion people who call this planet home, I cannot see any one individual or group or race or nationality which particularly has any more "right" than anyone else to occupy it nor any particularly more "right" than anyone else to dictate how others live or see the world. We humans are nothing if not an incredibly, wonderfully and yes, at times frighteningly diverse species. There is no avoiding the fact that we are going to be in great disagreement and have enormous differences in how to go about this thing called "life" and the truth is that we all must somehow - at the risk of sounding trite - "live and let live". Past history has many examples and lessons of what happens when we cannot do that and engage in mass and costly wars and conflicts. If there's one thing I think we can all agree on, it's that we certainly don't want to repeat those past mistakes.  

A central theme of the blog and the Taming the Polar Bears approach is about compassion and respecting individual differences. There is a strong (and quite natural) tendency to apply this only to people "like us" or those that we favour. It is my wish all readers and followers would endeavor at this time to better to learn to apply these lessons (they are quite universal and time honoured) to those that one may be in opposition to over one issue or another or those from parts of the world that one may not agree with or find distasteful or who get labeled this way or that. 

Very challenging, I do understand, but we all can grow by taking on difficult challenges and again, it is my hope that more can take on this challenge and see where it might lead. I can almost guarantee that you might be pleasantly surprised if you can learn to get by the exteriors of people you would otherwise tend to avoid or be in great disagreement. No need to conquer the whole world, even one or two would be great victories. 



There is, as mentioned, much much work that remains to be done in Taming the Polar Bears and growing our understanding of the human mind and what we can learn to do to better understand our own and those of others. It will be a lifelong passion and project for me and it's doubtful that I'll ever get all of what I envision written down and presented in forms useful to you but the fun part (for me) is continuing to get as far as I can each year (which always represents somewhere further than where I had been). A sort of general life lesson that I hope does not go unnoticed. 

I am going to sign off for now. Again, my deepest heartfelt words of gratitude and thanks go out to each and every one of you for being part of my and Taming the Polar Bears' journey. I sincerely hope you choose to continue along with me and "the Bears". May your reading and following along here in someway make as much of a difference in your life as you have to mine. 

Sincerely, 

BGE

Friday, July 7, 2017

Welcome to Brad Esau's Taming the Polar Bears




That I'm writing this and that you're reading this is the culmination of a rather strange and unexpected journey I found myself on. For reasons that will become more evident as you read along, I hope you choose to stay on this journey with me and make it part of your journey. 

It's possible you've discovered this blog by happenstance, became intrigued and are now taking a closer look. It's possible you came here on the recommendation of someone else. It's possible that on some level this is something you've been searching for for a long time and you feel you've found it. It's possible you found this through one of my YouTube videos and came here to learn more or that you have seen one of my webinars, became intrigued and are now taking a closer look. It's also possible that contained within this blog are things you really needed but until now you had no idea that you did and now that you're here you have a sense that this is something you need. 

In any case, here you are. 

Before we move on, please keep this in mind - this is a work in progress and far from complete. As well, a lot of completed material previously published is down for the time being while "under construction". I do hope that what is here is enough to keep you here and that you can exercise patience with the pace of coming material. 

This blog - this collection of material - is comprised of four basic areas of possible interest. They are:

One man's story of living with a so called mental health disorder.

An education on the brain and human behaviour. 

An exploration of mental health issues. 

How to better live with your brain and make the most of it, regardless of whatever situation you now find yourself in. 

While all seemingly unrelated, you will see as we go along (or at least it is my fervent hope that you see) that these are all very tightly interwoven.


On the name of the blog. 


While living with bipolar has been an ongoing thing all my adult life, it was starting in 2008 that this took on life threatening dimensions and titanic struggles the likes of which only a small percentage of people experience and which few survive. During the summer of 2010 as I was coming to grips with this (then new for me) diagnosis of bipolar disorder and seeking material to better help me understand all that that entailed, I found and began reading and studying the book Taming Bipolar. I'd been journaling about my journey in an online forum and in a particularly mentally foggy state, I miswrote the title of the book as Taming the Polar Bears. This took root as a point of discussion and as I thought about it, it represented my struggles - these polar opposite forces in my mind that were driving me (literally at the time) crazy. My metaphors for these states became Manic Bear and Depressive Bear and to get healthy I had to "tame" these polar bears. That's how I continued to refer to my struggles in that online forum and when later that year I started this blog as a personal journal (literally a web log) the title naturally became "Taming the Polar Bears" (some of the earliest entries are still available through the archives). 

