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


My anchor. My everything. 

Thank you for reading. Thank you for being here.  

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"
  • learned
  • 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 learned 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 (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 that you need or would like coming to fruition. 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 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 to put you on better footing for moving forward in your life with less fear and anxiety and with a better sense of mental well being. 

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. 

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 what would turn out to be the symptoms and resultant life changes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy 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 and for human behaviour.

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.

Very briefly for today, what it means to you and whatever condition you currently find yourself in is 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 a good deal of the things you don't like about yourself. This is what some call the "the dark side of neuroplasticity" or maladaptive plasticity. I touch on this in many posts but will at some point get to a specific post on it.

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. 

I have to state this absolutely unequivocally, there is absolutely nothing controversial about the principles of neuroplasticity, the hard evidence unquestionable. It is true that all its mechanisms may not be completely understood and it is also true that it many not work in the same way in two different people with similar cases but that the brain constantly undergoes changes that are "plastic" for a wide variety of reasons is beyond question. (1)

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

At its most fundamental level, it is really just basic cellular biology. All cells are capable of various structural and functional change in order to adapt to environmental conditions. This is literally how evolution works. This is how all life on earth works. So what brain researchers refer to as "neuroplasticity" is simply how cells in the brain and the connections between them - hence "neuro" - can change and adapt; hence "plasticity", which simply means to be "malleable" which simply means "changeable" in the same fundamental sense that all living cells can change and adapt.

Of course, as I fervently hope regular readers are beginning to understand, in the human brain this is a rather more complex process, to say the least. In fact, much recent research has found that human brains have mechanisms for neuroplastic change either not found in any other species or which function at higher and more important levels. It has been argued that these unique forms of neuroplastic change in the human brain are chiefly responsible for our soaring rate of evolution over the past several tens of thousands of years (no other species has ever evolved and adapted so rapidly as home sapiens).

All that ho-hum tedium aside, let's now take a better look at what all this means in our human noggins and what it means for you and turning your life around.

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, to state the obvious, critical for all brain functions. 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 a region of your brain that's integral for "processing" math equations (which is not actually a single region, but a network of regions), then it's a good thing. If it happens to be in a region of your brain (again, as part of a network) creating really negative self-appraisal and really beating yourself up self-dialog, then it's decidedly not such a good thing.

Groups and networks 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 life 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 that's going to create negative behaviours or reactions to life events, 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 in 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.

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, something referred to as axonal plasticity. 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 there are different processes involved and longer time lines. 

However, the axons of the connectome are absolutely critical for the speed of communication between regions and just as importantly the timing and coordination of brain activity, both mental and physical. This is greatly regulated by the distinctive white "insulation" known as myelin (this is what gives "white matter" its name). Fantastic bodies of recent research, beautifully summarized here, shows that myelin is subject to neuroplastic change and excitingly, very rapid change in response to practice and training in which marked improvement the speed of mental and physical tasks can be noted.

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. 

(1) Added May, 2019. There are, I have found, legions of semi-educated "followers" of neuroscience who seem to take delight in disparaging the field and any claims made about our knowledge of the human brain. These are invariably people who, for reasons I won't speculate, enjoy being "critics" and "skeptics". While it is true that poor science (compounded by often atrociously bad science reporting) abounds and often outlandish claim are made, many of these people go beyond honest constructive criticism and healthy skepticism to denouncing anything that is known about the brain and how it functions.

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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On Consciousness, Thoughts and Meditation

On Consciousness, Thoughts, and Meditation

Okay, having looked a bit at the subconscious  and the concept that it's a lot of autonomously running programs in there driven by neurological (neurons and network wiring) and neurobiological (neurochemicals and hormones) processes that run our lives all of which in turn produces our conscious experience, I think it's time now to look a little more at this business of consciousness and what it is and what's in there and why it's there.

Now, I likened human consciousness to your computer screen and speakers. This is a useful analogy because the visual and auditory are what dominate our conscious experiences (in other words, what we are most experiencing consciously at any one time). It represents what you are currently working on from all what your computer is capable of doing with its inner processors, memory, software, and data input through the Internet. I liken the Internet to our own five senses for bringing in external data to work with what's already in the processing hardware and software programs we have inside. It's not like senses such as smell, taste and our tactical sense of touch don't have a great deal of “pull” in guiding our behaviour, it's just that visual and auditory data get the most conscious attention and awareness (for some very good reasons that we'll have to leave aside for now).

