Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thinking Our Way to Well

This is my fourth post that reports on a lecture on personality and wellness by Robert Cloninger MD two weeks ago at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting in San Francisco.

The first three pieces:

What the Hell is Well-being, Anyway?
Who the Hell Are We?
Breaking Down Personality

We left off with the proposition that although personality is heritable and stable, we can change. To pick up ...

Change is a very nonlinear dynamic process. We tend to maximize our strengths to move in more positive directions. By contrast, if we deteriorate we tend to maximize all our weaknesses.

We are shaped by the interactions between our genes and environment, and our self-awareness (a uniquely human trait) allows us to modify our environment. So what happens when we grow up in a hostile home environment?

Dr Cloninger cited a Finish study that followed 3,600 kids from birth to adulthood. Among other things, the findings showed the effects of growing up with parents who were either overly strict (tending to bring out anger and novelty-seeking) or overly neglectful (tending to bring out anxiety).

An angry or anxious individual is going to be restricted in reacting to his environment. This is because if you get the limbic system, the emotional brain, all charged up and defensive "you shut off reasoning."

(Have you ever tried to reason with someone who is angry or anxious?)

Brain imaging studies amply demonstrate the over-reactive limbic system at work, but the same body of research also shows activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). A 2001 study that Dr Cloninger was involved in demonstrated a correlation between heightened left dorsal medial PFC activity and and those with high "self-directedness."

Translation: The thinking parts of the brain can transcend the emotional brain. Instead of blindly reacting or engaging in avoidant behavior, well-adjusted individuals evaluate what is going on inside them.

So - how to engage these recently-evolved rational parts of the brain to mobilize change? Okay, take a guess: How many thoughts do we have per second?

Answer: Ten, as in ten thoughts a second. Try snapping your fingers as fast as you can - your thoughts are going way faster. What's remarkable is that when a person has a new thought or looks at something from a new point of view, "ALL the connections in the brain shift just like that."

So we're not sending messages by neurotransmitters down highways. Rather, we are going from Point A to Point Z in the brain. (Think quantum change.)

Below is a diagram of how the internet was connected in 1999. We are looking at long tracks that connect local networks.

There is another property. Complex adaptive systems operate like nonlinear thermodynamic systems. "Stable State A," for instance, may be okay, as everything nearby is worse. But "Stable State B" (that manifests a gain in potential energy) is where you want to be. But activating the energy to get from A to B tends to involve perturbations that initially makes one feel worse.

"You have to go through this valley of tears to get there, and that's painful."

Psychiatry tends to be focused on "keeping people close to their local optimum," in other words at Stable State A.

Development is a spiral, Dr Cloninger told his audience. You can spiral up or spiral down. You need to seize on your strengths to get through your pain.

Hold that thought. More later ...


Evan said...

I think sometimes change is linear - with ups and downs eg acquisition of a new language's vocabulary.

I think the perturbations in some situations may be pleasurable too - if the stable state is unpleasant. If we take easy steps sometimes change be a pleasure all the way (though I don't think that this is always possible).

Looking forward to the next in the series.

John McManamy said...

One of my readers had difficulty posting her comment. She requested I post this for her:

"Hi John. I actually understood that entry! LOL!

I'm definitely familiar with the spiral up or spiral down effect. Living proof. Been both ways. The hardest part is turning the direction of the spiral, but once it's done, the spiral is fast - either way.

I look forward to hearing more about what Dr. Cloninger said about this. Thanks for reporting."


John McManamy said...

Thanks, Evan. Now you really did it - you got me thinking. More later ...

karim said...

An insightful post

Karim - Positive thinking