Exploring the Pain Brain.

Today’s selection — from The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge. It is the brain, not the body, that experiences pain. Repeated trauma can cause the brain to experience more pain than is warranted, a phenomenon referred to as chronic pain. This gives hope that chronic pain can be remedied through treatment of the brain:

“Touch a part of the body’s surface, and a specific part of the brain map, devoted to that spot, will start to fire. These maps for the body’s surface are organized topographically, meaning that areas that are adjacent on the body are generally adjacent on the map. When the neurons in our pain maps get damaged, they fire incessant false alarms, making us believe the problem is in our body when it is mostly in our brain. Long after the body has healed, the pain system is still firing. The acute pain has developed an afterlife: it becomes chronic pain.

“To understand how chronic pain develops, it’s helpful to know about the structure of neurons. Each neuron has three parts: the dendrites, the cell body, and the axon. The dendrites are treelike branches that receive input from other neurons. The dendrites lead into the cell body, which sustains the life of the cell and contains its DNA. Finally, the axon is a living cable of varying lengths (from microscopic ones in the brain to others that run down to the legs and can be three feet long). Axons are often compared to wires because they carry electrical impulses at very high speeds (from 2 to 200 miles per hour) toward the dendrites of neighboring neurons. A neuron can receive two kinds of signals: ones that excite it (excitatory signals) and ones that inhibit it (inhibitory signals). When a neuron receives enough excitatory signals, it will fire off its own signal. When it receives enough inhibitory signals, it becomes less likely to fire.

“Axons don’t quite touch the neighboring dendrites. They are separated by a microscopic space called a synapse. Once an electrical signal gets to the end of the axon, it triggers the release of a chemical messenger, called a neurotransmitter, into the synapse. The chemical messenger floats over to the dendrite of the adjacent neuron, exciting or inhibiting it. When we say that neurons ‘rewire’ themselves, we mean that alterations occur at the synapse, strengthening and increasing, or weakening and decreasing, the number of connections between the neurons.

“One of the core laws of neuroplasticity is that neurons that fire together wire together, meaning that repeated mental experience leads to structural changes in the brain neurons that process that experience, making the synaptic connections between those neurons stronger. In practical terms, when a person learns something new, different groups of neurons get wired together. As a child learns the alphabet, the visual shape of the letter A is connected with the sound ‘ay.’ Each time the child looks at the letter and repeats the sound, the neurons involved ‘fire together’ at the same time, and then ‘wire together’; the synaptic connections between them are strengthened. Whenever any activity that links neurons is repeated, those neurons fire faster, stronger, sharper signals together, and the circuit gets more efficient and better at helping to perform the skill.

“The converse is also true. When a person stops performing an activity for an extended period, those connections are weakened, and over time many are lost. This is an example of a more general principle of plasticity: that it is a use-it-or-lose-it phenomenon. Thousands of experiments have now demonstrated this fact. Often the neurons that were involved in the skill will be taken over and used for other mental tasks that are now being performed more regularly. Sometimes one can manipulate the use-it-or-lose-it principle to undo brain connections that are not helpful, because neurons that fire apart wire apart. Suppose a person has formed a bad habit of eating whenever he is emotionally upset, associating the pleasure of food with the dulling of emotional pain; breaking the habit will require learning to disassociate the two. He might have to actively forbid himself from going to the kitchen when he is emotionally upset, until he finds a better way to handle his emotions.

“Plasticity can be a blessing when the ongoing sensory input we receive is pleasurable, for it allows us to develop a brain that is better able to perceive and to savor pleasant sensations; but that same plasticity can be a curse when the sensory system that is receiving ongoing input is the pain system. That can happen when a person slips a disc, which then presses repeatedly on a nerve root in her spine. Her pain map for the area becomes hypersensitive, and she begins to feel pain not only when the disc hits the nerve when she moves the wrong way, but even when the disc is not pressing hard. The pain signal reverberates throughout her brain, so that pain persists even after its original stimulus has stopped. …

“[Researchers Patrick David] Wall and [Ronald] Melzack showed how a chronic injury not only makes the cells in the pain system fire more easily but can also cause our pain maps to enlarge their ‘receptive field’ (the area of the body’s surface that they map for), so that we begin to feel pain over a larger area of our body’s surface. …

“Wall and Melzack also showed that as maps enlarge, pain signals in one map can ‘spill’ into adjacent pain maps. Then we may develop referred pain, when we are hurt in one body part but feel the pain in another, some distance away. Ultimately, the brain maps for pain begin to fire so easily that the person ends up in excruciating, unremitting pain, felt over a large area of the body — all in response to the smallest stimulation of a nerve.

