Pure Speculation

At long last science has figured out that the brain is not generally hardwired and unlike a computer, it rewires itself constantly. What you think matters for thinking (cognition) is the mechanism for programming and language and imagery are the primary, although perhaps not the only mechanisms, for cognition. I cannot quite figure out how quirks enter the picture, but it is clear that our instincts, hunches, ‘gut’ feelings (all I which I label quirks) play a role in our thinking as well1.

As far as thinking processes, it seems that only two criteria exist to help us develop our thoughts and both are based upon experience2. The first is association – ‘this is like that’ and the second is utilityThe most basic definition of utility that I have found is the narrow one associated with the nineteenth-century utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham: that utility is ‘the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain’. Obviously if ‘this is like that and that was painful, I will avoid this the same as I would that’ – got that?

From these two variables limited only by epigenetic rules [e.g., we only see a limited part of the electromagnetic spectrum], each neonate creates a compendium of experiences based on innumerable stimuli that leads ultimately [between the ages of four and seven years of age] to the creation of a theory of meaning. If my compendium has been more painful than pleasurable, I will probably develop a theory that the world is hurtful and I may even become somewhat paranoid and have a core belief that the world (or at least the people in it) is out to get me.

What this means, of course, is that I have developed a brain which has neural networks sensitized to look out for danger and if this makes me stand out to other people, they may, in fact, support my theory by a) avoiding me or b) threatening me (in self-defense, of course). Social life is, of course, interactive even if the cause and effect are complex.

Like most theories, the theory creator is reluctant to change it although they may adjust it now and again. Our confirmation bias, however, leads us to tend to stay on course, for good or bad. Of course this is not necessarily a bad thing, it would be awful to meet a person who changed theories and therefore personalities every day. Not likely to have many friends, for we could not predict what they might do next, and we like things to be predictable.

Now, if you have followed this so far and don’t have enormous negative reactions, you must stop to realize that none of this personal theory of meaning could be considered to be ‘true’; depending, of course, on how you define ‘true’. This theory and the core beliefs about self, other people and what they think about you, and future prospects are all rooted in experiences in the real world, so they have some approximation of reality – at least your reality. But your reality could not possibly be the same as someone else, even someone very close. Even if all experiences were the same, the interpretations would be different. My sister and I, two years apart, describe our upbringing totally differently. How can this be? One wonders how important the FIRST decision is – if I believe the first experience to be negative, how does that skew the second one. And it might be important to point out that neonates who are abused often turn out better than those who were neglected for the contact itself can be interpreted as caring.

But now we get to the really interesting stuff. Your theory of meaning is based on your experiences (all sensory) and your interpretation of those experiences (e.g., you are blindfolded and your hand dips into very cold water and you respond as though burnt – interpreting the sensation wrong). Thus, IF we could change your experiences OR your interpretation of those experiences, you would have a different compendium of reality and therefore a different theory of meaning.

We can develop changes in neural networking with cognitive interventions when we help you re-examine your beliefs and develop alternative ‘balanced and rational’ thoughts about them. We then habituate the balanced and rational thoughts creating new neural networks that are highly sensitized by the habitual usage and become the predominant automatic thoughts in our ongoing monologue. This is the logical process of creating new pathways for cognition.

But there are non-rational ways of creating pathways as well. Neurolinguistic Programming pioneered in some of these with their ‘swish’ patterns of changing what they call submodalities or as traditional psychologist would call qualia – meaning the elements of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Their methods count on a very interesting aspect of the brain – its stupidity in a way – for the brain cannot tell the difference between looking at a person and imagining looking at a person. The same electrochemical activities go on in both cases. Since this quirk of the brain is true, you can change beliefs, by changing the qualia in your imagination.

Are we getting a little mystical and magical here? It is probably going to get worse. More and more information is coming out about the plasticity of the brain and how to change it.

I have been working with kids with autism lately and in my usual contrarian’s way, I have been speculating on the ‘state of the art’ use of classical [radical] behaviorism. It is not that I am against behaviorism; the Law of Effect is clearly a scientific and provable fact. However, I often ask the question of the clinicians: “At what point do these kids perceive themselves as different?” For once the child perceives him or herself as different, s/he must ask the question: “Is this a good thing or bad thing?” – e.g., is this utile? The answer to that question has significant impact on the child’s theory of meaning or reality, and impacts on their ability to socially interact in meaningful ways.

This is not to demean the actual neurological limitations that may exist either because of biology or toxins, but it implies a secondary problem in living. Now we must grant that a child who does not communicate verbally at all is very difficult to serve with traditional cognitive interventions. But now a new suggestion arises. To quote from an internet article3

God does not make mistakes.

