Tag Archives: brains

Dualism and fatigue

I have to push back regularly against my own sense that mental fatigue is a brain issue. Mind-body dualism has a lot to answer for, and I think it (mis)informs a lot of how we humans see ourselves in relation to the natural world.

Our brains are not separate from our bodies. The same blood makes its ways around the whole system. Brains are squidgy lumps of biological material. They need energy, oxygen, and do better if we don’t hit them with stuff. Mental energy, is energy.

Getting mentally tired isn’t some kind of special brain event. It isn’t about not trying hard enough and it cannot be overcome simply by making more effort. Like the other parts of our bodies, brains need rest. They need sleep, and unstressful downtime. Our brains suffer if we are dehydrated, or too hot, or experiencing too much stress in our bodies.

However, the idea of the mind as separate from the body is a pervasive one. It can be so easy to absorb ideas about the human mind being separate from nature as a whole that we might not even notice what we’re doing to ourselves.

I have to remind myself that if my concentration is poor, this may be because I’m tired, or need food, or I require a break from things.  How well I can think is a facet of how well my body is doing overall. I don’t think well in unbearably hot weather. Being in a lot of pain really compromises my brain.

The big one for me is remembering that energy is not an abstract idea. Mental energy is not magically different from other energy. My brain requires food just as much as the rest of my body does. I grew up subject to a lot of misinformation about calorie controlled diets. As though intense mental activity required no nourishment. We’re getting better now at recognising that brains need fats in the diet to function well, but too many of us were taught that fats are bad and to be shunned.

One of the ways we can approach nature as Druids is to explore the ways in which we are natural beings, and the ways in which human ideas have distorted our relationship with our own natural selves. Brains aren’t magically separate from bodies. Minds are not abstract things and do not exist in a different dimension to our physical selves. Consciousness may remain a bit of a mystery, but is only viable when we have enough oxygen in the first place.

Contemplating Brains

For various reasons, I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months looking for information about both neurodivergence and personality disorders. I minored in psychology back in the day and have remained interested in brain stuff ever since.

There are a lot of conditions that are defined by symptoms. When it comes to brain stuff and personality stuff this means as an adult, self reporting to someone who will then make a subjective assessment of how you’ve presented yourself. It’s not like looking at a broken bone, or how much insulin you produce. Given the way in which neurodivergent people tend to be traumatised, and how so-called personality disorders look a lot like pathologizing trauma responses, there’s a lot here that worries me.

I note with concern that diagnosis often has everything to do with how much of a nuisance you are to other people. Kids who act out at school are more likely to get checked out. Quiet but miserable kids may go unnoticed. I know historically that working class kids were less likely to be identified as dyslexic and more likely to be labelled as ‘thick’ and ignored. Girls who are shy and socially awkward but polite are more acceptable than boys having similar problems. Girls are socialised hard to be nice, in a way boys aren’t, all of which no doubt has a big impact on who gets diagnosed with autism. Boys underperforming with ADHD often get taken a lot more seriously than their female counterparts who get labelled as chatterboxes or as ditzy daydreamers. There’s a lot of sexism and classism tangled up in diagnosis, and more so in the past.

If you are a problem to your workplace, you might get an adult diagnosis. Otherwise it seems to be prohibitively difficult for a lot of people. There seems to be a general feeling that people who are high functioning and have viable workarounds don’t really need help. Be that with mental health or neurodivergence. These issues aren’t approached based on your suffering, it’s far more about the inconvenience you might cause to those around you. I think to some degree this is informed by lack of resources. There’s certainly not much support available for many people who are struggling.

We don’t actually get taught much about how our minds work. It would be useful if more people better understood what might be going on with other people’s heads, and their own. Education is always a good choice for reducing stigma and being more inclusive. Children who stand out as different may get help learning how to fit in, but why aren’t we teaching everyone how to better accommodate difference in the first place?

There’s so much more to quality of life than whether we can fit in at school and function in a workplace. I think there’s a lot of distortion created by how those aspects of life are prioritised. I wonder what different kinds of approaches to brains and health might be possible if we were willing to be a bit more thoughtful about it all.

Feeding my brain

A couple of years ago I discovered that there’s a significant relationship between how much I feed my brain and how depressed I get. It’s not given me a total solution to depression, but it has helped. Back in my first marriage I used to get told off a lot for craving novelty and new experiences, and I was put down a lot for not being clever. It took me a while to get past all of that.

Brain feeding is a personal thing. Games don’t really do it for me – once I understand how they work I lose interest in playing them. When how they work is highly visual – as with chess – there’s limits on what my brain can do as well. Many different kinds of intelligence exist, so what’s frustrating for one person can be stimulating for another, and that’s no measure of the intelligence of either person.

I get a lot out of learning new skills. I also benefit from good non-fiction books, documentaries, and deep discussions with people who don’t just argue for the sake of it. I like kicking ideas around in non-competitive ways. I like figuring out how to do things. To my surprise, I benefit a lot from visually rich material. This has become evident in the last year, and informs some of my Netflix watching habits. I don’t think of myself as a visual person, but it turns out that lush and lavish depictions of fantastical settings do really interesting things to my brain.

I’m fascinated by how other people describe their brains – especially what goes on around brain chemistry. I don’t seem to experience reward and pleasure in quite the way other people do. But, really interesting things happen to my brain when I’m excited about ideas and am learning stuff. I don’t function well without a fairly steady supply of things to be excited about.

