The lost art of joy – Joy blindness

Light at the end of the tunnel …

Joy is a ubiquitous human experience, almost an innate function of the human brain.

Joy is a bit like vision for the soul.

Writing an entire months worth of blog posts on joy, then, is a little writing series of blog posts on art appreciation. The readers of a blog on art appreciation will be able to see the art, the blog helping them to better understand the art. The vast majority of people who will be reading these blogs on joy will be able to experience joy and (hopefully) the posts will help them better understand joy.

But what happens if you can’t experience joy in the first place? What about those people who have ‘joy blindness’, so to speak?

As I’ve been writing this blog every day, I’ve been mindful of those people who struggle to experience joy. For the most part, growing joy in our life is related to our actions or decisions, such as learning acceptance, aligning our direction in life with our values, forgiving ourselves and others etc. Hence why I have been exploring these concepts in my blogs thus far. But there are some people who will read these blogs and say, “But I’ve tried to do all these things, and nothing has worked. I want to experience joy like everyone else but all I have is sadness, anger, loneliness, mourning … I must be doing something wrong … it’s all my fault that I can’t experience joy … I don’t deserve to be happy.”

Remember yesterday when I talked about the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues who estimated that that intentional actions can contribute as much as 40% to a person’s feeling of happiness, where as circumstances could only contribute 10%? In their estimates, our genetics contributed to the other 50% of our overall happiness. Yesterday I made the comment that, even allowing for the generous estimations that were used to come to those final numbers, our actions were of much greater importance in our overall level of happiness than our circumstances.

But there was a second point to come out of the work of Lyubomirsky et al, that our happiness is related to factors beyond our control more than it is related to factors within our control.

For the vast majority of people, our genes, the biggest contributing factor to our joy, work fine. But there are some people whose genes do not work the same way, which makes them much more vulnerable to the effects of circumstances or personal actions. These are the people with major depression, who do not feel joy like the everyday person. There may be sources of joy all around them, but try as they might, they can not perceive it. They have ‘joy blindness’.

Depression is an abnormally low mood for an abnormally long time. Major depression sucks. Major depression is not just letting yourself feel miserable. So often, those without depression think that those with depression are weak, malingering, or wallowing in child-like self-pity. Despite the enormous strides in mental health education and awareness that have been made in the last couple of decades, there’s still a strong current of stigma that flows through our society, adding an additional barrier to improvement for anyone living with or recovering from depression.

Depression affects a lot of people too. About one in ten people will suffer from an episode of major depression in their lifetime.

There’s a lot of good and easily accessible information already available about depression, from organisations like Black Dog Institute or Beyond Blue. I’ve also written about depression and Christianity (Part 1 and Part 2). I don’t want to try and repeat all of that information here.

Rather, I wanted to say just a couple of things. Firstly, if you’re suffering from ‘joy blindness’ – if you long to experience joy in your life but all you feel is sadness, please don’t blame yourself or beat yourself up. It’s not your fault.

And you’re not alone. The depth of despair is so lonely, so isolating. But there are others out there who have gone what you’re going through and have come out the other side. And there are people around you to help you through – whether they’re friends, family, or professionals who can help, like your GP or a psychologist. Those suffering from depression benefit from specific counselling, or talking therapies, and occasionally those suffering from depression might need medication to assist them in their recovery.

For most people who suffer it, ’joy blindness’ isn’t permanent. It’s more like walking through a long dark tunnel rather than being trapped in a cave. If you can keep moving forward, you will eventually get through the other side. I know it’s hard, because I’ve been there myself. I know that in the middle of the tunnel, it feels like there is no end, that you’ll never experience joy again.

The key is hope. Hope keeps us moving forward. If you can keep moving forward, you will overcome the joy blindness of major depression and you will experience joy again.

Don’t lose hope, and you will experience joy again.

If you are struggling with mental illness and you need urgent assistance, please talk to someone straight away:

In Australia:
Lifeline ~ 13 11 14
BeyondBlue ~ 1300 22 4636 or https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us
Suicide Callback Service ~ 1300 659 467 or https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

USA:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ~ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

New Zealand:
Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline ~ 0800 543 354

UK:
Samaritans ~ 116 123

For other countries: Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.

