Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Illusion of Free Will

Today's topic is, to say the least, controversial. Regular readers may have picked up the fact that I do not believe in "free will". I have danced around this topic since first beginning to write about neuroscience, the brain, life and "us" back in the fall of 2013 and feel it's time that I at last fully address it head on. 

First, however, I must attempt to make some things as clear as I can (I say "attempt to" for no matter how clear one states views there will be those who see it their own way regardless of what the writer or speaker writes or states).

This is not a "philosophical debate". 

I'm afraid I must say I have little to no interest in the traditional "philosophical stances" regarding free will. In my view, we may as well consult the book of Genesis to study geology and biology. Philosophical positions are little more than opinions based on one's own reasoning, which is largely based on similar reasoning from long expired philosophers. Virtually all philosophical "arguments" in favour of "free will" can be distilled down to abstract positions and who said what. Few of them - if any - actually examine the "territory" itself; the brain. Or in other words, the reasoning is based on flawed or incomplete premises. The best logical reasoning in the world will lead to wrong answers if based on faulty or incomplete premises

"Map vs territory" is something I'll have to leave for another day but briefly the vast majority of "studies" you will come across regarding human behaviour and concepts such as "free will" are "maps" - artificial constructs that reflect ideas and thoughts and impressions and theories but contain little of the actual "territory" itself. Imagine a city as complex as Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York or London. There is no one way to understand any of these cities. You could visit each a thousand times and come away with different perspectives and understandings with each visit depending on how you visited or with whom or the circumstances you fell into or how freely you explored each time. 

But what if your understanding of any of these great cities was only based on a simple map without ever having been to them? A map that reflected the map maker's mind and purpose? Or you do go and you allow your entire experience of the city to be shaped by the simple map? How could you argue that was an accurate depiction or understanding of the actual territory, the city itself and its nearly endless number of variables among neighbourhoods, peoples, lifestyles, infrastructures, the "flow" of each day according to weather and numerous other factors?

Again, this is a long and deep topic, but this is in fact what the vast majority of "studies" are; maps of understanding that reflect the mind of the map makers, be they philosophers, many (if not the majority) of scientists and so on. 

And so it is with the brain; the great majority of those who pretend to understand human behaviour study not neuroanatomy or neurobiology but are instead map makers who base their "maps" on previous (generally outdated) "maps" or maps of maps and on and on. 

If you truly want to understand the territory, then study the territory, not "maps".

Follow the evidence, not beliefs

It never fails to astonish me how much the vast majority of people want to match the evidence to the belief or set out with a belief and fit the evidence to it or ignore any evidence to the contrary. I am not talking religious "believers" here, though I would bet the farm that was the first thing that came to most of your minds. No, no, I'm talking a great deal of science, sociology, politics, mind sciences, business, and other fields populated, presumably, by very smart and well educated people. 

For the record, when I started studying all this brain stuff five years ago (very early in 2013), I felt very, very strongly in favour of free will. I felt - for the sake of corralling my brain and life - there had to be free will. I cannot tell you how much I wanted some sort of "free will" control over this often pernicious and wayward behaving noggin of mine. But evidence just kept trumping my need for my belief and the deeper I got into how the brain works, the enormous complexity of it all, the nearly incalculable number of variables at any given moment in a person's life that may steer them this way or that, it just hit me - "no way can we "control" any of that". 

Not only that, it was the complete absence of any hard evidence for free will. And I mean nil. 

This not an argument for determinism of any kind

It is very unfortunate that the first thing that comes to most people's minds when they hear a case against "free will" is that it is an argument for "determinism". 

Determinism is another term from philosophy which has long outlived its purpose, if it ever really had a purpose in the first place. 

Arguments for determinism are far, far too simplistic. Determinism implies that there are absolute predictable outcomes for given circumstance. Too often it is couched in "A" and "B" choices. 

In truth life on earth and the universe in which earth itself exists contains far too many unknowable variables for there ever to be any kind of "predetermined" outcome with absolute predictability. It's true that many circumstances will have predictable outcomes. An airplane that runs out of fuel at 36,000 feet outside of any kind of gliding range to a safe landing will fall from the sky at quite a predictable rate and the fate of all on board is, yes, "determined". But what led to that aircraft running out of fuel started with many, many unpredictable random events. 

