Apr 18 2011

Mansions of the Mind: The Key to Memory

Ever wonder what techniques “memory champions” use to remember dozens or hundreds of facts and figures, dates and historical events, names and faces and places? Would you like to have this ability next time you are at an important dinner party or company lunch and need to place names with faces? Would you like to have the mind power that enables you to save paper and trees by perfectly recalling your shopping list? It’s possible, and you don’t have to be a genius or a savant to learn how to remember things.

There is an ancient trick to memory called the method of loci whereby one remembers things by associating them with the part of the brain that uses spatial memory. You might try this with a familiar room. You have a list of things you need for work, and a route from your bedroom to your bathroom. On the bed, you mentally place a giant briefcase. On the dresser you have a ream of shredded paper. In the hallway, a huge ringing cellphone, on the toilet a stack of client information, etc. As you mentally trace the route, you can more easily recall the list. It works more elaborately with associating numbers and letters as well by combining images, and is a very effective method of mind power, a path of total recall. A numbered way of accessing information, such as saying, “in the first place” (the bed), and “in the second place” (the dresser), etc., is a remnant of this method of memory work.

Potentially, you could devise a memory mansion of the mind, a multi-roomed artifice filled with tons of associate information, all easily retrievable. The more dramatic the image is that is associated with each familiar spatial place, the more easily it is retrieved. The method of loci is a proven way to use your mind power and master your memory.

Mar 9 2011

Have You Ever Been Killed in A Dream?

In the murky netherworld of sleep, you may find yourself falling to an inexplicable demise, shot by a stranger, strangled, hit by a car, suffocated, knifed, blown to pieces, beheaded, disemboweled or otherwise disembodied; in other words, you may dream that you die. So what does it mean?

Despite the urban legend turned into Hollywood myth that if you die in your dream you will die in real life, death in dreams is a fairly common phenomena and it doesn’t always portend negative omens.  Practitioners of dream interpretation, ranging from Freud and Jung to more recent do-it-yourself gurus, indicate that waking from a dream in which you have died is the usual outcome; in fact, one hundred percent of those who have reported dying in their dreams  also woke up to find themselves among the living.

To understand what dying in your dream means, however, is a matter of dream interpretation, not of popular legend or cinematic mythology.  The answer to the question, however, may depend on who is doing the dream interpretation.

Early psychoanalytic thought beginning with Freud was revolutionary in its symbolic use of dream interpretation in understanding the psychology of the human person. For Freud, death in dreams was a direct route to understanding the sexual impetus that for him subsides in the unconscious, where it is repressed during waking hours.  So for Freud, dying in your own dream might be a sign that one is disgusted with oneself, or of shame for some act one has committed. He thought that usually death in dreams is derived from the natural desire that boys have to murder their fathers, and take their places beside their mothers, a desire strongly repressed in adult life.

Jung, on the other hand, had a more complex theory of dream interpretation that was not nearly so dependent upon Freud’s preoccupation with sexual desire.  Jung saw his own death in his dreams on one occasion to be representative of the shadow self, the ego, which had to be killed before he would ever truly reach a point of authentic self-awareness.

The art of dream interpretation, sprouting from early psychoanalysis, has lately taken a back stage to more prominent methods of therapy and self-discovery. There remains, however, some use of dream interpretation in psychoanalysis, but it is especially prominent among those who follow new age teaching, shamanic experiences, claims by psychics or practitioners of the occult, or among those who follow a drug-induced method for seeking meaningful experiences. Of these, a very popular dream interpretation of the death of oneself is the idea that it signifies an impending change. According to this popular view, the person who dreams of his own death is expressing an awareness of a new stage of development, or an impending, important change about to take place in his life.

Some who are faced with terminal illness have also reported having very pleasant and comforting dreams of their own death, which may be the psyche’s way of preparing the individual for the inevitability of that permanent change.

Mar 2 2011

The Flexible Mind

Have you ever noticed how easy it is for the mind to dwell on negative thoughts, or how hard it is for the mind to be grateful? Thoughts tend to enter the mind unbidden and to control one’s mood, and therefore one’s behavior. Anyone who has ever suffered from insomnia, or who struggles with depression, or who has to fight various addictions, knows the difficulty of controlling the influence of thoughts that enter the mind, and that in some cases seem to exert control over the whole person.

For a long time scientists, including cognitive behaviorists and others, have believed that the mind is controlled by external circumstances, or the environment.  The idea is that the way you were raised more or less totally shapes the way you think. What is happening around you controls what happens in the mind. Others assert that the mind creates various thoughts and emotions completely based on chemical processes that occur in certain sections of the brain.

More recent theories, however, suggest that the mind and the brain are far more flexible than anyone had imagined.  While both environment and genetic or chemical processes certainly are involved in the way the mind operates, or the way the brain functions, it may be that the brain is more than the passive object in the way the mind actually works. Rather than understanding the way we experience life through the mind as a direct result of what is happening in the brain, recent discoveries have shown that it is possible that the mind can influence the way the brain itself is hardwired.

In the late 1990s a scientist at Princeton named Elizabeth Gould found that the brain is more malleable than previously thought, and that new neurons and new connections could be created through learning new behaviors. In other words, rather than the mind influencing the way we act (for instance, negative thoughts creating foul moods and bad behaviors), actions could also influence the connections the brain makes, and therefore the way the mind thinks.

Another scientist named Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin built upon this discovery and found that changing the way one thinks can rewire the way the brain works. In other words, the traditional assumptions had it wrong: the brain does not, through genetics or chemical processes, have absolute control over the mind and therefore over the way we think and feel, but the mind can actually change the way the brain is wired, so that we can be less reactive to intrusive thoughts and more stable in the way we live and behave.

