Author: Ray Saunders

The Matter of Mind

   This is a not-quite-random musing on the nature of the Mind and its processes. I will preface it by admitting the arguments and speculations may or may not apply to those with organic or genetic problems or traumatized brains. I’m talking here about run-of-the-mill folks, the more-or-less normal.

   I have been in various sorts of psychotherapy and closely examined the process, both in my own case and with others. I also have observed the effect of psychoactive substances on myself and others.

   When we repeatedly perform an action, from walking to washing the dishes, we develop a way of doing so that is most efficient, not only from the point of view of getting across the street or having clean dishes, but also from the point of view of minimizing the effort expended. It’s as though we have limited energy and want to conserve it. My contention is that we do the same with our mental efforts. It is often noted that many (most?) people find it easier to accept what they hear on TV than to really think about the issues and make up their own minds. They loudly proclaim their rationlity when the fact is that many haven’t had a new idea since they discovered little boys were different from little girls (and they’re still trying to figure out the ramifications of that).

   Therapists all know that most psychiatric medications are not highly effective in the long term. They alleviate the severity of the symptoms temporarily, providing a window of opportunity for the therapist to induce a “cure’ or at least a significant reduction in symptoms. I would claim that if one wants to be depressed, anxious, manic, etc, one will be, despite medication. In fact, it is my observation that this ‘obstinacy’ is such a part of our mental mechanisms that the mind will find a way to counteract the medication.

   Depression, mania, stress, etc do manifest biologically and it is these biological manifestations that medications are prescribed to eliminate. MDs too often treat depression and stress as a chemical imbalance in the brain. They do so with only a cursory thought (if at all) as to whether the patient’s circumstances are depressing and stressful.

   A patient living with constant pain – physical or mental – and stress over money, relationships, security etc is suffering from more than a chemical imbalance. In fact, If the mind (as I think it does) accepts a particular mental state as the norm, it influences the body to alter the chemistry of the brain so as to reinforce the depression, etc. Energy-wise and attention-wise It will less taxing on the individual to “automate” the depression by tweaking brain chemistry. And an acceptance of the status quo is equivalent to wanting it, as far as brain activity is concerned.

   I smoked for 45+ years. I made several attempts to quit, sometimes being smoke-free for months, but ultimately unsuccessful. Then one day I woke up and found smoking was ‘ego dystonic’. I never smoked again or had any desire to do so. I didn’t stop smoking – I stopped being a smoker. There is a difference.

   We’ve all known people referred to as ‘dry drunks’ who haven’t had a drink in years but are still alcoholics. I had the following exchange with an alcoholic friend:

  Me: You can get up in AA and say, “I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic, right?”
  Joe: Yeah, I do that.
  Me: Can you get up and say, “I’m Joe, and I’m 77 years old”?
  Joe: Well, I could say that but it wouldn’t be true.
  Me: But even knowing it isn’t true, you could say it?
  Joe: Yeah, I suppose I could.
  Me: Can you get up in AA and say, “I’m Joe, and I rape little babies”?
  Joe: No! For Christ’s sake! How could I say that? I’m not a baby-rapist!
  Me: But how is that different from saying you are 77 when you’re not?

   Even knowing that it was not true, Joe could not bring himself to utter the words. A self-image as an alcoholic was acceptable or at least ‘recognized’ but a self-image as a raper of babies was so ‘ego dystonic’ he could not mouth the words. I told him, “When you feel that way about saying you’re an alcoholic, you will stop being an alcoholic”.

   When I had quit smoking for short periods, there were always a few days of physical withdrawal symptoms, not particularly severe but definitely present (Lobeline Sulfate was the only thing that helped with this, btw). Yet when I stopped being a smoker, there were no withdrawal symptoms at all. Think about that.

   One of the earliest things an infant learns is the difference between ‘me’ and ‘not me’. That learning is critical to human development and serves as the beginning of a sense-of-self. It appears that humans must have a sense of identity. (Imagining yourself or another without a self-image would be an interesting ‘thought experiment’, wouldn’t it?). This process seems to start with physical contact with caregivers. Infants who do not receive feedback affirming their identity develop serious mental and often physical problems. (And ideally, the infant acquires a self-image as lovable). I recall reading of an orphanage whose doctor noticed that while many of the children were developmentally behind, some were much closer to ‘normal’ than others. It turned out that a cleaning lady had a habit of picking up a baby and carrying it around all day as she worked. That physical contact made a difference. And the difference was in the baby’s mind. And that mental difference affected the baby’s physical condition.

   All of which brings us back to the point of this screed. Changing mental processing, behavior, attitudes, etc. can change brain chemistry, and ultimately probably affect other chemistry in the body. It seems pretty obvious to me that talk, physical closeness, emotional interaction and such affect the brain chemistry and thus how the brain functions. Is it any wonder that if someone is in bad circumstances, the brain would adjust to that by chemically producing depression, addiction, anxiety?