‘Thirst For Knowledge’ May Be Opium Craving

I found this the other day, and I think it explains a lot (at least for me). I’ve always sort of wondered why I’m such an info-junkie, and now I can see why. I’ve snagged the text of the article in its entirety, so you/I can read it below in perpetuity, without the danger of it being taken down/moved.

Neuroscientists have proposed a simple explanation for the pleasure of grasping a new concept: The brain is getting its fix

The “click” of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances, said Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California. He presents his theory in an invited article in the latest issue of American Scientist.

“While you’re trying to understand a difficult theorem, it’s not fun,” said Biederman, professor of neuroscience in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“But once you get it, you just feel fabulous.”

The brain’s craving for a fix motivates humans to maximize the rate at which they absorb knowledge, he said.

“I think we’re exquisitely tuned to this as if we’re junkies, second by second.”

Biederman hypothesized that knowledge addiction has strong evolutionary value because mate selection correlates closely with perceived intelligence.

Only more pressing material needs, such as hunger, can suspend the quest for knowledge, he added.

The same mechanism is involved in the aesthetic experience, Biederman said, providing a neurological explanation for the pleasure we derive from art.

“This account may provide a plausible and very simple mechanism for aesthetic and perceptual and cognitive curiosity.”

Biederman’s theory was inspired by a widely ignored 25-year-old finding that mu-opioid receptors – binding sites for natural opiates – increase in density along the ventral visual pathway, a part of the brain involved in image recognition and processing.

The receptors are tightly packed in the areas of the pathway linked to comprehension and interpretation of images, but sparse in areas where visual stimuli first hit the cortex.

Biederman’s theory holds that the greater the neural activity in the areas rich in opioid receptors, the greater the pleasure.

In a series of functional magnetic resonance imaging trials with human volunteers exposed to a wide variety of images, Biederman’s research group found that strongly preferred images prompted the greatest fMRI activity in more complex areas of the ventral visual pathway. (The data from the studies are being submitted for publication.)

Biederman also found that repeated viewing of an attractive image lessened both the rating of pleasure and the activity in the opioid-rich areas. In his article, he explains this familiar experience with a neural-network model termed “competitive learning.”

In competitive learning (also known as “Neural Darwinism”), the first presentation of an image activates many neurons, some strongly and a greater number only weakly.

With repetition of the image, the connections to the strongly activated neurons grow in strength. But the strongly activated neurons inhibit their weakly activated neighbors, causing a net reduction in activity. This reduction in activity, Biederman’s research shows, parallels the decline in the pleasure felt during repeated viewing.

“One advantage of competitive learning is that the inhibited neurons are now free to code for other stimulus patterns,” Biederman writes.

This preference for novel concepts also has evolutionary value, he added.

“The system is essentially designed to maximize the rate at which you acquire new but interpretable [understandable] information. Once you have acquired the information, you best spend your time learning something else.

“There’s this incredible selectivity that we show in real time. Without thinking about it, we pick out experiences that are richly interpretable but novel.”

The theory, while currently tested only in the visual system, likely applies to other senses, Biederman said.

* * *

Edward Vessel, who was Biederman’s graduate student at USC, is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Neural Science at New York University.
Vessel collaborated on the studies and co-authored the
American Scientist article.

This really adds nicely to my understanding of my own internal systems, in that it shows how me going out and learning things — about myself, about my world, about my body, about my brain — actually helps me get through the day. Endogenous opioids, the “natural opium-like substances” the article mentions, have a number of functions, one of which is to cut pain. They also induce euphoria. I have a lot of problems with pain — in my joints, my tendons/ligaments, my back, my neck, my head… just about everywhere you can have pain — so needless to say, life isn’t all a bed of roses for me. I’m not complaining — today, anyway 😉 — because I’ve grown accustomed to it, pretty much, and it’s just something that’s there in the background of my life.

But while I have acclimated to the pain, I’m also not opposed to a bit of relief, now and then. That relief comes to me, I realize now, when I am learning something new or I am wrapping my head around a novel concept. I really get a charge out of it — I always have — and now I understand a little more about why that is.

Fascinating stuff!

