Tuesday, March 30, 2021

A few new musings about pain and brain

Sometimes several stray disparate thoughts come together and have a party in my mind and won't leave until I try to make sense of how they may relate to each other by writing them down. 

Anything I've ever read about how the brain works, I come away with an image of how the brain never is still, how it waves like the ocean, has currents, states of activity that although they may vary, never actually cease. 

Until we die. 

And anything I've ever read about consciousness is how it fluctuates, dims and brightens and dims again, naturally, all by itself, about every 90 minutes or so. This pattern is also seen in sleep studies. 

So, bear in mind, this is where I am coming from in this post: I see my conscious awareness of myself as a self floating like a bit of flotsam in an ocean of brain activity. I do not regard my brain as belonging to me: instead, I see my"self" as belonging to it. 


I have a book open at all times, even if the only time I ever read a hard copy book is in the bathroom. I do not use a smartphone while in there. 

It has taken me ages to read through "No Self No Problem" by Chris Niebauer, but I got all the way through it and decided to read it again. It's a short small book, paperback, easy to pick up and lay face down again without closing it. Does not take up a lot of counter space. 

Good thing I decided to re-read it:
On page 50 he writes (in chapter 3 about pattern-seeking); "There is some evidence that neurotransmitters affect our pattern-perception capability. Because of this, it is important to note that the two sides of the brain differ in terms of their neurochemistry." He points to a reference, Tucker 1984. So I looked up the reference: Tucker, D. M., & Williamson, P. A. (1984). Asymmetric neural control systems in human self-regulation. Psychological Review, 91(2), 185–215. 

Whoa. This was news to me. Totally missed that first time through. 

To continue, page 50: "The left brain is dominant for dopamine, whereas the right brain is dominant for serotonin and norepinephrine. There are many functions associated with dopamine that range from the euphoria of falling in love to the movements of the body. Since the 1950s it has also been thought that schizophrenia is the result of too much dopamine. One of the hallmarks of schizophrenia is seeing patterns that are not there, that is to say, hallucinations." 

I immediately thought of Anil Seth's TedTalk about the predictive brain and the software he used to simulate hallucination. 

I put the Tucker and Williamson title into google scholar, papers since 2017, and found this nice gem: Large-scale neural networks and the lateralization of motivation and emotion.  There are many more, over 6000. 

All this echoes what I gleaned ages ago from reading A.D.Bud Craig's work on lateralization of interoception. I took detailed notes from a video in which he explained to a group of Swedish neuroscientists about laterality and brain function. Please read through my notes, or just watch the video. So informative! 

It also echoes a recent journal containing articles all about interoception and self. 



Pain is known to rob people of their sense of self. 

So, I wonder, what if pain is about some weird deficit of some neurotransmitter, maybe just on one side, which would normally just inhibit pain naturally, but if it's not there, it's like a window, the blinds of which block out blaring sun have been removed?  What if pain is not a "thing," but rather absence of some "thing"? Some veil that should be there so we do not have to experience too much of our own interior milieux? Our own interoceptive sensory input? 

I learned a long time ago that the brain was full of inhibition, that in fact what it mostly does is inhibit itself. One side inhibits the other side and vice versa. Both sides rostrally inhibit brain parts that are more caudal. A great big inhibition machine. [NOTE: Back in here today with an edit, something I forgot to mention yesterday - if this is true, then this might be why SRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors) help with pain... and might have something to do with that idea about the right brain being dominant for serotonin.  Maybe SRIs help the right brain inhibit the left brain better. Just a thought, and very undigested at this point, but might have something to do with something.]

I remembered Robert Sapolsky discussing POMC, the precursor molecule that is terribly scarce, made by only a few cells somewhere in the hypothalamus or somewhere, so it's "expensive" from a neurotransmitter perspective, goes to make many other molecules including stress hormones and endogenous opioids, the possibility being that too much unrelenting stress could deplete supply and chronic pain problems could arise more easily. Here is a video of that discussion

Remember the idea that the brain is always busy, always moving, always waving like the ocean. 
There was recently a conversation on Facebook about sleep paralysis. It had started going into psychologically deep, potentially mystical explanations about the meaning of dreams and so forth. 

I recalled an episode of sleep paralysis I had had, where I dreamed I was fastened to the front of the cowcatcher on a train, heard the roar of the train, woke up terrified and unable to move anything, but finally managed to roll my eyes a little, a small volitional movement but enough to wake up the rest of me. I proposed that it was no big deal, that sleep paralysis was just one bit of brain waking up ahead of some other little bit of brain, sort of the opposite of sleepwalking where one part stays fast asleep while other (motor) parts awaken and fully act out whatever dream state is happening. Squeezing eyelids or moving eyeballs is how I figured out as a child that I could move out of a nightmare. 

