My original post - Brad's Brain Training Exercises - an Introduction - has been one of the most popular Polar Bears posts since I published it in the summer of 2015. In this post we're going to build on what we learned there and try to carry it a little further.
First off, however, I have to again make clear that what I'm presenting here (and in the original post) should not be confused with popular brain training game sites like Luminosity and Brain HQ.
As I said in the original post, I'd looked into those (and became wary of their claims) and found that they weren't what we mental health peeps needed. Popular online "brain training" games claim to sharpen certain cognitive skills, which is fine, but they can be very frustrating when one is in the throes of serious mental health problems and likely make one feel even worse (as they did for me). What I felt I (and we) needed was something to help us work on things like cognitive distortions, negative beliefs and thought patterns, defeatist attitudes and so on (more below).
In this post I'd like to try to tie together what we learned in the following posts:
Neuroscience in Focus - an Introduction to Neuroplasticity
An Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation CBT
An Introduction to Music Therapy
I explained in the first post that exercises like those at Luminosity and Brain HQ are based on the basic principles of neuroplasticity. While my mental exercises are designed differently, of course, they work on the some of the same principles.
Let's have a brief look at that before we move on.
Our thought patterns and reactions to life around us are created by certain neuronal groups, regions and networks, not to mention a great deal of neurobiology. These will play great roles in our short and long term moods, reactions to life and mental outlooks along with all of our behaviours, reactions, habits and patterns that emerge in our day to day lives. As a part of the "dark side of neuroplasticity", the more we use the same thought patterns and reactions, the more that the neuronal regions and networks that create them will "hard wire" axon and dendrite pathways and strengthen the synaptic connections between them. This is one of the most fundamental principles of neuroplasticity: "neurons that fire together wire together". When I talk about the dark side of neuroplasticity, as I have numerous times, this is in great part what I mean - negative habits, thoughts, reactions, and behaviours get more "wired in" the more they occur. The regions involved and how they network become stronger and stronger. That's why it's hard to break negative mental habits and behaviours. (1)
How I designed the approach to my training exercises was with this basic principle in mind. What we are doing as we performing the exercises is working to prevent the "firing" of the regions and networks that create the negative thoughts, mental patterns, and reactions and instead replacing them with new patterns which, the more we use them as we do the exercises and the more we apply these to our daily lives, the more this will strengthen the regions and networks involved in the more positive thoughts and behaviours, gradually making the new mental habits and thought patterns come more naturally to us.
And this is the whole point of these exercises, folks: creating and practising new, more productive and positive thought and mental patterns plus creating better reactions to life circumstances in order that these come more naturally to us in our day to day lives.
If you deal with or have dealt with many clinicians and practitioners in the mental health care system, as I have, you will likely be told at some point, no matter how bad a particular crisis is or the very real nature of it, that you have to learn better coping skills . This often would feel very frustrating to me and seemingly dismissive but in the end, I always found that "yes, this is true, there's no choice but to somehow to cope with this better". So another way to think of the exercises is that we're better learning new coping skills or strategies and making them come more naturally to us.
Which brings us to the term "brain training".
If you examine human performance of any kind under any circumstances, optimal performance and reactions will be the result of training; how to react better under pressure, how to make the right decisions in complex situations and nearly endless ectetera. And whatever that training may be, its essence will be "brain training"; training the brain to perform, think and react in certain ways under certain circumstances.
However, as I outlined in the original post, what I found was that we mental health peeps needed very specific brain training. There is no stigma in this, there is no shame in this. All brains need training of some kind to perform optimally and/or to avoid disastrous mistakes, poor decisions, to better evaluate circumstances, to react better under pressure and so on. It's just that for us mental health suffering peeps, our requirements and approaches are just a bit different.
I have spoken previously about Habit Change and have intimated in numerous places throughout the blog that "who we are" is in great part a collection of our daily habits and what we reap in life from those. Yes, I know, this is a very sobering thought but one we must face. The way I think of and approach "brain training" is training better habits into our brains, minds and daily actions. I know I repeat myself, but I must remind that all brains need better training. I must also take this opportunity to make clear that this is all relative and that we are not comparing here. The only - and I do mean only - point here is to make your brain perform better under more circumstances relative to your life and previous experience. That is all that matters here - improving your brain's performance and thus your daily life experience and abilities to get more out of your life whatever that might be at present. I must also remind that of the key premises of what I teach in this blog is that all improvement is about incremental steps taken daily. There is no one grand leap to "better" or any kind of magic bullet that's going to make your issues disappear. That's not to say rapid improvement is not possible - it absolutely is - but these won't happen or they will be short lived if they do if we don't make better daily habits. It's all about little steps taken that we practice daily.
