The brain as a pattern matching organ (Part Two)

Every time your purchases are scanned electronically, a process called ‘pattern recognition’ identifies each item, adds them together, and prints out a docket. The bar code is read by a scanner, it sends the code details to a data bank which finds a perfect match and identifies this unique item among thousands in the store. The human brain uses a similar process – it makes sense of things by matching what it sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, with what is already on file as a neural element or ‘pattern’. Better described by UCLA Berkeley Professor George Lakoff: Thoughts make use of an extensive but unconscious system of metaphorical concepts – a typically concrete realm used to comprehend a different domain.

The electronic scanning process relies on a perfect match and can only make sense of what is scanned if the exact code has been stored in the data bank. The human brain however, is metaphorical in nature and not limited by only being able to make sense of exact matches, or what is already on file. It can use approximations to make some sense of totally unfamiliar experience. An example of this process could be seen in a recent ABC documentary of the first contact indigenous people had with Europeans during the atomic testing in remote South Australia during the 1950’s. The film crew interviewed Yuwali, a Martu tribeswoman who was a teenager at the time, and her expression upon seeing a white vehicle approaching was “Look, those white rocks have come alive and they are rolling toward the camp!” Yuwali was making sense of new information by matching it with what she already knew. With more exposure to white people, more sense-making patterns were added, and she was able to make those distinctions between vehicles and rocks.

What if ‘approximations’ are used instead of distinctive patterns to make sense of our environment? Good question, especially given the subtleties of social interaction and the demands of relationships. Most of the people I see in my practice are using a limited array of patterns, and many people are helped enormously by adding to their repertoire of patterns. Being able to draw on an expanded array of sense-making patterns increases the prospect of accuracy – their perceptions are closer to a shared model of reality. Social interaction becomes more fulfilling, and relationships more rewarding.

Not all people are helped. There are some people who seem unable to accept that reality is what each of us build using our experiences, our learning and our sense-making process. Some people regard reality as an absolute, a franchise they have exclusive rights to, a view that allows them to dismiss other’s views so readily. They hold their point of view with tenacity not unlike a primitive survival response – their sense of life, identity and future seems to be threatened if they contemplate a revision to their thinking. Little wonder their social interaction is characterised by superficial, short-term, one-sided encounters and their relationships limited to those able (or resigned) to tolerate their inflexibility.

Reminds me of philosopher Karl Popper’s words: … even great scientists fail to reach that self-critical attitude which would prevent them from feeling very sure of themselves while gravely misjudging things.

While customers would not tolerate ‘approximations’ in the purchasing process, humans need to be open to the possibility that the sense-making process may not be serving our best interest, and prepared to part with the ‘feeling very sure’ in order to ask that crucial question: Is this how it really is, or just the way I think it is?

The brain as a pattern-matching organ (Part One)

We make sense of (intellectually understand) everything we see, hear, touch, by matching the information with a neural element (or pattern) already on file in our brain. The continuous stream of information is processed quickly and efficiently. The familiar information is a close match (we understand it well); unfamiliar information takes a little longer but with the use of an approximate pattern, we are able to say “Hmmm, it is like…” thus making sense of new information.

The healthy brain has a fascination for the unfamiliar or novel, it is continually ready for the challenge of making sense of things it does not understand, continually learning, thereby adding to its library of patterns. The term ‘approximate pattern’ is important, for without this, the new information cannot be processed or understood.

It could be said then, that the brain is a pattern-matching organ. This definition has implications for understanding the healthy brain, as well as getting a clearer picture of what happens when things go wrong. The implications include:

  • metaphor (‘it is like’) is fundamental part of information processing
  • what we ‘know’ depends on the number of patterns we have access to
  • learning relies on new information being added to existing approximate patterns
  • our model of ‘reality’ comes from the patterns we use

Many patterns are instinctive, they were formed during the development of the foetus and are necessary for survival – avoiding harm and getting our needs met. In the process of making sense of things, the information from our sense organs passes through the survival part of the brain that filters the stimuli for threats to our needs getting or being met.

