Archive for June, 2012

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The Cry of our Hearts

June 25, 2012

The reaction to a crying baby changes by location. It’s true if you reflect on it.

When you lift a newborn in your arms for the first time, and it begins to cry, you may cry along with it. It’s like a shared Weltgeist that all mankind can enter; the experience of bursting into the world outside the womb, where all is unknown to you and you are helpless. Any of us can enter that; and so we share the emotion with the child.

A fevered baby evokes concern. As their cry vacillates between pain, fear and annoyance, we have indulgence, patience and empathy. Those of us who have gutted out our own illness and fever (which is all of us, except the Superimmune) can identify and relate. There is no problem at all with listening to that cry. As a parent whose children spiked temps of at least 104, I can tell you that cry is a welcome relief at 2 a.m. It means they are still alive and perhaps have the energy to fight the virus off.

Counterpoint. A baby’s cry in the airport, behind you in church, travelling via stroller in the supermarket – just about anywhere that your brain minds being assaulted by noise – garners very little sympathy. We understand that this kind of crying happens. We just feel annoyed it is happening around us. Usually, babies cry in public because they are angry, bored, competing, hungry, tired or innately selfish. Though we all have those emotions, we are not proud of them, and we tend to cover over our own failings by resenting that crying baby.

A baby wailing in a movie theater almost demands violent reactions. Everyone is thinking “What idiot brings their child to a showing of The Avengers?” Instinctively, parents seem to  know they are the focal point of vengeance in the theater and they usually clear out as the sniffles turn to shouts. None too soon, as the mob is looking ugly.

When I was six, my brother got lost at an amusement park. He was four. When we later found him, the park attendant hovering over him told us he was brought in by four adults, all of whom were distressed that he couldn’t find his parents. They were moved with compassion at the utter helplessness of a child’s sobs.

I say all of that to make this point: No matter what causes our tears as God’s children, He cares. He may not care the same way with every cry of our heart, but the intensity of his caring never flags.

That comforts and challenges my soul. When others waffle in how they feel about me and my personal struggles, there is One who never changes.

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Addiction in the Plastic Brain

June 21, 2012

David Sheff’s son, Nic started using drugs when he was 13. By the time he was a late teen, Meth had completely grabbed every part of his being and set he and his family on a nightmare journey from which they have never really returned. Dad, a free-lance writer, tells his side of the story in the book “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through his Son’s Addiction”. Nic tells it from his point of view in “Tweaked”. There are some points where they differ, but it is essentially the same story. David, the writer, tells the story more eloquently while Nic’s account is raw and first-person. They are both good reads.

Nic’s story has a twist that most addicts don’t encounter. Between David, Nic’s mom (David’s ex-wife) and David’s current wife, they have the finances to send Nic to the best treatment centers in the country. And they have done so. However, even with the world’s best addiction specialists working with Nic, he has failed to overcome his addiction. Meth still rules his life.

In one of the last rounds of treatment, David was confronted with a horrid piece of news: Meth is so damaging to the brain’s ability to change (i.e. plasticity) that he may not ever be able to kick the habit. By addiction standards, he may be an addict until he dies.

Why is that? As I said in the last article, the brain is capable of changing itself much more than people think. There are at least a half dozen ways it does this, but none as important as LTD (also known as Long-Term Depression). By the way, don’t think of the word “depression” here in the counseling sense. In brain chemistry, this word “depression” means to “push something down”. When the brain senses that a chemical or a process is hurting mental functions, it sends out chemicals to the synapses to “depress” their activity. This explains why  you might take a drug for a year and find it is effective and then all of a sudden, it stops working. The brain doesn’t want it any more and it creates a “long-term depressant” to stop the chemical from working.

According to this study done two years ago in Bordeaux, France by Pier Vincenzo Piazza and Olivier Manzoni, the brains of some addicts are literally burned out and cannot produce enough LTD to stop the effects of certain drugs. Meth and cocaine are the worst for overpowering the LTD process.