Determinism invariably comes down to the humancentric need for "certainty" and "predictability", this need for absolute predictable outcomes. I argue that the belief in determinism is ludicrous, again, because life on earth and the ongoing events of the universe contain too many unknown and unpredictable variables. Certain things are predictable, yes, but all of life itself? Your life? 

No. Your "life" is not "determined" precisely by any one thing. Your life span is somewhat determined, for example. You are made up of trillions of microscopic biological organisms called cells and these will break down at a fairly (though not precisely) predictable rate and at some point you will expire naturally as all living things will. Or you may meet your end through various circumstances of incalculable variables. 

It's also true that many, many possible factors will determine to some degree various aspects of a given person's abilities and life choices. 

However, there is no such thing as any kind of grand determined predictable "fate". This model of "determinism" ignores the vast complexities of life and the widely varying spectrum of any one aspect of life. There is something called "chaos theory" which somewhat helps understand this.

So no, please, do not jump to the conclusion that "no free will" is an "argument" for "determinism". 

In fact this not an argument "for" anything. Nor, precisely, "against" anything. Since beginning my Odyssey into the study of the human brain and behaviour, I have simply followed the facts as they were, starting with general neuroanatomy, then finer and finer neuroanatomy, neurobiology, etc, etc. What this does, what it doesn't do, what generates this and what regulates it <endless etcetera>. Then on to the cognitive neurosciences where we depart somewhat from the "concrete" of "hard science" and enter the realm of more abstract study of such things as cognition, thoughts, imagination, dreams, "reality" and perception, beliefs (an area full of irony, I can tell you), self-perceptions and the grand Holy Grail of all of neuroscience and philosophy, consciousness, all of which is our humancentric drive to understand the age old question of "who am I?" and other such existential naval gazing questions. 

Then into the study of "actions" and "behaviours", all through the lens of my (sorta somewhat famous) quest for "why?". 

It started out wanting to answer the question of why people committed suicide. Why this person and not that person? Why this time and not all those prior times? And nearly endless questions along these lines, all of which led to further and further questions of why we do anything

And again, I did not want answers from the usual philosophical twaddle people are fond of espousing, nor from the vast majority of psychology and definitely not the totally lost field of psychiatry. These fields were and are full of "map people" with either no direct meaningful knowledge or understanding of the actual territory or in fact completely ignorant of it or led completely astray by predetermined beliefs based mostly on commercial needs (yes, psychiatry, I'm talking about you and your pharmaceutical partners). 

For reasons I will probably never be able to adequately explain, I just fell completely in love with studying pure, raw neuroscience. Few things excite me more than journeying through a single neuron and what makes it "tick" or not, how it connects with others, and on and on and on (for a super brief introduction to all this brain geekery, please see neuroanatomy 101). 

So yeah, for me it's just simply pointing out how things actually work, rather than our outdated notions of how most people want to think it works. 

Follow the evidence, not beliefs. 

What the hell is free will anyway?

As with any abstract concept, the semantics of the term itself gets rather fuzzy. And frankly, having now examined the evidence (the territory, remember) for this question in great depth for some years now, I'm not sure most people who argue about "free will" really understand what it means (yes, I am aware of all the rocks pelting off my windows from enraged free will proponents wanting to boil me in oil). 

Just setting the semantics of free will, the definition of it, could trail off towards untold numbers of dark alleys and dead ends (at best) or never ending long and winding roads (at worst) so we'd better come up with something somewhat satisfying so we all sorta know what we're examining. 

Proponents of free will seem to believe that there's this "I" that has some sort of "agency" over our actions, thoughts, decisions, behaviours, and so on. There are numerous possible needs for this belief, no shortage of them centered around this need to hold people culpable for whatever they do; in other words, it's about blame and punishment. In other words, it's rather Biblical.

On a personal - I would say egocentric - level, we just all want to believe that "we" are "in control". Admittedly, this is a seemingly handy thing to believe in. A sense of control is crucial for many people's sense of well being, their need to believe in their accomplishments, the fruits of their labours, their ideas, their creations, this sense that "they" did this and that. (a whole piece on the egocentric human is coming at some point)

So a great deal of this need to believe in free will seems to come down to this need to feel or believe in this "I" who is the agent of their life and this need for culpability which itself is rooted in our ancient (and I mean very ancient) needs to blame, judge and punish.

To me, however, it seems we should have grown past all that. To me it's the equivalent of believing the sun revolves around the earth (from our previous horrendously humancentric view of the universe).  