Pattern-matching at this level takes place before any conscious awareness, it is pre-language and pre-thought. The implications of this fairly recent understanding are significant, the principle one being thought as we know it, is a ‘re-presentation’ of the original stimuli that may or may not have changed depending on the patterns used to make sense of it. This ‘filtering’ process means innate human needs influence thought itself.

The patterns used in this filtering process include ones we were born with, and ones added during our formative years and beyond. While some of these patterns are generic, many are unique to the individual – formed by learning and experience. Pattern-matching is an efficient way for the brain to make sense of stimuli based on what it has processed before, and avoids having to deal with a vast array of experience as though it is a first-time event. (Alzheimer’s is characterised by poor access to patterns, thus responding to each experience as a new event.)

While pattern-matching may be an efficient process, it is subject to factors that may increase or decrease its capacity to select appropriate patterns for specific situations. Emotions, for example, essentially prepare the body for action of some kind, from the extreme fight flight freeze response that marshals a host of body systems in preparation for action, to a more simple tactile sympathy gesture that may have little more physiological dimension than a moistening of the eyes. With heightened emotional arousal the level of sophistication in the brain’s search for an appropriate pattern is reduced, and a pattern from a limited range will usually be selected.

This primitive pattern-matching is known as ‘black and white’ thinking as the shades of grey, those insights that give each situation a here-and-now uniqueness, are lacking. Perfect for survival responses, but decidedly limiting if used on an on-going basis. Where the primitive patterns are used over and over again, thinking becomes self-focused, narrow, and pessimistic instead of expansive, explorative and others-focused. This thinking style is usually present in stress, depression and anxiety-related conditions, and the recognition that patterns are the filter through which all thoughts are formed, and the understanding that emotional arousal (excessive worry for example) causes a primitive thinking style, provides for effective therapeutic approaches.

Emotions Revisited

Emotions are neither good nor bad – they just are. They cannot be otherwise, for they operate from that part of the brain clearly removed from the values and belief-driven executive function. Much confusion arises when we assume characteristics of mental processing on that part of the brain that operates below any level of awareness. The emotional brain, variously known as the primal brain, the subconscious, or more specifically, the limbic system, is value neutral – relying instead on the awareness (thinking) part of the brain to function in the person’s best interest. Like other living organisms, humans interact with their environment to get their needs met, and our best interests are served when the interplay of emotion and thinking lead to effective interaction and needs – physical and non-physical, being met appropriately.

As described in a previous blog (24.03.2011), emotions facilitate this interaction. They prepare us for action and carry an expectation that the action will meet a need. The crucial thing about emotions is not about  ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’,  but whether they are discharged effectively. A continuing state of emotional arousal or undischarged emotion reduces the brain’s processing capacity, places stress on the system, and raises the prospect of low mood instead of well-being.

So, given that emotions just are, how is one to handle this statement from a world authority on well-being, Martin Seligman (Flourish, Random House, 2011): Positive emotion does much more than just feel pleasant; it is a neon sign that growth is underway, that psychological capital is accumulating (p66).

My response, tentative at this stage, is that feelings – pleasant or otherwise – are much later along the stimuli-response sequence. Feelings are not simply emotions, nor are they the product of emotional arousal – they are the result of the successful interplay of emotion and thought resulting in needs being met and signs that growth is underway. Separate the emotion; recognising its function in the below-awareness phase of the sequence, and we are better able to focus on feelings or mood states, which clearly have good/bad, positive/negative dimensions.

This focus on feelings or mood states enables specific interventions at the stages that precede feeling good or bad. A focus that begins with a better understanding of emotions, contains an appreciation of the interplay between emotion, thought, action and feeling as discreet entities, and leads to successful interaction with the environment and needs being met. Growth instead of mere survival; flourishing, with more good moods than bad.