Let's now have a closer look at the consciousness you experience when you wake up each morning and your “mind” flashes to life (I'm going to leave for now what the “mind” is for it is my position that when we are talking about consciousness and the mind we are really talking about the same phenomenon created by the brain and whatever differences there are is just splitting philosophical hairs).

Human consciousness has the ability to work in multiple time frames – present, backwards and forwards; at once holding the present, the ability to match that with past “data” and make future projections based on that. This is very unique in the animal world as far as we know, at least to the extent that humans can do it.

Human consciousness is also unique for its “theory of mind” - the ability to be aware of and conceptualize others' thoughts, plans, states of mind and so on. As you are reading these words, you are not only able to take in and discern their meaning (again, an ability unique to the human brain) you are able to conceptualize and imagine the person writing them and to mentally connect to that person (hopefully in a reasonably good light!). That you are even aware that you have a conscious (AKA: self awareness) is unique to humans (though animal cognition researchers appear to have found some levels of this in certain species - primates, dolphins and elephants if my memory serves correctly - certainly it is not at the human level).

You are capable of carrying in your conscious mind at any one time numerous images, numerous conversations, multiple emotions, numerous plans, numerous ideas – all in past, present and future carnations of each. Not to mention being able to do this while at the same time performing rather difficult tasks such as maneuvering the two tonne death machine that you know as your car through dazzlingly complex grids and networks of hundreds and hundreds of other many tonne death machines (AKA: city and freeway traffic). Though we're going to see – not today, but in a future related post – that we are not as good at this “multitasking” as we imagine. In fact, ironically, the better we “think” we are at multitasking, the worst we score on multitasking tests (something to bear in mind when attempting to mentally and physically multitask while behind the wheel of your car).

As I hope is becoming clear to regular readers, our brains are not as different from that of most other mammals as we humans would like to think – much of the basic “layout”, “hardware” and circuitry is essentially identical. (1) The story of human evolution then is the story of the evolution of consciousness – or perhaps I should say “higher consciousness”. (Higher cognitive abilities as well, of course, but I'd argue that our higher cognition is part and parcel our higher conscious abilities) Every single thing that humanity has accomplished – from higher social organization to the building of belief systems to all our enormously advanced technological achievements – all grew out of the higher human consciousness that we evolved (and are continuing to evolve – hopefully, that is. There's also nothing to say that other species that currently exist or may exist in the future may also evolve as high or higher levels of consciousness).

Now, as the neuroscientist David Eagleman says, “consciousness developed because it was advantageous, but advantageous only in limited amounts.” (original italics) By this he is referring to the fact that our brains are – to quote him again - “in the business of gathering information and steering behaviour appropriately” and that in our moment to moment day to day existence, our brains have to take in such an astronomical amount of “data” (sensory information) and be generating so many appropriate responses and behaviour that it is completely impossible to be able to consciously deal with it all (we have a brief look at these subconscious brain systems in the post Zombie Programs - An Introduction).

Hence consciousness can only ever be aware of a tiny fraction of what's going on in the enormously vast jungles of our tens of billions of neurons, trillions and trillions of synaptic connections and hundreds of kilometers of wiring (not to mention all the hundreds of neurobiological components) that make up the organ that runs our lives. Your brain then is capable of taking in and processing exceedingly more “data” than your consciousness could possibly be aware of and handle on a magnitude of perhaps as much (or more) than a million to one.

And this is what makes human consciousness so handy (or advantageous as Eagleman puts it) and unlike any other species on earth or in the history of earth (and in the known universe at this time) – it creates a “priority system” for what to be aware of and deal with out of that astronomical amount of data pouring in through your senses every second you are awake on top of all the millions of gigabytes of “data” your own brain can potentially store and put forward for use (memory, in other words).

But it is an imperfect system for a number of reasons very important for us to understand and most pertinent to mental health problems (to finally get to the crux of the biscuit). We'll look at just two of those reasons today.

