Currently biking around the world

Posts will happen significantly less often for a while as I am currently focused on biking around the world.

It could be a few months between posts or it could be a few years. I will almost certainly return to this blog one day. In the meantime, enjoy what's already been posted, or read about my travels here.


The Brain: A Roadmap

Monday, April 25, 2016


I once had a dog named Bear. He was a bit of a goofball. As with many dogs, he would eat almost anything. However, he developed a particular liking for the flavor of whipped cream. We bought the kind that was pressurized and thus made a particular sound when squirted from the can -- compressed air volumizing the whipped cream, making it fluffy.
One time a few months after Bear discovered his love of whipped cream, my mom left the door open when shaving her legs. Bear was in a room nearby, and when my mom started squirting shaving cream from the can, which produced that familiar sound, he came running in and started licking the shaving cream right off her legs.
Habit is a funny thing. I mentioned in my last post that playing Tetris can cause one to think about the real world like Tetris blocks and even cause one to dream about those blocks.1 2 I know what you’re thinking: Bear’s habit of eating anything that makes the whipped cream sound and having Tetris on the brain are two separate things. We often think of habit as physical actions chained together (“go eat the cream”). But habits can be mental as well (“if this was an ‘L’ piece…”). Bear’s behavior is a case of classical conditioning3 and Tetris dreams a case of hypnagogic (pre-sleep) memory creation,4 but both are examples of habit learning.5
Habit learning can be summarized as the “acquisition of associations between stimuli and responses;” that is, our brains learning to associate causes and effects, enhancing certain neural pathways. To simplify things, let’s just say the brain builds “roads” between various memories, and the more these roads are travelled the easier they become to travel. The more you think something, the easier it is to think it again.6 This happens regardless of why you thought something or if it is correct or incorrect. For instance, being in a bad mood can cause us to have different morals than we’d have when in a good mood.7 From the “bad mood” nodes of our brain, the easiest roads to travel are often those with “bad” morals.
Furthermore, once these paths are created, our subconscious travels them whether we like it or not. They may even form new paths without us knowing -- shortcuts to feelings whose origins are then forgotten, the result of countless choices that we made sometime in the past.8 (I once had a friend who trimmed her nails to calm herself down. She picked up the habit by being calm, then trimming her nails). Even our emotions can manifest as these “unconscious habits.” 9 Let me say that again: our emotions can be habits whose origins we’ve forgotten.
Negative habits can compound themselves by leading to other negative habits, and pretty soon, you’re on a downward spiral with no roads out (literally -- as long as “road” is synonymous with “neural pathway,” of course). When most of your thoughts are negative, you might exhibit symptoms of depression. When most of your thoughts are fearful, you might exhibit symptoms of anxiety.
The good news is that even with all the roadwork your brain has done, you can always forge new roads to other thoughts. A simple way to do this is by creating gratitude lists: at the end of each day, write down a few things you are grateful for. Your brain will likely get into the habit of looking for “good things” throughout the day, and soon you may find your subconscious traveling those roads too. In a study on the effects of gratitude lists, those who wrote them were found to be happier, more optimistic about the future, and physically healthier -- even if they only did them for one week.12
If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts uncontrollably, you might try forcing your conscious into action. For instance, you might have noticed that the more you drive the same route to work, the more your mind wanders. By taking a different route than your usual one, you can force your conscious to focus on driving, making it more difficult for your thoughts to wander.13
Replacing the destination of a well-traveled road can be effective as well (we might call this the “bait and switch”).14 For instance, one of the reasons video games are so appealing is because they provide social interaction combined with a challenge. These are both legitimate psychological needs, but it might be that video games aren’t satisfying anymore. We can’t simply replace them with reading a book -- reading isn’t typically either social or challenging -- but we might replace it with a sport. When your brain feels the need for a challenging social activity, it will think video games. But before long, you can have it thinking soccer, and all the associated thoughts along with your new favorite sport.
Habits are both physical as well as mental. Our brain learns from what we think -- consciously or subconsciously -- but we can build new roads for it to travel. Roads that lead to positive thought.
Just don’t get confused between the whipped cream and the shaving cream.

1A. Earling, The Tetris Effect: Do computer games fry your brain? Philadelphia City Paper, March 21, 1996.
2K. Leutwyler, “Tetris Dreams,” scientificamerican.com, October, 2000.
3Pavlov, I. P. (1927/1960). Conditional Reflexes. New York: Dover Publications
4Stickgold et. al, “Replaying the Game: Hypnagogic Images in Normals and Amnesics.” Science, October 13th, 2000, Volume 290, Issue 5490, pp 350-53.
5Gasbam et. al, “Habit learning and memory in mammals: Behavioral and neural characteristics.” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, October 2014, Volume 113, pp 198-208.
6Bayley, P, et. al, “Robust habit learning in the absence of awareness and independent of the medial temporal lobe.” Nature. July 2005, Volume 436, pp 550-53.
7Bauml, K.H., et. al, “To push or not to push? Affective influences on moral judgement depend on decision frame.” Cognition, March 2013, Volume 126, Issue 3, pp 373-77.
8Prince, M. The Unconscious: The Fundamentals of Human Personality, Normal and Abnormal. The Macmillan Company, 1914.
9Boorstein, S, et. al, All the Rage: Buddhist Wisdom on Anger and Acceptance. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, MA, 2014, pp 11.
10Nemeth, C.J., et. al, “Creative idea generation: harmony versus stimulation.” European Journal of Social Psychology, 28, 192-99.
11Graybiel, Ann. “Habits, Rituals, and the Evaluative Brain” Annual Review of Neuroscience, July 2008, Volume 31, pp 359-87.
12Emmons, R. A., et. al, Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-89.
13Casey, S. Believe Re-Patterning: The Amazing Technique for “Flipping the Switch” to Positive Thoughts.” Hay House, Inc. Carlsbad, CA, 2012, pp 40.
14Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business. Random House, Inc., New York.

