Brain

(Im)Possible

I’m not sure who said it. Probably my acupuncture physician, but my memory is a bit vague; for all I know, my friends have been saying the same thing for months or years, and I’ve only now capable of hearing them. But this is what I heard: “I don’t think you’ve believed that things can actually change.”

Substitute “things can actually change” for “you can lose weight” or “you can regain your health” or “you can create a different sort of life for yourself” or “you can become unstuck,” and you’ll have a picture of the loop I’ve been in for a very long time. Actually, though, I have believed things can change: they can always change for the worse. And I’ve believed that things can change for the better, but not because I had anything to do with it—I am that which fouls up plans, or ruins a good thing, or starts off hopefully and resolutely only to fail once again.

I’ve written about my struggles with depression. I was a moody kid, certainly, but the deep, dark, despairing kind of depression didn’t hit until college. I think that’s the time most people who have schizophrenia start becoming ill; I’m guessing it has something to do with changing brain chemistry. Mine started in my freshman year, and seemed to cycle almost with the moon. Since then I’ve learned that many people suffer greater depression around the new moon, just as many people experience insomnia around the full moon.

In my junior year I had some kind of depressive break. I spent my days curled in a fetal position on my bed, chewing on the chenille balls of the bedspread, weeping uncontrollably. I would venture out only after dark, and walk the mile or so into town to find something to eat, because I certainly wasn’t going to go to the dining hall to reveal my condition to my friends.

This lasted two or three months. Reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and a couple of Gerard Manley Hopkins poems, notably “Carrion Comfort,” over and over, aloud, almost chanting them, making them into a mantra or a magic spell, were the tools that helped me regain a modicum of sanity. When I finally approached my best friend in college and summoned the courage to tell her what I had been through, she chastised me sternly for being self-indulgent, and told me she never wanted to see me in that sorry state ever again.

About ten years later I learned that she had just come through a year of depression, and that her husband was bipolar. I desperately wanted to be compassionate, to think that perhaps her extreme reaction was because the idea of my depression triggered a profound fear in her, but all I could think was: Ah. Now you know what it feels like. Now you understand.

The depression came and went over the years; after that major college episode, it was no longer on a tidy calendrical schedule. When it came, it was bleaker and more profound, and when it went, I was at least able to cope with daily life, though it was never true happiness. I never quite got up to that level again.

Toward the end of my two years in Vermont I slipped into a depression. When I realized I was actually planning my suicide, trying to decide who should take care of my dog and how to minimize the horror and clean-up when my body was found, I decided I needed to seek professional help. My doctor prescribed Wellbutrin. After four weeks it finally kicked in, and I woke one morning feeling balanced and happy and at peace. Three hours later I broke out in hives all over my body: I was allergic to the medication. Then we tried Prozac. It gave me seizures of the jaw that made me bite my tongue badly during my sleep. My doctor decided that SSRIs didn’t work with my brain chemistry, and hoped that herbs and diet would solve the problem. They helped, and moving back to Florida a couple of months later to take care of my mother (not to mention all that good sunlight) helped even more.

Then I started receiving acupuncture—not expressly for the depression, though that was certainly one of the concerns. Within a month I felt much, much better; within three months I could no longer  access that level of despair even when I tried. And no more depressive episodes of the kind that had so bedeviled me for three decades. It’s been a remarkable transformation.

But this year, after Mom’s death, I’ve come to see that I still have the behavior patterns of a depressed person, if not the feelings. And now I realize that I also have a depressive belief system: the bedrock certainty that no matter what I do or how hard I try, nothing will ever truly change for me. That I am Sisyphus.

I’m reporting all this because I think that old belief system may be changing. Slowly, by increments perhaps. But I’m starting to believe that change is possible, that bodies and mindsets and circumstances are maleable, that I have more power over my life than I think I do. It is not, alas, a straight-line improvement. There are days when I think everything is possible and others when I still think nothing is. But the overall direction, I believe, is one of opening up, of seeing light, of thinking Yes, maybe. Maybe there’s hope.

Advertisements
Categories: Brain, Depression, Healing | 10 Comments

Helen, Dan, Stephen, Gordon, Mia, and Glia

Someone once asked if I took hallucinogens before bedtime. I said no, but I’m beginning to think there’s something in the water. Last night I slept well, but I dreamed and dreamed and dreamed. And since this blog is all about the Dreamtime, here are some notes that came through last night from that wonderfully bizarre realm.

Act I was a new episode in a continuing series. In this recurring dream I am apparently the host of a British television call-in show, though I am always off-screen. Regular callers send in their photos, which stay on screen during their phone calls, with the legend: “Now speaking: [name], a [occupation] from [location].”