What a difference a year makes…

Well, it’s been a year, since I started this blog. It’s been a little over a year since I first came to terms with the fact that my psychological/cognitive/behavioral/emotional issues can be traced back, in no small part, to the array of head injuries I’ve sustained over the years. In a way, it was a relief for me to realize it. It was a relief for me to realize that the way that I was had a reason. That the way that I am can be explained. That I’m not the only one who struggles with this, and that I’m not the only one with the whole array of otherwise confounding issues that I have a really hard time explaining to others.

Thinking back, knowing now what I know, I’m amazed I didn’t put two and two together sooner. Then again, I had no reason to. In fact, I had plenty of reasons NOT to put it all together. This type of injury does a great job of hiding itself away. It’s the kind of injury nobody wants to have, not many people want to acknowledge, and not many people want to talk about — unless they have one. And even the people who have had TBI’s are not always able to discuss their situation clearly. Because the very part of us that grasps concepts and explores them and initiates discussion, is the part that’s broken.

Broken brain, indeed.

But at the same time, let’s not forget the amazing resilience of this organ atop our shoulders. As Norman Doidge amply illustrated in his great 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself (which was the first book that made it safe for me to consider that I had neurological challenges and really has credit for helping me to objectively and intimately explore my issues), the human brain can — and does — alter itself, modify its processes, remap its pathways, in countless, subtle ways, so that the body it lives in can continue to function and participate in the world that feeds it.

When I started this blog, it was my intention to not only talk about my life as a high-functioning, long-term multiple mild tbi survivor, but to also talk about my life as a person. As someone who is more than the sum total of their individual parts. As a person whose mind and spirit remain remarkably intact, in spite of the injuries my brain has experienced. I wanted very much to show the difference between the brain and the mind — the difference between the organ itself and that mysterious, even mystical, part of the self that reasons and directs and drives and experiences and emotes and instigates and reacts and loves and, well, lives.

I wanted to show that even if you have gotten hit on the head, been knocked out by a fall or a blast, taken a hard hit and recovered more slowly — and very differently — than expected (or desired), or you’ve wrecked your car or crashed your bike or been thrown 50 feet by an impact, you still have value as a human being, and there’s literally no telling just how much of yourself you can get back — or how much of yourself my may discover for the first time.

I wanted to put the everyday life of an mtbi survivor out there, as best I could, so people like me — who are often isolated and confused and frustrated and in some ways utterly beyond help — can have a place to see their experiences mirrored, to hear their calls echoed, to have written proof that there is someone else out there who is dealing with this very challenging, often troubling, sometimes rewarding condition in a very present, very active way.

And I had hoped that maybe, perhaps, some psychotherapists and/or doctors and/or teachers and/or folks in law enforcement might stop by to take a look at this online journal to familiarize themselves a little bit more with what it’s like to be on the inside of a broken brain. Maybe, just maybe, they might be able to learn something from reading these words that they either are too proud to ask about, or they didn’t realize they needed to learn.

It’s all but impossible to know if I’ve succeeded at any of this. I’ve gotten comments back from folks about how reading my words has helped them, or that I’ve provided a great service to others. But the blogosphere is in pretty short supply when it comes to completed feedback loops, so I just have to trust that whatever I’m putting out there is of some benefit to someone, somewhere. The only real gauge I have of my contribution is thinking whether or not it would have helped me, years before, when I was really struggling with the after-effects of my accidents/falls/other injuries, and didn’t even know where to look for help.

I figure, if I feel like what I’m writing would have helped me, it may just help someone else out there. I know that, as of this date, over 8,800 page views have taken place. I’ve approved 103 comments. Akismet has protected me from 7,560 spam comments, and the most views I’ve gotten on any one day in the last year has been 125. I’m not the most popular blogger out there, and the vast majority of people out there have no clue that this blog exists. But I continue to post, doing my best when I can. And I hold out hope that this may be doing someone out there some good.

I know it’s helping me.

Because blogging, quite frankly, is an answer to my prayers. For many years, as a kid, and then as a young adult, I dreamed of becoming a published author. I told myself I was an artist and I was a rebel… never mind that my art often had more to do with relieving the pressures of living with undiagnosed neurological issues, than contributing to the outside world. I dreamed of putting my words out there for others to read, even if it meant not making a lot of money or garnering much fame. Money is nice, but fame I’ve rarely craved — and then, only in the eyes of those I hold in the deepest respect.

