Friday, July 31, 2015

Taming the Polar Bears - A Dedication




That is my daughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was her. 

She was my anchor. 

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

Was her. 


*  *  *  *  *


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

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

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

And then some. 

So now what can I leave her?

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

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

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

And she watched it all. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For her. 


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

And everything I now do is dedicated to

Her. 

My anchor. My everything. 

Thank you for reading. Thank you for being here.  


Support Taming the Polar Bears

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Belief - Introduction





On Belief


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • faith based belief
  • evidence based belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Support Taming the Polar Bears

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please state your PayPal address and name in the email.

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

Friday, July 24, 2015

Neuroscience in Focus - An Introduction to Neuroplasticity



Neuroscience in Focus:
An Introduction to Neuroplasticity





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neuroplasticity is how your brain responds to your own thoughts. 

Neuroplasticity is how your brain learns new tasks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brief Overview of Sources:

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

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

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

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





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

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On Consciousness, Thoughts and Meditation



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

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

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

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

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus - An Introduction to Meditation




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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 17, 2015

Zombie Programs - An Introduction



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Support Taming the Polar Bears

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Thank you so much for your support!

Monday, July 13, 2015

In Praise of Quick Fixes for Depression (And Possibly Other Psychiatric/Mood Disorders)



Yes, yes, I know. I just wrote a post deconstructing "quick fixes" for psychiatric and mood disorders

So why am I now posting an article praising quick fixes?

For a couple of reasons. One, I am a fair guy (all occasional appearances aside). Two, I'm bipolar. We bipolar peeps kind of roll this way. We'll feel and see things completely one way and then - days, hours, weeks, or at some point - see the exact same topic or idea or view in a completely different and opposite way. We'll go from wildly optimistic about something to being horrendously pessimistic about the same thing (I wrote about the neuronal basis for optimism and pessimism in my neuroscience blog a while back). Our minds just sort of tend to work that way - see things in alternating completely opposite ways. Actually, a lot of people will work this way (I'm sure some of you have observed this in someone close to you and were left scratching your head wondering "what the hell just happened there?"), it's just that bipolar minds work more regularly this way and more radically this way and for more prolonged periods (among other weird and wacky ways). 

This can be rather crazy making (trust me on this one) but it's not too bad if you sort of go with it and allow your mind to explore each side of whatever bee happens to be in the bonnet (like the topic of "quick fixes" for psychiatric and mood disorders for me lately) and can avoid the radical extremes of run away grandiosity and delusional belief positiveness on one end and dark pessimistic pits of despair negativity on the other (this ranks quite high on the Easier Said Than Done list for bipolar peeps, I must truthfully confess, however). 

My brain also just naturally has this habit of seeking all kinds of truths and poking at them to see which apply here and which apply there. I also try not to fall into confirmation bias traps and single view perspective traps. [people who are bored and/or have too much time on their hands and have read through my other blogs will know that, despite being a true blue atheist (or non-theist, if you will), I also wrote about the possible positive efficacy of prayer

Anyway, almost no sooner than I finished writing the previous post pouring cold water all over "quick fixes" than my mind started throwing up all kinds of reasons in favour of quick fixes. From past experience (lots of past experiences (many of them the aforementioned crazy making experiences)), I knew that these opposing thoughts would haunt me unless I worked them through and wrote them out for all to see (or at least those readers who trudge through all of this stuff of mine). 

Now everything I outlined in that previous post is absolutely true (or at least not absolutely false) but it's also true that there are other perspectives on the whole notion and approach of "quick (or easy) fixes". 

So in the interest of presenting alternate perspectives and truths (and easing my nagging conscience), here we go. This is rather neatly illustrated by this great image:



For the fun of it we'll say that the previous post was the warm orange square perspective (or is that a rectangle?) and this post will look at the soft blue circle perspective (and no, I'm not trying to mess with you psychologically by choosing them that way). 

