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Tipsy ramblings about the brain and mental health [Feb. 26th, 2008|08:52 pm]
John
So... I've been thinking about a few things about mental health and such and I'm going to talk about that a bit.

One of the fundamental rules I'm recognizing for me is that the brain is noisy. I mean, a brain can just come up with the most ridiculous crap on the planet.

Now, on the one hand, Freud was right that there is a subconscious part of us. On the other hand, thinking about that without recognizing the noisiness of one's brain is a bit of a risk. If you think something that's bullshit, and you figure that it must be your subconscious, you can put yourself on a path towards screwing yourself up.

For example, let me describe something to you... this is something that might come into your mind.

I want you to imagine yourself with a banana in your hands. And I want you to imagine going up to someone you love, truly and deeply, and whacking them over the head with that banana!

(I'm assuming that you're going to imagine someone who can't actually be hurt by being whacked over the head with a banana. They might get "messed up", but in the literal, not figurative, sense.)

Tomorrow, you just might, out of the blue, for no reason whatsoever, imagine whacking someone over the head with a banana.

Does it mean you have some subconscious desire to whack someone with a banana? Does it mean that you want to engage in some kind of sex act (a banana could be seen as a phallic symbol...)? No, it means you foolishly listened to some long-haired weirdo when he was coming up with bizarre examples to illustrate his point.

That's the point. Your brain is noisy, and sometimes, at random, it pulls up a bit of noise that doesn't really mean anything. Some of this comes from your subconscious (if you imagine whacking someone with a banana tomorrow, it might take you some time to remember who put the thought of bananas in your head), but that doesn't mean that it means something.

Sometimes it does. You shouldn't completely ignore what your brain serves up; it's possible that it's revealing something that you should pay attention to.

At the same time, I had a dream where I killed one of my cats... it was a horrifying dream. If it bothered me enough, it might keep flashing in my brain. And it would be that much more horrible if I decided that meant I was possibly going to kill my cat.

Did you notice that? If it bothered me, it might keep popping into my brain. If I decided that it might be a product of my "subconscious", something I might really do, it would bother me that much more! Follow that path, and you're starting to understand one of the underpinnings of OCD... the fear of thinking about something becomes self-reinforcing, because the more fear you feel, the more power you're (inadvertently) giving to the thoughts that are upsetting you.

So part of the key to mental health is to understand that, sure, there's a subconscious... but just as a random thought can be about some deeply held feeling, it could also be about something that was completely random, and maybe meaningless.

This can be important because your mind and your emotions are tied together. If your brain is feeding you random garbage about how crappy your life is, it can help you feel down and maybe you'll start feeling the dark despair that surrounds you when you're having a major depressive episode. On the other hand, once you're locked into a major depressive episode, it's awfully easy for your brain to start feeding you random garbage about how crappy your life is (and while you're depressed, life is pretty crappy).

I don't want to talk about which is the chicken and which is the egg, and I sure as heck don't want to ask which comes first. But there is a connection, and it can go both ways.

Cognitive therapy is based on the idea that you can use your mind to affect your emotions. I think, someday, there'll be an alternative therapy working from the other side, when we learn a bit more about how folks can successfully shape their emotions... and, of course, there'll be combination therapies working with both.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: ruth_lawrence
2008-02-27 05:48 am (UTC)
I can't like Freud, not at all (and neither do the overwhelming majority of qualified psychologists down here).

But yeah, I agree that the brain pumps out a lot of Stuff, mostly fairly meaningless (but not always) Noise.

It's no doubt part of how it works, how it maintains itself, does its job.

I guess it's quite a while since I thought that the Noise implied anything about what I would chose to actually do.

You know, there's a Mean Version Of Christianity thing that implies the Noise is our eevul original sin rather than a hodge-podge of mind/memory chatter that sometimes leaks to our consciousness, or at least that's my view.

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[User Picture]From: erin_c_1978
2008-02-27 05:38 pm (UTC)
You know, there's a Mean Version Of Christianity thing that implies the Noise is our eevul original sin rather than a hodge-podge of mind/memory chatter that sometimes leaks to our consciousness, or at least that's my view.

Yesyesyesyes. I have OCD, so my brain both throws horrible crap at me AND whispers constantly that it must be significant or I wouldn't have thought it in the first place, and this is why I had to change churches or kill myself by inches with guilt.
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[User Picture]From: ruth_lawrence
2008-02-28 01:16 am (UTC)
:-(
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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2008-02-27 06:04 pm (UTC)
Interestingly, that ("eevul original sin") view is consistent with Freud's view of the id. Now I ponder which came first, that view, or Freud's, or some combination.
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[User Picture]From: ruth_lawrence
2008-02-28 01:20 am (UTC)
It isn't my idea, Freud actually being an apologist for Christian ideas...