The story of the current form of Taming the Polar Bears

From the summer of 2008 through to the end of 2012 I went through an inner horror show the likes of which few people go through and which few of those who do survive (survive in the literal sense of not dying or in the sense of surviving to reach the state I am now in). This is not hyperbole nor melodramatic exaggeration; this is the medical reality of having lived through the worst form of one of two of the worst psychiatric disorders.

Thirty months of that horror show - and the absolute worst of the horror show - came while I was under the direct care of the psychiatric establishment taking every one of their medications exactly and precisely as directed to the letter. It also came under the direct care of a small army of psychologists and following everything they suggested and what we worked on by the letter. 

Trust me, there are no shortage of "non-compliant" patients who are their own worst enemies. I was not one of them. I was a model patient. 

On the night of December 28th 2012, after thirty months of following the very best of what the mental health care system had to offer and following it to the letter, I had the most horrific, terrifying, and life threatening psychotic episode of perhaps a dozen or more that I had suffered and survived since that summer of 2010. 

No one I've described this to - and I no longer do because it's too horrific and terrifying even for seasoned professionals to hear - understands how I survived. No one I've described this to has even heard of anything like it. 

For one simple reason - virtually nobody does survive them. 

But somehow I did (and that "somehow" is a story I should probably get to some day). And when it was over I entered this incredible state of clarity and epiphany. And I had one burning question on my mind - why?

Why, when following everything I was supposed to do, was I only not getting better, but I was getting horrifically worse? 

As I started looking into this, I discovered that not only was it me not getting better but much worse, virtually nobody under the care of the psychiatric establishment was getting better.

I then wanted to know why that was. 

The past four and a half years - but especially the first eight months of 2013 following that epiphany moment on the morning of December 29th, 2012 (the episode started the previous evening and lasted through the night) - has been a quest to answer that one question - why?

Why, despite all the advances and efforts and billions and billions of dollars spent by the psychiatric and psychology establishments, were mental health issues and psychiatric disorders NOT getting better? Why were they not only getting worse in terms of sheer numbers and personal suffering, but actually exploding in numbers world wide?

None of this is arguable. The evidence is well established and well documented and for anyone who cares to look, self evident. 

The journey to answer that question led me to become an acknowledged expert and authority on neuroscience and mental health disorders.

When I began to understand the enormity of the problem and some of the answers began to present themselves to me, my goal and aim became nothing less than to change everything that is commonly understood and accepted about the brain, human behaviour, mental health and more importantly, what to do about it. 

And by everything, I do mean everything.

It is, as you may well imagine, no small task. 

Welcome to Taming the Polar Bears




Thursday, May 4, 2017

On Storms and Suns and Moons and Stars



Weathering the Storms

The winds lash you and whip you
The waves lift you up
and crash you down
It is stomach churning
You feel you can't take another wave
Or another trough
Just please let it be one or the other!
But no
On they come
Up, up, up you ride the wave
Terrified because you know it will peak
And then the crash down into another trough
Please make it stop, you beg
On your knees you plead
Please just make it stop

But on the wind whips you
And on the waves and troughs
Take you up and down
God, make it stop
Please make it stop

You look about you
Your ship is battered
Your sails torn and shredded
How can this go on?
How much longer?
Impossible
It is impossible
Clearly impossible
So battered and broken
Such relentless storms
And wave tossed seas

And then the sea beckons
The only way to escape the seas
And the storms
Is to succumb to the seas
Let them take you under
Then it will stop
Peace will come

But wait!
There is the moon!
If you could just use the light of the moon
Maybe it will guide you to a safe port
The seas and winds calm
Yes, there is hope
Your heart rises
So you gather your courage
Get the best out of your battered ship
And on you sail