One, as outlined in Evolution, Life and Why Our Brains Developed the Way They Are, the great majority of human brain evolution took place in and for environmental conditions far, far removed from what our conscious selves must navigate in today's world. And as I said at the end of that post (and I urge you to revisit it to review what I am getting at here and why), while the ability of the human mind to adapt to changing conditions has been and is incredibly impressive, it's not reasonable to expect it to have adapted for as much and as rapid environmental change as it has had to do in the past several centuries and especially the past several decades.

Two, however advanced (and advantageous) our consciousness is, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is the brain itself that both creates consciousness and largely “decides” what's going to be put on that “conscious awareness plate” or “computer screen” at any one time. That is still for the most part (and by “most part”, we're talking in the neighbourhood of 99%) taken care of by the huge number of autonomously running – and very often competing – neuronal network programs that run beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. This is very, very critical to understand.

What the brain does – to put it ridiculously briefly and simply for now – is it'll detect or calculate something that it considers to be of importance and then puts it up on your conscious plate (or “screen”) for attention. As such, we can think of consciousness as a working arena of attention and focus for what your brain "feels" is important at any one time (and often, as you'll have noticed, these "important" things are contradictory to and at odds with one another and detrimental to our selves).

This could be something that your visual processing system has seen and which within other systems have detected danger, or certain plans and thoughts which it calculates are important for your survival or mating success (yes, most of it – as sophisticated as you “think” you are – is this base. This is also what I was talking about in that post on brain evolution and the priorities arranged for your evolutionary and survival success).

While a lot can be put up into your conscious by your subconscious brain (and I know what an understatement this sounds like to many of you), today I want to just focus on thoughts and ideas as it is these that tend to dominate and which generally have the most power.


This is only going to be a brief introduction to thoughts and the brain but what we'll look at here today will suffice to begin to make you more aware of the power of your own thoughts. I want to touch on both how and where thoughts arise and the power they have over “us” (that is the power our own thoughts have over our own brain networks).

First we need a very brief working definition of “thoughts”. The science of human thought is endlessly fascinating and I could bore you to tears on this subject. It is also where the brain and mind and self and awareness and everything to do with consciousness gets almost hopelessly philosophically tangled. But we'll let the philosophers get into their academic fisticuffs about that. We're just going to think of thoughts as the language and dialogue your brain uses to communicate with “you” (yes, I know how weird this sounds). Think of it as the “code” your computer uses to put things on your computer screen in a way you can understand them.

We also need to understand that a good deal of our thoughts are in fact “rationalizations” for actions or decisions our brains have already created. The concept of our thoughts as “post-hoc rationalizations” is something we will look at in more depth when we start to learn about mindfulness meditation cognitive behaviour therapy, but for now we just need to understand this to mean that your brain will create an action or behaviour first and then it will create in our thoughts a story line in your mind to justify it. It's likely something that we can recognize in others but not in ourselves. But trust me, we all do it (and at times for very good reasons which I touched on in Broken Ego Defenses). Untangling our thoughts and why they're in our minds can be very, very challenging (because they are so much and deep a part of how our brains work) but once you get going on the work, you'll see the benefits (while bearing in mind that none of us will ever be perfect at it).

Thoughts can be generated from many different regions of the brain and for different reasons. Where exactly thoughts come from in the brain is almost as complicated as the brain itself as so many regions are involved in even the simplest of thoughts (far flung memory networks, all the emotional centres, speech processing centres to name a few). We also explore the power of imagination in creating and forming our thoughts in the post Understanding and Taming Imagination. For today's purposes, we need to understand that a good number of these thoughts are the “dialogue” - the “language” - your brain is using to communicate the importance of something to your conscious plate.

Or at least that's the basic idea. For many people this system works brilliantly. But we're here to discuss thoughts because …. well, they often drive us literally crazy.

Our thoughts are huge factors in most disorders from schizophrenia to bipolar to depression to anxiety. Both psychology and psychiatry understand this. The majority of drugs prescribed for schizophrenia, bipolar and anxiety are for pummelling these crazy making thoughts into submission.

The reason thoughts have so much power over us is a very interesting area to explore. On the plus side, our power of thought and self-dialog with our brains and using them to access the tremendous calculating power of our neuronal networks is demonstrably advantageous (to again come back to Eagleman's term). Our thoughts can steer us towards some very good behaviour and achievements. The right kind of thoughts can create enormous motivation and drive, activate our powerful belief systems in positive ways and much so on.