Darned if I remember right now by whom, but I have seen it argued that this was no accident.

:::goes away to rack branes:::
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[User Picture]From: ruth_lawrence
2008-02-28 01:27 am (UTC)

book

"Why Freud Was Wrong: sin, science and psychoanalysis" by Richard Webster.

There's a collection or two of much more intellectually devasting stuff out there, too, but this one is where I read this partikooler idea presented coherently.

Of course peopple who didn't have penis envy etc said a lot of cross things in my hearing at some stage, too :-)
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[User Picture]From: apel
2008-02-27 06:53 am (UTC)
Seriously considering if some of the stuff that comes up is noise is one thing.

Another is to realise that even if it is a genuine desire/feeling/thought, that's all it is. Wanting to kill your cat is not wrong. Actually harming your cat is, but just having the thought isn't. There's a reason we don't have thought crimes and the reason is that we cannot control our thoughts and feelings.

We can however control our actions, which is why certain actions are illegal. Unless you're 2 years old or on meth or something you're going to realise that you'd miss the little brat terribly and you don't really want him to suffer. Even if he just peed on your bed.

It's perfectly normal to have mixed feelings about stuff in your life, be it a person, a pet or a job. In fact I'd go so far as to say that if a person's feelings toward something as complex as a pet are entirely consistent that's an indication of a possible problem. Denial would be my first guess. An overly controlled emotional life would be high on my list too, as would immaturity.

But that's just me.
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[User Picture]From: hmms_sio
2008-02-27 11:57 am (UTC)
Emotions usually follow thoughts. No matter how small the timelapse, the thoughts are there.

If you think some one misses an appointment with you because he doesn't like you, you feel more miserable than when you think he probably missed his train. It's the way you think about a certain thing that makes you feel your feelings.

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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2008-02-27 06:41 pm (UTC)
Nod. But feelings can also affect thoughts. When I'm depressed, certain thoughts don't have any reality to them.

"I will feel better, eventually" is almost certainly true; I've never not come out of a depressive episode. But it doesn't mean anything. It doesn't create any feeling of hope, and if you asked me if I believed it, my gut reaction is to say "no". My intellect will intervene, and say "yes, I suppose I will feel better eventually". But it's like saying "the sun is 93 million miles away." It's just a fact, that I'm intellectually aware of, but that doesn't have any deep meaning to me. I don't really have any conception of 93 million miles... it's just a number.

That's why I think, someday, there might be an emotion-shaping therapy, to go with thought-shaping.

But I could be wrong... you're right, in the end, it's our perceptions and thoughts that shape how we respond to things.
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[User Picture]From: hmms_sio
2008-02-27 09:33 pm (UTC)
O, but I know that in a state of depression, nothing goes. No matter what any body says, no matter what you think yourself.
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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2008-02-27 06:22 pm (UTC)
Seriously considering if some of the stuff that comes up is noise is one thing.

Another is to realise that even if it is a genuine desire/feeling/thought, that's all it is. Wanting to kill your cat is not wrong. Actually harming your cat is, but just having the thought isn't. There's a reason we don't have thought crimes and the reason is that we cannot control our thoughts and feelings.


Sure, there's nothing wrong with thoughts/feelings/etc., but I (and other folks, but I can only speak for me with authority :-) ) sometimes have some of the craziest crap come up in my brain. (You should have seen the example I came up with before settling on whacking someone over the head with a banana.)

So, recognizing that a thought/feeling/etc. is okay is important, but so is recognizing that it might not even be a thought, so much as a bit of noise that one's brain came up with. Or, if you want to put a meaning on it, the meaning might be that it's something meaningful (good *or* bad). That I would be horrified to do something to hurt my cat Chibi could be what prompted the dream.

Mix that horror with questions about his relatively minor medical issues (whether or not to spend a good chunk of money for exploratory surgery that might not find anything, and if it finds something, it might be unfixable), and the realization that, as an older kitty, sooner or later, I might have to ponder whether he can have a happy cat's life any more, and it's easy to see where the dream came from.

That's a better example than you might think, as well, because he can be a real attention hog, and mew, mew, mew me to death when I just need some peace and quiet. It would be possible to say "see, subconsciously, I see him as a terrible burden and hate him for that!" if I wanted to go deep into Freud's view of the subconscious.

If, instead, I can accept that, you know, maybe it's just noise, it's easier (for me) to blow it off as nothing important, nothing to worry about.

To think of it as a thought, a feeling, to think of it as being meaningful, is more upsetting than to just blow it off with "my brain comes up with some crazy-ass noise sometimes."

But at the same time, you're right... none of this is to say that you shouldn't be willing to admit that you do have mixed feelings about something/someone. It's *okay* to have occasional nasty thoughts/feelings, and they can be worthy of investigation. But it's also possible to just have nasty thoughts/feelings that pop into your head without any reality to them.
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[User Picture]From: essaying
2008-02-27 06:55 am (UTC)
Actually, I think most of it does have meaning... it's just that the meaning isn't always up there on the surface being obvious.