Today’s is a frequent caller, a woman named W.H. Logan who is a prison doctor from Aber-something, a long and vaguely Welsh-sounding name with an overabundance of consonants. (I looked up UK prisons and none begin with “Aber-.” There is a market town in Wales called Abergavenny, lauded in a 1968 song by Marty Wilde, but Ms. Logan has a thick Scottish accent, not Welsh, so don’t really know where she lives or works.) The H. in her name stands for Helen, which is what she prefers to be called. The screen shows a backdrop of the prison at which she works, with an inset of her face. Helen looks vaguely like Edie Falco as Nurse Jackie. Continue reading

Categories: Brain, Dreams | 2 Comments

Earwig

Will someone please tell me why in the world this song from the Broadway musical Hair should play over and over and over and over and over in my sleep all night long?

Folding the flag is taking care of the nation;
Folding the flag is putting it to bed for the night.
I fell through a hole in the flag,
I’m falling through a hole in the flag!
Helllllllllllllllp!

Don’t put it down—
Best one around!
Crazy for the red, blue, and white
Crazy for the red, blue, and white

You look at me,
What do you see?
Crazy for the white, red, and blue
Crazy for the white, red, and blue

‘Cause I look different
You think I’m subversive.
Crazy for the blue, white, and red
Crazy for the blue, white, and red

My heart beats true
For the red, white and blue!
Crazy for the blue, white, and red
Crazy for the blue, white, and red
And yellow . . . fringe!
Crazy for the blue, white, red, and yellow!

Categories: Brain, Music | 11 Comments

Strange Days

Jim Morrison wrote “Strange Days,” the song, for The Doors’ album of the same name, in 1967. The album was considered an artistic triumph but a commercial failure. The cover depicts circus performers (acrobats, a juggling mime, a strongman, a trumpet player, and two dwarves) in a quiet NYC residential mews.

Most carnivals were out on summer tours so it was a struggle for the album’s cover photographer, Joel Brodsky, to find professional circus performers. The acrobats were the only ones he could find; the dwarf, Lester Janus, and his younger brother Stanley were hired from an acting firm; the juggler was Brodsky’s own assistant; the trumpet player was a taxi driver; and the strongman was a doorman at a nightclub.

Strange days have found us
Strange days have tracked us down . . .
Strange days have found us
And through their strange hours
We linger alone
Bodies confused
Memories misused
As we run from the day
To a strange night of stone

My sleep these days isn’t terribly comfortable. I dream constantly, but the dreams are confusing, jumbled, elusive. I wake early—I’ve always awakened many times during the night—but now for some reason, by 6 a.m. or so, I no longer go back to sleep. I’m finished. It’s not like I’m driven from my bed with lots of happy energy, ready to tackle the day. It’s just that I’m done. I’m finished. This is something I have never done in fifty-three years, at least not with any regularity.

I get up, turn the TV for some companionship, and fire up the Internet. The news is decidedly odd. Continue reading

Categories: Brain, Dreams, Life in Florida, Movies and Television, Politics | 3 Comments

The Edge of a Storm

I am not a particularly heavy sleeper. You could say I sleep like a dog, or a wolf; that is, with one ear nearly always awake, ready to pull the rest of me to alertness should the need arise. That came in handy, of course, during the years Mom was sick. We had a baby monitor in her room so I could hear her calls (or falls) in the night. But even before I became her caregiver, I would wake frequently in the night to turn over or occasionally pee (the curse of middle age), usually falling back to sleep quickly.

But this habit also means I tend to remember my dreams more easily than other people, because I, like others whose brains are similarly hardwired, go through life with a brain wave pattern significantly slower than most people (Alpha rather than the normal Beta); I’m closer to the dream state when I’m waking, and I slip into the trance or deeply meditative state (Theta) more easily. I assume that I sleep closer to Theta, whereas most people go from Delta (complete unconsciousness) to Beta (which is found in both normal REM sleep, when dreaming usually occurs, and states of extreme alertness) and back again, making dream recollection a bit more problematic.

Two nights ago I went through a rather bad patch. I encountered some familial stressors—something to do with Mom’s will and probate—and I was suddenly a young boy unable to cope. It was not so much the specter of death, or the anxiety and sadness over loss, but rather that all the months and years of exhaustion came rushing back. I found myself, once I had gotten off the phone, weeping uncontrollably, making animal noises and wailing like a professional mourner in the Middle East. When there were words, it was “Leave me ’lone!” and “Go ’way!” as if I were a battered child afraid of more abuse. It was the strangest bit of grieving I have ever experienced. I went to bed utterly spent, and woke up much saner.

Then last night, a very odd little dream. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Brain, Death, Dreams, Family | 1 Comment

Poetry’s Power

I mentioned on Facebook that poetry saved my life. Adam and I were discussing Gerard Manley Hopkins (Adam had written a few lines of poetry that I thought played with language, particularly in describing Nature, the way Hopkins did, particularly in his famous “Pied Beauty“).