As necessary as it may seem to be, however, so called "free will" is an illusion, and like so many humancentric beliefs before it, the belief in this illusion needs to fall. 

And no, this will not lead to the collapse of civilization or any particular rise in bad behaviour at all. 

Au contraire, mon amies, I would argue that the stubborn belief in free will is actually dangerous, that is this belief that "we" are fully in control agents responsible for this or that action or decision is what is keeping us shackled to terribly outdated beliefs and notions of what does make people (or you) tick and furthermore, for correcting what we'll just call "socially incorrect" behaviours. 

Okay, to understand this, we need to look at a few basic things involved in this premise known - for better or worse - as "free will". 

Who are we? 

Who indeed is anyone. As regular readers will know, a great deal of this blog points out that whatever "we" are, it's created by or arises from that 3.1 tofu like blob between your ears, which for the vast, vast majority of you will be a fairly standard off the rack homo sapien version of literally millions upon millions of other versions of brains. As regular readers will also have been pummeled to death with, our spiffy modern homo sapien brain didn't just pop out of the oven spontaneously all by itself (Genesis adherents notwithstanding); it evolved from various of those millions upon millions of previous brain models in processes that themselves took millions upon millions of years. 

Take any human brain, cut away the "human parts" (the outer cortex of humans is quite unique and particularly the prefrontal cortex) and what you would find in there would be an even more standard off the rack brain that could be found in virtually any mammal species (yes, I know, takes a bit of the glamour out of this whole human business, doesn't it). 

And what would we find down there? Without getting into tedious neuroanatomical detail, we'd find pretty standard limbic region stuff and brain stem stuff, all of which does pretty mundane things like running a great deal of who "you" are; emotions, reactions, fears, regulation of responses to heat or cold, hunger, sex drives, and all kinds of instinctive drives that are pretty fundamental throughout the critter world. 

And what are some of those instinctive drives? 

We could gussy them up with all kinds of fancy terms that make we homo sapiens sound more sophisticated but basically they are:

- food

- shelter

- procreation (sex)

These three will drive the vast majority of human behaviours. Our more "advanced" and "sophisticated" modern selves of course have more interesting ways than baboons, for example, for acquiring them such as bartering (usually money of some kind) but at our cores, regardless of what we "think" we're doing, on some level we are satisfying these three fundamental needs. 

Many, many, many other behaviours, "thoughts" (for lack of a better term), actions, etc will in fact be driven by perceived or real "threats" to these or the means to keep them. 

Which, I must point out, is not really all that different from most other creatures with whom we share this planet. 

So as wonderfully "advanced" or "sophisticated" as we all think we are with our "smart phones" (a term I am not fond of), snazzy cars, Home and Garden homes, Vogue clothes (and on and on), or even the "higher educations" many feel so proud of, it's mostly all about those three things. 

Do we ever think of those three things as we go about all our "decisions"? Very likely not. Unless they're suddenly threatened or perceived to be threatened (usually by a "rival group" - hello politics and religions and racial discord). Then a whole lot of "thinking" kicks into gear. Or we're being driven by those deeper brain regions to acquire them. Or satisfying someone else's need to acquire them. 

Do we "control" any of that? What "decisions" did we make about any of these things we have, or where we live, or work, or eat - or anything?

What is a decision making process anyway?

For this we must have a basic understanding of conscious awareness. This is a little more abstract but let's have a look. 

When we start poking around in brains and seeing all these astronomically vast numbers of neurons, connections between them (often very tenuous connections), "wiring", neurochemicals, hormones and what these all "do", it quickly becomes clear that the average person has absolutely no idea what's "beneath the hood" of their skull. I mean not a clue. Other than a vague idea that there is "a brain" in there. 

What all that stuff is "up to" at any given point is way, way, way beyond our abilities of awareness, and that's presuming a higher level of self-awareness in the first place. 

And speaking of "you" or "I", where are "you" (or "me") in all of that?

The truth is nobody really knows. "You" just sort of "emerge" out of all that "neurostuff" which itself is connected to all kinds of "body stuff", all of which - your guts in particular (or gastrointestinal tract to be somewhat more formal) - probably have more "say" in what you do or "plan" than "you" do. 

Below the conscious "you" and whatever "thoughts" you may be aware of at any one point, all your sensory equipment and limbic region "hardware" is monitoring all that goes on around you, responding to smells, sounds, sights, tactile sensations, all well, well below your conscious awareness. And all of these regions are "talking" to other "higher" brain regions carefully steering "you" this way or that. 