“Thus, the more often [a person feels] twinges of neck pain, the more easily his brain’s neurons recognized it, and the more intense it got. The name for this well-documented neuroplastic process is wind-up pain, because the more the receptors in the pain system fire, the more sensitive they become.

“[One patient we were studying] realized that he was developing a chronic pain syndrome and was caught in a vicious cycle, a brain trap: each time he had an attack of pain, his plastic brain got more sensitive to it, making it worse, setting him up for a new, still worse attack next time. The intensity of his pain signal, the length of time it lasted, and the amount of space in the body it ‘occupied’ all increased.”

The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity
Author: Norman Doidge
Viking published by the Penguin Group
Copyright 2015 by Norman Doidge
Pages 7-9

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The Journey

The Journey

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations, though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
but little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do,
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver, Dream Work

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Important truths we tend to forget.

Important truths we tend to forget.

The truth does not cease to exist when it is ignored.

You know how you can hear something a hundred times in a hundred different ways before it finally gets through to you? The ten truths listed below fall firmly into that category – life lessons that many of us likely learned years ago, and have been reminded of ever since, but for whatever reason, haven’t fully grasped.

This, my friends, is my attempt at helping all of us, myself included to “get it” and “remember it” once and for all…

1. The average human life is relatively short.

We know deep down that life is short, and that death will happen to all of us eventually, and yet we are infinitely surprised when it happens to someone we know. It’s like walking up a flight of stairs with a distracted mind, and misjudging the final step. You expected there to be one more stair than there is, and so you find yourself off balance for a moment, before your mind shifts back to the present moment and how the world really is.

LIVE your life TODAY! Don’t ignore death, but don’t be afraid of it either. Be afraid of a life you never lived because you were too afraid to take action. Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside you while you’re still alive. Be bold. Be courageous. Be scared to death, and then take the next step anyway.

2. You will only ever live the life you create for yourself.

Your life is yours alone. Others can try to persuade you, but they can’t decide for you. They can walk with you, but not in your shoes. So make sure the path you decide to walk aligns with your own intuition and desires, and don’t be scared to switch paths or pave a new one when it makes sense.

And if life only teaches you one thing, let it be that taking a passionate leap is always worth it. Even if you have no idea where you’re going to land, be brave enough to step up to the edge of the unknown, and listen to your heart.

3. Being busy does NOT mean being productive.

Busyness isn’t a virtue, nor is it something to respect. Though we all have seasons of crazy schedules, very few of us have a legitimate need to be busy ALL the time. We simply don’t know how to live within our means, prioritize properly, and say no when we should.

Though being busy can make us feel more alive than anything else for a moment, the sensation is not sustainable long term. We will inevitably, whether tomorrow or on our deathbed, come to wish that we spent less time in the buzz of busyness and more time actually living a purposeful life.

4. Some kind of failure always occurs before success.

Most mistakes are unavoidable. Learn to forgive yourself. It’s not a problem to make them. It’s only a problem if you never learn from them.

If you’re too afraid of failure, you can’t possibly do what needs to be done to be successful. The solution to this problem is to develop a curiosity with failure. You want to learn from the failure as if it were a master teaching you a very important lesson.

Sometimes things have to go very wrong before they can be right.

5. Thinking and doing are two very different things.

Success never comes to look for you while you wait around thinking about it.

You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do. Knowledge is basically useless without action. Good things don’t come to those who wait; they come to those who work in a meaningful direction. Ask yourself what’s really important and then have the courage to build your life around your answer.

And remember, if you wait until you feel 100% ready to begin, you’ll likely be waiting the rest of your life.