Begin

Monday, April 18, 2016


My name is Kyle. I have been exhibiting intermittent symptoms of depression since I was about 13. At first I assumed most of these symptoms were normal: that I was experiencing life the way it was meant to be. I struggled with anger, tiredness, sadness, and more, but I was determined to live a genuine life. Convinced it would go away with time, I struggled on.


I am now 26, and there have been periods in my life when I would give anything to be happy -- if only I knew what to give. I have tried medication. I have seen therapists. There comes a point when one is tired of trying. When one is tired of being tired. When one feels he has nothing left to give.


While I still believe in living a genuine life, I also believe that a genuine life and a happy life can coexist. I know that happiness is not something we experience constantly. It is a fleeting state, just like any other emotion. But I want to feel it more often than I do now, and I want to feel, well, less depressed, less often.


The human brain filters out information we don’t need and puts in (often untrue) information it thinks we do need.1 This tool has allowed us to become by far the most dominant species on the planet, yet for the most part, we are still unaware of how it works. Our collective minds have created technology to synthesize new organs, robots to do our most dangerous jobs, and medicines to null many deadly diseases. But we have done this all with a tool whose methods remain largely a mystery.2


The relative size of our brains is the one of the largest on earth.3 In particular, humans have developed a massive frontal lobe to handle self-control, planning, reasoning, and abstract thought. It is this part of the brain that is responsible for much of the aforementioned putting in and taking out of information, and it is this part of our brain that causes us to worry about the future. Our attempts to control it have been largely unsuccessful, except that in the 1930s a Portuguese physician named Antonio Egas Moniz used removal of the frontal lobe as a treatment for cases of anxiety and depression.4 Perhaps it is needless to say there were other, less desirable side effects to removing part of the brain,5 6 and we don’t do that anymore.


Yet anxiety, anger, and sadness are often harrowing emotions. After 13 years of exposure to them, I have often wondered if I could at least “turn off” that part of my brain. Maybe you have too. You wouldn't be alone: diagnoses of depression have increased dramatically in recent history, with ten times more cases in 1995 than in 1945.7 Yet there is still a social stigma around mental illness. It is not considered dinner table conversation. It does not receive the attention it needs. There are insufficient and often inadequate resources available to those in need.8


I recently learned about something called the Tetris Effect. The game Tetris involves fitting blocks together in an increasingly expedient manner, and the Tetris Effect refers to the tendency of the brain, after playing the game, to think about shapes in the real world like Tetris blocks.9 Additionally, playing Tetris can alter your dreams10 and curb cravings for food.11 This lends itself to wider theories about habit which I won’t get too far into -- not in this post, anyways. Suffice it to say, you can train your brain to think in certain ways (colloquially called “habit”),12 just as you can train to become better at a sport or hobby.


This began a search for ways to train myself to be happy. I found a number of books and suggested activities, but nothing was quite what I wanted -- a regular dose of information on mental illness, a regimen to make myself aware of what I was feeling and thinking, and encouragement to change myself for the better. As I often do when I don’t find that what I want is readily available, I set out to make it.


Hence what you are reading now. This is the start of my blog. This is the part of my life where I take control of my thoughts, where I figure out what’s going on with my brain, the way we handle mental illness in this country, and what to do about it. This is the start of the journey where I incite discussion on what it means to be happy and why it seems to be so hard for some of us. I am going to write approximately once every two weeks, with scientifically backed information whenever possible, on the causes and treatments of mental illness in as approachable a way as possible. I will invite guests to write for the blog and share their experiences. This blog will spread awareness of mental illness, explore ways to treat it, and hopefully, I will become a happier person, too.

Begin.


1 T.K. Das and Bing-Sheng Teng, “Cognitive Biases and Strategic Decision Processes: An Integrative Perspective,” in Journal of Management Studies, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1999, 757-78.
2 D. Eagleman, “10 Unsolved Mysteries Of The Brain,” Discovermagazine.com, 2007.
3 K. Semendeferi et al., “The evolution of frontal lobes: a volumetric analysis based on three-dimensional reconstructions of magnetic resonance scans of human and ape brains,” in Journal of Human Evolution, Academic Press, Volume 32, Issue 4, 1997, 375-88.
4 S.M. Weingarten, “Psychosurgery,” in Miller and Cummings, Human Frontal Lobes, 446-60.
5 D. R. Weinberger et al., “Neural Mechanisms of Future-Oriented Processes,” in Haith et al., Development of Future Oriented Processes, 221-42.
6 J. M. Fuster, The Prefrontal Cortex: Anatomy, Physiology, and Neuropsychology of the Frontal Lobe. New York: Lippincott-Raven, 1997, 160-61.
7 M. E. P. Seligman, In J. Buie 'Me' decades generate depression: individualism erodes commitment to others. APA Monitor, 1998, 19, 18
8 R.J. Isaac et al., Madness in the streets: How psychiatry and the law abandoned the mentally ill, Free Press, New York, NY, 1990.
9 A. Earling, The Tetris Effect: Do computer games fry your brain? Philadelphia City Paper, March 21, 1996.
10 K. Leutwyler, “Tetris Dreams,” scientificamerican.com, October, 2000.
11 J. Shorka-Brown et al., “Playing ‘Tetris’ reduces the strength, frequency and vividness of naturally occurring cravings,” Appetite, Elsevier Ltd., Volume 76, May 2014, 161-65.
12 B.R. Andrews, “Habit,” The American Journal of Psychology, University of Illinois Press, 14 (2), 1903, 121-49.