The ever popular dopamine pathways (I know I love studying and writing about it) are always quietly keeping you tuned into - if not locked into - all kinds of "goals" (AKA; pleasure rewards), themselves mostly attuned to those basic survival needs.

We could go on for several hundred thousands more words about literally hundreds of neuroanatomical or neurobiological (read hormones and neurochemicals) factors that steer "you" this way or that, or create your "moods" this way or that way, 99.9% of which you have no awareness of whatsoever. 

Where, exactly, do the free will proponents think this "I" is in there? They literally have no idea and if they claim to they are being very dishonest. 

Where does this "I" come from even? At what point does this "I" who is the "agent" of our actions and thoughts begin?

As we saw briefly in Genetic and Environmental Factors in Individual Brain Development, who any person "is" is the result of
nearly unfathomable numbers of factors utterly, utterly beyond anyone's awareness, let alone control.

At what point in that incredibly complex process involving virtually countless possible developmental variables does this agent known as "I" "take the wheel"?

Many would probably answer something along the lines of the age where an individual starts to experience metacognition (usually at some point just before or after puberty). 

This point of "self-awareness", this metacogntion, is often linked to such things as autonomy, self-regulation, self-evaluation, moral and ethical reasoning and regulation and so on. 

But where do these come from? 

This is all happens in the frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex. But do "we" control what goes on in there? 

We may experience it as "control" but it is in fact just your standard off the rack homo sapien brain doing exactly what it evolved, developed and adapted itself for - guiding and regulating "you". "You", however, had nothing to do with its development or lack thereof. 

What factors develop healthily functioning frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex? The same factors we saw in Genetic and Environmental Factors in Individual Brain Development. 

Or we might just call it luck. The luck of being born into privilege and good housing, nutrition, family and education (and even this is no guarantee to produce a "well behaved" individual). 

Look at any kind of poor behavioural regulation (read: ethical, moral, socially/culturally acceptable  behaviours, actions, thoughts, etc) and you will find maldevelopment in key frontal lobe or prefrontal areas. Or perhaps lesions. Or perhaps the kind of neurodegeneration found in Alzheimer's, different types of dementia, CTE, much of which appears to affect frontal lobes more than other areas. 

At the other end of the brain, as it were, we come back to that standard off the rack limbic region where fears originate. It is nearly impossible to overstate how much the great majority of people are governed and motivated by fear or fears of all kinds; some of them instinctive, many of them learned. Or pain and avoidance of it. Many of these from childhood experiences that could never fully be overcome. 

Anything about any given person's behaviour can be altered for the worse (but not for the better, I'm afraid) by "knocking out" key regulatory brain regions or the white matter between those and behaviour generating regions (limbic and brain stem). 

What about thoughts, you ask. 

Yes, what about thoughts? Or memories for that matter?

These are incredibly hard questions to answer and more is being discovered all the time but once again I am afraid "you" had next to no say in where any of that comes from. Hell, you had next to no "say" in the vast, vast majority of what went into your brain, let alone what it actually produces. There will be untold hundreds of possible influences into where the information in one's brain came from, how it influenced one, all of which just "happened" as we went about our childhoods, teen years, and early adulthood, the great majority of which resulted from cultural influences, the societal and family norms one grew up in and dozens and dozens of other possibilities. 

All of which bubbles up from deep subconscious regions and functions to produce what we consciously perceive and experience as "thoughts", "memories", "decisions" and anything else we "think" we "control". 

Yes, sobering, I know. 

But there it is. 

Why is "free will" unnecessary? 

Here we come back to my love and admiration for the human brain. It is, quite simply for now, the most remarkable biological organism ever to have evolved. All brains' purpose is to get their host organism through life. And the human brain is the most powerful "survival" organism that exists. It has powers that do not exist anywhere in the known universe nor in the history of life on earth. 

The human brain is wonderfully adept for the most part at navigating through life and adapting to circumstances and finding solutions. All brains do this, the human brain can do it better than any other. 

Presuming, of course, that it is fully healthy and all the brain regions necessary developed properly. And this is a very large - and dangerous - presumption. 

Why then is the illusion of free will dangerous?

For many reasons and this will take further explorations. 

