Neuroplasticity: it’d be so much easier if our brains were made from Play-doh

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I’m poor. Constantly broke. I’ve lived in poverty my entire life. I was raised, first by a political collective of people who believed poverty was a virtue and an ideal, and then by a single mother who had no support from her ex-husband or her family.

For years we survived on store credit. When I moved out I lived on social assistance for four years before taking on student debt to get through college, and then spent two years working for less than $14k/year.

I spent two years making $40k/60k, but was constantly broke before finally collapsing again into social assistance, under-the-counter labour and finally back on to social assistance and then on to a disability pension.

Poverty, long ago, had become a behaviour in my life. Like the motions associated with a two decade, two pack a day smoking addiction. Like a dog salivating at the sound of a bell. Poverty is something I’m programmed to be, something I’ve been programmed to live in.

As a behaviour, poverty is one of the most destructive ones in my life, and of those it predates the manic depression.

Actually, I think all of my self-destructive behaviours predate the manic depression, the onset of the bipolar just amplified them… and wouldn’t allow me to deal with them properly or in a healthy way — I had thought about suicide before the manic depression, but the manic depression gave me days and days of non-stop suicide fantasies.

How I was raised gave me a tutorial in how to be poor, but the manic depression prevented me from finding and keeping a job, or the training necessary to break the short cycle of idealized poverty in my family.

So how do you change behaviours, especially ones that lead to destructive ends, when those behaviours are all you know?

Turns out there are small scale experiments being performed on people with schizophrenia using gaming technology to change behaviours, and the results are, basically, just this side of miraculous.

That the brain is plastic, the idea that it can be reprogrammed, is not new. It’s called neuroplasticity:

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…they glimpsed a revolutionary idea about the brain: the ability of mere thought to alter the physical structure and function of our gray matter. For what the transcranial-magnetic-stimulation (TMS) test… revealed was that the region of motor cortex that controls the piano-playing fingers also expanded in the brains of volunteers who imagined playing the music — just as it had in those who actually played it. [T]he discovery showed that mental training had the power to change the physical structure of the brain.

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This isn’t new, the above quote was taken from a 2007 feature in Time Magazine. From what I’ve read some of the therapies I’ve used, and had success with in the past few years, like EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), resemble the therapies being discussed in neuroplasticity.

What does seem to be new is the research has switched from three decades of looking at neuroplasticity as a way to recover from brain damage — sensory function, phantom limbs, chronic pain — and into mental illness, including the behaviours left from decades of untreated manic depression or schizophrenia.

This isn’t meditation. It’s not a replacement for medications or talk therapy. It’s an additional tool that’s coming online for us to use in our treatment. What it is, it seems to me, is a way to direct treatment specifically on the behaviours associated with the disease.

Activists in the anti-psychiatry movement were quick to adopt the idea that brains could be reprogrammed, but no one involved with neuroplasticity as a treatment for people with a mental illness has suggested it replace psychiatry.

I think what I’m saying is, over a long period of time, as poverty becomes a behaviour, it has the capablity to cause brain damage. My behaviour as an adult, whether I was on social assistance, or making $60k/year was no different than the behaviours I had as a teen when I was working summers as a farm hand for $3.50/hour.

At the end of the day, I was poor because, possibly, that’s how I was programmed.

For the first eight years of my life I lived in a political (communist) collective, where people tried to prove their loyalty to the group by making the most sacrifices. The individuals would go out, work in factories or wherever, and bring their paychecks back to the collective.

The money would go into a pool and be doled out according to need. One man took $0.08/week to satisfy his candy craving. Another took just enough for a few cigarettes. These were people working long and hard hours, bringing home decent wages, but giving it all up for the sake of poverty as an ideal.

Another behaviour is my inability to look after my health. Growing up, I was left to the care of the collective — one of the more bizarre tenets of Maoism is children should have no greater connection with an individual over the group. In other words, I had no parents, I had individuals assigned to take care of me on a daily or weekly basis.

Then toss in the added unique form of nihilism that comes from fourteen years of untreated manic depression — it’s not a disease that allows for healthy behaviours.

I think this is how my brain has become wired in a way that makes being poor and self-destructive… normal. But these are just two of several harmful behaviours I’ve adopted, or been taught, over my life.

It’s possible that I’m comparing apples to cats, but the behaviours that have plagued my life are very similar to those exhibited by the test subjects in the documentary I’ve embedded below… as are the needs that cannot be met without the added treatment, such as the need for steady employment, the need to take care of myself, the need to be healthy.

I’ve been (mostly) suicide-thought free for a few years, and that’s almost entirely due to the medications giving me the ever increasing time and space between depressive episodes I needed to understand the power of the disease comes solely from its weight as an anchor.

So, with treatment, I am healthy. But I’m still trapped by the remaining behaviours associated with the disease, and all of those years of being unable to deal properly with the behaviours associated with how I was raised.

…anyway, the documentary originally aired on “The Nature Of Things”, a weekly CBC program now in its 50th year. It features information and stuff originating from studies of things performed by people who know more about my brain than I do. Duhr.

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Links:
1. The Brain that Changes Itself;
2. The Brain: How The Brain Rewires Itself;
3.Neuroplasticity (Wiki);
4. Impaired Neuroplasticity in Schizophrenia and the Neuro-regenerative Effects of Atypical Antipsychotics;
5. Neuroplasticity and Experimental Treatment Paradigms;
6. Neuroplasticity and psychiatry;
7. Antidepressants and neuroplasticity;
8. Neuroplasticity Studies Give Hope for Treatment Advances;
9. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and neuroplasticity in bipolar disorder;
10. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR);
11. How I fight manic depression (mine).

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...thanks.

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About Gabriel...

...diagnosed with manic depression in 1989, for the next 14-years I lived without treatment or a recovery plan. I've been homeless, one time I graduated college, I've won awards for reporting on Internet privacy issues, and a weekly humour column. In 2002 I finally hit bottom and found help. I have an 8-year old son, and a 4-year old son... I’m usually about six feet tall, and I'm pretty sure I screwed up my book deal. I mostly blog at saltedlithium.com....
This entry was posted in Bipolar, Bipolar Disease, Bipolar Disorder, Clinical Depression, crazy people with no pants, Health, Living With Depression, Living With Manic Depression, Manic Depression, Mental Health, Neuroplasticity, Psychiatry. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Neuroplasticity: it’d be so much easier if our brains were made from Play-doh

  1. Jeannee says:

    The writer Sarah Ban Breathnach talks about this in terms like ‘the scarcity principle’ … which I’ve seen with a relative, what you talk about here, so -altho my own pathway is different – I do understand what you’re talking about! Had no idea about the “cult background” childhood …whoa!

  2. Brandy Collins says:

    Profound and moving. Rarely do I get caught in a person’s posts to the point that I’m disappointed when it’s over. Thanks for sharing.

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