Now I firmly, firmly believe in the science of my approaches to better mental health and a more stable mind (AKA: my Positive Difference Making Fundamentals which truly are very well backed by and grounded in solid science of numerous and varied approaches; I would genuinely not have used them nor advocated them if they weren't). But the truth is that they are all a) quite time consuming to properly practice and b) quite difficult to practice properly and effectively on one's own without a lot of support. Real brain changes are like that - hard work and lots of time with lots of support (from therapists or family or friends making sure you stay on track with them). 

And something that's haunted me (that word again) from the very beginning about all my approaches is the realization that not everyone is going to have the time and mental space to devote to working on their brain, mind and habits like I do, let alone the important understanding support of family and friends. For another truth is that, due to my condition being as chronic and as serious as it is, I became disabled, qualified for a pension and am now unemployed (and unemployable) for a great number of reasons associated with having and dealing with all the conditions I have. I make getting better and improving how my brain works a full time job. 

So what about the person who doesn't have that kind of time? What about the person who doesn't have that kind of dedication and devotion? The mega stressed university student balancing a job and school workload? What about the person who balances work, kids, family obligations and the like who's already stretched to the limit? (To name just two of dozens and dozens of possible examples)

They may simply not have time for all my stuff (as effective as it may well be in the long run). They may not be able to - for wide host of reasons - be able to make the critical lifestyle changes that I have been able to make. They have all this shit going on - maybe a dozen spinning plates up in the air - and they just need some damned thing to work and work fast. 

They need "magic bullets" and something they can just quickly take or do that will help straighten things out and let them cope with their lives in whatever way possible. 

And the truth is that these "quick fixes" (generally some sort of pharmaceutical drug) will work, at least for the short term. There is a good deal of literature showing the short term efficacy of pharmaceutical treatments (along with considerable anecdotal evidence). The truth is that all kinds of things may work. 

For here are a few more truths about severe episodes of depression, bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia - throughout history many of these cases just passed naturally. Things would be horribly horrible for a period of time and then somehow the ship would be righted, they'd return to normal (such as that may be) and that would be the end of it. Pulitzer Prize winning science writer Robert Whitaker explores all this and gives some interesting statistics and case studies in his fascinating and eye opening book Anatomy of an Epidemic, in which he very thoroughly explores the history of psychiatric illnesses and the pharmaceutical/psychiatric approach to their treatments. 

What this means is that it's entirely possible that whatever treatment one takes has no real bearing or effect at all and the condition just passes naturally as they often used to. But what happens is that the treatment - whatever it may be - helps a person cope with the short term crisis (of a few months to possibly a few years) until their brains sort everything out, right the ship, the crisis passes and on their lives go.

Another thing to consider is that if studies show that a given treatment is only equally as effective as a placebo or dummy treatment (and the ratio often seems to be in the fifty/fifty range), what about those that showed positive effects? If people report feeling better, what's going on there? 

We actually don't know what's going on when people report feeling better. Was it placebo? Was the drug treatment actually "fixing" something? (highly unlikely not, but I'll outline that another time). We actually don't know why a lot of treatments seem to work, only that there is an observable and reportable improvement of conditions. 

And does it really matter how it "works"? 

Here's one of the great truths about people - they don't actually give a shit how it works. They don't give a shit if it really works. People by and large don't give a shit about the science behind it or science at all. People just want one thing - to feel better and cope with or get on with their lives. People could not care less if it's an illusion, a trick of the light, a sham or whatever. They care about feeling better and carrying on with their lives in some sort of improved fashion and that's it. 

For here's another truth - and perhaps the biggest Grand Poobah truth - about the human brain: it is very, very possible that whatever it deeply believes in may well "work". 

There are actually some very interesting studies and data about this; whatever treatment you believe in has the greatest chance of working. 

What this means (apparently) is that if you believe in drug therapy, that may well work best for you. 

If you believe in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, that may well work best for you. 

If you believe in herbal remedies (and St John's Wort was very popular for some time), that may well work best for you. 

I know practitioners of hypnosis who report excellent results (however problematic self-reporting on such outcomes may be) and the truth is that many people do believe in hypnosis and for them maybe that is the best way to go. 

