A new language for understanding addiction

addictionThe language we choose to use has incredible influence over our perception of reality. Every word is linked into an ever evolving neural network of associations, concepts, and emotions. Meaning is culled from these maps, which are culturally driven yet far more flexible than one might think. Addiction, habit, compulsion, rock bottom – these are dangerous, helpless words. There’s no way out of ‘compulsion’, and ‘rock bottom’ is a bleak, cold, lonely place. The idea that we have to reach it, the bottom of the well, before we regain our right to the word ‘choice’ means that we are forced to do real social and physical damage before admitting defeat and winning control. Brain chemistry is the author of these words. They feel so right, so real. That’s why we use them. Withhold satisfaction from an addict and their brain spirals into an unbearable chemical panic. This panic dictates its intentions to our prefrontal cortex, as to a willing, eminently obedient 1950s secretary. Our impatient limbic boss says, “You know what I want to say, Honey. Just put it into your own words and send it off.” Our words. Our choice. Glamours These are the things that make make life worth living. We ‘get off’ on them. Take them away and life dims to survival. We are genetically and culturally predisposed to our glamours: in how we are coded to metabolize nicotine, or the density of our D2 dopamine receptors, or what Disney taught us about love. These glamours, some innocent, even healthy, and some decidedly not, are then triggered by personal experience, be it the red lipstick of our favourite movie star or first hit of cocaine. Humanity needs its glamours. Biologically, desire drives our movement through time. Without it we, quite literally, will cease to breathe. Even the most hard-core guru will agree. Beyond our base appetites, our glamours are our sparkle and armor against the inevitability of suffering and death. But sometimes a glamour will slip past our conscious control to become… Insatiables Birth is not moderate. Death is not moderate. Life, therefore, is not a moderate act. By their very natures some of our glamours can biologically begin to stretch our appetites out of proportion, especially when we use them to cope with an immoderate world. Our dopamine baseline and receptor density can change. With food, the hormone leptin can throw things out of wack. Anything can become a pathological obsession: Diet Coke, cats, clutter, gin, sex, reality TV… anything. An insatiable is something we can’t get enough of and its pleasures begin to overshadow all others. We make choices that always somehow circle back to satisfy our cravings. Romantic love is an insatiable, but while it chemically evolves, some insatiables risk becoming… Be-all-end-alls This is the end-game. When an insatiable becomes a be-all-end-all, we live our life in service to its mastery. Nothing else matters. Take it away and life looses its last hint of luster. It is our all, and by its exclusion of all else, without intervention, will end all. Our brain wants only this, all the time, whatever the cost. It is the only appetite worth satisfying. Chemically, it owns our motivations and our reasoning. But it is not rock bottom. It is an honest moment with our soul, an acknowledgment of circumstances. It is the moment of choice – our destruction or the originating glamour’s destruction? One must end. Changing our language opens up a new neural network of more empowering associations, concepts, and emotions. And by doing so, it also opens up new paths of treatment. Choosing the right variables/symbols is always the first step towards balancing an equation. I promised my Blank Canvas Living Creative counselling client, who was brave enough to strip off her muumuu and reveal her insatiables, that I would show her a different path and guide her through change. Come join us on the journey. This is a Story Thread post – Click to read more…

Whatever you are doing at this exact moment is exactly what you want to be doing

office cartoonI know you don’t believe me, especially if you’re tied to a computer when it’s a cartoon beautiful day outside or you’re just about to do the dishes. But think about it. Your brain is an incredibly efficient piece of equipment. Its network of neural linkages is structured according to genetics and interwoven according to experience. You think you have to go to work. You think you have to do the dishes. But if you didn’t want to, you wouldn’t do it. Plain and simple.

Our rational mind, our prefrontal cortex, is essentially in service to our limbic system. This reptilian, emotional center is the influencing force on the parameters of our logic and ensuing rational arguments. Brain scans show that a decision can be predicted up to 7 full seconds before our conscious minds become aware of the outcome. Consciousness is the gatekeeper, and final reasoning checkpoint before we act. Self is the entire system acting together.

Your alarm goes off… “Oh gawd I don’t want to go to work!” So why do you get up? You want to maintain and support your social relationships. You want to get your paycheck so you can keep your house and enjoy the security and pride of ownership. You want to keep your car so you have the freedom of travel and mobility (I happen to be a renter who takes the bus… sigh, but the same theory holds).

Addiction and trauma can skew the system, and if you find yourself saying “I don’t want to be doing this but I can’t stop,” what you can do is stop kidding yourself. If your dopamine/reward system is getting-off on a behaviour, well, that’s the very definition of ‘want’. OCD is another example. If your limbic fear control is overreacting, it will, ever so desperately, ‘want’ relief. Own that want. I know the word gets a bad rap in our culture, but there should be no shame in admitting the truth when it can give you the power you need to start making real changes in your life.