I’m fortunate in that there are a fair few people who are in my life who share things that feed my brain. Today, via social media I have appreciated art, listened to a lute duet and learned some things about how other people see the world. I’ve got better in recent years at seeing what to dig in with and what to ignore. 

It’s taken me a while to let go of the shame-feelings I was encouraged to have. Yes, I do like novelty. Yes, I do get bored doing the same things over and over. I’m no longer prepared to think that makes me a terrible person. 

Dealing with pain

Over the years I’ve seen a great deal of advice to the effect that the best way to deal with pain is to show up for it. Be embodied, practice mindfulness. The idea that pain comes from not paying enough attention and that self care starts with showing up can sound persuasive. Except that, like a lot of people who deal with pain, I find it doesn’t work for me.

Recently I ran into this article about pain which has raised some interesting issues for me – https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jun/28/sufferers-of-chronic-pain-have-long-been-told-its-all-in-their-head-we-now-know-thats-wrong

We know that brains form pathways and that the things we do and think habitually give us the easiest pathways for our thoughts to run down. Habits are powerful things, and habitual thought can trap us in really unhelpful relationships with the world.

Pain is no different from anything else we deal with, once its in the central nervous system, it’s all messages and pathways. It makes sense that pain would build habitual pathways in exactly the same ways that anxious thinking can. That in turn would mean that a person who has experienced a lot of pain would be more likely to process a physical experience as painful. Or more painful.

Emotional pain doesn’t exist in some separate system from all of this. Trauma happens inside our bodies. Whatever happens to us, it happens to us as whole systems. Healing from anxiety can depend on not engaging too much with the anxious thoughts and feelings when they arise. What if, sometimes, pain works in much the same way? What if the body can learn pain responses? What if pain is dialed up by long or repeating experiences of pain because we carve it out as a pathway in our brains?

It would mean that for some of us, the best thing to do with pain is to pay it as little attention as possible. It would mean not being mindful, not being too embodied, but keeping all of that out of our thoughts in order not to reinforce the pain pathways.

Pain isn’t one thing that works the same way for all of us. The solutions to it are going to be equally diverse and complicated. I’m so relieved that we’re starting to see research that takes a broader approach to pain and that doesn’t assume that those of us reporting a lot of it are just making a fuss.

If pain is rewiring your body, and changing how you experience pain, then perhaps the best bet is to try not to show up for that.

The mystery of brains

Most of the time, parenting isn’t excessively difficult. Children progress in coherent, predictable ways from one day to the next as skills evolve, understanding grows, bodies adapt and so forth. Every so often there’s a sudden leap, and the impossible becomes easy, the unthinkable becomes the thought. These are always startling and tend to come without any kind of warning.

A lot of it has to do with how the human brain develops when we’re young. My grasp of the technicals isn’t superb but the gist is that the brain has physical structures, and the way in which paths are formed between brain cells shapes how we are able to think. Child development psychology flags up that there are some things young children just aren’t capable of thinking about. Then the brain changes, and *ping* you’re on a new level. It can be startling to watch. Some of the manifestations are simple – going from sky as blue line across the top of a picture to a sense of how objects exist in relation to each other is one of those transitions, but not a challenging one.

Sudden shifts in the way a child is capable of thinking are also very exciting times. As adults we tend to get this less, our brain growth has mostly settled. Perhaps more importantly, we don’t seek it. When allowed to develop naturally, children are voracious in their quest for information. They want to know everything about everything. How we support and teach them inform whether than continues or not. A child who hears ‘because I said so’ and ‘because it just is’ will learn not to bother to ask. The child for whom learning is turned into a miserable chore won’t stay inspired to learn, that natural hunger squashed. And of course children whose hunger for input is fed by television and computer games, who get a steady diet of empty noise and meaningless drivel by way of content, cannot develop much. I recognise that there is educational content out there, but when the aim is to pacify the child and make them easy to look after, the effect is…. Pacification.

From what I can tell by observing my son, and what I remember of the process myself, the sudden brain leaps don’t really register. You forget that you couldn’t think that way before, the new way becomes natural so quickly and there’s not much incentive to question it. Sometimes, you don’t notice how much your own capacity to think has changed. As adults, we’re both less likely to change, and more likely to notice it. Revolution between the ears is a very big deal once you’re physically mature. It is possible, though.

How we think, and the structures we have physically in our brains, develops over time and with use. The person who devotes a lot of time to music does, I gather, have a visibly different brain structure to someone who doesn’t. What we do with our brains shapes what we are able to do, informs what comes easily, determines where we might go next. Anyone who dedicates themselves to a spiritual path, or a path of personal growth, is very precisely working to keep their brain developing.

There are a great many people out there I could wish a mental revolution upon. I wish they could change with the sudden explosion of insight that hits my child every now and then. There are so many people who seem to have stopped thinking, questioning, wondering and growing far too early, settling into the comfort of their own narrow world view and filtering out everything that doesn’t fit. Far too many of them have also taken up careers in politics. But in adults, Road to Damascus moments are few and far between. Grand epiphanies don’t turn up unsought, eureka moments will not come to the person who wasn’t looking for an answer in the first place.

Brains are such fabulous, mysterious, exciting things. I just wish people would notice that more, celebrate the wonder that is us a bit more, think a bit more…