There is no port but there is the moon
And some stars
The day brings some sun
These will surely guide you to safety
You have weathered the storm

Then you feel it
The seas are rising
You turn your eyes skyward 
to look for guidance 

But you see no moon, no stars, no sun
The skies have darkened
The winds are rising
The seas churn again

And that slim sliver of hope
That had sustained you
Vanishes under the waves
Torn away by the winds
Clouded by darkness


Your stomach churns with the seas
Feeling every wave
Every trough
The frothy waves and fierce winds
Have become you
You look inside
And feel you have become
the storm
Have become the darkness
You are in the storm
and have become the storm
And the darkness
Nothing is as it was
Who is this dark monster inside you ask
How can I let this be?

And again the seas beckon
Come to us, they say
We will take it away
No! You cry
Yes, it replies
Only the sea can drown your pain
Your suffering
Your sorrow
Only the sea can calm the storms within

Your eyes scan the seas and skies
Looking for signs
A sun, a moon, stars
Part of you knows they're there
Lights in your life
Yet the skies are so dark
The seas rising and falling
and churning your very soul

And the sea beckons


But we are there
Your sun
Your moon
Your stars

I know you can't see us
I know how hard it is
But behind the clouds
Those terrifying dark stormy clouds
We are there

Just weather this one more storm

Just weather this one more storm

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Neuroscience of Music Therapy



The Neuroscience of Music Therapy


Recently, while re-posting Positive Difference Making Fundamentals - an Introduction to Music Therapy, I said that "If you were to be ensnared by me in conversation about all this brain and mental health stuff, there is almost nothing I enjoy more than talking about music and the brain". And it's true, I can get pretty animated and passionate about it (as a couple of young people who were thus ensnared by me not long ago found out).

As many of you know, the world of mental health struggles is both my outer world (what I study and work within) and my inner world (what I often suffer myself). It's a difficult field in many ways. Dealing with people's struggles and pain is what I do. It can, as you might imagine, get a person down. As some of you also know, I am also beginning to record and post talks on a 
Taming the Polar Bears YouTube channel and thus far I've talked more about the dark and difficult stuff. 

It can all become quite a weight to carry on top of the struggles in my personal life so I have to be very careful with my own mental states <understatement>. As you all know (or I hope you do), I rely mostly on the 
Positive Difference Making Fundamentals for working on and trying to maintain the best mental state balance I can. This is not a perfect process, I think you should know - I can falter like anybody else. It might be due to a sudden impact trigger or the accumulative effects of many things, large and small or both.

In any case, I realized this past week (after having a lot of fun talking to that young couple about music and the brain) that for me it's not enough to only practice the fundamentals like music therapy, I sometimes have to remind myself of all the fun brain stuff that got me jazzed about them in the first place. And it's not only about why 
I get jazzed about it, I have to remind myself how important these things are for you and your brain and mental health. I have to tell myself that I have to be much firmer about teaching these things and getting you to implement them. 

Most of you know (and for those who don't, you will know in time) that one of my other great passions about the study of brains is the concept of 
neuroplasticity. It is not only a great passion, it is the cornerstone for everything I believe about your ability to change and grow and learn and move forward from where you are now. Neuroplasticity and music are very closely related in the brain so it is important to touch on that here to form the basis for our understanding of what music therapy can do for you.

What I refer to as "positive change" neuroplasticity (there is a dark side to the brain's ability to adapt and change itself, we must bear in mind) needs a spark. It doesn't just happen out of the blue. It needs certain things to initiate the process. There are many ways we might think about this but for now let's think of it as part of the process of baking bread. For bread to become light and fluffy the way we like it - to expand, in other words - it needs yeast to start the process of rising. So to help get this process of positive neuroplasticity going, we need a "yeast" to begin this "leavening" of your brain and mind. 

Enter music. Music is a "yeast" that's going to get this magical process of neuroplasticity going. It's not the only "yeast" - there are many others - but I'll argue it's the most important because it is the most enjoyable and "easiest" way for us to stimulate our brains into neuroplastic activity and change. 