I was a somewhat moody child, but it wasn’t until college that I had my first major depressive episode. It’s the time schizophrenia starts manifesting in some people; I guess the brain goes through changes in chemistry at that point in life. At any rate, I had never experienced the sort of smothering bleakness which William Styron would later write about so articulately in his powerful memoir Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, and in the winter of my junior year, I had a full mental and emotional breakdown. Most days found me hiding from friends in my dorm room, crying in a fetal position on my bed, sneaking out only after dark to get some food. Continue reading

Categories: Brain, Depression, Great Quotes, Nature, Spirituality | 4 Comments

Pen and Paper

Now that I’ve finished reading Sedaris’s thoroughly enjoyable When You Are Engulfed in Flames, I’ve moved on to Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, about the practice of writing memoir. Here’s page 1:

Writing is an athletic activity. It comes from the whole body, your knees and arms, kidneys, liver, fingers, teeth, lungs, spine—all organs and body parts leaning in with you, hovering in concentration over the page. And just like any other sport, it takes practice. Behind the football we see on TV, the players have put in hundreds of hours before the big game. The muscles of writing are not so visible, but they are just as powerful: determination, attention, curiosity, a passionate heart.

Begin to work those muscles. . . . Continue reading

Categories: Brain, Writing | 5 Comments

Vectors

In the seventh grade, we were taught Modern Math. My teacher, a man with a thick Southern accent whose face looked like one of those dried apple dolls, thought my grasp of the theoretical stuff was good but my basic arithmetic skills were lacking a bit, so he didn’t want to promote me to Algebra. My father marched down to the school and straightened him out. He never revealed the content of their discussion, but I secretly hoped some brass knuckles were involved.

I excelled in Algebra. Almost pure theory. Geometry set me back a bit, because we were dealing with three-dimensional space. Trig, in the tenth grade, was monstrous. I forget what we had in the eleventh grade, but it was full of polynomials and advanced trig and things that made my brain freeze up.

One thing I took with me along the way, though, was the concept of vectors, and even now I’m not sure I’ve got it quite right.* When you define three-dimensional space graphically, you use a Cartesian coordinate system, with x, y, and z axes.

It’s days like this when I think I’m actually not geeky enough, or I’d be able to explain this better. Please try not to laugh into your corn flakes. You’ll get milk up your nose. Continue reading

Categories: Body and Mind, Brain, Dreams, Healing | 3 Comments

A Power Cord to the Transcendant?

by Jeffrey Weiss, DallasNews.com

The psilocybin mushroom was a tripper’s choice back in the 1960s. Actually, it was the herbal head-trip drug used by millennia of shamans long before the psychedelic ’60s. It was supposed to help get the mystically inclined into the right frame of mind, to enhance feeling of spirituality. Does it? Researchers tested the drug on 36 subjects in 2006. Thirty of the 36 attended two separate 8-hour drug sessions, at two-month intervals. On one they received psilocybin, on another, methylphenidate (Ritalin), as a control since it’s well known that it’s not a drug that boosts spiritual feelings.

Then researchers talked to their subjects at two months. And again a year later.

Here’s a nugget of the results published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology : Continue reading

Categories: Body and Mind, Brain, Healing, Shamanism | Leave a comment

Stepping In

A frequent motif in my dreams is where I step into a life I am (or someone else is) currently living elsewhere, to taste what that life is like. It’s the experience of that “stepping in” that has made me consider that the notion of alternate realities or parallel universes might not be such a crackpot idea.

In these dreams, I visit an ongoing life. Sometimes the person is me, but a few of the circumstances of my life are different (Mom is healthy, Dad is alive, I’m in a different profession, I live someplace else). At other times I seem to be visiting someone else’s life, and the dream is peopled with characters I’ve never met before.

What distinguishes this type of dream for me is that nothing that happens in them seems remotely dreamlike. Nothing happens out of normal time, scenes don’t shift suddenly, no one can fly, the sky isn’t green, there’s nothing that would say, “This is a dream.” It feels very much like waking reality, everyday life, a few normal hours—in someone else’s world, or in a parallel reality. Continue reading

Categories: Brain, Dreams, Writing | Leave a comment

Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?

Many people will say it is morally acceptable to pull a switch that diverts a train, killing just one person instead of the five on the other track. But if asked to save the same five lives by throwing a person in the train’s path, people will say the action is wrong. This may be evidence for an ancient subconscious morality that deters causing direct physical harm to someone else. An equally strong moral sanction has not yet evolved for harming someone indirectly.

By NICHOLAS WADE | The New York Times
Published: September 18, 2007

Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.