Then there's that nasty downside.

Take our fear and stress response systems. With absolutely no visible or tangible threat present whatsoever, mere thoughts can send our pulse rates through the roof and send us into fits of rage and anger or to become frozen by fear.

Or mere thoughts alone can send us into high and perhaps inappropriate sexual arousal.

Or mere thoughts alone can create hate for someone we know nothing about nor even have any particular reason to know or care anything about.

Mere thoughts will shape how we see ourselves, our concepts of our selves and greatly mold our esteem and confidence (or lack thereof).

Words and thoughts of others will shape how we see ourselves, our concepts of our selves and greatly mold our esteem and confidence (or lack thereof) and then those thoughts become part of our thoughts.

The human brain is capable of scores and scores of what are termed by psychologists as "cognitive distortions", something I introduce in this post on understanding the mind. And this is where a good deal of the crux of mental health disorders lie – our own minds cannot recognize either the danger of the thoughts we're having nor even that they're distorted nor how much power they have over our brains and resultant behaviours.

Or, even if we do recognize these things, how goddamned difficult they are to control.

I cannot even begin to relate to you the power of the bipolar mind to generate thoughts. Not just thoughts, but potentially wildly delusional and distorted thoughts. And not just wildly delusional and distorted thoughts but unbelievably wildly opposite delusional and distorted thoughts. Nor can I even begin to relate to you how incredibly hard it is to control them. 

Bipolar is a nuclear powered generator of virtually every kind of thought the human mind is capable of across the entire spectrum of human mental states from the highest high to the lowest low. And they can come with a stupefying speed and power. And they can flip through that entire spectrum almost within the blink of an eye. You can go from thoughts of being the most wonderful and brilliant human on the planet to thinking you are the worst piece of dog shit to ever get stuck to the bottom of a shoe. Just. Like. That. <snaps fingers>. Not only that, but because of other aspects of bipolar which drives one to act on these thoughts,they have incredibly frightening potential to alter behaviour (this is all greatly understood by both psychology and psychiatry – they do get some things right) up to and including jumping off of or in front of things and other forms of suicide.

So if you are sitting there thinking how hard your own thoughts are to control, yes, I do understand. I DO.

Which is generally why if you are diagnosed with bipolar and exhibiting these behaviours and wild thoughts, the medical establishment will carpet bomb your brain with plutonium grade weaponry such as lithium, anti-psychotics, various mood stabilizers (most of which were originally created to control epilepsy), benzodiazepines and anti-depressants.

Which, you know, has its own detrimental effects such as brain damage (mostly in an area called the basal ganglia and frontal lobes) and impaired cognition and blunted emotions, among other "fun things" to endure (I'll get to the sickening real world manifestations of that brain damage another time).

But if we understand why these thoughts are being created and by what brain systems, we can start to get a better idea of how to control them.

And if we learn how to manage our consciousness – that "computer screen and speakers" of our mind where all this occurs – we can then learn to start “clearing the screen” of these unwanted and dangerous thought intrusions. If we learn how to understand our thoughts and create different ones and to subdue unwanted ones, we can clear that conscious experience of ours up considerably and then direct our brain so that it is more optimally, as Eagleman put it, “gathering information and steering behaviour”.

If all this sounds suspiciously like another big sales job for meditation, you're right.

Even just simple meditative methods that I introduced at the end of the previous post are going to be enormously powerful tools to get you on the road to a) clearing your conscious mind of so much clutter and destructive thoughts and b) being more in control of what your brain is putting there for attention and action. What I described in that previous post is basically all I do.

But most vital, learning those basics will set the table for the more important mindfulness meditation CBT and the kind of mindfulness we need to apply to all our daily actions, activities and mental states.

I have developed other methods and techniques to learn how to retrain my thoughts and thought processes that are unique (such as my Brain Training Exercises). Many techniques that are taught to control thoughts involve trying to make the intrusive and harmfully negative thoughts “go away”. But this is often more akin to putting a band-aid on a leaking boiler – it may hold it off for a while but eventually it's going to blow. My approach is how to cut the thoughts off at the source rather than just suppress them, or put a "band-aid" on them. This can be exhausting in itself and itself ties up valuable consciousness resources and "bandwidth", but gradually your brain gets better at it (yes, it begins to autonomize the process) and it gets easier with time and the next thing you know, it's more a part of your natural neuronal processing.

