We are at war. According to what we hear, we are being assaulted on all sides – depending on whom you believe -- by the virus, climate instability, immigration, government mandates, fascism, screens, economic collapse, transgender sexuality, big tech, and more.
Of course war is an old, tired metaphor. It leads me to wonder: how do stories we tell affect the way we act?
In The Idea of the Brain, Matthew Cobb describes the evolution how we understand the brain. Whatever is the most recent technology provides the metaphor. So these days, we think the brain is most like a computer. We would find a description of our nerves as a telegraph system quaint and limited. The metaphor in each era is a heuristic, a short-cut we use to describe complexity. But the short-cut leaves out important details, such as the important ways that our brain is not at all like a computer.
It’s an evolving story, and the way we think about things has implications. Phrenology, the notion that the shape of your head indicates things about you, seems silly now, but the concept – with its inherent racism -- was widely considered valid by many in the 1860s, people as different as Queen Victoria, and Karl Marx. Motivated by a similar story and around the same time, seeking justification and evidence of racial superiority, Paul Broca discovered that damage to one area of the brain affects language faculty. It is an important discovery. Yet it’s an uncomfortable artifact of the history of science: hateful and ignorant motivations have led to knowledge.*
Stories can lead to insight. They can also be wrong, and limit our understanding. Rene Descartes was apparently so impressed by automatons, the moving figures he saw in the French Royal Gardens, that he decided our nerves form a system of pipes under hydraulic pressure. This seems absurd to our modern sensibility. But there are more insidious effects of his impact on our story about human mental health.
His 1641 work Meditations popularized mind-body dualism, the idea that thought and substance are distinct. Humans may have an intuitive tendency to think in these terms, but this appears to be not only inaccurate, it’s also harmful.
This series of studies suggests that priming ourselves with dualism or physicalism (understanding everything as physical) influences our health choices. In particular, participants primed by reading about mind-body dualism made less healthy choices than participants encouraged to think of the mind and body as interrelated. Simply reading the story impacts behavior.
The distinction rooted in dualism between mental and physical health also has implications for how “mental health disorders” are viewed. The body is considered a material, “real” substance, while maladaptive behavior is often seen as caused by immaterial issues of the mind. This leads to shame, discrimination, inadequate treatment, and “contributes to the growing stigma of mental health disorders compared with physical health conditions.”
The stories we tell are important. In a study of children who survived a serious accident, researchers found that children who were old enough to talk, who could verbalize the accident at the time it happened, were more likely to remember accurate details of the event. Our stories help us to understand and remember.
An enduring inspiration for me has been hearing EEGer neurofeedback clinicians tell the stories of your work. I love to hear how you started, how you learned, your challenges, mysteries, and successes. The story of this combination of training the brain using technology and the therapeutic relationship is compelling.
Interacting with people who are new to neurofeedback, one of the most common questions for years has been: “why have I not heard of this?” This story is changing as people learn more of the history of EEG biofeedback and applied neuroscience, read the research evidence, and take in the impressive outcomes. The story of all this work is part of a bridge, a bridge to better self-regulation, to better awareness of historical traumas, to communities that address mental health with autonomy and empathy. Together, we can strengthen that bridge.
*Our age has seen a dramatic rise in antiscience – so at the risk of being obvious for someone working in (and inspired by) neuroscience and engineering – I want to be clear that the solution to this troubled history is not abandoning critical thinking and empirical research. To address these issues, scientists – and the larger society – must actively address long-standing problems of power, representation, and ethics.