Now, on to the Music Therapy part.
Having music on while doing the exercises is actually fairly critical, for reasons I'll get to. When I do mine I almost always choose very specific kinds of music depending on the type of morning or day I'm having, my mental states for that day and even time of day. I always use instrumental music only. I have a few favourite meditation music pieces that I would often use in the morning (though I have largely moved on from that now). Other than those, I have a selection of either classic jazz or classical music. It's important that it's instrumental only because lyrics, or pop music for that matter, will be distracting both consciously and subconsciously and will reduce the effectiveness of the exercises. Because we want to work on thought patterns and the language of thought, song lyrics will interfere with the brain networks involved in language processing causing unwanted "cross talk" and we definitely don't want that.
I'd encourage you to find some pieces that work well for you (I'd also encourage you to take this opportunity to be a little adventurous in choosing some music that's new and different to you) and use perhaps three to five pieces regularly (I'll explain the importance of this a bit later). Something I have to suggest very strongly is looking for music that is more uplifting and avoiding dark sounding music (even classical has its darker mood symphonies!).
Finally, before we move on to learning more about my brain training exercises, let's revisit mindfulness meditation CBT briefly. The key points we want to regularly apply from what we learned there to when we're doing our brain training exercises are:
- we want to be in the present and mindfully attending to what we're doing (the exercises) and not just mindlessly killing time
- we want to practice non-judgmental awareness of our thoughts, mental approaches and reactions
- we want to learn to better align our thoughts with our actions and our actions with our thoughts
Two last things I would like to remind readers of from the original post (for new readers or for those who may remember the introduction piece and would like to read or reread it, you can find it here). One is that doing these exercises can be not only a great distraction or change of focus from when we're in very bad places or feeling overwhelmed (again, this is a classic technique from psychology) but it's also a very productive way of using our time. So we can do these on a regular basis (say once or twice a day) or in times when we really need to change our focus and mindset.
Two, is that it's very difficult to create new mental habits in often hectic real life conditions. I said in the original post that just like professional athletes use private training time to learn new habits, techniques. etc so that they can perform better in pressure packed games or matches, we need to have our own private training or practice time to work on things away from the pressure of real life so that we can improve how we "perform" in day to day situations. This is really important to remember. If I can get you to think of these brain training exercises as "practice" time to hone new mental techniques, you'll have a much better chance of successfully working the exercises and positive results into your day to day life and world.
Now, in the first piece the focus was on working on changing our inner dialog. Today is related but goes to a more fundamental level.
I have spoken often of what brains do and here I'd like us to focus on one of the primary things the human brain is "designed" to do (in the evolutionary sense of design) - find solutions.
All through our days our minds are going to be presented with (or bombarded by) dozens of situations from the tiny to the large for which we need a solution or result. Very often when we are suffering from anxiety and stress our brains' processes for this are not going to be working well and we may find ourselves agonizing over every little thing in which we must choose this way or that which will leave us with feelings of frustration and confusion and constantly on the verge of breaking down (if we have not broken down already). The reason for this is a bit of a chicken or the egg question. It may be that poor decision making processes led to the anxiety or that anxiety led to the poor decision making processes. After a while it becomes impossible to sort out which came first but likely it'll have been a cycle of these two. While they are somewhat different, for our purposes here today we'll think of decision making and finding solutions as the same or similar things.
I am tempted here to go more into the brain science of decision making processes and/or the processes for coming to solutions but I think that would stretch the length of this particular post. What I would like to do is share some parts from my personal story and situation which are quite relevant to what we're looking at here today and which I find are very common among many people struggling with short or long term mental distress.
The worst of my illness came in the years from 2010 to 2013. I was still attempting to work full time then and had a high pressure job. I was responsible for finding solutions and making decisions. I could be very good at both of these - that's why I had the job - but as stresses were mounting and things in my life and especially in my mind were breaking down, I had more and more trouble. There would be times I needed a simple solution or a decision to go right but I couldn't for the life of me make it happen. This is often what would lead to overwhelm and breakdown (in very spectacular ways which I have described elsewhere).
Though the personal details and circumstances plus the level of breakdown and resultant consequences will vary, this a very common situation or ongoing set of circumstances.
