The popular press is awash with neuroscience, now to the point that some authors are becoming ‘anti’. We need debate, so hats off to those contributors who rightly ask questions. We should never sit back and accept a ‘fact’ but instead, test, test, test. Despite this fresh discussion, we do accept that the brain has a great deal to do with our experiences of life.
A single centre for consciousness has not been identified in the brain and is not likely to be discovered. Instead, our unique sensory and emotional experiences are created by vast, interconnected networks of brain cells, maintained and influenced by immune cells that populate the brain and spinal cord. The pain matrix theory of Ron Melzack is a great example of such a functioning network. From these networks emerge feelings, thoughts, movements, senses and pain to name but a few. Where we actually experience these emergent properties can vary enormously, although one could argue that the role of the brain is to create the most biologically appropriate experience for that given moment and context.
Recently, Mick Thacker and Lorimer Moseley wrote a brief paper discussing the idea that pain is emergent. This is a relevant and sensible calling upon philosophy to help us explain pain to patients at a time when there has been a trend to suggest that the brain is at fault. Indeed we need a brain to feel pain — see Lorimer talk here — just as we need a brain to see and hear, but how helpful is this to the patient with back pain? Even if they grasp the concept of the pain neuromatrix, to suggest that the pain is coming from the brain can be a challenging leap. Preferable is the explanation that pain emerges from the body but there is a significant part played by a widespread web of neurons and immune cells in the brain and spinal cord; this requiring a careful description to give meaning to the individual.
To take this a stage further, one could argue that a depressed state underpinned by ruminating thoughts is emergent from a network of neurons within the brain, yet often felt deep within the body in a multitude of unique ways––visceral. The heaviness of thought is usually reflected within the physical self via posturing, movement and gut instinct. Our minds that exist within the brain networks––who knows where––stream with thoughts that are occasionally useful, frequently the same, and always driving bodily responses. The brain does not discriminate between thinking about being somewhere and actually being there; a similar response ensues. This can be wonderful if the memory or thought cultivates the tape of a happy time. How often does this happen in comparison to a train of worrying or troubling thoughts? Especially if one’s mood is low, the impact of a negative situation or comment is far greater. This is the dark side of the brain’s creation of our multisensory experience; seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking.
The depths to which one can slip or drop are seemingly endless. It does appear modern life is contributing to this endlessness as the figures on depression rise. Perhaps it is the expectation that we should be happy, with all the convenience of immediate service and advancing knowledge, yet there is greater striving for this state. Bookshelves are packed with self-help books, Facebook and Twitter saturated with quotations about how to think positively, and the growing industry that is life coaching all pay homage to the fact that we are not achieving as ‘alchemists of joy’.
Where neuroscience can make a contribution is to give us the understanding of the mechanisms that can be translated into practical tools for everyone. There have been numerous steps in the right direction with some great discoveries that inform; for example: the similarities of physical and social pain (e.g. rejection, isolation), neuroplasticity, the way in which immune cells prune synapses, communication between the gut and the brain, and mirror neurons (a deliberately provocative inclusion — see here) to name but a few.
The idea that experiences are emergent from a neuronal network influenced by many factors including epigenetics (the blend of genetics and experience), is a very credible way of thinking about how we can re-shape our thinking, feeling selves. The basic neuroplastic characteristic of our neuroimmune system, or the ability to learn, means that by creating the right conditions with the right understanding and individualised strategies based upon fact, we can cultivate change. This does not preclude the use of medication or other medical interventions but this alongside sensible and wise action based on sound science to move us into the light.
** Please note that this is not an exhaustive discussion of either depression or neuroscience but rather an observation. I am aware that this may trigger thinking and discussion that are both welcome in the hope of advancement.
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