6. You don’t have to wait for an apology to forgive.

Life gets much easier when you learn to accept all the apologies you never got. The key is to be thankful for every experience – positive or negative. It’s taking a step back and saying, “Thank you for the lesson.” It’s realizing that grudges from the past are a perfect waste of today’s happiness, and that holding one is like letting unwanted company live rent free in your head.

Forgiveness is a promise – one you want to keep. When you forgive someone you are making a promise not to hold the unchangeable past against your present self. It has nothing to do with freeing a criminal of his or her crime, and everything to do with freeing yourself of the burden of being an eternal victim.

7. Some people are simply the wrong match for you.

You will only ever be as great as the people you surround yourself with, so be brave enough to let go of those who keep bringing you down. You shouldn’t force connections with people who constantly make you feel low. Energetic vampires.

If someone makes you feel uncomfortable and insecure every time you’re with them, for whatever reason, they’re probably just not cut from the same cloth. If they make you feel like you can’t be yourself, or if they make you “less than” in any way, don’t pursue a connection with them. If you feel emotionally drained after hanging out with them or get a small hit of anxiety when you are reminded of them, listen to your intuition. There are so many “right people” for you, who energize you and inspire you to be your best self. It makes no sense to force it with people who are the wrong match for you.

8. It’s not other people’s job to love you, it’s yours.

It’s important to be good to others, but it’s even more important to be good to yourself. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world. So make sure you don’t start seeing yourself through the eyes of those who don’t value you. Know your worth, even if they can’t.

9. What you own is not who YOU are.

Stuff really is just stuff, and it has absolutely no bearing on who you are as a person. Most of us can make do with much less than we think we need. That’s a valuable reminder, especially in a hugely consumer-driven culture that focuses more on material things than meaningful connections and experiences.

Too often we’re told that we’re not important, we’re just peripheral to what is. “Get a degree, get a job, get a car, get a house, and keep on getting.” And it’s sad, because someday you’ll wake up and realize you’ve been tricked. And all you’ll want then is to reclaim your mind by getting it out of the hands of the brainwashers who want to turn you into a drone that buys everything that isn’t needed to impress everyone that isn’t important.

10. Everything changes, every second.

Embrace change and realize it happens for a reason. It won’t always be obvious at first, but in the end it will be worth it.

What you have today may become what you had by tomorrow. You never know. Things change, often spontaneously. People and circumstances come and go. Life doesn’t stop for anybody. It moves rapidly and rushes from calm to chaos in a matter of seconds, and happens like this to people every day. It’s likely happening to someone nearby right now.

Sometimes the shortest split second in time changes the direction of our lives. A seemingly innocuous decision rattles our whole world like a meteorite striking Earth. Entire lives have been swiveled and flipped upside down, for better or worse, on the strength of an unpredictable event. And these events are always happening.

However good or bad a situation is now, it will change. That’s the one thing you can count on. So when life is good, enjoy it. Don’t go looking for something better every second. Happiness never comes to those who don’t appreciate what they have while they have it.

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The Prefrontal Cortex

The Prefrontal Cortex

Today’s selection is from Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin.

The prefrontal cortex is the all-important part of the brain that handles reasoning and implies control, in counterbalance to the emotions and impulses generated in other parts of the brain. It is not fully developed in humans until after the age of twenty:

“We have a more highly developed prefrontal cortex than any other species. It’s the seat of many behaviors that we consider distinctly human: logic, analysis, problem solving, exercising good judgment, planning for the future, and decision-making. It is for these reasons that it is often called the central executive, or CEO of the brain. Extensive two-way connections between the prefrontal cortex and virtually every other region of the brain place it in a unique position to schedule, monitor, manage, and manipulate nearly every activity we undertake. Like real CEOs, these cerebral CEOs are highly paid in metabolic currency. Understanding how they work (and exactly how they get paid) can help us to use their time more effectively.

“It’s natural to think that because the prefrontal cortex is orchestrating all this activity and thought, it must have massive neural tracts for back-and-forth communication with other brain regions so that it can excite them and bring them on line. In fact, most of the prefrontal cortex’s connections to other brain regions are not excitatory; they’re the opposite: inhibitory. That’s because one of the great achievements of the human prefrontal cortex is that it provides us with impulse control and, consequently, the ability to delay gratification, something that most animals lack. Try dangling a string in front of a cat or throwing a ball in front of a retriever and see if they can sit still. Because the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop in humans until after age twenty, impulse control isn’t fully developed in adolescents (as many parents of teenagers have observed). It’s also why children and adolescents are not especially good at planning or delaying gratification.

