Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus: Spirituality

Positive Difference
Making Fundamentals in Focus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

How to practice it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How and Why it Works to Change Your Brain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- BGE, February 24th, 2015. 

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

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

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Genetic and Environmental Factors of Individual Brain Development

Genetic and Environmental Factors
of Individual Brain Development

Evolution, Life and Why Our Brains
Developed the Way They Are

There are a number of reasons – aside from my personal fascination with this subject – that I believe it's useful to have a look at how our human brains got to where they are. Personally, I think it's crucial (which is why I'm taking the time to gather a small sampling of the relevant material and write out this chapter) but it's okay if you just consider it useful. If I do my job right and you follow along carefully, however, I think I may convince you that knowing how our brains developed from an evolutionary perspective is very important in understanding how your brain got to the point it's at and why it works the way it does which, if you're reading this material, could well mean that at this point you are having mental health difficulties.

While I believe this blog and the material I present within it will be of interest to virtually anyone, I do not want readers to lose sight of the fact that my main purpose is to create better and deeper understandings of mental health problems and further, to teach how to either cope with them better or even, perhaps, to eliminate them altogether (yes, it's possible in a considerable number of cases, particularly in the under 30 set). So I ask that all readers bear this in mind as we go along, whether you yourself suffer from mental health difficulties, a family member or close friend or associate does or whether you're just a decent human being and want to further and broaden your understanding of mental health issues.

As I mentioned in the chapter on basic brain anatomy, our brains – the current 21st century homo sapien brain – didn't just pop out of the oven as is; there were million and millions of years of “R&D” that went into them. The human brain just happens to be the current (1) pinnacle of that evolutionary development.

Before I go on about the human brain and to better understand exactly what it is that it does (and very often doesn't do), I think we need a working definition for brains in general. 

Brains at their essence are two things; they are a) collections of neurons and wiring and b) those collections of neurons process sensory information from a given organisms' environment and produce reactions that will guide it through that environment and procreate. To give a few examples at the lower end of the scale, we have fruit flies, bees and worms. Yes, these simple life forms have “brains”; that is, a collections of neurons that guide them through their simple (and generally very brief) lives and all of which are used by neuroscientists as research subjects in order to gain understanding of neuronal circuitry in general and even human neuronal circuitry (if you're so interested, check out this post on 
The Remarkable Bee Brain). 

Somewhat higher up we have lizards, frogs and so on (now we're getting closer to what our brains look like). A little higher up yet we have birds. Higher yet we have mammals. (2) Primate species are high up on the mammal range. And at the top we have the human brain. (3) While all these examples of brains vary greatly in sophistication, design and purpose (and by “design” I am 
not talking about “intelligent design” - IE: the belief of many that some sort of higher being had a hand in the design of life), they are at their essence collections of neurons that process information in order to guide their host through its given environment.

Which paints a rather less glamorous and romantic picture of the human brain than what we people are used to thinking of ourselves, but there you go. But for our purpose in understanding what goes wrong when we experience mental health difficulties, it's important to remember what our brains essentially are and what their core purpose is. While our brains are vastly more complicated, they still basically perform the same function of that of all organisms' brains – to interpret sensory data around us and create reactions to that data and thus guide us through and (hopefully) adapt to our given environments (which bears repeating because I do regard this as essential in understanding ourselves). The human brain has of course some unique additional "equipment" - such as much more advanced language functions, greatly superior predictive functions and vastly greater states of consciousness not to mention some very key macro and micro anatomical differences - that allows human brains to do much more with that sensory data than any other species on earth (or at least at this point of Earth's history).

I consider this so important because in several ensuing chapters and throughout this blog (and coming book), we're going to learn to see and understand the importance of environmental factors in affecting a) the development of our individual brains (and thus “who we are” as individuals) and b) how our individual environments affect and create our reactions. And we're going to see how it's those “reactions” to our environments, our own individual worlds, that are at the crux of our mental health issues. So what we're looking at in this chapter sets the table for understanding all of that.

And again, if I do my job correctly as we go along in many of the following posts in demonstrating our brains' relationship with our individual environments, then what I am going to teach later on will go a whole lot better. And at its core, what I teach is a) how to better train your brain to react more optimally to the environment around you and b) how to better manage your environment to better suit your particular set of neurons.