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The lost art of joy – Forgiveness

Even suits like this can be forgiven …

Fun movie fact – The phrase “Revenge is a dish best served cold” was first said, in those exact words, in the Star Trek movie, Star Trek II, The Wrath of Kahn in 1982.

Revenge is one of the most classic of all movie plot lines. According to the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Criminology, there are over 1000 catalogued films that are specifically “revenge” films. It sort of makes sense … imagine if the protagonist was decisively wronged, and instead of embarking on a convoluted scheme of vengeance, they just got on with their lives. Cue theme music, roll credits, yawn … not a particularly exciting movie.

And lets face it, we like movies with a theme of vengeance because no one likes being maligned or abused. It’s human nature to repay wrong with another wrong. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. If you hurt me, natural justice is fulfilled if I make you feel the same pain in return.

Revenge might make for a good movie plot, but does it make for a good life? As the old proverb goes, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” If you hurt me, hurting you back doesn’t make my pain go away. It just adds more pain to the world, because I’m still in pain and now you’re in pain. Then you’ll want to hurt me back, and the cycle escalates.

Francis Bacon said, “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.” In other words, you may be able to bring about retribution, but during the process, you’ll end up keeping your own wounds open and festering, instead of letting them close and heal. It’s like someone cut you with a knife, and in order to show them what damage they did to you, you keep reopening the wound every few days. The wound may look open and fresh should they ever care to notice, but you’re the one who had to put up with an open wound for an extended time, and re-live the pain every time you reopened it.

Douglass Horton wrote, “While seeking revenge, dig two graves – one for yourself.” Vengeance rarely ends well.

Interestingly, research has shown how the desire for revenge can affect you mentally and physically. One study showed that when subjects were asked to think of reacting aggressively to a given scenario, parts of the limbic system in their brains increased in activity. This isn’t unsurprising, given that our brain subconsciously prepares us all the time for fight or flight responses when it starts to sense danger, in preparation for possible action.

What was more interesting is that angry rumination also reduced the activity of the subject’s frontal lobes as well, which is really important for reasoning. So it might be that reasoning is disrupted by anger, and that rehearsing angry and aggressive mental scenarios shuts down the brains problem solving approach and calm emotions.
The other alternative to nursing the grudge is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a particular form of acceptance. It’s the act of moving on from insult or injustice. It isn’t saying that what was done to you was ok, but rather, that you aren’t going to be held captive by it.
There have been lots of studies looking at different aspects of forgiveness, but without getting bogged down in details, forgiveness helps to rebalance things. People who forgive habitually tend to also have lower blood pressure, while individual acts of forgiveness and lower hostility predict lower stress levels, which in turn predicts lower self-reported illness. The reduction of negative affect (a “bad mood”) was the strongest mediator between forgiveness and physical health symptoms, although the study authors noted other variables such as spirituality, social skills, and lower stress also had a role in the forgiveness-health relationship.

Forgiveness is a complex psychological process, but it is primarily built on acceptance, another practical example of the serenity prayer. Forgiveness involves letting go of those things that can not be changed. You can’t change the past. Old wrongs will still be old wrongs, no matter what happens to the perpetrator in the future.

Like so many examples of acceptance, by letting go of the old hurts, you free up room for new joy. You’re no longer bound by the painful past, which means you can move forward into a joyous future. In this sense, think of revenge and forgiveness in terms of gifts. Specifically, those awful gifts that you accept under obligation from distant relatives. You know, stuff you might get from your great aunt, like a pair of festive Christmas crocs three sizes too small, or a Meowy Christmas suit and tie. Imagine your great aunt accidentally got the decimal place on the order form wrong and she sent you 1000 of them, making your house look like Santa’s workshop on acid.

Revenge would be keeping all 1000 pairs of Christmas crocs and Meowy Christmas suits in your house, waiting for the chance to show your great aunt what a terrible thing she did and how she’s filled your house with ugly Christmas-themed draff. Forgiveness is to send it all back to the manufacturer, every single last croc and tie, so that once again you have room for what’s important to you.

I don’t know if there is any one particular method to forgive. Apologies help, but they aren’t necessary to be able to forgive someone. Sometimes people find actually saying the words “I forgive you” to be a powerful release. That can be to a person directly, although that may not always go down so well. Saying it internally is valid. Sometimes writing it in a letter, and then tearing it up as an act of finality, can be useful.