I'm going to talk in another post about why I believe in you so much (yes 
you. Not that other person you think I'm talking to, but you). I can - and will - wax on in shear rhapsody why I believe in you and your potential and believe you can get past where you are right now (wherever and however that might be) but I want to touch on that belief a bit here now. 

It's easy to talk about belief but for many it's woo-woo blowing rainbow unicorn farts up your butt stuff. As you all by now should know, that's not me. You don't need woo-woo "it's all going to be alright if you just believe" rainbow unicorn farts blown up your butt. It wasn't - and isn't - good enough for me and it's not good enough for you. My belief has to come from a very solid foundation of science and evidence. My job then - the job of this blog (and coming talks) - is to pass that along to you so 
your belief is built on solid foundations, not woo-woo unicorn farts that will shift or blow away with every passing breeze (not to mention storms!). No, no, no, we need something much more solid than that to weather all the crap we go through. 

Back in the post on 
an introduction to belief I talked about evidence based belief. This here is what I was talking about and why. When I say I believe in you, I can look into your brain and vividly imagine all the potential you may have there waiting to be discovered, unlocked and nurtured. Again, this is not woo-woo imagination, this is imagination based on fantastic amounts of current knowledge on brains, how they work and their enormous potential power and capabilities. This, folks, is why I love studying neuroscience - to not only know about the potential that lies within you, but the very neuroanatomical basis for it all. 

So, my fine feathered mental health suffering friends, if your belief is not there yet, I'm going to ask you to put your trust in my belief in you - deal?

As regular readers and followers will know, my posts seldom take form without some kind of long Bradonian preamble so without any further ado, let's proceed. 

Music and the Brain

Before I start talking about this in more detail, here's where we brush up a bit on our basic brain anatomy  with this handy 'road map' of some of the brain regions related to music therapy that we'll look at and discuss here today. 

In the introductory post I mentioned that nothing stimulates more regions of the brain than music. This is especially true for playing music, of course, but it is also true when we are listening to music. This gives us a good idea of what I meant by that. 


Let's look at these in more detail to get a better understanding of each and their importance in a well designed music therapy program. 

Let's start with the obvious - the auditory cortex

Auditory issues will be a problem in many cases of depression and anxiety along with ageing. Due to various inner and external stressors, this area can become over sensitized and misfire leading to irritability with sounds around us (even ones that would not normally be irritating). New evidence is emerging that tinnitus that often accompanies cases of depression and anxiety (and indeed will become a significant contributing factor) may be due to - as those in the brain biz would say - 
maladaptive auditory cortex reorganization or "unfavourable plastic changes" (part of the "dark side" of neuroplasticity that I often refer to). Certain ageing related hearing loss may well be due to what's going on in the auditory cortex rather than the "signal gathering devices" (IE: your outer and inner ear). 

That aside, it is the auditory cortex and tracts that will analyze the more intricate components of music like tones, intervals, melodies, timbre and rhythm. 

These are aspects and factors we want to keep in mind when selecting music and musical sounds for a music therapy program. 

Next, let's look at the corpus callosum 

Our brains have two hemispheres (I talk about these in some detail in 
this post in my neuroscience blog). Over there I debunk the myth of "left brain" and "right brain" people and personality traits, nonetheless there is a great deal of quite distinct "division of labour" between the hemispheres. It is vital for balanced thinking and perspectives that these two regions work well together. I've spoken often of the main "trunk lines" of white matter (bundles of axons, AKA our connectome) and the corpus callosum is one of the key bundles as it is what connects the two hemispheres. Enormous amounts of "data traffic" must pass back and forth through it. 

It's not hard to imagine, then, that the right kind of stimulation for this all important axon bundle can be tremendously beneficial to overall brain function. 