However, there is another side to this equation that might be helpful for everyone who wants to live a healthy emotional and spiritual life. The mind can do anything you want it to do. It can depress itself, it can delight, it can cause itself to have panic attacks, it can choose to block memories, it can live in unreality, it can live in reality, it can find contentment; in short, our brain can rewire itself any way we desire. How does this work?

I won’t bore you with the chemical mechanics, so allow this to be a very simplistic summary. Our brain stores its experiences in different locations. Our images are stored in one place, smells in another, logic in one place, emotions in another. When we have an experience, we chop up the data and store the memory in a hundred different locations. We draw upon the data when it reinforces our chosen behavior.

When you store something, you store it according to what you want to do with it in the future. We are always learning and remembering. Let’s say you go to the store and your mother gives you a piece of candy. And it is a blustery, rainy and depressing type day. As soon as you eat the candy, the sugar makes you feel better. So, from that day you may associate all these things together: Mother, bad weather day, sugar, grocery stores etc.

Now, let’s say you take one or two of those associations and keep repeating them. Let’s say every time the weather gets bad, you go shopping. Let’s say you do that thirty or forty times. After that, just the appearance of dark clouds makes you think of shopping. You have wired your brain that way. If you also get sugar every time you go shopping on a bad day, you have doubly reinforced that connection. If you make that triple connection for 20 years, you have long since forgotten why you go shopping on bad weather days. And if you try and stop, there are chemicals in the brain that will be produced to give you discomfort. In essence, you will feel pain.

That, in a nutshell, is how ALL addictions work.

The answer to it is always “stop making those connections”. However, even though I know that, and even though I don’t like gaining weight from eating too much candy and maxing out my credit cards in the rainy season, I don’t want to stop either. I don’t like the painful way I feel if I resist the connection. The way I have wired my brain reinforces my choices. When I want to choose something else, I am punished. When I continue the behavior, I am rewarded.

But I can stop going shopping on a bad weather day. It will mean rewiring through beliefs, different choices and alternative lifestyle changes. It may take years to completely rid myself of all the vestiges of those choices, but here is the good news: If I want to (i.e. motivated to, decide to, learn what I really want and know how to get it) I can change. And changing my brain means rewiring my brain.

All our ingrained behavior is based on beliefs. And all those beliefs are stored as synaptic processes in the brain. Therefore, all repetitive behavior is a type of addiction.

In the Bible, God is pretty clear on how we change one behavior and choose another. In Romans 12:2 it says “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this culture, but rather, be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” There are several greek words here which need to be understood to get the full meaning.

Conform: It means to change shape to match some other thing

Patterns: repetitive behavior

Culture: The world system around us

Transformed: The greek word is metamorphoo, which means to go through a series of changes.

Renewing: The Greek word means to take something meant for one thing and use it another way. It comes closest to our modern word “recycling”.

So let’s put it together. The writer of Romans says: “Stop changing your mind so that it looks like the behavior of everyone in your group of friends. Instead, go through a process whereby your brain changes into something different and is used in a different way than ever before”.

In order to understand how this works, our next article is going to focus on three societal problems that have reached epidemic proportions and how each can be changed by a spiritual rewiring of the brain:

Dangerous flirtation

Controlling actions

Depression and Anxiety

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Your Brain Can Change

June 19, 2012

Imagine a girl born with the left side of her brain missing. Yet, as she grows into womanhood, she suffers from almost no missing abilities. Imagine a man whose left arm is severed. The pain in his missing limb (called “Phantom Pain”) is so excruciating, he can neither sleep nor concentrate. Yet, with a box consisting of $12 worth of materials, a helper can scratch his other arm and the pain is gone forever. Imagine a first-grade girl who has been labeled by 10 different doctors as severely mentally retarded. Yet, by the time she is 30 years old, she has earned her first doctorate in Child Developmental Psychology.