When I started my now (sort of famous) quest for "why?" at the dawn of 2013 and began analyzing everything that went wrong and why, there were a couple of the things that jumped out to me. One was that my ability to make decisions of almost any kind had largely broken down leading to what I'd describe in my notes at the time as "mistake anxiety" which at times would be virtually crippling. The other was that I'd too often give up too easily, throwing in the towel on a situation that was actually solvable. This too affected a great deal of my life and career at the time.
Now, when it comes to this business of decision making or solution finding, whether they be large or small, there are a couple of possibilities - one, we're aware that our processes for these are not good and this is what leads to a lot of anxiety and overwhelm or two, like many people we like to think we're smart and good at these things and thus may not be aware that these processes may be sabotaging us on some level (until something goes wrong, then we beat ourselves up over it) or not willing to admit there is a problem. Either way, this is perfectly natural and not uncommon.
In the first case, we're going to (and you should by know this is coming) practice some self-compassion and forgiveness. All brains are full of Brain Bugs, faulty cognitive processes and so on, and this is just one of them. Again, you are not A Particularly Bad Person regarding this. In the case of the latter, we're going to be strong and brave and admit to ourselves and accept that we could use some improvement. The more I study all these things - in both the academic sense and real world observation of people and their issues sense - the more I see this is a universal truth; the ability to forgive ourselves and practice compassion (or forgive others and practice compassion with them) or the ability to admit to our faults (IE: get past denial and rationalization) are both necessary to Move Forward in Life. And this blog is all about Moving Forward in Life in more optimal ways.
Something I have yet to touch on is the importance of play in human behaviour (and that of many animals animal). I've long had in mind a specific post on this but briefly for now what we think of as "play" actually has important functions in how we learn, how we integrate in our minds what we learn and in stimulating creativity and problem solving. This is well recognized among certain experts in the study of human and animal behaviour. I mention this to a) alleviate you from any guilt factor you may have about "wasting time playing games" and b) to begin to establish that "play" is actually quite critical to learning processes (something I learned and understood very well and applied back in my previous life as a teacher in Taiwan) and what we are doing in these brain training exercises is at least in part tapping into our brains' way of learning and practicing new skills this way. It's also very likely you were never taught this or taught this way. We need to change that and this is the place we're going to start. Plus, it is human nature to better stick to exercises that are good for us if we can enjoy them.
So hopefully by now you're at least partially on board with me on this so let's have a closer look at how we're going to "train our brains".
It's possible that these are new to you and it's possible that they are all too familiar to you (likely in a time killing sense). Either way, I again have to ask you to empty your mind of any previous concepts you have of these (I've mentioned often the "teacup analogy") in order that you and your brain can start afresh in the approach to using these as brain training tools.
For this post, we have two popular solitaire card games, FreeCell and Spider. I have some specific reasons for using these that I'll get to in a moment. First a bit about card games in general.
There are several things we can learn from card games and how we can better master and apply these lessons to "the game of life". I have (yet another) piece in mind on "luck and life" but for now card games can teach us a great deal about "luck" - "good" luck and "bad" luck and how to better mitigate the latter while getting and taking better advantage of the former. As well, in many, many decisions in life we need to better understand the chances, risks and benefits of any given move or decision. Card games - practiced as I'll attempt to teach them - can greatly aid us in learning to evaluate risk and chance and make consistently better decisions.
As I briefly alluded to in the first part of this series, in life - as you've no doubt noticed - we can be "dealt" some pretty crappy "hands" or "cards". Barring inordinate amounts of lucky circumstances, privilege and being sheltered from life, it is almost certain that we will be dealt circumstances we feel we can't handle or "win". Virtually every case of mental health crisis I've looked into (and we're talking in the hundreds, including my own) it amounted to combination of being prone to mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, bipolar among others and some unforeseen difficult life circumstance that created enormous overwhelm and some level of breakdown.
What I saw in my own case and the others I looked at (many in great detail) was that we needed a way to train our brains to better handle these "crappy cards" we were dealt.
I also saw it as necessary to train our minds not to rail against "bad luck" (therein lies the disastrous road of self-pity and despair) or search fruitlessly for "good luck" (therein lies the perhaps even more disastrous road of the gambler's mentality of always looking for and counting on "the big score" to solve life's problems or to find "happiness" and so on). We must train ourselves to simply accept what is before us and to work through it as best we can under the circumstances that day.