The brain is not a monolith. It's an evolved organ with plenty of old parts, not just new parts. It's a kluge. It's like the sod shack on the prairies that was simply encapsulated by newer bits until from the outside you see what looks to be a multi-story mansion but if you enter, in the middle of the basement you'll find the old sod shack still in existence and still functional. Nature doesn't usually get rid of anything. If it can't repurpose it, it will just let it sit there like the appendix. (Except it did get rid of tails on us human apes. But I digress.) 

Locus coeruleus ("blue spot") in the brain stem, with only 10,000 cells on each side, is the bit supposedly responsible for arousal and attention focus. It also wakes us up in the morning. It squirts noradrenalin or norepinephrine all over the forebrain. It also squirts it down into the spinal cord which, lest we forget, is still central nervous system and is like the sod shack that was built first before all other improvements came along later. LC wakes up that circuitry as well, is very connected to the sympathetic nervous system which also inhibits ascending nociception at spinal cord levels, very handy if you are a creature all scratched up, fighting for its life inches from the jaws of another creature. 

Apparently, LC does not secrete synaptically but rather hormonally, by squirting into extracellular space. How cool is that?  It can activate way more neurons that way. 

From https://thebrain.mcgill.ca/

So many arguments on Facebook are about whether pain is sensation or perception. I would argue that if chronic pain is a sensation, it's likely going to be interoceptive. And if it's interoceptive, there will be a lot of neurotransmitter involvement and hemispheric cooperation/failure to co-operate, failure to inhibit, maybe opioid deficit somewhere. And if the "I" illusion in there can't feel itself as "normal" because of a very unpleasant sensation, that is going to be a very unpleasant perception of a very unpleasant experience. 

1. Tucker, D. M., & Williamson, P. A. (1984). Asymmetric neural control systems in human self-regulation. Psychological Review, 91(2), 185–215.

2. Tops, M., Quirin, M., Boksem, M. A. S., & Koole, S. L. (2017). Large-scale neural networks and the lateralization of motivation and emotion. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 119, 41–49.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

One year of Covid, down. A terrible dream.

This time last year I stopped working. I dithered for a while and retired from my practice for real in May. Have barely left the house for a year. 

But this post isn't really about that. It's also not about the possibility that may open for me to record my workshop with the help of Little Ox videographers right here in Sask. and the dopamine hit I got from that, and not about the correspondence that has ensued as a result; it's not about the half-mile walk I took yesterday home from the service garage where my car awaited a battery check and oil change; it's not about the notice I took of how rusty my legs felt walking after a year of not walking. 

Mostly it's about me, how easily the dopamine hit turned into anxiety, and how my suppressed anxiety came out in a crazy dream:

So, it's the end of summer. I'm revving back up again. Why, I do not know... anyway, I rent a venue here in Weyburn (a venue which does not exist in real life). It's big and cheap. On the first evening, it is well attended, a good thirty people. Too late, I realize that it's an L-shaped room, which means that people in one chunk of the room can't even see me let alone see any slides. Furthermore, there are no snacks or drinks or chairs or tables. I get through it and am so bummed out by my utter failure at logistics that I oversleep the next morning, until 10AM! Good grief. Nothing like adding insult to injury, arriving really late to my own event. I get to the venue and do my best, but there is chaos. No one pays any attention. Next door there is a music event happening, and as if there wasn't enough chaos, it turns out that there is no wall between the groups! So I lose a lot of people to the music venue. I don't even make it halfway through the second day when I realize I'll have to return everyone's fee. Then I realize that oops! I didn't even collect any fees to start with! What a complete disaster with only me organizing it. 

I don't know what to make of the dream.
It was quite sickening to get through. I was glad to wake up. 
I actually did sleep several hours longer than usual, about 10 and a half. Must have been all the unaccustomed exercise. 
I suspect one part of my brain was trying hard to communicate with another part and couldn't get through. 
Meaning? Maybe it means I should a) do more walking, and b) learn to rely on other people again. 

Monday, March 01, 2021

Still COVID times: More thoughts about "power"

My last post was on this same topic.
Today on Facebook I saw a post by a former cult member who freed herself a long time ago and now tries to free others, who posted a pice about gurus who exploit the underlings in their cults, and a critique by a commenter about how gurus like to be in the "moment," possibly so they never have to think about all the "moments" they have done rather unholy things to their followers. I was moved to comment on this myself. 