Admitting that your adopted value system and priority scale dictate your decisions, and not some external taskmaster forcing you to keep plodding away on some determinist treadmill, will help put your world back into your hands. Changing the language that traps us in our logic loops is the first step in the challenging process of changing those worlds.

How to use brain priming to improve your productivity and quality of life

spring cleaningThis simple 3 step formula will allow you to design life strategies based on your own unique neural network of associations and experiences. Brain priming, where “exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus”, is essentially the firing of neurons that are linked in your brain. This happens automatically and below the level of conscious thought. For example, student subjects primed with words related to the elderly left the experiment walking slower than the control group.

But we can make brain priming an active, rather than just a passive, process. Self-priming before an activity and extending that stimulus throughout its duration can help us tackle difficult tasks with more energy and improved perspective by taking advantage of the brain’s existing network of linkages. And what task could be more difficult, more intimidating, more soul destroying, more ‘oh-gawd-why-me’ agonizing than… cleaning the house.

Brain Network MapStep 1: Identify the activity and hypothesis your initial linkages (concepts, associations, emotions). Try to be as honest and intuitive as you can. You can use the diagram above as a model. It shows a simplified network of what, in reality, is quite a messy bit of between-the-ears business. But I’m a sucker for symmetry, both in my men and in my visual aids.

Step 2: Identify the positive (encouraging links are in blue) and negative (paralyzing links are in red) connections/associations. The positive links are your Gateway Connections.

Step 3: Identify sensory and memory recall experiences that will stimulate these same positive attitude/energy bundles of neurons. Here’s where it gets fun! Get psyched to try a tough new recipe by Youtubing with some Anthony Bourdain… Wear a tie and watch ‘Report on Business’ TV before an economics exam… Give your partner a massage before asking them to do the dishes (maybe I should have tried that one)… Go ahead and get creative! Engage your network strategy and keep those areas lit for as long, and as intensely, as possible. In this example, cute underwear (just don’t ask about the ‘in control’) and Janis Joplin’s rockin’ blues link to my three positives about cleaning. Cleaning the bathroom Note: ‘setting the stage’ has an extra semantic bonus with Joplin. Joplin and panties also have their own web of interconnecting linkages (shown in green) to directly counteract the original red negatives, thereby overriding them.

And because any scientific strategy is best served with a completely gratuitous selfie, I offer you hard-core proof that this brain priming formula will make even the most intimidating task suddenly… dare I say… far more enticing.

So hard to pick a toothpaste when all patterns end in sex or death

trauma in the toothpaste aisle

We process the world through pattern. Our brains filter the sensory madness of our culture through ever narrowing channels of meaning and importance. But let’s be honest, whatever your program of associations, all patterns end in either sex or death. Sex extends our genetics through time and is the only motivator on par with avoidance of death – the eventual, inevitable endgame to all sequences of decisions.

I’m paralyzed in the toothpaste aisle. I feel my temperature rising, my palms getting sweaty. Why the hell does my amygdala have to get involved! It’s just f*&^king toothpaste! The eternal struggle: buy my ‘usual’ and save myself some cognitive calories, or engage in a complex multi-variable algorithm steeped in conflict between conscious and unconscious influences and motivations. Do I want short term gains like fresh breath and whitening? Both driven by the ever tempting promise of getting laid. Or do I go for long term investment with tartar control, enamel repair, and preventing gingivitis (the villain in so many bacteria-in-the-bloodstream early death horror stories!)? Then there are the ‘do it all have it all’ formulas, the ‘full-time working mothers’ of oral hygiene. But like Sheryl Sandberg, I’m suspicious there’s some unspoken compromise that just might result in a root canal somewhere down the line. I grew up using Colgate… its red is so soothingly familiar… but ProNamel’s packaging looks so reassuringly clinical… and Aquafresh has… Oh for heavens sake!!

Pavlov’s dogs were trained to salivate at the ringing of a bell, but his subjects would often begin to drool far earlier in the experimental sequence: approaching the experimental apparatus, when lab assistants entered the room, etc. Our own programming wakes with us in the morning and maps the day into expectations and associations. Our circuitry can be as rigid as rail lines, and neuroplasticity involves the same taxing bureaucratic nightmare of time, energy, and ego as engineering Calgary’s West LRT line. Change is hell. With sex or death being their axiomed ends, we must confront our patterns at their beginnings, especially ones as powerful as those involving ‘the paradox of choice’.

I should have visualized a game plan and anticipated my distress. It’s too late by the time I’m standing here feeling like an idiot for being so overwhelmed by freakin’ toothpaste! At this point, metacognition is my only hope. I calm my breathing and my head begins to clear. My prefrontal cortex takes charge. “What’s the worst case scenario,” I ask myself. It’s just toothpaste! And four magic words follow the analysis: “I can handle it.” I engage a new pattern and apply the retail version of my good-girl-bad-girl personal philosophy, and come home with two tubes – ProNamel and Aquafresh – and ‘spit’ my time between. What can I say? I’m now a proud personal hygiene polygamist (but hopefully not “till death do us part”)!