Now to remind from the previous post, the brain evolved roughly in this order:

For brevity's sake, we'll leave aside the history of the first phase – the reptilian brain. Just for the record, however, I will say that that that section of the brain (known more formally as the brain stem) houses regions that control our most elementary functions such as breathing, heart rate, etc. The pineal gland – crucial in sleep-wake cycles – is also located here. The brain can sustain and survive horrendous injuries to various areas and the owner continue to live (albeit likely in a highly disabled or altered state) but damage to the brain stem results in brain death and breathing and heart pumping would have to be artificially sustained. Recovery from damage to this area is extremely rare.

Now, let's just touch briefly on the limbic system. This is a very important region for us to understand, as we'll see when we look at this region in more detail later on, for this region has an enormous influence on our behaviours. All our emotions and emotional responses arise from here and all our incoming sensory input is first routed through and "analyzed" by various "hardware" in this region before being passed on to the higher neocortex regions (if at all) where our more advanced human functions are controlled or the frontal lobes where higher human emotional regulation is housed. 

What is important for us to understand here today is that it is because this region evolved prior to the neocortex that it is first in line in processing sensory data. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, when we look at the human brain's "energy economy" and how the brain prioritizes energy allocation throughout the brain, we'll see that under many circumstances the limbic region again gets first priority over higher cortical regions and cognitive processes. The human brain - more than any other animal brain - is a massive energy consumer and when we examine this in more detail, we'll deeply understand why our brains are so prone to melting down when we are run down and low on energy, why we get so emotional and why behavioural regulation becomes so difficult. We'll also see how this can become a chronic condition.

A lot of behavioural issues and psychiatric disorders begin to make a lot more sense when we understand the brain's “chain of command” and what influences or affects this chain and why. Understanding this will also give us great insight into how we can better control or deal with what's going on with us or how those around us can better help and support us.

To put the brain stem (reptilian brain) and limbic region in evolutionary historical perspective, these regions developed hundreds of millions of years ago and thus were the main areas of control for hundreds of millions of years, a point we'll come back to later.

Brains as we know them today began to increase in size about eight million years ago and the vast majority of this increase took place in the final stage of brain evolution, the cortical regions, the area in purple in the illustration above. You'll recall from the post on basic brain anatomy that all higher human cognitive functions are located in the neocortex. All modern mammals have rather robust neocortexes but so called “social animals” have the most developed neocortex, a group that includes all primates, elephants, dolphins and whales, and dogs. Social activity implies and involves higher levels of sophisticated organization and related skills and are thus associated with higher intelligence. The “social brain” is located in the frontal lobe (or pre-frontal cortex or PFC) and it is largely this area that “took off” in human evolutionary development starting around 200,000 years ago when what we now term as “culture” really began to emerge in homo sapiens (although evidence of cultural leaps forward goes back much earlier, it is this period in which it really “took off”).

Culture, Societal and Brain Evolution

What really sets modern humans apart from other animals of high intelligence is culture and societal organization and thus cultural, societal and brain evolution must be viewed together when trying to understand modern human behaviour. For clarity's sake we need to roughly understand what is meant here by “culture” and “society”. The former refers to things such as tools (starting from stick and stone tools), art (cave drawings, etc), body/facial ornamentation (the use of shells and bones, simple face painting and or tattooing, etc) and then language, music and dance and so on. The latter refers more to group organization and rules within such. All seemingly simple stuff but critical to remember when we look at ourselves in our modern society and cultures and why individuals struggle, which is the main point of this post.

Much of brain evolution is a “chicken or the egg” question, IE: did this cultural and/or societal development spur more brain development or vise versa? In other words, did a given brain development spur the use of tools or did the discovery of the usefulness and advantage of a given tool use spur additional brain development? In truth, both are true but of course it's not that simple.

All evolutionary leaps forward are due to genetic mutations (yes, I know this sounds tediously boring but bear with me, throughout the course of this blog - or a virtual e-book as I think of it - we'll see that all these details are important in understanding what goes wrong and why when we suffer a psychiatric condition or crisis). So first comes a genetic mutation or variation, if you will, (a particular gene – one involved in communication, say) changes (or mutates in genetic study parlance) in a freshly born being, that mutation or variation sparks something “new”, that new thing turns out to be advantageous giving that being a leg up over competing members of its species or rival groups, this advantage “catches on” (I'm being breathtakingly simple here) and away we go, we have a new advancement in a particular species. This is the process that brought about all the various past incarnations of homo erectus and thus eventually homo sapiens – us.

For one very simple example, at some point in the last several million years a particular member of a particular branch of homo erectus (we're still talking pre-modern homo sapiens here) was born with some genetic variations which created some brain variations which in turn caused that member to be able to depict something in that person's environment (usually something important to survival) in a drawing or perhaps a carving. Others began to imitate this and thus an aspect of culture was born. A similar process was involved with the first dance movement, first musical arrangement (such as rhythmically thumping a coconut with a stick), language and everything else we now associate with human culture. Something similar would be true with societal organization although this would have preceded cultural developments (and we can see this process at its more infant stages with how higher social species such as baboons or orcas organize themselves).