“When the prefrontal cortex becomes damaged (such as from disease, injury, or a tumor), it leads to a specific medical condition called dysexecutive syndrome.

“The condition is recognized by the kinds of planning and time coordination deficits that Ruth the homemaker, Ernie the accountant, and Peter the architect suffered from. It is also often accompanied by an utter lack of inhibition across a range of behaviors, particularly in social settings. Patients may blurt out inappropriate remarks, or go on binges of gambling, drinking, or sex with inappropriate partners. And they tend to act on what is right in front of them. If they see someone moving, they have difficulty inhibiting the urge to imitate them; if they see an object, they pick it up and use it.

“What does all this have to do with organizing time? If your inhibitions are reduced, and you tend to do things not that you might regret later, or that make it difficult to properly complete projects you’re working on. Binge-watch an entire season of Mad Men instead of working on the Pensky file? Eat a donut (or two) instead of sticking to your diet? That’s your prefrontal cortex not doing its job. In addition, damage to the prefrontal cortex causes an inability to effectively go forward or backward in time in one’s mind remember Peter the architect’s description of starting over and over and not being able to move forward. Dysexecutive syndrome patients often get stuck in the present, doing something over and over again, perseverating, revealing a failure in temporal control. They can be terrible at organizing their calendars and To Do lists due to a double whammy of neural deficits. First, they’re unable to place events in the correct temporal order. A patient with severe damage might attempt to bake the cake before having added all the ingredients. And many frontal lobe patients are not aware of their deficit; a loss of insight is associated with these frontal lobe lesions, such that patients generally underestimate their impairment. Having an impairment is bad enough, but if you don’t know you have it, you’re liable to go headlong into situations without taking proper precautions, and end up in trouble.

“As if that weren’t enough, advanced prefrontal cortex damage interferes with the ability to make connections and associations between disparate thoughts and concepts, resulting in a loss of creativity. The prefrontal cortex is especially important for generating creative acts in art and music. This is the region of the brain that is most active when creative artists are functioning at their peak.

“If you’re interested in seeing what it’s like to have prefrontal cortex damage, there’s a simple, reversible way: Get drunk. Alcohol interferes with the ability of prefrontal cortex neurons to communicate with one another, by disrupting dopamine receptors and blocking a particular kind of neuron called an NMDA receptor, mimicking the damage we see in frontal lobe patients. Heavy drinkers also experience the frontal lobe system double whammy: They may lose certain capabilities, such as impulse control or motor coordination or the ability to drive safely, but they aren’t aware that they’ve lost them — or simply don’t care — so they forge ahead anyway.”

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
Author: Daniel J. Levitin
Publisher: Penguin Group
Copyright 2014 by Daniel J. Levin

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Are men or women more narcissistic?

Are men or women more narcissistic?

With three decades of data from more than 475,000 participants, a new study on narcissism from the University at Buffalo School of Management reveals that men, on average, are more narcissistic than women. The study compiled 31 years of narcissism research and found that men consistently scored higher in narcissism across multiple generations and regardless of age.

“Narcissism is associated with various interpersonal dysfunctions, including an inability to maintain healthy long-term relationships, unethical behavior and aggression,” says lead author Dr Emily Grijalva, assistant professor of organisation and human resources in the UB School of Management. “At the same time, narcissism is shown to boost self-esteem, emotional stability and the tendency to emerge as a leader,” she says. “By examining gender differences in narcissism, we may be able to explain gender disparities in these important outcomes.”

The researchers examined more than 355 journal articles, dissertations, manuscripts and technical manuals, and studied gender differences in the three aspects of narcissism: leadership/authority, grandiose/exhibitionism and entitlement. They found the widest gap in entitlement, suggesting that men are more likely than women to exploit others and feel entitled to certain privileges.