My initial reason for studying what really creates moods and behaviours and dispelling the illusion of "free will" in people was to truly understand the real world struggle so many people have in overcoming their moods, understanding their "faults", the behaviours in themselves they don't like or consistently regret, the thoughts they have trouble controlling, the poor choices they made and all those other things so many of us struggle with, try so hard to overcome yet just, for whatever reason, cannot. And to lessen the suffering they experience from being blamed and beat up by others, or blaming or beating up themselves. 

But also because so much of society is about "blaming" and "judging" and worse, "punishing" with the vast, vast, vast majority of "punishment" having absolutely no redeeming value whatsoever - except in the mind of the punisher(s). 

There are many, many neuroscientists who see it this way as well. 

How can we as individuals improve ourselves if we don't understand the biological and physiological basis for what we are experiencing? 

What if poor brain health, or maldevelopment or damage of some kind has taken away individual "agency" over our actions, thoughts, behaviours and so on?

This, dear readers, is perhaps one of the most important issue facing us today. 

The belief, the assumption, that every individual has "free will" agency over all aspects of their lives, decisions, thoughts and so on is the very thing standing in the way of people asking for help, of seeking help. I would argue that it is a great part of what gives rise to denial. 

It is what stops society from accepting that many people need help, not punishment.

Many, many people struggle with feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. Imposing one all encompassing notion of "free will" on every individual is again a major roadblock for understanding the real struggles of so many people and for them seeking and getting what might best help them. 

How can we "correct" behaviours or improve lives if we don't know the real underlying root causes of the issues? 

The truth is that we can't. 

And any belief that we can is pure illusion. 

An illusion that is standing in the way of more humane and effective ways of treating and rehabilitating those who find themselves at the bottom of or "afoul" of society. 

Which, quite frankly, I simply find barbaric. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Dilemmas, Decisions and Letting Go

Image result for decisions

The above image representing the "heart" and the "brain" is popularly used to represent a difficult "decision" or internal dilemma. The idea is that what we "feel" we associate with the "heart" - you know, all that "gut instinct" stuff (an image of your internal organs makes for a decidedly less compelling image though) - and what we think is represented by the "brain" - you know, all that "higher order" cognitive stuff. The sense is that these two are at odds with each other thus "we" (whatever "we" are) feel "torn". 

It is, of course, nothing like that though we do "feel" a lot of what we experience in these decision dilemmas as pangs in the heart and gut. This is stress response system related hormones charging about and kicking up a fuss here and there, however. What's really going on is a "war of the minds"; all kinds of brain regions battling for control in this "decision making" process that it's ostensibly well designed to do. Memory circuitry is of course much involved and that's very much rooted in the limbic region. Our more "passionate" selves can also more or less be found here and in the brain stem below that (it is in this area where all manner  of "brain hijacking" hormones get released and roar around, not to mention pleasure circuit neurotransmitters and so on). Way up in the brain, right behind our foreheads lies the vaunted homo sapien pre-frontal cortex, whose often hopeless task is to rein in all that merry making going on in your limbic region and brain stem (think doughnut vs diet as a simple but classic example). This is what is represented by the "brain" in the image above. 

It's vastly more involved than that, however, with dizzying numbers of neuronal networks connected by "wiring" so astronomically complex that no one could say with any certainty how the whole tangle connects or not all attempting to respond to this "make a decision" command that has come from somewhere (we'd like to think it is "us" but I'm afraid it's not).

Nobody likes to imagine all that (because so few actually can) so our endearing "heart" vs "brain" image will have to do. 

In any case, dear little moi is facing a dilemma and has to make some significant decisions. The pieces of the puzzle are complex, each seeped with enormous amount of emotion, each with great life changing effects. Add to an already complex puzzle a very interesting piece of recent news regarding "the troubles" of my own particular noggin.  

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Regular readers may be aware that the disorder I live with is bipolar type I. I have never really completely written about all of my psychiatric history and the severe symptoms I experienced related to bipolar. I am not about to bore my dear readers and followers with that now. I must, however, touch on them briefly. 

As I have alluded to in various posts here and there, starting roughly in summer 2008 through to spring 2014 I experienced some of the most extreme mental and behavioural symptoms that might fall along the bipolar spectrum. As I hope regular readers will by now know, the vast majority of help available to me in the mental health care system and through the traditional pharmacological psychiatric treatment model not only couldn't control it, I got worse. Which is why five years ago I took up all the study that now goes into this blog; the neuroscience of human behaviour and mind phenomenon.