All of these people, and many more, are examples of the innate ability of the brain to change itself. A recent ground-breaking book by Dr. Norman Doidge called “The Brain that Changes Itself” has collated the work of over 500 scientists, doctors, counselors and researchers all dedicated to the field of neuroplasticity.

It has long been believed that the brain is incapable of significant change of any amount or degree. In technical terms this is called the immutability of the brain. The implications of this system of belief are staggering: it means that once our brain has developed in a particular way it is unlikely that we can ever change it. This has far-reaching effects on so many different disciplines – psychology, theology, medicine, child development, education, entertainment, sports, language studies, etc. If indeed the brain cannot change and is virtually locked into its original position or close to it, then most of what we are doing in church, counseling offices and schools is helping people adapt to who they already are.

However, the most recent discoveries about the brain conclusively tell us that the brain not only can change itself, but wants to do so on a regular basis. In fact, we already have much evidence of the brain is able to adapt to markedly changing situations. Our ability to learn anything is ample proof of that. A child’s ability to pick up a new language seemingly at will has always astounded adults. But now we are finding that with the right tools, and the desire, adults are able to accomplish this almost as ever easily as children can.

For the rest of this week and next, I’m going to be presenting many the implications of what this plastic brain can mean to all of us. I suggest up front that a plastic brain model helps us to begin rethinking the commonly held assumptions about addictive behavior. We’re also going to look at things like heterosexuality, homosexuality and other sexual preferences. In addition, we’ll study the biblical principles that are apropos to brain plasticity.

The conclusion we will derive by the end of this study is that changing our brains is extremely difficult – but it can be done. Our beginning point will be very similar to that of most 12-step programs: we need God to set us on the right road of renewing our minds. 

Brain plasticity is another way of saying “renewing your mind”. It can and is being done. But will you allow yourself to do it?

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10 Ways to Get Back Your Gaps

June 8, 2012

In the last article, we talked about how completely we are losing the very few gaps we have in our days. Cell phones seem to have placed the final nail in our coffins when it comes to being creative, innovative and meditative.

Creators of the Windows Phone, instead of trying to ignore their impact, used it as a marquee for their advertising campaign. Remember this ad:

Now it’s time to fight back. Here are ten ideas (some of them are mine while I also gleaned and stole from smarter people) to give us more spaces, more gaps to reflect and breathe in our technology-saturated lives.

1. Have a technology Sabbath once a week: Have one day a week where you do not turn on a computer, television, phone or any other interactive gadget. I actually don’t think most of you can do it. Prove me wrong.

2. Turn off your phone when you are speaking with other people. If you cannot turn it off, turn it to a setting where it is totally silent and cannot interrupt you. One of our most important categories of “gaps” are those where our minds interact with the minds of other people.

3. Have set times in the day when you engage with technology. In other words, reverse the pattern. Right now, we schedule in things that do not directly involve technology (appointments, engagements, projects, to-do lists) and then allow tech stuff to interrupt. And it does. Why not schedule  your tech times? Have three “email slots” per day, 3 “text message” times a day, 3 “Internet” times per day. Then, the rest of the day make those media unavailable.

4. While in the car, do not turn on the radio or answer the phone. Let the flow of traffic, with its repetition, carry you away to other thoughts.

5. Do nothing automatically involving Tech. Do not automatically go to Facebook when you sit down at your desk. Do not automatically bring your laptop to the breakfast table. Switch it up.

6. Only turn on your computer to use it for a task. Then turn it off. This prevents you from meandering to the 10 billion distractions the Internet offers.

7. For one week, record exactly how much you used each piece of technology. Carry a $1 notepad in your pocket to record these events. At the end of the week, be chagrined and hate that gap-taking, mind-sucking tech-barrage.

8. Get a dumb phone. No Internet and pay instead for every text message. Unless you are under 18…you don’t need an $800 bill from Verizon for text messages.