One of the primary methods Davidson used in his inquiry into the way the mind and brain function together was through mindfulness meditation. He discovered that the monks of the Dalai Lama generated far more gamma waves than other, average, healthy people. Those who practice meditation tend to use the mind to physically change the hardwiring in the brain in such a way that far more positive thoughts and emotions are generated than negative ones.  The implications are extraordinary. Not only is there a potential for naturally overcoming intrusive thoughts, which sometimes result in mental disorders, but also for healing Alzheimer disease and other afflictions that are rooted in brain functions.

Aug 2 2010

What Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

I don't remember if I did that or not...

I don't remember if I did that or not...

OCD is a type of anxiety disorder that involves intrusive, uncontrollable thoughts and fears that can eventually take over the person’s life. Although to others the OCD sufferer may seem paranoid or even psychotic, in most cases the person realizes their thoughts and actions are irrational, making them feel even more alienated from those around them. It’s one of the more common mental illnesses, diagnosed nearly as often as asthma and diabetes. It’s important to note that OCD is different from other compulsive behaviors like overeating, gambling or sex addiction, where the person derives at least some short-term pleasure from the behavior. OCD sufferers get no pleasure or satisfaction from their behavior, yet they find it impossible to stop. OCD sufferers may also be diagnosed with conditions like Asperger syndrome, bulimia, social anxiety disorder, Tourette syndrome or major depressive disorder, among others.

It’s believed to have biological roots, and has been associated with abnormalities with the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is thought to have a role in how the brain regulates anxiety. This sort of imbalance of serotonin may be related to abnormal brain development; it’s suspected that children who have had a Group A streptococcal infection may be more prone to OCD later in life.

What Are OCD’s Symptoms?

OCD manifests itself in a set of compulsive behaviors that give the person “relief” from their anxieties. A typical person with OCD might be preoccupied with disease, God, the Devil or germs, all things that can cause tension and give the person the feeling that their life can never proceed as normal. Other obsessions might involve dirt and contamination; the person may be frightened or apprehensive about things like household chemicals, pets, newsprint, radioactivity, and of course their own bodily secretions or excrement.

Others have sexual obsessions that they can never be rid of, or may be extremely averse to sex. An OCD sufferer knows that their thoughts, behaviors and habits are out of step with the rest of the world, which just feeds their anxieties and doubts even more.

Typical obsessive behaviors or rituals might include:

· Skin picking

· Hair plucking

· Counting, which can come into play by counting specific things (such as footsteps or floor tiles) or counting specific ways (odd or even numbers, for instance)

· Hand washing or showering

· Throat clearing or verbal tics

· Behaviors that are preoccupied with order, such as putting items in a straight line, touching objects a set number of times, turning lights on and off, stepping on only a certain color of floor tile, checking that their car is locked several times over before leaving it, or only walking up or down a flight of stairs in a certain fashion (i.e. always starting and ending on the same foot)

How did it come to this?

How did it come to this?


Hoarding is an offshoot of OCD that has come to the public eye in recent months with hoarding-related TV shows. Hoarders might think that inanimate objects (teddy bears, documents, electronic devices, anything) are sentient beings with thoughts and emotions. In other cases, hoarders might never be able to break associations between those objects and a person or a past phase of their lives, and hang onto them as “mementos” or “keepsakes.” Often this might be linked to the trauma of a death or divorce. Nonetheless, hoarding can be just as destructive and just as crippling as any other form of OCD.

Management And Treatment

The first line of treatment for OCD has always been psychotherapy (and in some cases, dynamic psychotherapy). Newer therapies, though, have involved behavioral modification and medication. Behavioral modification for OCD might involve “exposure and ritual prevention,” where the person gradually is conditioned to let go of the anxiety associated with neglecting to go through their ritual behavior. The person might touch something only mildly “contaminated,” or might check the lock on their house only once when leaving, rather than going back and rechecking it. From there, the person is habituated to tolerate their anxiety in increments (touching something a little more “contaminated,” not checking a lock at all or only washing their hands once instead of repeatedly).

Other behavioral work has concentrated on “associative splitting” to reduce obsessive thoughts. It’s a concept that encourages neutral or positive associations in the network of OCD-related anxieties. For instance, a person who is obsessed with fire meaning “danger” or “destruction” might instead be steered towards thinking of fire as fireworks, fireflies, fireplaces, candlelight dinners, campfires or other pleasant associations.

The brain chemistry involved with OCD suggests using SSRI type drugs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) such as paroxetine, fluoxetine, escitalopram or tricyclic antidepressants such as clomipramine. SSRI’s block excess serotonin from being directed back into the original neuron that released it; instead, they bind serotonin to receptors of nearby neurons, sending chemical signals that can help head off anxiety and obsessive thinking. Some newer-generation antipsychotics have been found useful in treating OCD; paradoxically, some of these drugs have been seen to cause obsessive-compulsive symptoms in patients who didn’t have OCD before.

Some experimental drug treatments have been observed to act on serotonin and neurotransmitters:

· The naturally occurring sugar inositol

· Vitamin and mineral supplements (some believe that nutritional deficiencies contribute to OCD)

· Opioids such as morphine and synthetics such as tramadol. It’s not clear exactly how these work, but they sometimes rapidly alleviate OCD symptoms

· Psychedelics such as LSD and peyote

· Nicotine treatment (again, the jury is still out on this one)

· Anticholinergics, to head off the anti-dopaminergic effects of choline

Will I ever be myself again?

Will I ever be myself again?

Although there is still a lot of research to be done on OCD, the last several years have seen significant advances. Medical science has gone a long way towards understanding the biological roots of OCD; between treating the root causes and readjusting the behaviors of the OCD sufferer, many with OCD (and many with related anxiety disorders) have been able to go back to leading a fairly normal, routine life again.