A lot of consciousness management involves learning to stay in the now, in the present day, the process and learning of which we examine in some detail in the post Positive Difference Making Fundamentals - Staying in the Now. Your conscious mind has enough to do with the present, let alone piling upon it all the worries and concerns of a thousand tomorrows and the memories and weight of thousands of yesterdays (which those zombie systems will do if you let them).

Learning to simply let go of many things is vital as well. I think of letting go as a way of “clearing the cache” of the RAM of our working memories and thus our consciousness.

Learning to tune out the majority of things screaming for your attention via social media, traditional print media and television has been proven to greatly alleviate stress.

Speaking of stress, as we learn more about the stress response system and how that works, we'll see it is the number one culprit for putting all kinds of distressing demands on your conscious awareness plate that literally scream for attention.

But nothing will be more powerful and simple to learn (though simple does not equate to easy) than meditation, not only for keeping your conscious plate clearer of unwanted and unneeded clutter and screaming demands, but to literally rewire neuronal networks and build up critically important brain regions. Again, the evidence for this is now enormous (and I'll get to a dedicated post on this as soon as I can, I promise).

So those simple techniques I told you about at the end of the previous chapter? No, I'm not going to teach you anything more than that today. I'm only going to ask that you keep practising those simple steps. Those are the simple ABCs upon which you're going to construct a whole new inner language and self communication and control over your conscious experience.

And as you learn how to actually manage your conscious experience, you will learn to be less beholden to those “zombie systems” currently driving you batty. 

1. The main anatomical differences would be found in the structure of the neocortex (the outer layer of the brain). In modern humans the distinct 'folds' - the sulci and gyri - that can be seen in the outer cortex are much more pronounced. As well, there are significant differences in the frontal and prefrontal cortex. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus - An Introduction to Meditation

Positive Difference Making Fundamentals
an Introduction to Meditation

As I've mentioned in the past, a neat aspect about authoring a book in online segments in blog form like this is that I can respond quickly to the feedback I get from readers. It helps me a great deal to get reader feedback as it is important to me to know how my material and approaches are being received and it helps as well for me to understand what needs further or better clarification and where readers might be having trouble with the concepts. 

As such, I had some questions and points raised following the previous post on 
"zombie programs", the autonomously running subconscious brain programs that run most of our conscious lives

Essentially, the questions and points came down to "are we really just zombies with no free will?" (There was a decidedly disheartened and not very enthused tone to this question)

These are excellent questions, and questions that are much, much on the minds of philosophers to neuroscientists the world over and have been for many, many years. 

Regular readers of my posts related to 
the brainbrain evolutionmy post in my other blog on "Dopamine the Bus Driver",  how individual brains develop and how our brains create our individual perceptions of reality may have picked up that I don't have a lot of belief (if any) in the concept of "free will". And I don't. I used to defend to the death the notion that we had free will but the evidence just overwhelmed that position; both my personal evidence when my mind would go on radically wild out of my conscious control "voyages" (I have written about some of these extensively elsewhere) despite heroic efforts to master more control over it (and we may see that I am getting there anyway, but in time) plus all the evidence that neuroscience and neuroscientists have uncovered in recent years (it has been said that more has been discovered about the human brain in the last five years than all of prior history combined). 

I have been humbled repeatedly - literally brought to my knees - about where my mind would take me at times (these were very horrendous "inner voyages", I can assure you) and despite having some conscious awareness that I needed to somehow control or stop them, I was utterly powerless to do so. Sometimes I had no conscious awareness at all - my body was just taken over by something else. And each time after I came out the other side, I'd think "what the hell was that all about and where the hell did it come from?!!". Then I'd analyze it through the lens of neuroscience and go off in search of what may have been at the root of that particular experience. 

So on a personal experience level there's that. (1)

But then there's all the mountains of evidence of how the brain operates subconsciously to produce what you consciously experience (which I tried as briefly and as concisely and clearly as I could to outline in that 
previous post on "zombie programs"). In the beginning of my neuroscience adventure, I really, really looked for evidence of free will. I felt I desperately needed free will to gain control over this wild and wacky mind of mine. But I just could not find any evidence and instead found all evidence pointing to the conclusion that we have very little "say" in what goes on "under the hoods" of our brains and that in fact our brains pretty much "run our ships" with little input from "the captain" (AKA: you or me). 