Moving downwards and to the rear of our brain we will find the "little brain", the cerebellum 

This humble and rather ancient part of our brain "hardware" is of enormous interest to us here when it comes to music therapy. It is here that the great majority of planning and execution of movements takes place. How well this region functions and is connected to the rest of the brain is crucial to all our physical movements. We take these things for granted but it is finer motor skills that decline with age and eventually lead to falls and general "clumsiness". As we age, however, we tend to not only be less active, but our movements tend to become more routine putting less demand on this region to "stay sharp". One of the tenets of neuroplasticity is "use it or lose it", meaning that critical connections within the cerebellum plus networks connecting it to other regions of the brain such as the sensory and motor cortex

We will address the sensory and motor cortex together here rather than separately as their activity is so closely connected to that of the cerebellum. Within these two regions are mini-regions that correspond to all parts of the skeletal-muscular parts of your body. It is these regions that when damaged by a stroke will result in paralysis. These areas too then are very important for body movement and tactile sensations related to parts of the body. 

The cerebellum and motor cortex must maintain vast connection networks for your body movements to work properly. But again, keeping in mind "use it or lose it", these will become less strongly connected if we do not regularly move our bodies in challenging ways (as opposed to simple routine walking, for example). We see this not only as we age but as I brought up in the 
lecture on depression, psychomotor retardation can occur along with vegetative states and fatigue (all related, I believe). These all impair a patient's physical ability to move and we will see a negative cycle of the less one can move the more impairment there will be. 

As music demonstrably stimulates all these regions and the connections between them, for this reason alone music therapy is an absolutely essential part of any treatment or recovery program for depression or any major psychiatric or mood disorder. 

But the importance and roles of the cerebellum doesn't end there. 

A good body of research over the past twenty-five years shows strong evidence that the cerebellum has significant connections to brain areas involved in higher cognitive functions, including the prefrontal cortex (see more below). The cerebellum appears to play important roles in both coordinating and helping motor cortex areas automate cognitive functions (thus making them more efficient and easier). 

These networks are crucial to stimulate as much as possible.  

Let's now leap forward (sort of literally) to the prefrontal cortex

The term most associated with the prefrontal cortex area is "executive function" which, briefly, relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts (1), determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social "control" (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).

What I found of great interest is that a good deal of study has indicated an integral link between a person's will to live and PFC activity, something that obviously is critically important in many cases of depression. It has also been strongly tied to planning complex cognitive behavioiur, personality expression and decision making. We can think of the general "job" of this region to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. 

For a number of reasons, impairment of or difficulty in many of these functions will be associated with virtually all mood and psychiatric disorders. I need to get to this in more detail in another post but briefly activation of the PFC becomes reduced (though I do touch on this a bit in 
this post). And again, with the basic brain principle of "use it or lose it", the less stimulation there is of a region, the more it and brain wide network connections will atrophy or weaken. 

I think we can now see how crucial it is to 
positively stimulate this region and related networks as much as we can! 

Let's look at the 
hippocampusamygdala and nucleus accumbens collectively. By now we are becoming more familiar with the former two in our looks at the limbic region of the brain in relation to stress and emotional responses. The hippocampus is greatly involved in encoding and retrieval of memories of experience (episodic memory) and the amygdala is central to how we experience and react to emotions, fears, dangers and threats. Both of these will be involved in depression, bipolar disorder and other psychiatric and mood disorders. 

The nucleus accumbens is a key "relay hub" in dopamine pathways related to reward and pleasure. It is located "upstream" from the Ventral Tegmental Area (where dopamine pathways originate). Activation here is critical for passing along dopamine signalling from the VTA to the pre-frontal cortex where it may be involved in a number of higher functions such as long term motivation and reward. 

The right kind of music therapy has positive affects on all these brain nodules and there is even some compelling evidence that listening to music can stimulate 
neurogenesis in the hippocampus, which is kind of the holy grail of neuroplasticity. 

Now, it's not only these specific regions that are activated and stimulated by music. 

Let's first look closer within them to get a better idea of what kind of neuroplasticity we're kicking into gear. 

Music and Neuroplasticity in the Brain - the Finer Details

Okay, now we have to think back on and recall some 
neuroscience 101 stuff. Here we have our neuron illustration from back then.