At first glance, natural selection and the survival of the fittest may seem to reward only the most selfish values. But for animals that live in groups, selfishness must be strictly curbed or there will be no advantage to social living. Could the behaviors evolved by social animals to make societies work be the foundation from which human morality evolved?

In a series of recent articles and a book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, has been constructing a broad evolutionary view of morality that traces its connections both to religion and to politics.

Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) began his research career by probing the emotion of disgust. Testing people’s reactions to situations like that of a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had become roadkill, he explored the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding — when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.

Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong. Continue reading

Categories: Body and Mind, Brain, Spirituality | Leave a comment

Quest for a Miracle Cure

These parents believe horses and shamans can unlock their son’s autistic mind. This is their journey of discovery

by Tim Rayment
The Sunday Times
September 9, 2007

A child is born, and the child seems blessed. He lives in the richest nation on Earth, at a time of greater wealth and understanding than any in history. The infant even has interesting parents: one British, one American, each a little famous in their own right.

But then something disquieting happens. Perhaps this was your child, too.

He starts to go backwards. First he loses his language, then he enters a solitary hell. He turns away when touched and arches his back when held. He lines up his toys in rows, and seems afraid of things that should hold no fear. He appears not to notice you, and his indifference makes you feel snubbed.

Soon the real heartache starts. You see other children play together in a sandpit while yours is to one side, obsessively pouring and repouring sand through his fingers. Sudden firestorms run through his nervous system, making him scream in panic and pain. Later, in the calmer years when he is four or five, other children’s attempts at friendship are rebuffed. This is not because your child wants no companions: the truth might be that he yearns for them. But he is mystified by social interaction, and conversation makes him nervous, as he has no idea how to respond. So he turns away with a distant expression, seeming cold and weird. This is autism. Your lovely offspring looks condemned to what, in 1943, Leo Kanner first described as “extreme autistic loneliness”, and many readers of this magazine will know a family that is affected. In the UK, 1 in 100 children is on the autistic spectrum.

It is a mystifying disorder. But on a farm in Texas, a British father thinks he has found a way into the mind of his autistic son. The boy has learnt to talk thanks to his relationship with a horse. He can quell his tantrums, express his feelings, even do maths and spelling — all because of a horse. He is the Horse Boy, and the loss of his symptoms is a challenge to conventional thought on how to handle his condition. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Brain, Buddhism, Healing, Psychology, Shamanism | Leave a comment

Who’s Minding the Mind?

By BENEDICT CAREY
The New York Times | July 31, 2007

In a recent experiment, psychologists at Yale altered people’s judgments of a stranger by handing them a cup of coffee.

The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java.
Continue reading

Categories: Brain, Psychology, Worthwhile Reading | 1 Comment

Mind Over Matter?

Einstein told us that matter and energy are the same Stuff moving at different speeds. The molecules in ice move very slowly indeed. They move faster in water, and fastest in steam. All matter is energy that is moving slowly; all energy is matter vibrating quickly.

Likewise, even the most jaded scientists say that thoughts are biochemical or bioelectric signals the brain emits. Thoughts are energy. Thoughts, therefore, are the selfsame stuff as matter.

We don’t need to put “mind over matter.” What we need is to realize that mind IS matter.

Someone told me—though I can’t find the exact quote—that the Dalai Lama once said, “If you want to see into your past, look at your body. If you want to know the future, look at your mind.” Our thoughts become physical reality. That’s why it’s so vital that we choose our thoughts well.

Now, all I need to do is repeat these ideas to myself fifty or sixty times a day. . . .

Categories: Body and Mind, Brain | 4 Comments

Gossip, Celebrities, Linear Time, and Quantum Physics

This morning, groggy and bleary-eyed, I stumbled out of bed and headed for the computer, as I do every morning (I am such a creature of habit!), and immediately turn to my favorite time-waster, Datalounge.

Billing itself as “10 Years of Gay Gossip, Politics, and Pointless Bitchery,” Datalounge (“the DL”) is a surprisingly international forum where anonymous strangers can post on wildly divergent topics, most of them centering around who is gay in Hollywood, or outrageous incidents in the press like the woman with the toddler at Reagan National Airport who either went ballistic when told she couldn’t bring her toddler’s sippy cup onto the plane, or who was unreasonably hassled by out-of-control TSA agents, depending on your perspective.

There are endless arguments, some of which are are surprisingly cogent; tremendous compassion when someone’s dog or parent dies; tremendous cattiness and even unwarranted cruelty; and humor. It’s really the humor that draws me.

For example, the Sippy Cup incident that has been in the headlines this week. Most of the DL posters were shocked at the woman’s over-the-top reaction, at a time when much of the Internet was saying it was tantamount to an attack by the TSA agent. Continue reading

Categories: Brain, Humor, Time and Space | 6 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.