I also study people a lot in the real world. I talk to a lot of people. And I have all these clever little lines of questions and conversation to sort of "plumb their depths" and subsequently observe their behaviour matching that to what they'd previously said or their stated beliefs and so on. I then match this to the enormous volumes I've read on human behaviour and cognitive psychology, etc. 

And I'm sorry to report that I saw no evidence anywhere that we are in "free will" control over our lives, IE; what we say, do and decide. 

But, I've found, when people are hit with this realization - and I've gotten some pretty intense and distressed feedback on this from readers (2) - it can create a real 
Existential Crisis

And the last thing I want to create in a blog designed to help people right their mental health ships is create more problems. But then again, I think I have come to the conclusion that at least a little existential questioning of our selves may be a Good Thing. Existential questions about one's life may actually be a root of What's Going On in one's life to create chronically distressed and depressed moods and states. It could well be the root of what's going on. So maybe it's not a Bad Thing to be faced with this question of one's own free will or lack of it. 

But so that you don't melt down into an existential crisis or - worse - veer off into all kinds of dark nihilistic "fuck it, I'm just a zombie, I don't fucking care anymore" directions, we'd better address this here and now.  

Now it's true that we humans - like all animal species with brains built along similar lines to us (and our brains are remarkably similar to all mammal brains - that's why they're used to such great effect in neuroscientific research) - all operate more or less completely autonomously. 

Now, there are two things I want you to understand about the human brain before we freak out about all this. One is that free will or not, the human brain is the most advanced "survival mechanism" in the known universe and in the four billion year history of evolution. Trust me on this one: it is - even yours - an extremely good survival machine. I could wax on forever over all the unfathomably impressive and powerful systems it has evolved to guide your fanny through life. Your brain is very well equipped to guide you through life (all occasional appearances to the contrary notwithstanding). 

Plus - PLUS - my friends, we humans have an ace up our evolutionary sleeves: we have this spiffy thing called consciousness. No other creature on earth enjoys - nor is tortured by, mind you - consciousness on the levels that we humans have. 

It is consciousness where we can make more "free" choices about where our lives may or may not lead. Or even how our very brains themselves operate. Or what we deeply believe and so on. 

If there is free will, it is to be found and exercised in our fancy evolutionary advanced consciousness. 

Now I'm going to leave a more complete description of what consciousness is and how it works and why for a separate future piece but for now I will tell you that it is in understanding consciousness (and how it works and why) that is where the rubber meets the road in gaining more mastery over your selves and over that 3 pound blob of tofu like substance between your ears that drives you so batty (for those so interested, we take a detailed look at consciousness here). 

In the previous post I likened our consciousness to the screen and speakers of your computer - those represent what you "see" (and hear) or are "aware of" at any one time out of all what your computer (along with its Internet connection) could present at any one time. And that is what our consciousness does - it is what we are being made aware of by our brains out of all the ginormous (and almost astronomical) amounts of incoming sensory data (that coming in through our five senses and the gut-mind axis) and that crazy amount of stuff our own brains store and may need to feed up to us for attention (you'll recall from the previous post the million or possibly millions of gigabytes of data that your brain holds). 

I also mentioned that the cognitive neuroscientist Bernard Baars (2) likened our consciousness to a "plate", a sort of working plate (that's actually a little "poetic licence" on my part, it's properly known and presented as Global Workspace Theory); what we can put there and work on at any one time. So if we think of our consciousness as a plate and our brain as the biggest restaurant buffet in the universe, our consciousness is the plate on which we can serve up from that vastly huge and varied buffet at any one time. 

I also mentioned that I posited that a lot of mental breakdowns are to do with a) those "zombie program" autonomous brain systems malfunctioning or not cooperating properly and they're flooding our conscious experience (or the computer screens or plates of our analogies) with some really wrong stuff (from dangerously dark thoughts and thoughts of harm or suicide to delusional thoughts to hallucinations and so on) or are overfilling it and we melt down from overwhelm (or quite possibly combinations thereof).

