How are you today? When is the last time you answered that question honestly? It may be true that strangers don’t care about our problems, but our stiff upper lips can hide painful truths from ourselves. Sometimes, the best way to deal with the worst of our feelings is to throw the spotlight on them. This blog will do exactly that. It will take the troubles of a typical human mind, and place them center-stage. By studying each of them with careful attention, we can learn what really makes us sick and what really makes us tick. Originally, I planned to write all of this in a book. But I recently realized it just fits much better in the free and open world of the internet. So I hope this gives a few extra people the opportunity to enjoy it.
It’s about time we treated our minds with the same respect that we treat our bodies. We all accept the value of a healthy diet and exercise plan in keeping physically fit, but practically all of us are confused when we consider mental wellbeing. The brain is our most complicated organ, but rather than shy away from it, we need to try harder to find solutions to our emotional gripes and cognitive weaknesses. Each of these blog posts will present evidence from neuroscience and psychology, all geared towards improving some quality of our mental lives. Unsurprisingly, there are no quick fixes. But for everything from setting the right goals and mindsets, to making the best decisions, there are strategies that help, and strategies that don’t. We are all dysfunctional, but we are far from helpless. Suffering in silence is no longer an option.
What is the mind?
Kyrie is a fitness freak. He goes to the gym every other day, and focusses hours of effort on obsessively lifting grimace-inducing weights and travelling imaginary distances on running machines. His attention is dedicated almost entirely to ballooning the size of specific muscle groups and developing the cardiac efficiency of a hibernating bear. He is acutely aware of why he is spending so much time on this mission, and others rarely feel the need to ask about his motivations for this savage activity. He obviously wants to enjoy a strong and healthy life.
We all value our bodily health and agree that physical exercise is critical to fitness. New year's resolutions usually proclaim “I will join a gym!”, “I will quit smoking!”, or “I will eat salads more often!”. We care about looking good and staying away from the dreaded doctor’s waiting room. Whether we’re lacing up our running shoes for a jog in the park, or reading through a new low carb/low calorie cooking recipe, we want to know we are doing something to try and slow the inevitable decay of aging. We accept that our bodies are vulnerable constructions. Every cut, bruise, and burn reminds us of the need to be a little more careful with the miraculous flesh and bone holding us together. So health is certainly a priority. And yet, despite all of our efforts geared towards healthy living, we neglect one of the most important bodily functions we have: the mind.
So what exactly do I mean by the mind? You’d think it should be easy to define, but no. People see it and study it in their own peculiar ways. I’ll try to nip this in the bud right now, at least in the context of this blog. When I say ‘mind’, I use it synonymously with internal subjective experience; basically how you think and feel. When we think about an old romantic partner, feel melancholic about the loss of a friend, recall the cannons in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture (or the clapping in the Friends intro music), or consider what our lives will look like in 20 years, all of these experiences play out in our mind.
Physical bodily pains such as the discomfort of a broken finger are also experienced in the mind. But we are generally good at treating these by targeting the source of the pain (the broken finger), rather than its experience (the mind). It is more sensible to bandage a finger until it recovers and the experience of pain disappears, rather than keeping the finger broken and trying to remove the pain we experience in our mind. But with many of our other everyday emotional pains and bad thinking patterns, we rarely find a single finger to bandage. The sources of our problems are more abstract and less easy to pinpoint. Why am I more anxious about my career today compared to yesterday, even though nothing seems to have changed? Why aren’t my creative juices flowing as I work on this project, even though they seemed fine in the shower this morning? Should I remain in this long but now unhappy relationship with my partner? Why do I feel so lonely? Why can’t I keep my attention where I need it right now? These are the problems that plague the mind, but we usually have no idea what to do with them. So we ignore them, leaving them standing in the background of our mind like a herd of ruminating cows, and we cross our fingers hoping the cows go away on their own.
Some of our biggest unknowns related to the mind arise from our failure to intuit how the brain creates perceptions and experiences that all feel like something. We know a lot about the separate pieces that make up the brain, but less about how the pieces fit together to create a conscious functioning person. If the brain were a jigsaw puzzle, it would keep granny occupied until the end of time.
Diseases of the mind
I’ll stop talking about what we don’t know soon, but further unknowns surround the question of what an unhealthy brain really looks like. It is relatively easy to spot and diagnose diseases of the heart or liver because they are simpler organs with straight-forward mechanics. But it’s much less easy to discern problems in the brain and mind. With some major neurological problems like strokes or severe brain traumas, it is easy to see that something is wrong. Dark patches on the brain where blood flow is limited or a lesion after a car accident provide a clear signature of damage. But how do we spot the subtler issues we suffer from? In particular, how do we know when we are thinking straight or thinking poorly? When problems arise at the level of specific neural circuits and activity patterns, it can be impossible (at the moment) to pinpoint malfunction within the vast tangled web of microscopic brain wiring. We do not yet know what to look for, or whether it could even be called malfunctional if we found it. Unfortunately, the everyday psychological challenges that most of us endure lie at this level. Our limited knowledge about what goes on at these levels leaves us confused around concepts like ‘mental fitness’ or ‘psychological wellbeing’. It also adds a layer of skepticism towards any mission to improve mental states in people we consider healthy (i.e. people lacking any obvious disease or diagnosable disorder).
