'Learning' Our Way to Mental Healing

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Watching and hearing Eleanor Longden talk about her experiences of hearing voices may, for many of us, feel both odd and familiar. I am a neuroscientist, but first, I am a person living my own human experience. So I found myself thinking how often, in the course of life, these things we call thoughts and emotions appear, unbidden, from some recess of our minds and make themselves known to us, as if "we" are not quite the same as everything going on in our "conscious" and "unconscious" brains. Many of us, at some time or other, may even have had the experience of hearing a distinct voice, a parent or coach, speaking to us. Eleanor's voices seemed more coherent and more separate, but might they not be on a continuum of states of mind that we all have? When should society (namely us) view this form of internal experience as a disease, instead of a rare, but acceptable, part of life?

Ms. Longden offers the fascinating idea that a structure for understanding her voices as features of her personality, and conducting a diplomatic dialogue with these other features, is a manageable way of learning more about her hidden fears and accepting and rejoining these parts of herself. She was able to take this path to reunifying her mind, differentiating reality from delusions, and rescue herself from a fragmenting world of medication, stigma and abuse that fanned the civil war in her head. This extraordinary accomplishment has helped her reunify herself, love rather than fear herself, and freed her to achieve her potential as an individual. She tells us that more and more people are coming to view their voices, though unusual, as pieces of themselves to be nurtured and understood as part of their inner healing.

In my research, we study something called "synaptic plasticity." This is what happens when one brain cell communicates strongly with another through electrical and chemical activity, and the connection between them, called a synapse, persistently changes its strength. Sometimes this connection gets stronger, sometimes weaker, depending upon the type of shared communication between just those cells taking part in a particular experience. We think this process happens when we form and store long-term memories, but it may also be key to how our personality, the essence of our identity, evolves. It is the web of connections and their strength, like an Internet social networking web, that makes each of us the unique person we are, and determines how we behave as we navigate through our life experiences. This dialogue between what goes on "out there", and how it shapes our connections "in here", is how our lives shape us, like topiary shapes a plant by pruning some branches and lengthening others.

In the future, rather than medications that dull and suppress both voices and personality, I see the possibility of medications that more subtly and gently modulate the tendency of connections between neurons to form, strengthen and weaken. -- Patric K. Stanton

So, could such plasticity result in multiple networks of connections distinct enough that they can talk to one another as if they are distinct individuals? If so, such a perception would certainly be a disconcerting experience, especially if the people around one have not had this experience and view it as a symptom of disease. The history of the terribly intractable nature of the behaviors and "civil war" in the mind we associate with the stigmatizing word "schizophrenia" is what led one of Ms. Longden's doctors to say that she would have been better off to have cancer, as the chance of a cure would be greater. It may be that the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Modern medicine has generated a set of medications with powerful, unpleasant side effects, whose goal seems to be the suppression or eradication of these voices.

Ms. Longden's powerful sharing of her experience reinforces the view that I and other researchers are developing, that the functional plasticity of the brain, it's ability to reprogram itself, may be far more vast than we suspected. In the future, rather than medications that dull and suppress both voices and personality, I see the possibility of medications that more subtly and gently modulate the tendency of connections between neurons to form, strengthen and weaken. Combining these with the kind of diplomatic therapy than Ms. Longden has discovered, could empower those encountering a unique experience to unite their voices like the individual instruments in a symphony that, together, create a harmonious, beautiful experience for them and us. Reassembling one's identity may be as challenging as unraveling and re-spinning a spider web strand by strand, but Ms. Longden's story shows that it is possible. Pairing the potential of new drug advances with harnessing the power of thought to modify the communication paths in our brains could be a strategy that will someday enable us to "learn" our way to mental healing.

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