For one of the darker truths of life (our individual lives and lifetimes) is that life (the grand evolutionary forces and the vast complexities of interactions that happen among all the "players" on this planet of ours) is that it could give a fig about any individual or group. Quite simply "things will happen" which could take all sorts of forms that will just "land on our doorstep" and one way or another we have to deal with it. Again, quite sobering but again we can handle it better with acceptance and learning to better work through whatever it is we've been "dealt".
Now in these two particular games, we have two analogies for "life" that we can learn from.
In the first, FreeCell, we can see that we start with all the cards face up. Sometimes in life we are able to do this. It's also something we need to learn to do more often and effectively (the subject of yet another future post, I'm afraid) - setting out all the "cards" of a particular situation or crisis and learning to look through them all and come to a strategy or course of action.
In this game there are no "hidden surprises" to ambush us; everything is out in the open. Life doesn't always work this way, of course, but for those times we can examine a whole situation with everything "face up", it is good practice to learn to go through all the possible courses of action as efficiently as possible to come to the best solution or strategy.
This game - Spider - is quite the opposite; we start only being able to see a small number of all the cards. There are two courses of uncertainty here; the cards that are face down in the stacks and the cards yet to be dealt (those in the bottom right corner which will be dealt face up on top of those already showing). This is much more like life; things unforeseen coming at us.
Now, we're not here for me to teach the rules and strategies for solving these card puzzles. That's part of the mental challenge; learning something new (but again, if you are already familiar with these games to take on a new approach to learning them).
It's important to track statistics of many games as we want to develop a "big picture". If we only focus on the results of single games at a time without tracking long term results, the single results would be meaningless. What we want to learn, practice and master here is being able to hold a "big picture" in mind and the smaller pieces that make up that big picture and learning how to fit the two together and keep each in perspective. The mind tends to focus on "small sample sizes" for evaluation (either positive or negative) and this can greatly distort our perceptions and lead to poor decision making. Learning to track and keep a bigger picture in mind helps us conquer this common cognitive distortion of focusing only on short term results and projecting these into a (false or distorted) the larger long term aspects of our lives.
It also gives us an objective sense of our success, progress and improvement (as the mind is also very adept at distorting all of these as well).
With all of the above in mind (and yes, I know it's a lot!), here's a list of things I'd like you to work on (and this is only a partial list, I'm afraid - I'm always finding new things to work on).
Building up the mental process of always looking for optimal possibilities regardless of how daunting or challenging any give circumstances or situation is.
Break the habit of predetermining outcomes and build the habit of always getting the most out of any situation no matter what, no matter how things started out. What this does is build the habit of always salvaging the most out of any situation, always taking away something. This was a big one for me (see above about often giving up too easy on situations).
Training your mind to always look for what you need to get the best out of any situation. What is it that you need to get the most out your present moment? You certainly won't find it if you don't have the habit of looking for it. During these exercises you want to build that habit.
Building the habit of staying in the present and better thinking through the here and now steps you have to perform for whatever given task you're working on or situation you're trying to solve.
For many of us a good deal of our "depressed" moods, feelings and outlooks have come from experiencing too many "defeats" in life. There is a hypothesis for depression called the defeat model. This is yet another topic I really must get to though I do touch on it a bit in our look at dopamine, its pathways and relations to moods and behaviours. Briefly for now, "depression" those depressed feelings, come from a series of, or a lifetime of or a number of major "defeats" that beat us down, "depressing" us in a literal way and which cause and lead to great changes in how our brains work. So in these exercises we have the opportunity to start reversing this and building up solid "yeah, I did it!" experiences and feelings. Then as with all we practice, we start applying it to life and building up even more real and solid "victory" feelings that start getting some of that "depressed" circuitry jazzed up and more part of our daily conscious experience and mental outlooks.
I looked at optimistic and pessimistic biases in this piece from my other blog (the neuroscience of optimism and pessimism). As I concluded there, we actually need a balance of these in our daily mental models. In our exercises, I'd ask you to look for ways to be aware of positive or negative biases. These might be a tendency to be "too sure" of winning which may lead to unrealistic expectations and poor strategy choices or being too sure of defeat and throwing the towel in too soon. To get past these we simply always stay mindful, non-judgmental and always look for the best outcome no matter what. We do that and we learn to work past setting ourselves up for disappointment with unrealistic optimism yet breaking the habit of giving up or not even trying because we're "sure" we'll lose or "it's/we're not worth it".