There are people who believe in astrology and tea leaf readings and all kinds of other similar ways for "understanding" their lives and minds. For them, perhaps those things may work and help them straighten out their mind and lives. 

In truth, you could go around the world and find that all kinds of strange and wacky "treatments" may "work" or - and perhaps just as importantly - appear to work. 

I have many Filipino friends and one evening they told me all kinds of stories about what they colloquially referred to as "Dr Quack-Quack" (yes, they were serious). These are local "doctors" that amount to something like shamans. If western medical doctors couldn't fix something, they'd bring in a Dr Quack-Quack. Incantations and perhaps some herbal concoctions would be applied and boom, the condition would disappear. Weird psychotic behaviour, physical ailments, all kinds of things, you name it; it worked for them and they couldn't care less if we westerners laugh and scoff at it. They believed it, they experienced a relief of or disappearance of their symptoms and that was all they cared about. And you could go find similar traditional medicine people in different cultures around the world whose methods may work for those who were raised and conditioned to believe in them.

People have turned to religion (or discovered it) and had severe episodes of psychiatric disorders turn around and just fade from memory. Some people just got into different environments, got better more satisfying jobs and things all turned around and the disorder faded into the past (again, Whitaker details some fascinating case studies on this). 

For perhaps one of the biggest truths about the brain is the incredibly powerful effects belief will have on it one way or the other (placebo for positive, nocebo for negative - the neuroscientist Mario Beuregard's book Brain Wars is an excellent place to start in understanding these mind phenomenon). Belief can change our biology and neurology and physiology. This has been tremendously well studied and documented for many, many years (though no one in the psychiatric or psychology professions who deal with mood, emotional or psychiatric disorders wants to talk about this). So if whatever "fix" you believe in works, if that's what you deeply believe in (for whatever reason), that could well have the best chance of working for you. Belief can turn all kinds of things around in the brain.

So back to "quick fixes", many - if not most - people could give two figs how or why they work. They just want to feel that they work. If they are lucky enough not to be affected by the side effects (quite possible with most anti-depressants, something unlikely to be escaped with anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers), then who cares? Who am I - or anyone - to throw cold water on that? If it works for them, then all the power to them. They have busy chaotic lives and if a pill or pills helps them manage and get through life, that's all that basically counts. There are no bonus points for how we get through life, only that we do get through life. 

So yes, for a certain percentage of people (and what that percentage is is rather fuzzy but it is not inconsiderable, it seems) "quick fixes" could appear to work. And for how the human brain works, appearing to work may be all that matters, may be all that makes the critical difference. How and why they appear to work really and truly doesn't matter. People are busy, frazzled and experience periods of great distress or depression or anxiety or perhaps psychosis and if pills or a ECT or some other kind of quick fix treatment seems to work for them, it doesn't matter what competing sciences (nor I) say about that. 

For my part, I (sort of) don't care either. If someone I care about feels better taking medications, I'm going to support that. My positions on medications and the psychiatric and pharmaceutical industries become irrelevant; what matters is that they feel better and can cope. 

If this all seems rather odd and confusing, it is. But welcome to the world of the brain and of all the weird and wacky things that can go wrong in there, why it can go wrong and what may or may not get it back on track. 

I maintain that we have to work on certain core issues and work to attain and maintain better brain and body health to truly have a chance at and enjoy optimal mental health and sense of well being (relative to each individual's circumstances). But it is undeniable that what may appear to be "quick fixes" can indeed help a good percentage of people. 

I am more than extremely familiar with going through a life crisis and having everything fall apart around me while my mind was simultaneously falling apart and experiencing the ensuing horrendous mental madness. I am, therefore, extremely empathetic to what people go through during life and mental health crises. I deeply understand that people just need to get help in whatever form and get through that crisis and survive (IE: not lose their lives to suicide or descend into a life of homelessness and substance abuse). I deeply understand that people need to do whatever they can to get on with their lives and cope. 

And the ultimate truth (regarding mental health and life) is that that is the bottom line.