The myth of the chemical cure

Airports are fascinating places. I particularly enjoy observing people – the various games people play while pretending they are neither with others nor game-playing. Anthony was not pretending. He was very aware, at five years old, of the game of pressing his grandmother’s buttons as he out-smarted and out-ran her. On one lagging pass, the mid-sixties lady gave me that tired look and a handy explanation: “ADHD”

The explanation did little to quell the rising emotional climate among other travellers-in-waiting, but, I must admit, it confirmed the appropriateness of what I felt like doing: having a good old game of chasey. Imagine the fun we could have, we mightn’t be able to jump the seats like Anthony could, but we could cooperate and outsmart him when he landed in the other aisle. Then rough him up good-humouredly before letting him go again.

By the time we boarded, Anthony would have been exhausted, and sleeping like a baby halfway to Auckland. Instead, his grandmother had other plans: I’m saving his medication for the plane, as though placing him in a medicated fog was the only sign of relief on the horizon.

I call this ‘the myth of the chemical cure’ after Professor Joanna Moncrief’s remarkable book of that name. Anthony’s grandmother was able to announce to a group of total strangers the four-letter ‘explanation’ for her grandson’s behaviour, and the card up her sleeve was a tiny yellow pill to medically fog her grandson for the next few hours. Acceptable practice because, as we all know, medical problems need medical solutions. It is, as education expert Sir Ken Robinson claims in his latest video with all the viral potential as his previous ones, We resort to giving children quite dangerous drugs for the same reason we routinely removed their tonsils – medical fashion. I suggest it is more than just ‘fashion’ when one considers the marketing advantages of widespread demand for prescription medication. Besides, fashion and marketing have always partnered with each other and in their own interests, and manipulated people to buy a solution for every problem – perceived or otherwise.

Anthony’s grandmother had bought the package: a fashionable explanation and a ready medical solution. Too bad Anthony wasn’t consulted before his brain was bombarded with chemicals with a yet unknown longer-term effect. As I said, a game of chasey was my preference, no need to consult Anthony on that one.

 

 

Brain Growth

I came across an interesting question last week: “How much of the psychological and spiritual suffering in contemporary affluent cultures is due to unrecognized failures of growth?”* The writer, his credentials of professor of psychiatry, philosophy, anthropology, and religious studies at UCLA notwithstanding, did not provide an answer. Nor shall I, but as a therapist who sees a fair share of human suffering and distress, it is possible to suggest: a lot.

One of the central tenets of the Human Givens approach is that psychological suffering is not present when a person is getting their physical and emotional needs met appropriately, and one of these important needs is the one for growth – to be challenged and stretched mentally. According to Walsh (2008) “the mind contains an inherent developmental drive towards growth, and given appropriate conditions and practices, the mind tends to be self-healing, self-actualising, and self-liberating”. It is clear then that ‘inappropriate’ conditions that fail to provide opportunity for intellectual nourishment, stimulation and learning; and practices or interaction with the environment that leaves the need for mental challenge and stretching unmet, will remain unhealthy, unfulfilled, and stagnating.

Now, it is not as though the distressed people who see therapists can describe their malaise in this way, hence the ‘unrecognised’ in Walsh’ question. Contemporary affluent cultures tend to create the illusion of growth; people are immersed in a constant flow of information, yet remain essentially ill-informed; their senses constantly stimulated yet so often they remain detached and bored. They become perplexed and believe in the ‘myth of more’ – without realising more of the same will bring in its wake, more of the perplexity and sense of stagnation.

Walsh provides four antidotes to stagnation:

  • Awareness: for with awareness comes choice, and a sense of autonomy and control over their environment and interaction with it, leading to mental challenge and growth.
  • Growth-orientated relationships: couples, groups or communities provide the benefit of shared endevours, mutual support, encouragement and enthusiasm.
  • Teachers: and the love of learning. As James Michener once proclaimed at a life-enhancing moment: “I am going to associate with people who know more than I do” – perhaps explaining his accumulation of 35 honorary doctorates in five disciplines before his long and productive life came to a close.
  • Regular sustained practice: perhaps the most important of all as Walsh concludes: “I have seen some very impressive friends and colleagues fall into traps of stagnation, depression and addiction”.

Antidotes that are all possible in an affluent culture, providing that innate drive is allowed to express itself fully and appropriately.