What will happen if you follow all of this and work through solving the puzzles or challenges of the cards that were dealt is that as you keep working at it, not giving up until you've worked through all possibilities is that, by golly, you'll solve puzzles that you at first thought "no way". I want you to build this feeling into your mental circuitry then start applying it to other things in life. Not in big ways to start, but little things (I dislike the trite "baby steps" analogy but I suppose we can apply it here). The big picture thing we want to do here is reconfigure in your mind what you believe is possible for you to do. It all starts with belief, people. This is a great way to build that belief.
Okay, as usual I have prattled on for far too long again. I'm just going to briefly list some of the other things that you can work on as you work on solving the puzzles and the skills involved in that.
These (or other similar games) can be used for training the mind for a better growth mind set and always just looking to improve. Very, very often, people, it's not about "winning or losing" but about improving, skill building and so on.
As well, we can use this "arena" to begin learning where to put and keep our focus; blocking out distractions, focusing on looking for solutions, focusing on using our mental powers in more optimal and useful ways and so on. Regarding "distractions", external distractions are of course important but more important to learn to block out are all the distractions our own minds will generate; negative thoughts, non-related tasks or issues and so on. I know how challenging this is for many but believe me, it is possible to improve, it is possible to build up better beliefs about your abilities to block out distractions.
To state the obvious, it's about learning how to get the best of out the "cards you were dealt", out of the situation at hand, etc. It's about learning to accept when we simply didn't "get the cards" or the "cards went against us" and instead building feelings of gratification at having given it everything we had, of getting the absolute most out of a shitty situation. Luck, as I alluded to above, is not a personal thing, it is neither "against" us nor "for" us, as much as it may appear to us. These are classic cognitive errors and I suggest strongly to work on these for these erroneous beliefs lead to all kinds of mental states - too negative and down, too positive and up - that we need to learn to tame. This was huge in taming the roller coasters my bipolar mind could produce.
In that vein, these session are also a chance to better train oneself to let go of immediate outcomes and keeping one's focus on learning and mastering better skills and steps. Master the skills and the better results will more often come (though not always; see acceptance and letting go).
It is possible to build better skills for understanding better what's realistic or probable or not and how to make better decisions based on that and knit those skills into your daily life.
With that in mind, a very powerful mental ability is learning better when to walk away from certain situations as much as the outcome may mean to us and how much we want to solve it. Another way to look at it is that is building our "letting go" judgments and abilities. We learn to recognize when we've put all we could into something and that it's just not working out and that we need to move on to other things or opportunities and so on.
Another very key mental skill to learn is be able to ask yourself; are you playing poorly or are you just getting crappy cards? We have to learn how to separate these in our minds. In our lives are we "playing poorly" at life or is life dealing us a lot of bad luck? Often, we'll find it's a bit of both which brings us to the other big lesson we can learn while we're training our brain - how to get luck to work more in our favour ... what we'll find is that if we learn to consistently work to get the best out of any situation, to not give up and throw in a half assed effort, over time opportunities good and bad luck will tend to go more and more in our favour.
We do that by building the best habit we can so that when luck does happen, we can better take advantage of it. We also do this by learning to stay present and make the best decisions we can moment by moment.
A very important thing I want you to work on is is to eventually change reactions to the immediate and longer term circumstances we face in life. If you mindfully pay attention to your reactions to how the cards are going, you will notice they mirror your emotions and reactions to many things in your life. Our sessions of brain training with these games are opportunities again to work on these, they are opportunities to practice what we work in in Mindfulness Meditation CBT. These are steps to learning how to build stronger resiliency.
Last message for this post. I mentioned the importance of tying music therapy into these sessions so let's have a quick look at what that's about. One, it's a great way to do two kinds of brain training at once (see The Neuroscience of Music Therapy for the mental benefits of music in the brain) but there's something else interesting that can happen as well by combining the exercises and certain music. Ideally, you will begin to build positive feelings in doing the exercises that can often lead to better moods. This will build positive associations to the music you regularly listen to while doing them so at times you can't do the exercises but need a "lift", just listening to the music can provide a subliminal boost to your mental states.
I think we'll wrap this up for now. My greatest hopes are that you can see the value of training your brain in these ways, that this "play" is not a waste of time but most importantly to build your belief that -
yes you can.
(1) In several chapters of The Brain that Changes Itself, author Norman Doidge outlines in considerable detail how this process works.