This Christmas, if you’re hanging on to the festive crocs and Meowy suits of past hurts, let them go and fill your life with joy instead.

Post-script:

I understand that talking about forgiveness can bring up some deep and difficult feelings in some people. Just like physical wounds, some traumas are shallow and heal quickly, but others are inflicted so deep that they are hard to heal, like rape, childhood abuse, domestic violence and other deep psychological insults. It’s important to clarify here that memories of such traumatic events often intrude into your conscious awareness, where it takes over and replays in your memory. That’s different to unforgiveness and rumination, which are memories that we foster and encourage by actively rehearsing them. Forgiveness is still a part of the healing process of severe psychological trauma, but the healing process may take longer, and the process of finding that forgiveness may require a professional to help walk through the process. If you’ve been the victim of a severe trauma, you don’t need to go it alone. Find a psychologist or talk to your doctor if you’re not sure.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the shotgun approach

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 8.39.28 pm

“It has been collectively demonstrated by researchers around the world that just about every aspect of our brainpower, intelligence and control – in normal, and psychiatrically and neurologically impaired individuals – can be improved by intense, efficient, organised and appropriately direct mind training … thank you Jesus.”

Sounds impressive doesn’t it.

Unfortunately for Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, grandstanding does not equate to authority.  It’s all very well and good to publish broad, sweeping generalisations, but it’s like firing a shotgun at a cork from thirty paces.  Sure, you might hit your target, but the scatter pattern of the ammunition misses more times than it hits.

If Dr Leaf wants her statement to be taken seriously, then she needs to do a couple of small things.
(1) Reference her statement.  This should be fairly easy if “researchers around the world” really have demonstrated the power of mind training.  To sum it up more effectively, perhaps Dr Leaf could cite a meta-analysis that proves the value of mind training.
(2) Stop confusing the mind with the brain. This is the biggest problem with her statement. The mind does not control the brain.  If Dr Leaf produced any references in support of her statement, they would be along the lines of training or retraining the brain, not the mind.

It may seem trivial, because most people think the mind and the brain are the same, but they’re two distinct things.  Old psychological therapies were based upon the notion that fixing your thoughts was the key to improving your mental health, but this notion is now outdated, considered part of “Western folk psychology” [1]. By using the concept of “mind” and “brain” interchangeably, Dr Leaf confuses the issue for the average person trying to come to grips with modern science.

I’d be grateful if Dr Leaf could publish some evidence to support her claim, because I’m unfamiliar with research showing that things like intelligence can be improved with brain training. Sure, there’s good evidence for the improvement in the damaged brain with specific physical exercises – it’s one of the primary tools in Rehabilitation Medicine. There is also good evidence for psychological therapies such as ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, in improving mood amongst other things [2, 3]. Though I’ve read a recent meta-analysis of multiple studies that suggests “brain training” for working memory offers minimal benefit which is not maintained and not transferable across categories [4], which means there’s no proof that “brain training” improves intelligence.

In future posts, I hope that Dr Leaf provides something more accurate instead of grandiose shotgun statements.

References

  1. Herbert, J.D. and Forman, E.M., The Evolution of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Rise of Psychological Acceptance and Mindfulness, in Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy. 2011, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 1-25.
  2. Harris, R., Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Psychotherapy In Australia, 2006. 12(6): 1-8 http://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/Dr_Russ_Harris_-_A_Non-technical_Overview_of_ACT.pdf
  3. Harris, R., The happiness trap : how to stop struggling and start living. 2008, Trumpeter, Boston:
  4. Melby-Lervag, M. and Hulme, C., Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Dev Psychol, 2013. 49(2): 270-91 doi: 10.1037/a0028228

 

Bad choices cause brain damage?

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  Alexander Pope.

I’m not perfect.  At least, not the last time I checked.  And we’re all the same, aren’t we.  We all know through experience that we all stuff things up on a fairly regular basis.  We make bad choices.  We’re human!

Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist, believes that these bad choices literally cause brain damage.  Her fundamental assumption is that our thoughts control our brain [1: p33].  These thoughts can be healthy or they can be toxic.  Toxic thoughts “are thoughts that trigger negative and anxious emotions, which produce biochemicals that cause the body stress.” [2: p19]

Dr Leaf’s assumption is that thoughts and bad choices cause our brain cells to shrivel or die. “Once your body is truly in stress mode and the cortisol is flowing, dendrites start shrinking and even ‘falling off’” [2: p32].  She also says that, “We have two choices, we can let our thoughts become toxic and poisonous or we can detox our negative thoughts which will improve our emotional wholeness and even recover our physical health.” [2: p21]

It sounds a little extreme.  We all make bad choices, and we all experience stress.  When we’re stressed, do our memories really go missing, or the dendrites of nerve cells shake and fall like tree branches in a storm?  If we make a bad choice, do we really get brain damage?  Lets see what the scientific literature has to say.

Imagine walking along a path in a forest and you see a snake, only inches in front of you on the path.  What do you do? When faced with a high level of acute stress, the brain switches into a binary mode – fight/flight or freeze. Self-preservation has to kick in.  The only decision you have to make then and there is whether to run, to try and kill the snake before it kills you, or stop dead still and hope that the snake ignores you and slithers away.

At that point, most memory is redundant, as is a high-level analysis of snake species, or any other cognitive pursuit.  The brain doesn’t need them at that precise moment.  If they did engage, they would just get in the way.  Switching the thinking parts of your brain off focuses your attention on the immediate danger.  It’s an adaptive survival response.  Meantime, your memories and your theoretical knowledge about snakes don’t disappear.  They are still there, unchanged.  It is false to suggest that the memories “shrink”.

We’ve all experienced “mental block”.  Sometimes when we get into a situation, like an exam or a business meeting, our stress levels are high, and binary mode kicks in again, although this time it can be a hindrance.  This phenomenon of mental block under high stress was first proposed in 1908 and is currently known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a fundamental principle of the behavioural sciences [3].  Similar to the stress-productivity curve, Yerkes and Dodson proposed a U-shaped curve to represent the relationship between arousal (which could be either level of consciousness or stress) and behavioural performance.  At low arousal, there is poor performance.  At the mid-point of arousal, there is peak performance, and at high arousal, performance diminishes.

But again, our memories don’t shrink, and our nerve cell branches don’t fall off.  Once we reduce our level of arousal, we move away from the fight/flight/freeze mode, and everything is still there (and we perform better, according to Yerkes-Dodson).

Dr Leaf has a favourite analogy of “neurons as trees”.  And if neurons are trees, then the branches can “fall off”.  But neurons are not trees and dendrites are not tree branches.  The dendrites do not ‘fall off’ the neuron.  The neurons in the brain have mechanisms for ongoing brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt to the challenges and changes in its internal and external environment that are constantly occurring.  If the brain needs to build a new circuit to encode a new piece of information, then it grows new dendrites and creates new synapses.  But the brain is limited by the amount of energy it can consume, and therefore the number of synapses it can maintain.  So the brain trims unnecessary dendrites, a process called “synaptic pruning”.

Synaptic pruning is a normal process. Chechik and Meilijson confirm that, “Human and animal studies show that mammalian brains undergoes massive synaptic pruning during childhood, removing about half of the synapses until puberty.” [4]

Synaptic pruning is not deleterious, but beneficial.  Chechik and Meilijson also note that, “synaptic overgrowth followed by judicial pruning along development improves the performance of an associative memory network with limited synaptic resources.” [4] So synaptic pruning is a normal physiological process, and occurs in all of us for many reasons, predominantly to improve the efficiency of our neural networks.  Perhaps synaptic pruning associated with the stress response is also an adaptive process?

Synaptic pruning also occurs in other physiological states that have nothing to do with stress or thought, such as the effects of oestrogen during the menstrual cycle and at menopause [5, 6].

A link between stress and dendrite loss has been discovered, but it is not consistent.  Some authors like Kopp and Rethelyi suggest that “severe stress for a prolonged period causes damage in hippocampal pyramidal neurons, especially in the CA3 and CA4 region and reductions in the length and arborization of their dendrites.” [7] However, Chen et al writes, “Whereas hippocampus-mediated memory deficits commonly were associated with—and perhaps result from—loss of synapse-bearing dendrites and dendritic spines, this association has not been universal so that the structure–function relationship underlying the effects of stress on hippocampal neurons has not been resolved.” [8]

It’s more accurate to think that chronic stress causes dendritic remodeling in animals [9], in which some nerve cells prune their synapses, which others grow them, and energy is diverted away from new nerve cell formation to the new synapses that are needed to cope with the stress.