*Walsh, R. (2008) Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 4:3

Depression Breakthrough (part 2)

The question becomes: What can be done to break this dreadful cycle and lift the black cloud of depression? To break this cycle, to move away from the sad end of the scale, the orientation response mechanism needs to work again. Working properly, it enables us to concentrate and focus, to prompt motivation so that emotions are discharged by purposeful action during the day and not overload the system at night. Although some sufferers can, given enough time, make this shift along the scale themselves, many people suffering depression find they need professional help.

A professional that fully understands this recent understanding of what depression actually is, and is up to date on new insights from various fields other than their own, is usually able to make a difference quickly and simply. They would start by lowering the emotional arousal allowing the clear-headed part of the brain to think properly. Remember, emotions are designed for action, not thinking, and they are capable of ‘hijacking’ the thinking part of the brain.

I must stress, that working with the emotions first in order to influence thinking is crucial. Emotions are in place before thought, so any attempt to fix emotional problems by changing the way people think, is working against the way the brain works. If it works at all, it will take a long time – most psychological intervention is based on this faulty assumption, leaving depression rates to rise alarmingly.

With emotions calmed and thinking in place – therapeutic in itself for a depressed person – it is possible to look for things that once gave them pleasure, something they were passionate about – usually something they have not done for a long time. Notice that I am not looking for why they are depressed – dredging up events of the past only makes them emotionally aroused again.

While concentrating on some activity that they used to get pleasure from, we put in place a simple goal, something they can start and complete before they sleep that night. The goal is clear, achievable, and will meet a deep emotional need, a need for purposeful action; to feel alive, and engaged again with this thing called life.

It is possible to have agreement, commitment, and an intention from the depressed person, but little emotional buy-in because I have not impacted the part of the brain where the problem lies. A lot of head nodding because it sounds like a good idea, but the emotional brain doesn’t do words, so the person goes away and soon the old feelings of not doing anything come up again.

To reduce the chances of that happening, I work with the emotional brain, in the language it understands. As it doesn’t do language, I simulate a healthy dream process and use metaphor, images and stories to effect change at the feeling level. The goal of purposeful action that will set them up for a better sleep becomes embedded in the emotional brain, it is like a script complete with what it feels like – I have made a difference where it matters.

It is called a ‘breakthrough’ because it makes so much sense to therapists, to people who used to be depressed, and, I am sure, to you as well. It makes sense because it is based on what depression actually is, not on what we thought it was. It makes sense because the therapy is simple and effective, and lifts depression for good.

See this on YouTube:

http://youtu.be/_0IaguJzDTg

See also:  www.depressionbreakthrough.com.au

Depression Breakthrough (part 1)

Depression rates are on the rise, and curiously, rates of anti-depression medication prescriptions are going up also. Either depression is not what we think it is, or drugs are not working. I suggest it is both.

What if depression is not what we think it is?
What if it’s not a chemical imbalance?
What if it is not hereditary or faulty genes?
What if it is not a medical problem at all?
What if it is not helped by dredging up the past looking for reasons?

What if we consider a mood scale that everyone of us is on, with happiness up one end, and sadness down the other; and what if depression was too far and for too long at the sad end of this mood scale? That would sure be a breakthrough.

Moods are emotions – and emotions are a preparation for action. What if there was emotion and no preparation – no action; no movement along that scale. One doesn’t have to be a rocket surgeon to work that out … notice that?

Did you realise that seriously depressed people would miss that (rocket scientist/brain surgeon) because the part of the brain that helps us notice things and sets us up to respond is not working. Called the ‘orientation response mechanism’, this vital mechanism directs our focus and triggers the motivating brain chemical called dopamine to prepare us for action.

Now, with action, the emotion is discharged, and mostly as a reward, a ‘feel-good’ brain chemical floods the brain and then is withdrawn to reward us next time we act in a purposeful way. With no action however, the emotion – the preparation for action – is not discharged, no feel-good reward comes, and we stay where we are on the mood scale, or if the emotion was prompted by a basic physical or emotional need, and the need remains unmet, chances are we move toward the sad end a bit more.