So it's safe to say that a new brain development – one caused by genetic variations – initiated the new cultural or societal development. But – but! - that development would not have taken wider hold had it not been adapted by many other brains (generally through a "mirroring" process) and it is this wider adaption by other brains that spurred forward homo sapien's rapid brain development (to put this all VERY briefly and simply).

Something that is now becoming well understood to be very unique to human brains (and this too would have been the result of a long process of genetic variation) is we have a much larger capacity for “neuroplasticity” than that of any other species and, more importantly, for longer periods throughout life. Neuroplasticity is a massively important concept and feature of our brains (which I introduce here) but briefly it is the brain's ability to adapt and change to novel circumstances. It is this ability that has allowed first homo erectus and then homo sapiens to … well, learn and adapt to so many different things and develop our enormously complex (comparative to other animal species) social and cultural lives. And it is this “plastic malleability" that allowed a new discovery to be learned and adapted for so quickly.

And it is this process – a new discovery followed by wider learning and adaption of that discovery – repeated countless times that created the evolutionary process that created our current human brain forms.

So back to our “chicken or the egg” question, it was genetic mutation and variation that created the new cultural or societal development but then it became the learning and adaption of that new development that created bigger and better brains gradually and slowly over the preceding several million years, most rapidly so in the previous 200,000 years.

As mundane and scientifically blah-blah-blah 'who cares?' as this all sounds, as you begin to understand how “we” developed in this manner, massive light bulbs will go off and grand “aahh-haa” moments will occur in your head where all kinds of things about who and what you are and why begin to click into place. If it's anything like what I often experienced as I discovered all this and began to put it all together, it'll be almost orgasmic (3).

I'll cover genetics more in future chapters/installments but I just want to touch on a few things quick, something that's going to be a HUGE part of understanding psychiatric conditions and why they occur in poor you (or me for that matter).

The “stuff of life” is DNA. We share close to 98% of our DNA with other primates and among all humans on earth of whatever race or ethnicity, we share 99.9% (making us all essentially brothers and sisters). But with genetics and DNA, the devil, as they say, is in the details and the details that make us each absolutely unique is contained within that 0.1%. You'll recall from the previous chapter that every brain is as unique as a fingerprint; that no two brains – at present or any brain throughout history – are alike. Not even those of identical twins who start out at conception with the exact same DNA (because the two fetuses develop from a single egg that splits). The three pound blob of jello like substance between your ears is unlike any other in human history (there, now don't you feel special!). And that uniqueness is due to how your particular batch of that .1% of DNA was arranged from prior to conception, through conception and fetal development and, as it turns out, all through your life. From what your parents did, were exposed to, consumed at the point of your conception, to how you developed in your mother's womb and what was going on with her during that time, to early childhood development through to teen years development and even throughout adulthood ALL causes genetic code to “switch” this way or that and thus make “you” who and what you are at any given point during your lifetime.

And one of the prime and most influential “switches” that knocks a gene (or more likely a set of genes) this way or that? Stress hormones. When we start looking at the stress response system and what goes on within that, why and the “downstream” consequences, I can almost guarantee you that orgasmic 'aah-haa!' 100 watt light bulb epiphanies are going to explode in your mind. But that's for later. Back to brain evolution.

Let's return now to some very fundamental points of understanding.  

One is that our brains evolved and adapted very, very slowly over millions of years. I'll get to in a moment why this is very important to keep in mind.

Two is that a great number of our brain areas and sub-regions and “hardware” evolved millions of years or hundreds of thousands of years ago and, more importantly, under conditions that bear little resemblance to today's life and current living environment. This is critical to understand and bear in mind because it is how your brain – your unique only-one-like-it-on-earth brain – is interacting with your environment that may be at the root of your emotional/mood/psychiatric problems. HUGE, HUGE thing to understand and a MASSIVE point of this blog and ebook.

Let's look at the first point in graph form. Well, two graphs. 

These are not exactly the graphs I'd like to show but they were the best I could find to illustrate my point - our brains evolved over millions and millions of years prior to the population and technological explosions of the past century or so. Our environments, cultures, social structures and everything else our brains had to interact with, interpret and develop responses to evolved verrrrryyyy slowly over millions of years prior to the past century or so. 