Hands up those of you who have experienced that? Yeah, okay, I don't think I'm going to be able to count all those hands. You can put them down now. 

So, to cut to the chase, how do we better control what our brains present to our conscious experience (or computer screen or "working plate")? 

This is not a new conundrum, my friends. Probably not long after humans began to evolve our advanced consciousness (and with it the ability to experience inner thoughts and dialogues), people began to notice that a lot of crazy shit could show up in their conscious minds. Not only that, they noticed - within themselves and others - that what popped up into their consciousness could make them (or others) do a whole lot of crazy shit - a lot of it probably going against the "norms" of whatever tribe or group or culture they belonged to. And thus began all kinds of methods being cooked up by group elders or seers or shamans or "high priests" and what have you to control what went on in our conscious experiences. And thus arose practically all religions because believing in, praying to and "following the directions" of a god and religious tenets and dogma actually can - for many people - deal with this issue of wayward and wacky human conscious experience. 

But I'm not one of them. 

Another method, however, discovered and developed some 2,500 years ago and which has been compiling a very impressive track record ever since is - ta da!


The word meditation can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. To many it'll conjure up vague images of hippie like new agers in wild coloured tie-dyed shirts and so on. Or maybe it conjures up images of some Hindu guru sitting in the lotus position on some craggy mountaintop somewhere (the subject of no shortage of western comic images). Or perhaps of weird looking bald men and women in saffron coloured robes sitting around chanting. Or maybe the Dali Lama.

All of which may trigger a reaction along the lines of "That weirdo shit isn't for me. Screw that".

Which, you know, fair enough. That would have been me not all that long ago. 

But, as you know, I study a lot of neuroscience. And if you study neuroscience as broadly and as open minded enough as I do, you will be bound to come across the amount of research done on meditation and its power to change and transform the human brain. No, I did not say mind nor did I mean the mind, I said - and meant - the brain. And by change and transform the brain, I mean its very structure, its connections, the brain waves that help coordinate cognitive activity and actual core brain systems. Change the brain, thus change the mind.

Hey, like I have often said, I just go by the evidence and there is absolutely no shortage of evidence for the power of meditation on the brain. Not only that, but the power of meditation to put you more in the driver's seat of your consciousness experience. I actually originally intended to present a good deal of that evidence in this introductory post but I see that - in typical Bradonian style - that I have prattled on a good deal too long already. But I feel it's really important for readers to deeply understand why I recommend meditation so highly and why I think it's essential for you to accept the use of it to get your mind in better shape and to learn to take better control over your brain and thus who and what you are and thus your life. 

So I'm going to start off by putting the concept of meditation in a different light. Let's go back to our computer screen (and speakers) metaphor for consciousness. Now imagine you've lost control of what's on the screen - all kinds of pages are popping up, annoying pop up ads, all kinds of assaults of strange sounds through the speakers, you can't focus on anything, it's all running glacially slow, screen freezes, crashes, the whole works. And try as you might, you can't seem to control it. It's as if your keyboard and mouse have no control over the screen at all. If you can imagine how much that'd mess up how you use your computer and your online life, hey, welcome to my world. My real flesh and blood world, that is.

So I want you to think of meditation as a way of gaining control over what's on that screen, of how to get into the guts of your computer and reprogram and deal with what's going on that's messing up what you're experiencing on your computer screen and speakers - AKA: our conscious experience. Of how to gain control over your keyboard and mouse and how to use them again to control what's "on your screen" (and speakers). 

By this, I mean gain more conscious control over all those subconscious programs running amok and messing up your conscious experience (and driving you batty). 

Allow me to just very, very briefly touch on the neuroscience of meditation and why it's important. When we're talking about "control" in the brain, that is all frontal lobe stuff; particularly our fancy highly evolved human grade prefrontal cortex (popularly referred to as PFC). When we practice meditation, we are exercising very key behavioral regulating PFC areas of the brain and giving them the "neuronal muscle" they need to regulate or exercise better and more consistent control over emotions, impulses and various behaviours that originate in limbic region or brain stem areas. 

Even something as simple as the very basics of meditation that we're going to learn here today exercises control over very powerful and essential breathing mechanisms normally controlled by areas in the brain stem. This is learning "top down management" over very deep brain areas indeed. 