Of course, not all emotions can be acted out. They centre around basic drives like food, sex, love, and status, and in civilised society, we learn to inhibit inappropriate actions. Since 1997 with the first comprehensive explanation of why humans dream – or more specifically the function of REM sleep – we know that these undischarged emotions are discharged by the action being metaphorically completed, allowing us to wake refreshed.

Depressed people however, don’t wake refreshed. They dream a lot, and even after lots of sleep, they wake feeling exhausted, unable to focus, concentrate, or get motivated.

Understanding REM sleep tells us why – the orientation response mechanism used to process the undischarged emotions during the REM sleep phase is exhausted. While a healthy sleep cycle has about 20% REM sleep; depressed people go into REM earlier, stay there longer, and use up a lot of energy so that they wake tired. They wake tired because they missed out on the restorative sleep, but, worse than that, the mechanism that gets us going in the morning –  helps us notice things, focus on what needs to be done, and motivates us toward purposeful action, does not work. They usually have another lousy day; emotions running high (although it doesn’t look like it); but no action, setting them up for another night of poor sleep as the overloaded system wades through a swamp of emotions that prepared us for action that didn’t take place. The dreadful cycle continues, they stay too far, and for too long at the sad end of the mood scale.

See this on YouTube:

http://youtu.be/_0IaguJzDTg

Teen Depression

Not sure the title is appropriate given that yesterday’s news reports mental health checks of three year olds, and children as young as eight are suffering depressive disorders. I noticed the name of the child psychiatrist quoted, for some years ago in an address to a national audience in the Blue Mountains, I quoted the psychiatrist’s research into an increasingly common disorder among young people, a form of depression known as ‘dysthemia’.

The symptoms present a challenge to parents:

  • innattentiveness
  • poor organisational skills

and behaviours that are:

  • aggressive
  • contrary
  • oppositional and
  • defiant

Parents, of course, are not the only ones challenged by this less-than-ideal set of attributes. Teachers have to deal with the disrupted learning environment caused by such behaviours, and health professionals, if the young people consent to seeing them, are usually faced with resistance to the normal therapeutic interventions. Research shows there are perceptions of major barriers in the minds of young people to getting help – they just don’t want to appear different to their peers, or acknowledge to their families they need help.

If parents are the closest ‘significant others’ to the problem, the notion of skilling them to firstly understand what is going on in the child’s interaction with their environment to result in unmet needs; and secondly have simple and effective techniques to develop emotional resilience makes a lot of sense.

The question of course is how. My response to this question is to point to the most amazing skill development any of us have ever undertaken: learning to walk and communicate, each without formal training. This learning model is better understood now, and surprisingly enough, examining how young people play computer games has given us strategies that can be used where traditional teaching does not work. One such situation where teaching fails is dealing with teen depression, and their lack of acknowledgement – largely because there is so much change going on in their emotional, physical, social development – is a big factor in this.

Three vital characteristics raise the prospect of natural learning:

  • the learning takes place in a wider context
  • the learner is emotionally engaged
  • the prospect of failure is removed

Currently, I have a group of young people well practiced in the above behaviours immersed in a project designed with these three characteristics at its core. And, I have a group of parents who have completed a one-day workshop on the Human Givens approach and are working through eight online modules. For both groups, the wider context is they are being treated ‘as if’ they are experienced, qualified, professionals (called a ‘persona’ from our understanding of computer game skills). This context promotes emotional engagement, removes fear of failure, and allows for learning by ‘stealth’ – another aspect of gaming.

It is the first time this award-winning learning model has been used outside schools, and indications thus far are exciting to say the least. Watch this space.

Needs and Resources – the critical balance

Emotions are a preparation for action with an expectation that the action will meet a need. From this definition, two things can be said with some confidence. Firstly, all behaviour is needs-driven; behaviour is an expression of an individual’s attempt to get a need met; a demonstration of a need being met; or the perception that a need currently being met by that behaviour is threatened. This is a significant principle, for it provides an answer to that rhetorical question: “Why would they do this?” It removes the often frustrating search for an explanation for behaviour that to our minds does not make any sense.

Secondly, the definition allows for this statement to be made:

…if a person with an undamaged brain is getting their emotional needs met well, they will not have psychological problems. There is no more profound statement that can be made about mental health. 