For many neurons, their jobs are to "encode stuff" - all the tiny fragments of details that make up all kinds of memory and higher cognitive functions. The "stuff" of these neurons isn't static - it changes according to input and even our very thoughts. Other specialized neurons are involved in perception and learning. These too are not static and respond to new experiences and learning. In neuroscience 101 I said that the activity in a single neuron has been compared to that of an entire city (I really must get to that in some detail some day - fascinating stuff, I can assure you!). 

When we "input" new information or "put in a call" for existing information, there will be furious amounts of activity within neurons relative to that task all in real time.

So just within individual neurons in many, many critical regions related to higher cognition, perception and memory they are stimulated in very important ways. This is just one aspect of the 'positive' neuroplasticity stimulated by music. 

Neurons will get excited as all hell with this activity and get all 
fired up to connect to other related neurons or even unrelated neurons that may "be interested" in this juicy new stuff (or even juicy old stuff! - neurons can be great gossips). Which takes us to the next step of all this neuroplasticity we're kicking into motion. 

As I've said numerous times in various posts, all that information and activity within individual neurons is "useless" if they cannot connect to and pass that information along to networks of other neurons to complete "big picture" processes of cognitive functions, memory formation and recall, etc. 

Along those lines, it's important to understand that a single neuron can play many roles in several different senses and cognitive, memory and perception functions. 

Let's look at the next illustration. This gives a rough idea of the "flow" of information through a network of neurons. 


Let's imagine that that single neuron on the left is the one from the above illustration and it's all full of fun and exciting stuff. We want that baby connected! 

The bursts of information flow along axons (the direction of the arrows) and are received by dendrites (the little spikes reaching out towards the axons). At the point they connect are the synapses that I've been writing about. Let's have another quick look. 



The connections between axons that are sending the information take place at dendrites and synapses. I don't want to get into the details of this again here today (I get into quite a bit of detail about these connections 
here  and there elsewhere) but briefly and generally speaking for keeping positive aspects of brain functioning sharper, the more dendrites and synapses the better. 

The number and quality of these connections are an enormous part of neuroplasticity as well and this is precisely the kind a well designed music therapy program will stimulate. 

Now, I'm going to show you how important this is. 


These phases are considerably more complex than that and there's more to the time lines of them but this gives us a good general idea. As well, please ignore at the bottom where it says "conscious front portion of the brain" as that is quite misleading. What we want to pay attention to is that middle peak part. That's generally what we want - lots of dense connections (though not 100% necessarily - more in a moment). What I need you to 
really pay attention to is to the right. For most people that's what will happen. That's what cognitive and memory decline looks like. Note that there are still lots of neurons - they actually do pretty well with this whole aging thing - it's the connections that are lost. Lose connections and memories and cognitive functions are impaired, slowed and perhaps lost. Not good, folks. 

That shows decline in older age but in many cases of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mood disorders in general, both cognitive and memory function decline are often part of the long term symptoms. In mood and psychiatric disorders the reasons and causes of these are a bit more involved though also very similar. Either way, a good deal of what is happening is the lost connections illustrated at right.

But - but! - and I need you to really drill this into your head: it does not have to go that way. Repeat: 
does not have to go that way. 

One more time: it 
DOES NOT HAVE TO GO THAT WAY.

There are a number of reasons for the mass "pruning back" and loss of connections we see on the right but the greatest, most likely and most common reason is because one of the most fundamental principles to brain function - use it or lose it. And that on the right, folks, is what "lose it" looks like. 

When you read or hear of "grey matter" in the brain and the loss thereof, this is a great deal of what that means. The denser connections and the building of them is what is happening when we hear of "increasing" grey matter. 

Okay, so what then does "use it" look like? Simply put it means regular stimulation. So what does that look like? There again are a number of possibilities but the two best known for maintaining connections and growing new ones are learning and new experiences. 

So what then do learning and new experiences look like? 

Well, the possibilities there are sort of endless but of course today we are looking at the effects of music on the brain. 

Music in general will stimulate more areas of the brain and more connections within them than almost any other activity.

One way to understand why music stimulates the brain so much is to understand how complex sound waves are. 

According to 
Dr Jon Lieff in Searching for the Mind, even the Fourier transform equations used by Einstein to analyze light fall far short of being able explain the brain's ability to analyze sound waves. Each note is made up of extremely complex series of vibrations, IE; the harmonics or overtones (these entail enormously involved mathematical ratios). 