"If we don't take on the responsibility of integrating ourselves and being our own "leader" we will always be trapped in a conceptual hierarchy/patriarchy and be vulnerable to exploitation because of that.
I get it. I've dabbled but have never succumbed.
(--------) pointed out that we are mammals. I'd like to take that a step further - we are primate mammals. Primates don't survive without a troop. And troops are usually dominated by some alpha. This is awfully hardwired into our brains, so much so that it is almost a default.
Add to that the fact that our prefrontal cortices, the decision-making executive parts of our brains are not fully online until we are into our third decade! So we HAVE to rely on socio-cultural management until then. And by then we are in the habit of going along to get along, filled with yearnings to be "free." And we are sooooooo enculturated to put ourselves beneath others. That behaviour in and of itself perpetuates frickin' hierarchies.
So, thus is a hierarchical frame of mind created and perpetuated.
The good news is, once we learn to work our own brains we can reframe our perspectives and realize that we can live in a way that we almost never have to deal with hierarchy, by doing as (-------) suggested, adopting a scientific view on everything. What that means is, confronting and eliminating bias and other human foibles. We can do this because our brains are human (yay!) and we do NOT have to stay inside the mental cage we grew up in and were socialized to believe is reality. We really CAN "create our own reality" with just one member, our self, and one guru, our self. (Both of which are fictional categories by the way, but stick with me here for a second: that's what brains do - they like to make categories. At least the left hemisphere does.)
The task is to integrate your own brain, both hemispheres. Put yourself first, but not ahead, and not behind, any other self out there roaming around on the planet.
You have just as much right to breathe oxygen as any other living breathing mammal on the planet, as long as your life span lasts, until it's time for you to go back to being the way you were before you were born.
Anyway, once you do that, you are free to see yourself as an independent interactor/operator in the world, and you won't be tempted to project helplessness on some father figure (usually a father figure, sometimes a mother figure). You will be "free" of being possessed by archetypes (ideas of humans planted in you by the culture you grew up in), "free" to see yourself rather as a node of human intelligence moving through life, trying to do no harm, trying to be a helpful individual, trying to get through life honestly and ethically, no better and certainly no worse than any other node. We are all just nodes, highly intelligent nodes, interacting, inside ourselves and outside ourselves. On the same level. Sometimes through roles. Sometimes we place others into roles that are special, and have names, like "president." And bear in mind it's the *role* that is special, not the person who occupies the role for awhile. The hierarchy of governance is supposed to be fluid with the persons who occupy the roles being interchangeable. Until an exploiter comes along. But if you have made yourself cognitively nimble you will also be politically nimble enough to see that possibility and avoid the consequences by choosing who you vote for.
But I digress.
If you decide to be your own guru, voila! internalized hierarchy vaporizes and you're no longer vulnerable to exploitation by anyone, including yourself." 

I would add, this is our superpower, our secret weapon, our kryptonite against hierarchy - this power we all/each have to think for ourselves. 


The commenter talked about how gurus like to talk about being in the "moment."
"Same old patriarchal spiritual bypassing nonsense we have been hearing and reading for centuries. The gurus love to fixate on the "moment", so they can never be held accountable for the things they did in previous "moments." They love to preach forgiveness so they don't have to apologize for their actions. They love to disparage gossip, so no one can ever talk about the things they do behind the scenes. They love to vilify anger, so that no one gets righteously angry at them for their abuses of power. They love to obsess over silence, so no one speaks their truth. They love to elevate stillness, so that no one ever moves into action against them. They love to deny the significance of the human "story", so that humans don't tell the story of what they did to them. They love to deny the truth of pain, so no one talks about how the guru wounded them. They love to bash the ego, so no one is egoically strong enough to stand against them. The guru game. The "avoida" movement. Stop wasting your time godjectifying these hustlers. Masters of self-avoidance masquerading as enlightened masters." Jeff Brown.
This is sooooo much the current Republican party of Trump, worshiping their dear leader, taking pictures of the gold statue of him at their convention. This is sooooo much Trump exploiting the crowd. A crowd whose dopamine only flows when they listen to him, their guru. A crowd who gets off on a standing wave of dopamine bolstered in their midst by staring at him and calling back to him as though they were in a revival meeting. Call/response. I am concluding that "right and left" has no real meaning in political terms. Instead, it boils down to:
  1. Blinkered vs. unblinkered.
  2. Ethical vs. unethical.
  3. Obstructive vs. progressive.
  4. Hierarchical vs. non-hierarchical.