Perhaps for this reason, many of us struggle to take emotional or experiential difficulties seriously. Mental health is facing an uphill battle in trying to achieve some equivalence to physical health. For example, depression patients the world over deal with people earnestly asking why they can’t “just be happy”, but cancer patients rarely get asked why they can’t “just stop the tumor cells multiplying”. The disparity is a little ignorant but not entirely stupid. If we adopt the right mindset, we can be confident that our moods, thoughts, and behaviors will improve; it is just difficult to find and stick to that mindset when all you can see is a world of pessimistic grey. Indeed, even cancer patients might benefit from adopting a more positive mindset, but it would be pretty heartless and counterproductive to tell a cancer patient to “cheer up”.
Misinformed questions and a lack of empathy are not the only problem. We should be just as wary of excessive sensitivity about the effects of psychology. If you suggest to a friend suffering from some kind of pain that “perhaps your issue has a psychological component you can work on”, you might well be met with a gaping mouth of horror, as if you have accused them of fakery, being crazy, or “not having a real problem”. In everyday conversation, both too little and too much sensitivity are an agony to behold. Only with a sufficient level of openness and realism will we properly appraise the conditions of our mind.
Compared to the attention we pay to keeping our bodies healthy, we spend relatively little energy keeping our minds healthy. When something goes sufficiently wrong, we might decide to see a therapist, but often the problem has become too big to easily resolve, and our problems may stretch beyond even the best therapist’s expertise. Why do we treat our minds so unfairly? Well for a start, the concept of ‘mind’ is far less tangible than ‘body’. We can define it like I did earlier in relating it to the phrase ‘subjective experience’, but we still can’t exactly pick it up and give it a shake. We can see and touch the body. It all makes perfect sense. We’ve hunted other animals for millions of years, and we see what happens to them when their skin is punctured and their hearts stop beating. The mind and its vulnerabilities remain more personal and elusive. Some people verbally equate it with the ‘brain’, in an effort to simplify the problem. After all, the brain is made up of physical biological tissue, just like the heart. But this misses the mark. Of course the brain and its interactions with the rest of the body produce the mind, much like the heart produces a beat or the vocal cords produce a voice. But this does not make the organ and its product the same thing; we can still distinguish between them and it is useful to describe them individually. It is helpful to talk about what a voice sounds like, but not what the vocal cords sound like, and in the same way, we can helpfully talk about features of the brain and mind as distinct but inextricably linked objects.
Another group of people give the mind far too mysterious a status. They elevate it to an immaterial force separate from the body, rather like the souls and spirits that many of the world’s religions describe. Naturally, this also does little to help us understand its functions and foibles in a way that relates to physical health. To be clear, all the evidence we have strongly suggests that the brain directly produces the mind; to talk about them separately is not to acknowledge any supernatural theory for the mind. We do not know everything about human bodies and experiences yet, and we are always learning. But this is no excuse to accept all manner of bizarre theories as equal in quality. Some ideas are more reasonable than others, and we can only judge them based on the best evidence we currently have. Starting along the route of “science doesn’t know everything so maybe I am right” leads us down a rabbit hole where we need to accept the possibility of literally anything: vampires, leprechauns, Apollo, Xenu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, invisible space poodles, and anything else that you, I, or the kids next door make up.
For now, we can reasonably assume that the brain and body are biological machines that evolved to produce the property of mind, and this mind helps us successfully navigate the world today. Throughout this book, I will talk specifically about that biologically adapted product of mind, but if you want to be my friend, don’t accuse me of believing in supernatural spirits or souls. As a neuroscientist, I will of course talk about the brain frequently, but I will also regularly describe and discuss the mind without immediate recourse to explicitly describing what some neurons happen to be doing underneath it. It is not delusion, fantasy, or New Age self-help to talk about curing and enhancing our minds (ok, maybe ‘curing’ is going a bit far). Mental wellbeing is about having the capacity to be regularly happy, calm, quick-thinking, eager, reflective, confident, diligent, attentive, and generally feeling good. It’s about maintaining a range of diverse subjective experiences that are positive for our health, productivity, and quality of life.
In the next post, I will lay out exactly what I mean by ‘mental wellbeing’. You might be thinking “where the hell is all the stuff about improving my mind?”. Sorry, like I said, there are no quick fixes.
Next blog post: What is mental wellbeing? Wow, just WOW.