Through my study of everything to do with bipolar from the best sources I could find and through looking at dozens and dozens of cases and talking with or listening to dozens of people diagnosed as bipolar and carefully analyzing all of what I experienced, it was obvious that my case was at the extreme edges of an already fairly extreme mental health disorder (many people in the various fields of study and treating bipolar consider it the most difficult of all psychiatric disorders).

To think of my study of human behaviour and mind phenomenon in more detail, I wanted to look into every single symptom of the most difficult disorders which caused the most mental health and life impacts such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major anxiety disorder and track down the neuroscience and neurobiology of each and every one of them, along with every possible genetic and environmental factor. If this sounds like a daunting endeavor, it is. (and to put my personal challenges into perspective, at various points over that six year span I would have met diagnostic criteria to be diagnosed with all four of those disorders). 

Not only that, I wanted to know how people could overcome all those symptoms without drugs.  

Then I set out to prove it could be done. One by one I ruthlessly tracked down each symptom and worked on it. One by one I tamed or slew them. 

Yet various things still persisted. 

One, I discovered in the early months of 2014, was mitochondrial disease. This affects the ability of every single cell in your body and brain to effectively produce energy. It was not hard to see that a great number of the common most difficult symptoms could be related to mitochondrial dysfunction. 

"Haha!", I thought, "finally I know the final piece of the puzzle. Now I've got this son of a bitch by the tail!"

So I set out to learn everything there was to know about that and deal with it as best I could.

One by one I tracked down anything and everything that could be involved in worsening mitochondrial disease and how to better manage energy. One by one of these I either dealt with myself or was graciously helped in solving all the environmental and living circumstances that could worsen it. In February 2016 it became possible for me to live in a large suite on my own that was utterly ideal for the needs of Mrs Bean and myself. 

I thought I was finally on my way and went at all my ambitions with great and joyous gusto in the first four months after moving in.  

Then came June. The all encompassing mental and physical fatigue struck again with a vengeance. It was as bad as ever. We're talking complete brain fog, catatonic states, being just able to get by in taking care of day to day physical needs. 

There was one more factor greatly lacking in my life and in early July of 2017 I made a big decision; I contacted a woman I knew was a great admirer of mine with whom I'd previously explored the possibility of being together (she had been a long time follower of Taming the Polar Bears, the Bean-mobile adventures, etc). Her feelings had not changed and so I decided to propose to her. She happily accepted. 

Oh joy! Love! Partnership! A loving, supportive partner who got everything I did with the Polar Bears and how I lived my life! 

What greater tonic could there be! 

Yet still various things persisted. And began to worsen. 

I can assure you that few people on the planet are more self-aware of and work on themselves more than I do (and have so much to work on). It was August of 2017 that I began to notice symptoms in my head that I had not noticed before. 

I am very, very careful about symptoms we observe in ourselves. I am exceedingly aware and cautious of reading too much into them and jumping to conclusions. Various observable and/or experienced symptoms can mean many things. These, however, were very unusual. I'd experienced severe headaches most of my life, mostly the usual tension ones. These headaches were very different from those. They did not match migraine symptoms. As well, there was something different about "brain fog" episodes, something I'd never noticed before; very odd sensations throughout my skull and down into my face. I had no idea what to make of them and I knew an average GP wouldn't either so I just made note of them and carried on. 

I focused on my new relationship and all the bureaucratic bother involved in getting her to Canada. 

Yet the "new" symptoms persisted. And began to worsen. 

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It's nearly impossible to convey the love and passion and drive I had for studying neuroscience and anything and everything to do with the human brain and how that would affect behaviour. I won't recount that here but one of the areas I got greatly into (partially out of my love for neuroscience, partially out of my love for sports) was the newly emerged field of long term damage of and effects in later life of repeated concussions or head trauma early in life. This was an area where my two loves really merged and in fact it these two areas have to merge in order to even begin to understand the problem; for just about all information, data, case studies and so on are from athletes and sports, particularly high contact sports such as American football and ice hockey. I'd actually followed case studies and individual stories for at least ten years and when I got so deeply involved in neuroscience, I already had a pretty good body of understanding built up. 

What I saw from the neurological perspective and what was being found mortified me. I looked into it all very deeply among many different sources. Already having a solid grounding in so much about brain anatomy and the delicacy of the brain, I grasped it all very quickly and in depth. As much as I love both sports (football and hockey - I played both in my younger years), I could not conclude anything other than that it was very inadvisable to allow any child to play football as it's now taught in most schools and football programs across America and many in Canada. Brain damage can start very young and in every literal sense, be life altering and irreparable. 