Tyrrell, I. 2005

The Human Givens therapy and education approach is based on the proposition that every human is born with an enormous amount of innate knowledge that has accumulated over centuries. This knowledge facilitates our survival and ability to adapt to and interact with our environment.

This innate or instinctive knowledge is expressed in two ways:

  • as needs, physical and emotional expectations seeking fulfilment
  • as resources, the guidance systems that help us get our needs met.

This needs and resources balance results in sound emotional health, and problems arise when needs are not met, or resources are not used appropriately.

Physical needs include a wholesome diet, regular exercise, restorative sleep, as well as shelter and security.

Emotional needs, previously thought of as things that get in the way of clear thinking, are becoming recognised as equally important as physical needs. Emotional needs (with the corresponding fears that arise when they are not met or getting them met is threatened) may include:

  • Life/growth/survival, and the fear of death, annihilation, danger
  • Love/intimacy/connection, and the fear of rejection loneliness and alienation
  • Challenge/exploration, and the fear of losing problem-solving ability
  • Significance/meaning, and the fear of insignificance, meaninglessness
  • Control/autonomy, and the fear of being overwhelmed and not coping.

As well as needs, we are all given a set of resources that can help us get these needs met. Things like imagination, long-term memory, the ability to learn through metaphor, a dreaming brain, and the capacity to observe ourselves. This latter resource, called ‘the observing self’ is particularly useful therapeutically in separating the person from the condition – one can often see the effect of this in response to the question “How does this thing called depression con you into thinking is such black or white; all or nothing thinking?”

Tyrrell, I. (2005) Tuning in to our natural endowment: the human givens. Journal of Holistic Healthcare, Vol 2 – 4.

Environment – our context for living

A basic law of organic life states: every living thing interacts with its environment to get its need met. This is a ‘given’. In other words we are interacting with our physical, social, personal, non-physical and even virtual environment all the time. And while our mind may be elsewhere, part of our brain is scanning the environment, mostly below our awareness, for the opportunity to satisfy an innate need, often one of four basic ones – food, love, sex and achievement.

Of these four needs, you will notice that only one, food, is a physical one, and deprive the organism of this and it will die. The others are non-physical or emotional needs, and while the organism – in this case – humans will not die without them, they will suffer distress. Humans have more in mind than just staying alive. So often the reason life-support is switched off is not because the person can’t be kept alive, but because there is little point in living if there is no chance of meaningful interaction. While survival is important, for humans it is not the main game – they need to interact with their environment to flourish.

If a person displays signs of distress – emotionally charged or agitated, drained of purpose, bereft of joy, suffering low mood or generally not flourishing in their interaction with their environment – according to this law, it comes down to one of two things: poor environment, or insufficient interaction with it. Usually the latter.

Some environments are poor in their capacity to provide opportunity for emotional needs to be met. A situation of constant threat (an abusive relationship for example) will reduce the chance for people living in that climate of fear to flourish.  Their needs for love, connection, privacy, control and autonomy, all important human needs, will have little chance of being met.

Other environments may appear ‘poor’ to one person, and be fine for another. If you have seen the movie Samson and Delilah one could be tempted to explain Samson’s petrol sniffing in the context of limited opportunities for anything else in his environment. Delilah, however, lives in the same environment and has a rich source of meaning and connection. Her behaviour is purposeful (artwork) and caring for her grandmother provides her with a sense of significance. So, it is not necessarily the environment per se, but one’s perception of it that matters.

Given that for most of us, our environment is neither abusive nor an outback settlement, most emotional distress can be attributed to the lack of interaction with it. And while these needs are mostly innate, the successful interaction skills required for western society are not. They are skills that have to be learned by good parenting, positive peer relationships, and, especially during formative years, a supportive and encouraging circle of friends. If the individual has missed out on these vital interaction skills – and it could be their environment prevented or hindered their development – they can be taught later in life. Many of the people I see for therapy are in this category, and given direction and mentoring, can become fluent in negotiating their environment in order to flourish again. The basic law of organic life is a useful starting point to this success.