And it is this kind of "top down mind management" technique that we'll begin to be able to apply to all kinds of pernicious brain activity - negative thoughts, impulses, "lack of willpower", etc - that gives rise to the moods and behaviours that are part of whatever disorder we're dealing with. 

And what we do when we regularly practice meditation and build up those key PFC areas, is that we in essence create new "zombie programs" that autonomously or automatically exercise more control over the wayward brain regions that get us into trouble all the time. The more automated this becomes the easier it becomes, the less tiring it becomes and as time goes on our brain is better regulating itself all on its own - this is the big goal we're really shooting for!


Now this is a process. It takes time. And regular practice. But if you bear with me through this series on meditation, 
neuroplasticity and my other Positive Difference Making Fundamentals, we will get you there. 

So to begin, I'm going to introduce you to some very very simple and easy ways to start off meditating. No weird poses involved. No weird "emptying your mind" stuff. No cosmic experiences or anything like that. 

I'm going to give you two little exercises to start off with. I don't want you to go any further than these to start, just these (for those already more "on board" with meditation, feel free to skip these. These are for those who really struggle with and are intimidated by the concept of meditation). 

One, I want you to take a timer and set it for twenty seconds. Done? Okay.

Now, I want you to close your eyes and breathe out. Good, now open your eyes again. Now, I want you to count to four very slowly. Now I need you to really focus on counting out each number - one - two - three - four. Nice and slow and really focusing in your mind on each number as you count them. Again; one - two - three - four. 


Now I want you to close your eyes, exhale and then draw in a new breath. But as you draw your breath in, I want you to count - one - two - three - four, really focusing on each number and nothing else. 

Okay, excellent. 

Now draw in a breath, close your eyes and exhale but as you do so count again - one - two - three - four. 

Good work. 

Okay, so let's give it a whirl. Start your timer. Now close your eyes and breathe in and focus on counting - one - two - three - four, breathe out - one - two - three - four, breathe in - one - two - three - four, breathe out -one -two - three - four, breathe in - one - two - three - four. Ding-ding-ding-ding - time's up!

Good work! You freaking meditated!

So just go ahead and play around practicing with that. Don't worry about thoughts or blocking them out or anything like that. Just focus as much as you can on counting each number. Focus only on each number as you count on it. Do it for twenty seconds, then thirty and see how many seconds you can work your way up to. If you get past twenty seconds, that's awesome. If you don't, that's okay. We're just here to learn the basics and practice. 

Okay, I'm going to give you a slightly more advanced one if you want to move up a bit. 

For this one I want you to sit in a chair. Make yourself comfortable. Now pick a spot somewhere, any spot - a book on your shelf, a leaf on a houseplant (a personal favourite of mine) or anything you like, as long as it's just a single spot. Now I want you to put your hands on the arms of the chair or crossed on your lap. Okay?

Now I want you to set your timer for twenty seconds again. Now fix your gaze on the spot you picked and do the same as we practiced above - breathe in - one - two - three - four, breathe out - one - two - three - four. As you do this I want you to try keep your gaze focused on that one spot. If your eyes want to wander a bit - and it's quite natural for them to do so, that's what they're designed to do - that is quite okay, just bring them gently back to your fixed spot again and continue to focus on breathing in and out while counting one through four. Your hands will be tempted to wander as well, and if they do, just put them gently back where you had them.

Okay, now start your timer and while focusing on that spot and keeping your hands still as well as you can, do the breathing and counting exercise. 

Ding-ding-ding, time's up! Excellent! 

That's it! You freaking well meditated again! Okay, you're not ready to supplant the Dali Lama as a meditation expert any time soon but you did it! 

And to start with, that's all we're going to do - that simple focusing on counting and breathing and doing so while keeping your eyes fixed on a specific spot as well as you can. Again, you can play around with trying for longer periods of time. 

I taught this simple method to a Taming the Polar Bears student, a fifty year old woman, who'd sworn up and down that she was the most ADD person on earth, always had been and that no way on earth she could do this. But she did. She totally did. 

I'm going to draw this to a close for now, but these simple little steps here are going to take you on the way for learning how to gain some level of mastery over your consciousness. And this in turn is going to get you on the road to being a stronger, more in control "captain" of that ship of yours that's currently being run by all those amok "zombie programs". 

Until the next time.