This was all several years ago, and as I had so much other study on my plate, plus my own challenges and much else to focus on in writing for Taming the Polar Bears and managing all it was becoming, I moved on from studying concussion related neuroscience. 

In November of 2017 these new symptoms were worsening and becoming harder and harder to ignore. By chance I came across an article about concussions, post concussion syndrome and the long term effects of early life multiple concussions and head trauma. Lights of recognition lit up like a Christmas tree. It was staggering. The definitions of concussions, the symptoms experienced by many, many former and current athletes. Case studies and histories that I'd never seen in psychiatric disorders sounding like I could have been reading my own case history. 

For some days I began going back through my life from my teen years through the age of about forty-five. The first concussion came at age fifteen and was the most severe; I fell and struck my head on concrete. The last thing I remember was the sickening sound of skull meeting concrete. Then nothing. I'd been unconscious for at least an hour. Then began uncontrollable severe convulsions that lasted more than 24 hours. Back then we never knew what it was. Now I do. That was about as severe a concussion and symptoms as they get. 

There was another concussion playing hockey at around age sixteen. Again, full loss of consciousness and no memory of anything before or after (after getting up and "shaking it off", I played the rest of the game). 

Another severe concussion at age twenty in an industrial accident. Again, full loss of consciousness, convulsions and so on. I "shook it off" and went back to work the next day. 

Several more followed during my twenties. 

Another four or five came during my thirties and forties from motorcycle crashes and another industrial accident. 

The last one - in summer of 2006 - was when "everything began to change" for me and all my behavioural and personality changes along with mood and the most recent round of psychiatric disorder symptoms began (I had gone through them all before - particularly during my early to mid-thirties - but never anything like this).

All this time I've gone on the assumption that was all related to bipolar disorder and other comorbid conditions. 

But with everything I know about the brain, concussions and their damage plus the symptoms, it began to look more and more like all along I'd been dealing something much more than just bipolar. 

For some time I'd suspected that there had to be something else going on to make all my symptoms and what I experienced so much more strange and more intense than what you see in the vast majority of bipolar cases. It just didn't add up, it didn't make sense. I just could never put my finger on it. 

Now I could.

But I knew getting the kind of help I'd need would be very difficult. I knew this from my earlier study of concussions and long term effects in athletes. It's still a very new field. There's still lots of ignorance and denial, even - and perhaps especially so - in every field of practicing medicine. Very little is known about examining for it and diagnosing it. Most staff in hospitals only know about the effects of very recent concussions. The average GP is very poorly educated on it (this relates to the fact of how much all GPs get "trained" by pharmaceutical companies and reps and thus tend to ignore anything that falls outside of that narrow understanding). 

I wrestled with what to do. None of this is ever as clear cut or straight forward as you would imagine. 

Then, at the end of November, I met "the man of my dreams" (as I jokingly tell people). A powerful businessman and web developer, he looked through my blog, found that so much of what I wrote matched his views on those who fall to the bottom of society, saw the worldwide popularity of it and wanted to partner up with me on taking it all to a new level. 

This too was beyond my wildest dreams and hopes! All that I'd envisioned for five years for truly helping people online and in the real world would be realized! Plus - plus! - I'd get handsomely compensated for it and all my efforts! My partner created a plan and vision for a new website/blog and brick and mortar facilities across Canada that would eventually help hundreds of people per year and thousands around the world in novel and progressive ways that literally do not exist anywhere else on the planet. 

Oh joy! My ideal romantic partner and my ideal Taming the Polar Bears partner! And all on the same page with my visions and passions! What could possibly be better?!

Yet symptoms persisted. And worsened. And the periods of time of the worst of them lengthened. 

After one particularly unbearable 48 hour period, I went to the local ER to see what they could do. As I suspected - nothing. 

Finally I booked an appointment with my GP. This is more difficult than would appear as he is in my former town two hours away requiring a drive over the highway through hell during winter. My daughter ended up driving me (and naturally, through a raging snowstorm). 

My doctor and I have an unusually good relationship. He's young, progressive and was very empathetic to and sympathetic with all my homeless and living challenges of a few years ago. He also totally understood and respected my self directed approach to handling my bipolar disorder. Trust me, folks, a GP like this is pure gold. 