Yet the brain takes all this and sorts into all the notes and so on that you experience as the sound of music. 

And while everything involved in the brain is going to be tremendously stimulated by that alone, that's not quite enough - we need learning and new experience. 

And that, folks, is why I emphasized in the 
original piece introducing music therapy that it is very important as part of designing your program that you include not only as much new music as possible. 

And not only that but the complexity of the composition is important as well. To give an idea of that, let's look at that a bit. 
 


It's figuring all that out and storing it away that's going stimulate so many brain wide regions and networks. 

And it doesn't end there!

It's not just neurons and all those connections that are stimulated, it's that big beautiful "wiring harness" or connectome of ours that will also be greatly involved and stimulated. The connectome is all the "long distance" wiring that connects all these regions we've been looking at. 

Just check out this beautiful illustration! 


This too can experience loss with age and/or lack of good stimulation and key bundles of axons will be very actively stimulated as your brain roars around all over dancing to the beat of all kinds of music. 

And the benefits of music don't end there!

While all this stimulation of neurons and spurring connections and growth all over the brain is fantastic, there are actually several key areas we want to 
de-stimulate. We want those regions and networks to calm down and not be so connected to our overall brain activity that creates our conscious experiences. 

These will be areas in the amygdala and hippocampus associated with fearful memories, difficult emotions or emotional responses and so on plus their related places throughout the brain. The right kind of music can calm those down and reduce their activity and thus their roles in our behaviours, moods and reactions to outside and inner stimuli. 

As well, there are powerful areas in the brain involved in ruminative negative thinking (recall that we looked at these back in the post on 
Staying in the Now). This is where many people get trapped in depressive episodes and part of what's happening is the build up of too much activity and connectivity within these areas and long distance connections to other parts of the brain. This is the kind of "use it" we don't want! This is more what we want under the "lose it" end of neuroplasticity, IE; we want these areas deactivated and calmed down more and to not be so much a part of what is producing our thoughts, emotions and general conscious experience. 

And a well designed music therapy program will help us there as well. When we feel ourselves slipping into those times of ruminating negative thoughts (and probably lots of negative self-appraisal and beating ourselves up thoughts and morose, pessimistic visions and ideas of ourselves and the future) if we instead switch to certain kinds of music, we can get our brains away from activating those areas and get stimulation and activation going in all the areas we looked at above, instead. In addition to de-stimulating those specific areas, we are also reducing the activity in the connectome that that "wires" those regions into our overall mental activities and states thus reducing their "hold" on us. It takes time, but gradually this 
will make a difference. 

A well designed music therapy program done in concert with (a little play on words there) some variation of my 
brain training exercises in which we're learning to focus on positive self-talk, problem solving and looking for the best outcomes possible will be very, very powerful in all kinds of positive neuroplasticity and thus building better mental states and long term cognitive and emotional regulation functions. 

I think now we have a very strong understanding of why this 
Positive Difference Making Fundamental is so vital. As I said in the original post, when we are hammered by the fatigue and everything seems so impossible and exhausting to do, it can be really, really challenging to do any of the things we know are important for getting better. And it is prolonged stretches of this fatigue, mental fog and so on that will greatly contribute to the loss of connections we looked at above and thus create the symptoms of loss of cognitive and memory functioning. This is a huge reason why music therapy is so important to you - you absolutely must exercise your brain in some way to increase the chances of getting better and music can do that better than anything else you can do. 

What's most exciting about what music does for the brain and positive neuroplasticity, is that all this brain wide stimulation really helps "set the table" or "activates the yeast" for all kinds of other neuroplasticity for learning, creativity, better more positive imagination and so on (known as 
metaplasticity).

Phew, that's a lot! I know that's a great deal of information to take in but trust me, your brain is soaking it up. Just reading posts like this is positive stimulation!

Stay tuned and thanks for reading!


(1) When we are practicing mindfulness CBT this is one of the brain regions we're activating, "building up" and strengthening its connections to other parts of the brain.



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