The second largest difference was in leadership/authority. “Compared with women, men exhibit more assertiveness and desire for power,” Grijalva says. “But there was no difference in the exhibitionism aspect, meaning both genders are equally likely to display vanity or self-absorption.”

In addition, the study looked at data from college students between 1990 and 2013, and found no evidence that either gender has become more narcissistic over time. Research has shown that personality differences, like narcissism, can arise from gender stereotypes and expectations that have been ingrained over time. The authors speculate that the persistent lack of women in senior leadership roles may partially stem from the disparity between stereotypes of femininity and leadership. “Individuals tend to observe and learn gender roles from a young age, and may face backlash for deviating from society’s expectations,” Grijalva says. “In particular, women often receive harsh criticism for being aggressive or authoritative, which creates pressure for women, more so than for men, to suppress displays of narcissistic behaviour.”

Future research could further investigate the social, cultural or biological factors that contribute to these gender differences.

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The Pain of Exclusion

The Pain of Exclusion

Today’s selection is from “The Pain of Exclusion” by Kipling D. Williams
Publisher: Scientific American Mind
Date: January/February 2011

Our need to matter and our need to belong are as fundamental as our need to eat and breathe. Therefore ostracism — rejection, silence, exclusion — is one of the most powerful punishments that one person can inflict on another. Brain scans have shown that this rejection is actually experienced as physical pain, and that this pain is experienced whether those that reject us are close friends or family or total strangers, and whether the act is overt exclusion or merely looking away. Most typically, ostracism causes us to act to be included again — to belong again — although not necessarily with the same group:

“Studies reveal that even subtle, artificial or ostensibly unimportant exclusion can lead to strong emotional reactions. A strong reaction makes sense when your spouse’s family or close circle of friends rejects or shuns you, because these people are important to you. It is more surprising that important instances of being barred are not necessary for intense feelings of rejection to emerge. We can feel awful even after people we have never met simply look the other way.

“This reaction serves a function: it warns us that something is wrong, that there exists a serious threat to our social and psychological well-being. Psychologists Roy Baumeister of Florida State University and Mark Leary of Duke University had argued in a 1995 article that belonging to a group was a need — not a desire or preference — and, when thwarted, leads to psychological and physical illness. Meanwhile other researchers have hypothesized that belonging, self-esteem, a sense of control over your life and a belief that existence is meaningful constitute four fundamental psychological needs that we must meet to function as social individuals. …

“Ostracism uniquely threatens all these needs. Even in a verbal or physical altercation, individuals are still connected. Total exclusion, however, severs all bonds. Social rejection also deals a uniquely harsh blow to self-esteem, because it implies wrongdoing. Worse, the imposed silence forces us to ruminate, generating self-deprecating thoughts in our search for an explanation. The forced isolation also makes us feel helpless: you can fight back, but no one will respond. Finally, ostracism makes our very existence feel less meaningful because this type of rejection makes us feel invisible and unimportant. The magnitude of the emotional impact of ostracism even makes evolutionary sense. After all, social exclusion interferes not only with reproductive success but also with survival. People who do not belong are not included in collaborations necessary to obtain and share food and also lack protection against enemies.

“In fact, the emotional fallout is so poignant that the brain registers it as physical pain. … As soon as [we begin] to feel ostracized, [brain] scanners register a flurry of activity in [our] dorsal anterior cingulate cortex — a brain region associated with the emotional aspects of physical pain. …

“For most people, ostracism usually engenders a concerted effort to be included again, though not necessarily by the group that shunned us. We do this by agreeing with, mimicking, obeying or cooperating with others. In our 2000 study, for example, Cheung and Choi asked participants to perform a perceptual task in which they had to memorize a simple shape such as a triangle and correctly identify the shape within a more complex figure. Before they made their decision, we flashed the supposed answers of other participants on the screen. Those who had been previously ostracized … were more likely than included players to give the same answers as the majority of participants, even though the majority was always wrong. Those who had been excluded wanted to fit in, even if that meant ignoring their own better judgment.

“Although personality seems to have no influence on our immediate reactions to ostracism, character traits do affect how quickly we recover from it and how we cope with the experience. … People who are socially anxious tend to ruminate or are prone to depression take longer to recover from ostracism than other people do.”

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