A number of scientists have pointed out that patients with depression or anxiety, who normally have high levels of stress, have a smaller hippocampus and larger amygdala, so stress and depression must cause the smaller brain regions [9].  There may be some reduction in the number of synapses within the hippocampus and the frontal lobes of the brain, which may account for the change in size observed by a number of researchers.  But the modern thinking on these changes is that they are associated with depression, not caused by depression [10] (Correlation does not equal causation).

So, stress is associated with depression, but this is because genetic defects in one or multiple genes reduce the ability for the brain cells to produce synaptic branches.  It’s this decrease in the number of synapses that contributes to the typical changes in the brain seen at autopsy of patients who suffered from depression or anxiety [11].  The reduced ability of the nerve cells to grow synapses means that new branches can’t grow fast enough to process the stress signals properly [11, 12].  The poor signal transmission leads to a predisposition towards mood disorders like anxiety and depression [10, 11, 13-15], and less synaptic branches means both a smaller volume of the hippocampus, and an inability to process stress signals leads to a larger, overactive amygdala.

In summary, synaptic pruning is not due to toxic thinking or bad choices, unless every one of us engages in nothing but toxic thinking from early childhood to puberty, and menopause causes bad choices and toxic thoughts.  Stress doesn’t cause dendrites to fall off, but causes a reorganization of the dendrites to adapt to the new signals. The reduced capacity to form new dendrites makes those prone to mood disorders more vulnerable to stress, and depression or anxiety is the end result.

We are all bound to make bad choices and to have stress.  They don’t cause brain damage.  Which if you’re not perfect like me, is good news.

References

1.         Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan

2.         Leaf, C., Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. 2nd ed. 2009, Inprov, Ltd, Southlake, TX, USA:

3.         Cohen, R.A., Yerkes–Dodson Law, in Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology, Kreutzer, J.S., et al., Editors. 2011, Springer Science+Business Media LLC: New York ; London. p. 2737-8.

4.         Chechik, G., et al., Neuronal regulation: A mechanism for synaptic pruning during brain maturation. Neural Comput, 1999. 11(8): 2061-80  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10578044

5.         Chen, J.R., et al., Gonadal hormones modulate the dendritic spine densities of primary cortical pyramidal neurons in adult female rat. Cereb Cortex, 2009. 19(11): 2719-27 doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhp048

6.         Dumitriu, D., et al., Estrogen and the aging brain: an elixir for the weary cortical network. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2010. 1204: 104-12 doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05529.x

7.         Kopp, M.S. and Rethelyi, J., Where psychology meets physiology: chronic stress and premature mortality–the Central-Eastern European health paradox. Brain Res Bull, 2004. 62(5): 351-67 doi: 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2003.12.001

8.         Chen, Y., et al., Correlated memory defects and hippocampal dendritic spine loss after acute stress involve corticotropin-releasing hormone signaling. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2010. 107(29): 13123-8 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003825107

9.         Karatsoreos, I.N. and McEwen, B.S., Psychobiological allostasis: resistance, resilience and vulnerability. Trends Cogn Sci, 2011. 15(12): 576-84 doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.10.005

10.       Palazidou, E., The neurobiology of depression. Br Med Bull, 2012. 101: 127-45 doi: 10.1093/bmb/lds004

11.       Karatsoreos, I.N. and McEwen, B.S., Resilience and vulnerability: a neurobiological perspective. F1000Prime Rep, 2013. 5: 13 doi: 10.12703/P5-13

12.       Russo, S.J., et al., Neurobiology of resilience. Nature neuroscience, 2012. 15(11): 1475-84

13.       Felten, A., et al., Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain Behav, 2011. 1(2): 109-18 doi: 10.1002/brb3.20

14.       Bradley, R.G., et al., Influence of child abuse on adult depression: moderation by the corticotropin-releasing hormone receptor gene. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2008. 65(2): 190-200 doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2007.26

15.       Hauger, R.L., et al., Role of CRF receptor signaling in stress vulnerability, anxiety, and depression. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2009. 1179: 120-43 doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05011.x