To put this rapid recent change in perspective, if we put mammal evolution (and thus the majority of our brain hardware development) and then homo sapiens evolution (higher cortical stuff) within a twenty-four hour clock, more advanced modern homo sapien brains would be about two minutes before midnight and this rate of societal and cultural and technological change our brains have had to adapt to in the past two centuries or so (going back to the time of the industrial revolution), would have taken place in the last 1/100th of a second before midnight. 

There is no better adaptive species in the four billion year history of life on earth than homo sapien but that rate of environmental change vastly outstrips the pace of brain evolution and adaption. To put it another way, our brains evolved for conditions very, very different from today's world and it is not reasonable to expect them to have evolved for and adapted completely and seamlessly to today's environment. Sure there are "early adapters" and "outliers" (both evolutionary parlance for members of a species that adapt quicker) but as much as we "think" we've adapted and are handling all this change well, clearly we are not. 

A big part of my argument as to why mental health disorders have exploded in the past sixty years (roughly since the fifties) is that our brains are a) not evolving to handle all this change as much as we'd like to think and a good deal of psychiatric disorders are part of the reaction to that "mal-adaption" and b) this rapid rate of change has vastly altered all the environmental, cultural and societal conditions our brains spent millions of years of adapting for and c) the most important point, is under stressful conditions, it's going to be the less evolved portions of the brain - the limbic region - that "takes the wheel" when we're under stress. 

When we start looking at how our brains are designed and adapted for social worlds and social/family order and structure and support, we'll get a much, much clearer idea of why many of us break down in or under certain conditions. Which is what we'll be addressing in future pieces.  

The final thing to understand and remember about this human evolutionary process is that it was, is and will forever be a messy business. For every evolutionary “success” there have been probably millions of failures (many of which are, of course, taking place today) and there'll be millions more. As evolution is life, what this means is that life is messy. Yes, Virginia, life is messy. This means that your life is messy. This means ALL lives, on some level at some point, are messy. Get used to it.

The goal here of course is to better guide you (or a loved one, friend, etc) through the mess.

Main points:

- evolution is a slow adaptive process

- rapid environmental change over the last century or so has outstripped the brain's ability to fully adapt to new conditions

- much older brain 'hardware' and 'programs' are left over from our long evolutionary development and it is these regions that take control in many (though not all) of us during times of stress

- the human brain evolved and adapted for different stressors than we have today

- the human brain (well, all brains) evolved for more natural surroundings than our current environments provide

If you would like to know more about a different understanding and approach to mental health disorders presented in this blog, please see more at the 
Taming the Polar Bears Table of Contents and Reading Guide

(1) As evolution - and the study of evolution - is a constant and ongoing process, it is a process that is far from finished. The projected “life” span for earth is another several billion years so I think it's safe to assume that much evolution will continue to take place. As high and mighty as we think our particular species is – homo sapien – we're just a tiny blip in the big picture of life on earth, we will at some point pass out of existence and other life forms will evolve in our place. We can only hope that something better evolves than our current incarnation.

(2) While placing mammal brains above bird brains on the scale of sophistication is generally true it's not that clear cut either. There have been many discoveries in recent years about higher cognitive abilities in crows and that in many bird species.

(3) This is not human snobbery nor our historical human sense of superiority over other animal species, the human brain is demonstrably and functionally more sophisticated than that of any other species (our often disastrously poor utilization of it notwithstanding) and there are some key bits of neuronal hardware that human brains are equipped with which other species lack, the basics of which I hope to examine in a latter chapter.

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

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(1) source citation coming in a future edit of this post

(2) A) It is this massive brain reorganization that gives rise to the dreaded "terrible twos". 
B) It is possible that various critical regions can develop during this period without the crucial stimulation necessary but it is highly unlikely. It is also possible for certain aspects to be developed later in life but they'll never be what they were had they undergone the necessary stimulation in the first place

(3) We'll get to this in more detail later, but meanwhile the hardline 'genetics rules the roost' types drive me batty. Of course genetics is at the crux of all life but it is how genes are expressed or turned on or off at birth and all through our lives that creates a great deal of "who we are" at any one point. 

(4) At some point I'll get around to digging into what happens in that neurogenesis process in premature babies; IE: how the neurogenesis works when the baby is already out of the womb. If the gestation period is not full term and we look at the average rate of neuronal production, migration and development that would normally take place, it simply logical to assume that a lot of neuronal development has yet to take place in a premature baby and understanding some of the specifics of that could give us some very interesting insight into what goes on and why in people who were born prior to full normal gestation. Which is by no means any kind of judgment or assumption, only another angle to look at in understanding any such person's behaviour and cognitive abilities.