If I had your awful cat-killing dream, for example, I'd look for puns -- is there someone in my life named Katz who's getting on my nerves? And for associations -- who else is dependent on me the way my cat is, and how am I feeling about that? Stuff like that.

I'm completely sold on the idea of gestalt dream analysis as a way of teasing out whatever a dream is trying to tell me. I've never had it fail me. And I've never found a dream that was completely random.
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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2008-02-27 07:02 pm (UTC)
Well... true. Because everything is a product of our experiences and memories, there'll be some level of meaning in everything.

But, well, think of an earworm. If you have a song running through your head, it doesn't mean you like the song. It might even be that you hate the song, and that you are trying not to keep hearing it. All that it really means is that the song is stuck in your head, for whatever reason. If you probe more deeply, you might come up with a reason (the beat is unusually catchy for you, maybe), but it doesn't really matter. You could just dismiss it as noise.

Similarly, if an upsetting idea pops into a person's head, it might stick around just because it *is* upsetting. We remember things that make an impression on us. So, sometimes the meaning is just "this is upsetting for me to think about, and I can't keep from probing at it, just like my tongue will probe an achey tooth."

So there'd still be meaning ("this upsets me deeply"), but the lesson of the meaning might be "so I can blow this off (as best as I can) and wait for it to stop bugging me".
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[User Picture]From: laurarey
2008-02-27 02:03 pm (UTC)
I like the phrase "compulsive thinking". It's one of the reasons I meditate so damn much is to try to stop the compulsive thinking.

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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2008-02-27 07:05 pm (UTC)
Nod. Just having something I can do helps eliminate the noise. When I'm exercising, I sometimes count my breaths in 4x4x4 blocks (each breath is a block, and when I'm done I have four rows and four columns stacked four high, creating a bigger cube). Well, if I'm bothered by a mild obsession, I can often chase it away by just starting to do that.

That's why I think of it as "noise"... kind of like a radio signal. If you're listening to static, you might hear something that sounds meaningful, but when you've got a good signal, and something is being said over it, you'll only hear what is being said. The signal overwhelms the noise.
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[User Picture]From: kightp
2008-02-27 11:59 pm (UTC)
This is one of the reasons I find knitting so soothing: When I'm experiencing stressful mental noise, I can pick up the needles and put all my attention on "knit, knit, knit, knit, purl, purl, purl" (quite literally - I often subvocalize the stitches as I go) while experiencing the pleasurable sensation of the yarn running through my fingers. Before long I can literally feel the stress draining out of me and whatever was bothering me receding into something like its proper place. And unlike straight meditation, I wind up with something pretty when I'm done.

I've seen references to studies suggesting that knitting and other pleasantly repetitive, quiet activities can lower one's blood pressure, and that doesn't surprise me a bit.
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[User Picture]From: ljgeoff
2008-02-28 06:02 pm (UTC)
Washing dishes by hand, for me.
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[User Picture]From: kightp
2008-02-28 06:24 pm (UTC)
Ooh - another thought just struck me (randomly!): One of the exercises I do with novice actors is to put them on stage and tell them: "You stand there. Do nothing. We'll watch you." And keep repeating that over the course of 2-3 minutes or so. Then I give them a simple, meaningless task - counting the seats in the auditorium, or the ceiling tiles, for instance - and coach them to do that as if it were the most important thing in the universe - while we watch them.

The change in everything from body posture to facial expression is remarkable. They go from squirmy discomfort and blank stares in the first exercise to being physically relaxed and facially animated in the second. When I ask them "what was different?" they invariably respond, "I had something to do." Which is a key to acting, but also to all kinds of other psycho-emotional states.
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[User Picture]From: erin_c_1978
2008-02-29 02:12 am (UTC)
Did you notice that? If it bothered me, it might keep popping into my brain. If I decided that it might be a product of my "subconscious", something I might really do, it would bother me that much more! Follow that path, and you're starting to understand one of the underpinnings of OCD... the fear of thinking about something becomes self-reinforcing, because the more fear you feel, the more power you're (inadvertently) giving to the thoughts that are upsetting you.

From the perspective of someone who has OCD, this, and the rest of your post, are absolutely right on. It reminds me a little of the writings of Dr. Steven Phillipson, who in articles like this one states that the underlying key to beating compulsive thinking is to become more at home with risk and uncertainty. Instead of getting tied up in knots over whether that thought about beating someone with a banana REALLY means that's what you want to do, deep down, you need to "let the thoughts be there" and move on. (Or in more intensive behavioral therapy, specifically attempt to create more anxiety-producing thoughts and then try NOT to reassure yourself that you don't really mean them.)
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