If something can be damaged it can also be repaired, be it the skin, the bone, a toenail, or the brain. Repair modes are ready to proceed in any part of the body, naturally and with an amount of external help proportional to the severity of the damage. If the toenail can repair itself spontaneously, why can’t the brain do at least as well?

A severed nail will grow back on its own, and patience is the only requirement to achieve the task. A small crack of the skull will repair itself with only patience and calm, requiring only that no infection come and impede on the process.

A large wound of the skin will demand stitches, not to repair the skin but to maintain the skin in perfect position while the stem cells do their work. In a few days the bandage will be removed, the stitches cut off, and the skin will be perfectly reattached. Neither the stitches nor the bandage fixed the wound, but the repair process took place thanks to them, and the stem cells were able to fulfill their mission.

If the mild crack of a bone repairs with time, a full break of a long bone requires a cast, and sometimes screws and plates. The role of the screws or the cast is to maintain the bone in place while the stem cells slowly and surely reconstruct the solid bone back into one solid piece.

The cast does not repair the bone; the cast protects the bone and allows it to repair itself.

Only the brain can fix the brain.

There cannot be any way other than a cautious and natural prompting of the brain to mend itself in order to remove the painful symptoms and develop abilities and functions. There cannot be a better way to recover perfect brain vitality and activity than the way nature intended. To achieve this we must invite the inner mending strategies to take place at the brain cell level.

Okay, I will ignore any debate about God and ask the question, “How does the brain heal the brain?” The article then changes into a discussion [promotion] of MAPS [I don’t know what the acronym stands for] and quite frankly I was intrigued. Two elements that are suggested, the first for example: olfactory stimulation – smelling something very pleasant every two hours – is predicted to have a healing effect on the brain. We know that smells can evoke memories and I suppose that what we believe is a pleasant smell can evoke a pleasant memory and this process can be very relaxing and relaxation is incompatible with stress and stress is clearly a belief4 or interpretation of the situation.

So if I cannot teach the autistic child relaxation techniques, would I be helping him/her by identifying a pleasurable smell and using it – even as a reinforcement? It fits with my thinking up to now and it is benign – is it worth a try?

Another technique “is designed to stimulate primarily two touch receptors at the end of each finger: cold and warm. We present an ice cube to each finger, then a warm spoon to the tip of each finger.”

The idea is to present strong, easily identifiable signals to a part of the body that is the furthest away from the brain.”

Again, the process is benign and may help the child become better aware of his or her body and the space it occupies, often such body awareness is a difficulty for children on the spectrum.

Does any of this work? I am a skeptic, I don’t really believe in anything. But clearly the cognitive behavioral management approach has earned some scientific merit and while my reading [including as it does Neurolinguistic Programming] stretches the boundaries of the science, the MAPS approach seems based on at least my accepted principles5. This is the creative approach to nonverbal cognitive interventions that I have been looking for to use with kids on the spectrum and certainly the only two examples are quite benign.

I suppose the problems will arise when the approach challenges the ‘state of the art’ classical behaviorism, which on first reading, I believe it does. For while the extreme of classical behaviorism – such as discrete trial – insist on forty hours a week of repetitive intervention (by the way meeting the classic requirement of habituation and rewiring of the brain) it does not allow the brain to relax.

I am a great believer that we are creating idiots with the constant requirement of ‘noise’ everywhere we go (e.g., loud music in elevators and restaurants, I-pods, cell phones, radios blaring, etc.) and recommend complete quiet, even though I have never mastered meditation – I think it is probably a good thing. So I am inclined toward the MAPS concept of letting the brain slow down and relax. But that is a bias, so we will have to be cautious about it.

Nonetheless, I will want to learn more about this MAPS program and perhaps, with parental permission, try some of the benign techniques6.

1 As a sidebar, I am convinced that the some word should be invented to include the entire body as a thinking mechanism. The brain cannot function without the body. The skin is the body’s contact with the real world and helps the brain develop body awareness and spatial relations. The old sci-fi story of the isolated brain in a jar would house a non-functional blob – at least in my opinion.

 

2 This does not deny that there are certain epigenetic rules that help this process along.

4 All stress is internal, not external. What is stressing to one person is not necessarily stressful to someone else. Pressure can be applied [I can hold a loaded gun to your head – but it is your thoughts about what will happen that creates stress. An infant child without knowledge of guns or a Buddhist master would probably not be stressed.

5 Those are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others. – Groucho Marx (1890-1977)

 

6 In pursuing more information, I came across scathing criticism based on the fact that the founder is not what she presents herself to be and that she implies support from neuroscientists who never heard of her. However, I am presently reading the book “Brain Repair’, 1995 – great book – which substantially verifies the idea, if not the actual choices of techniques, of the MAPS program. Perhaps you need to come up with the specific techniques. 

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