9. Have a partner who asks you regularly if you’re finding gaps in your day. Choose someone who has one or more of these characteristics:

a. Someone you don’t want to disappoint.

b. Someone who is annoying and relentless

c. Someone who also wants to regain gaps in their day.

Hey, it works for weight loss, it can work for gap acquisition.

10. Reward yourself at the end of every week for how much you were able to resist the tech incursion. If  you honestly did well, give yourself a treat that does not involve more tech stuff: massages, waterslide, new clothes, golf course etc.

I would be thrilled to hear ideas you have. Let’s help one another.

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Filling in All the Gaps with Technology

June 7, 2012

For years I’ve had the displeasure of explaining to people exactly what it means to have Attention Deficit Disorder. While I don’t consider having ADD to be a problem anymore, there are many people who pay me sideways glances, as if trying to detect some hidden psychoses buried in all of my behavior. Such is life. I’ve learned to be quite content with the constant challenge of focusing on the task ahead and not allowing it to meander away to a colorful bauble.

Therefore, I take pointed interest when I read that most people in our culture over the last three or four years have developed a type of ADD. This problem does not originate in their biology but from their environment.

In a recent blog entry by Joe Kraus he points out that most people now have a unhealthy relationship with their cell phones. He observes, “I don’t think I have a healthy relationship with mine. I feel a constant need to pull it out – to check e-mail, to cruise the Internet, to see if there is something interesting happening right now. It’s constantly pulling on my attention. There are studies that have been shown recently where people have reported at a rate of 35% that they check their phone before they even get out of bed in the morning. Do you do this? I do. If I let it, it easily fills up those gaps in my day – some gaps of boredom, some of solitude.”

Another study has shown that the average teenage girl – mind you, we are talking about the average girl; some girls do more – uses her cell phone to text an average of 4000 times a month. That equals one text for every 8 min. of waking time. The number is only slightly less for boys; 3000 texts per month.

What this means is that cell phones,  televisions, video games, computers, MP3 players, tablets are filling up every gap in every moment and every day of our lives. We interpret this to mean we are able to do more with our brains.  But here’s the truth: we are constantly teaching our brains to be distracted by every piece of information and data that comes within observing distance.

Krause goes on to point out  this may have some kind of evolutionary roots to it. He notes that over the centuries it is the Hunter/Gatherer who was constantly wary of danger from every direction that lived when something dangerous decided to attack. Those who are not easily distracted by swiftly moving things in the peripheral vision don’t live very long when they’re out in the wild. He postulates that our surviving ancestors were able to keep living by becoming good at distraction. Whether or not you accept the validity of evolutionary roots to anything or not, it should be obvious that we are becoming more and more distracted in everyday life.

So who cares?

Most psychologists who study the concepts of creativity and insight observe that the majority of our most creative moments happen when we are not keeping our minds busy on many things. Those momentary “gaps” in our day are crucially necessary to tie together many of the loose ends that will eventually join to form a creative thought or mindset. Without those gaps, we never really see the bigger picture. As Krause says, “…gaps used to happen all the time. Now they’re disappearing. You’re eating lunch with a friend and they excuse themselves to the restroom. A gap. Now you check your phone because being unstimulated makes you feel anxious. Waiting time in a line at the bank? Used to be a gap. Now it’s an opportunity to send e-mail or text”.

So what can we do about this? I really think the number one answer is overcoming this dread of these gaps. Is it possible for you to embrace those moments of reflection, those unexpected times with nothing to do? If you can build in habit of allowing your day to have a lot more gaps than it presently has, it is more than likely you will be able to hear what has been rumbling around in the far corners and recesses of your mind. For those who are followers of God these gaps are the moments when Holy Spirit can come in and tie together all the loose ends of the things that his voice have been trying to indicate to you.

What then will you do? In the next two articles, we’ll explore how to make room for more gaps and how to utilize them to bring good mental health to your life.

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