As my TBI-related difficulties soured and destroyed one publishing contact after another, one professional relationship after another, I slowly relinquished my dreams of being published, and I became convinced that I was pariah to the literary world. In many ways, I was. I mean, I had some really excellent opportunities to be published, but I could never follow through or get myself straightened out well enough to make good on them. I was beyond help. Literally. And everyone who dealt with me probably thought I had deep-seated emotional/psychological issues — with good reason.

Well, today I know better, even if they don’t. Today I know better than ever where I stand, and the parts that I don’t know enough about, I’m finding out about. And today, I can sit here in my “infirmary” — a makeshift bedroom away from the rest of the household, filled with liquids and pills and tissues and steam form the humidifier — and write words that will be seen. Because I’m online. Because I have something to say. Because others find me through search engine searches and WordPress tags and links that people email to them. I can look at my dashboard and see who’s looking for what information — PTSD, TBI, temper, employment issues, pain, emotional turmoil, overcoming tbi, mental illness and brain injury, and more — and I can speak to what they are looking for. From my own experience. From my own life. From my own corner of this big, wide, incredible world where everyone is pretty much grasping for answers, about now.  I can surf tags to find out who’s talking about what I’m talking about. I can surf other blogs to see what others are saying. I am anything but alone, in these days of WordPress interconnectedness, and for once in my life, I can know that I am joined with others, through even the finest of gossamer threads. But I am joined.

One of the interesting things about my TBI experiences and after-effects
is now it both connects me with the world and separates me from it. On the one hand, like Kara Swanson says over at her blog, a brain injury can teach you a whole lot about compassion and help you extend it to people who you’d otherwise dismiss, or diss. It can humanize you (as my partner says it has me, since I really came to terms with it over the past year), it can make you more approachable in some ways, and it can make you have much more appreciation for the parts of your life that function well, in the face of so much that doesn’t.

On the other hand, it makes interacting directly with the rest of the world pretty difficult at times. For example, I keep my identity secret in this space, because I don’t have the resources to navigate the intense interpersonal demands that personal familiarity makes on me. There’s something in my brain that just short-circuits, when there’s too much in put. I also don’t do much reaching out to others (which probably limits my readership) because I run out of steam and I fail to fully sustain my connections with other people. I end up looking/sounding a bit flighty, as well I am, because I not only lose my place with where I’m at in the contacts I’ve made with people (who answered whose email last? who commented on my blog post that I haven’t yet responded to?), but I also tend to forget about them, period. There’s a reason my blogroll is somewhat limited. I forget to update it. And I forget that I need to update it. Social networking is all very well and good, but it requires a level of involvement that I simply cannot sustain. And if I try — which I have, in the past — I just screw it up, one way or another.

Oh, well…

The bottom line is, in this space, I can write. And online, others can find my writing. Perhaps not as many as I would like, but enough to bump up my stats each day. I’ll just keep plugging, try to stay true to my cause, and sustain what level of honest detail I can, along the way. In the end, even if no one ever reads this, it helps me. Tremendously. And that, in itself, is well worth the effort.

Lost to TBI: My Lifelong Love of Reading Fiction

One of the things I have progressively lost over the past several years since my tbi at Thanksgiving, 2004, is something I never, ever thought I’d part with: my love of reading fiction.

I grew up reading and loving to read. My parents were — and still are — avid readers. Especially fiction. My mom leads the way with fiction, but my dad is usually not far behind. He’s more partial to personal accounts of adventure and exploration, but he still goes for fiction at times — preferably with a moral to it. Mom doesn’t care whether there’s a moral or not. So long as it’s a book, she’s happy.

So was I. I always shared my parents’ love of books, especially fiction. I grew up with my nose buried in a book, and I actually learned more about life and language and what it means to be human from books than from real people and events. I adored fantasy fiction. Stories about ordinary people in extra-ordinary conditions. Short stories, long stories… novellas and novels and epics (I used to love James Michener, especially). I would tear through books, when I was kid, like a starving kid with a sack full of Halloween candy. Many of my favorite books I’ve read over and over and over again, not caring if I recognized the plot and knew how it ended. I just loved to read!

Until the past few years, that is. Since my fall down the stairs in 2004, this has changed dramatically.

Now reading just about anything that’s over 10 pages is a chore. It’s difficult for me to do. What was once effortless when I was younger, has become very time-consuming and resource-intensive. I really have to work at following the sentences and words and remembering, from one chapter to the next, what’s happening.

It’s disheartening and frustrating, and it embarrasses me. It didn’t used to be like this. But now it is.