He asked what I was in to see him about and I told him what I suspected about long term concussion damage. "Well", he said, "you're a lucky man. I happen to one of the best doctors you'll meet in understanding all the latest about them". 

I'd prepared long detailed notes about my concussion history. I first described my symptoms; the unusual nature of the headaches, the other weird sensations I get in my head, the near endless throbbing pulsations, the dizzy spells, the brain fog, the periods of blurred vision. I got about a quarter of the way through describing my various concussions before he held up his hand. "That's all I need to hear", he said grimly. 

Tests need to be run to rule out a few other possibilities but he was very sure and unequivocal. 

He is almost certain we are looking at chronic trauma encephalopathy which is a fancy term for the unique type of brain degeneration that comes as a result of multiple untreated brain traumas earlier in life. Encephalopathy is a general term that means brain disease, damage, or malfunction, the specifics of which are notoriously hard to identify and apply to any one case. What is known is that the prognosis is not good. While many observable and experienced symptoms are similar, it should not be confused with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

So it turns out that all this time I've not only been dealing with arguably the most difficult psychiatric disorder there is and the crippling effects of mitochondrial dysfunction, but also CTE. 

Neither of these are curable. The mitochondrial disease I can sort of handle. I've gotten used to it. 

CTE is quite another matter, however. We are talking incurable and ravaging brain degeneration. It progressively gets harder and harder to deal with. The effects on the mind, behaviour, moods, cognition, memory - everything in short to do with Who We Are - is by now becoming extremely well documented (though not widely known or understood). 

Mitochondrial disease plus CTE? I dunno, folks. 

After forty years of literally scouring the face of the earth looking for love, I found the woman of my dreams. She will be here and we'll get married by this spring. 

After thirty-five years of literally scouring the face of the earth looking for a vocation that would make the best of my mind, talents and passionate interests, I find the partner of my dreams who could bring them to fruition in ways beyond my wildest dreams and would solve my chronic financial difficulties. 

Only to find out that I'm battling not one but two degenerative brain cell disorders. 

*   *   *   *   *

So, the dilemma. 

Managing the diseases, managing a wonderful new relationship and all the responsibilities of being a husband (for the first time in my life!) plus managing all the responsibilities that would come with building the non-profit organization and website of my partner's and my visions is not reasonable to expect. 

As I write this, the last four days have been particularly brutal. 

Something has to give. Life itself? Or the lives of my dreams?

At no point in my life has living ever meant just existing and drawing breath. Living to me has always meant drawing and wringing every last bit of life out of every day I've been blessed to have been given. It means wringing every bit out of every opportunity that comes my way. 

And for the first time in my rather colourful and adventurous life, that means fully enjoying and making all I can out of life with the woman of my dreams and the vocation of my dreams. 

Yet, what is going on in my brain and body cannot be ignored. 

Dilemmas, Decisions and Letting Go. 

Somewhere, some time, I have to decide what to let go. 

One of the "fun parts" of living with bipolar and, as it now turns out, the effects of CTE, is that I never wake up to the same person. Every day I have no idea "who" I'll wake up to be or "what" I'll wake up to be. This is another thing that I've had learn everything I could to get used to and "tame" over the past four and a half years. Despite all my best efforts, it's as true today as ever; I'm just better practiced at it. 

When I feel good, I'm as good as anyone. My mind can work far above average. 

Other days we're talking total shutdown and even simple conversation is challenging and draining. 

During the good stretches I feel I can handle it all - and I could - and feel I'd be a fool to turn down such an opportunity. It's more than just about me; it's about my family. It's about paying off large debts I owe them. It's about my daughter's future. It's about the future of my wife to be. It's about setting them up with financial security.

I cannot tell you how much I love discussing with and planning the long term visions of the newly incorporated Taming the Polar Bears Foundation with my new partner. He's done incredible work already with a fabulously detailed and realistic five year business plan (he is very experienced and successfully practiced with this sort of thing). It's incredibly exciting. 

But with that comes high expectations and work and responsibility loads. When healthy it's all within my abilities, experience and confidence.

Then a bad stretch like the last four days hits. Then I'm struck with the harsh reality of what's going on in my brain. 

My mind can still get unfathomably dark. 

I redouble my efforts on all of Positive Difference Making Fundamentals. I rest for much of each day. Slowly things begin to "come back on stream". 

Then I remind myself (and/or am reminded by others):

I ain't your average bear. 

- to be continued 

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. 


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 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. 


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. 


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. 


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). 


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. 


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.