I try to carve out time for reading, but I always seem to get pulled off to something else. I get distracted and I cannot finish what I start. Or, I try to read while my partner is watching t.v.,  but I cannot focus, and I get very upset with myself.

I check out lots of books from the library (on impulse) with every intention of reading them, but I only get part-way into them, before I either get distracted or I get overwhelmed with the information, and I have to step away

I tend to forget I have a certain book on hand, then I’ll remember that I have it and get excited and start to read it… but I won’t finish it, because I get overwhelmed with the details, I lose track of what’s going on, and the disorientation ruins whatever soothing effect the book might have for me.

My friends and family, knowing the old me, give me books for the holidays and my birthday, but I can’t get through them. I feel awful because they really want to give me presents I’ll enjoy, and they want to share their experiences with the books with me, but I can’t manage to finish them, or even read enough to hold a decent conversation with them. I might enjoy having the books they give me, but I often cannot seem to bring myself to read – it’s too frustrating and disheartening. My home and my study are full of books I’ve only partly read.

Nowadays, it’s very seldom that I’ll actually finish a book I start, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Every once in a while, I’ll manage to complete a non-fiction book about something that affects me personally. Fiction is pretty much out of the question for me. I become highly agitated by the characters’ experiences and choices, and it’s uncomfortable for me to be subjected to their drama. I become impatient with them and cannot sustain an interest in anything that happens to them. Non-fiction gets my juices flowing, but I often get turned around and can’t keep the facts straight, and I end up confused and frustrated and down on myself. Even topics I used to love and authors I used to read voraciously, hold my attention for only so long.

Because my attention tends to wander (if I lose interest or I lose my “info buzz”), I try to stick with higher level research, since it holds my attention and really stimulates me. I do a lot of research on the internet – medical, especially. With the world wide web, I can bookmark (or save) the pages I’m reading and come back to them later. I can print them, too, for future reference, which is important to me. Although, after I print them out, I often forget that I have them, and I’ll end up printing out multiple copies of the same article that really excited me when I first found it. My hard drive is my saving grace. Having copies on my computer reminds me where I’ve been and what I’ve been reading, and when my bookmarks get to be too much to sort through, I can look at my carefully organized hard drive folders and see what I’ve already got in there. Then I can make a note that I don’t need to save another copy.

I still love to read… some things, anyway. I stick more with magazine articles and research papers and web pages. And even with them, I often need to go back and re-read them. It’s not that I don’t understand them. I do! I just get the facts and figures turned around, and I need to refresh my memory and make sure I understand what’s in them.

This is a huge loss for me. Or, rather, it would be if it still meant something to me. Nowadays, I’m happy just to get through the day without a major catastrophe. Reading — which used to be a necessity I could not survive without — has become a luxury for my leisure time… whenever I have it.

I have started an art gallery to explain my tbi experiences

In the course of working through my tbi issues over the past year, I’ve realized that words alone aren’t always the best way to communicate what’s going on with me. I grew up in a very verbal household — both of my parents are avid readers, and I was often found with my nose in book. I never thought of myself as an artist — my younger siblings were the “artistic” ones. I wrote stories and I focused more on words (perhaps because the act of hand-writing uses parts of the brain that are related to impulse control, and I instinctively new I needed to develop that part of my brain).

What I didn’t realize (till my mother told me within the last year) was that as a child, I had a very advanced visual “intelligence”. I drew pictures as a young kid that incorporated elements that weren’t usually seen until later in one’s development. In some ways I was a prodigy… but I think that changed, when I started to have head injuries… so that my skills and abilities were hidden behind the difficulties I had, and they were not actively developed.

In the past year, I’ve found myself drawing and painting A LOT. And I’ve found that when I draw and paint, I am actually better able to think about certain things, than if I just use words. I’ve also found myself remembering events from my life that had escaped me for many years. There’s something about the color and shapes that triggers my memories. And it also brings up a lot of emotion.

I’ve started an Imagekind Gallery (tbi-survivor.imagekind.com/art/) where my artworks can be found. I only have one piece up there, right now, and it shows how I see my back yard. But there will be more coming.

I’m pretty excited about this new development — both as a way for me to express myself and show the world I live in, and to help educate people about what it’s like to live with the after-effects of mild traumatic brain injuries.

Imagekind offers prints of my work on paper and on canvas. I hope you’ll pay a visit.

%d bloggers like this: