Often it is a relief to get an understanding of how we have developed a psychological problem, and it is especially good if we can feel that there is a reason for the problem that it is understandable. When I suffered from a phobia, it was a relief to understand that I probably had linked fear to an insect when I was a child. And it was even more satisfying when I understood that there was nothing wrong with my brain — that the problem was in what I had experienced. It was in my “software.”
This blog is about using the difference between hardware and software to understand that psychological problems may exist in perfectly healthy brains. Maybe some of you think it seems frightening to compare the brain to a computer, maybe almost as scary as thinking of chemical imbalances. The difference is that this is your computer and only you can program it. You can get help from a therapist, but finally only you can do anything to your “programs.” Just like the most beautiful art can be created with a computer, so can the most beautiful spiritual experiences arise in our wonderful brains using the “software” of our minds.
Often when I have therapy sessions, I finally understand complicated things that I have been thinking about for a long time, and often the solutions are quite simple. The other day, I was trying to explain OCD to a man who had an urge to analyze a memory over and over again.
One explanation for this problem is that we all have this tendency to think through important things many times, and that he was just doing it a lot more than me. And then I got the AHA-experience that I want to share today.
What we think about our brain is very important. If we are told by a person in authority that we have a biological brain illness that will just get worse, and that we have to take drugs that make us into fat zombies, it is understandable that many see suicide as the only solution.
When we then read that “scientists do not know what causes schizophrenia or depression” we may wonder what they are trying to do by telling us we have a brain illness that they don’t know anything about.
Scientists in all fields use metaphors to explain. Freud used the steam engine as a metaphor for the mind: Pressure builds up and it has to be released. He used this to explain aggression. Since he thought of the mind as a system of steam that could get released in various ways, he got many ideas of how pressure in the subconscious needed to be released in different ways. Research has later shown that the steam engine model was wrong for aggression: if you let it out — blow off your steam — you actually become more aggressive.
In Freud’s time the steam engine was about the most advanced machinery on the planet. However, the world has evolved and we now have more advanced machines that we may compare the brain with.
Thomas Insel, the Director of NIMH has a vision of finding circuits in the brain that may explain what goes wrong in mental disorders. He is using metaphors from the 1970s, when the world was revolutionized by electronics consisting of printed electrical circuits. These were impressive at the time, but technology has moved on.
What makes the brain different from other organs — and very much like a computer — is that it processes information. It can take information input from our senses, treat this information, and give output in various formats; muscle movements that may result in spoken words, movement of the body, typed words on a computer etc.
Looking at the brain closely, we find the physical mechanisms of logical gates and memory, storage of binary data very similar to mechanisms in the computer.
Computers are able to do things that seem very human, such as recognizing letters on a page, reading aloud from a text file, parking a car, etc. So the computer metaphor is probably as close as we can get to a good understanding of the brain.
The beauty of the computer metaphor lies in the difference between hardware and software. Different software can be put into the same computer. The software may be modified continuously, but not the hardware. Settings in software may be regulated up or down all the time according to various needs.
Since I have some experience in programming, I was about to say to my patient: “You may compare your brain to a computer, and the OCD checking to an error in your program that I will help you reprogram in therapy. This means that there is nothing wrong with the physical brain, it is the program that needs fixing.”
Then suddenly it dawned on me: There doesn’t even have to be anything wrong with the program! It is just the settings! Compare it to an antivirus program in the computer. You can put all the settings to max, and the computer will ask every time you open a new website ”Are you sure you want to visit this site.” The program might block many innocent emails because they came from addresses not in your address list etc. In many ways it would function like a human in crisis, being suspicious about everything, as in so-called Schizophrenia, or checking everything as in so-called OCD. Only a few settings have to be off for the computer to seem as if it is “crazy.”
I told my patient, and he was relieved to think that he did not have a brain illness and that there wasn’t even anything wrong with his program. He just needed to adjust his settings.
And then I realized in a flash how I could explain why he needed exposure training. It wouldn’t be enough to just tell him to stop thinking so much about the situation, he would have to experience personally that it was OK to lower the safety setting. This is probably a built-in security setting in the brain. It might be dangerous to just listen to anybody and lower the safety setting. It is much better if the safety setting is adjusted on the basis of the experiencing that it is OK to lower it.
This becomes a very good explanation for why exposure training and behavioral experiments work. We have to experience that it is safe before our brain is willing to lower the setting. This explains why exposure treatments can lead to radical change that may be impossible to get to through talk therapy alone.
Dr. Niall McLaren has devoted a whole book to the computer as a way of understanding the brain. Through over 100 pages of philosophical discussion he reasons very convincingly that the brain has software that is independent of the biological hardware of the mind, and that all psychological problems — including so-called schizophrenia — may exist in perfectly heathy brains. In the same way, a fully-functioning computer may perform very strangely if many of the settings are wrong.
We may think of hearing voices as a case of “too high setting on the loudness of thoughts,” or paranoia as “too high setting on carefulness,” or OCD as “too high setting on cleanliness.”
We may stop looking for what is wrong with the hardware. Doctors who say that our brains are broken, have searched for over 100 years and found nothing.
Programmers can make very big changes without tinkering at all with a computer’s hardware. In the same way, we can make very big changes in our own brains, just by using language.
Imagine the difference between seeing all extraordinary experiences as signs of a broken brain, compared to seeing them as beautiful manifestations of spiritual truths. This is what some researchers found: people with exactly the same experiences of voices interpreted them very differently: one group thought they had a brain disease and were very stressed. The other group thought these were spiritual communications and felt that they were privileged to have this communication.
Even if we could one day manipulate the delicate neural circuits that NIMH now tries fo find, this would not be the way to change behavior. We need language to do that. That is why Insel’s focus on finding the circuits is not going to be fruitful: All that we could do, even if Insel’s approach bore fruit, would probably be to disable circuits, like we do today, with electroshock and chemicals. If a computer were to keep playing horror films, we could stop that by applying electrical surges to the hard disk or the graphic card. The horror films would stop. But the computer would never function well again.
The computer metaphor may seem frightening. You may think: I am more than a computer, I have a soul, a divine soul. Absolutely! The computer is just a metaphor, a way of thinking about our problems, that can give us good ideas about how to solve them.
Three therapeutic approaches are very close to taking charge of our experiences ourselves through changing the settings in our own programs: Cognitive behavioral therapy ( CBT), Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) and Neuro Linguistic Programming, NLP. In these therapies we are encouraged to take this control by doing certain exercises with our minds.
I re-programmed myself to not be afraid of spider like insects by sending a picture of an insect away from me and taking a picture myself in the future, very happy that I was rid of the phobia. I did this 5 times, and even if I thought this couldn’t help, 10 years of phobia was cured in 5 minutes. This NLP technique is so robust that I demonstrate it live with all kinds phobias in my courses.
I cured my fear of public speaking by exposure training, a CBT technique, just by doing it again and again. When I was worried about giving testimony in court cases, because I knew my patient’s fate depended on my testimony, I calmed my anxiety by the EFT tapping technique which links a worry sentence to bodily calmness triggered by tapping on acupuncture points.
Anybody can learn these re-programming techniques by themselves e.g. through youtube. I have made a youtube video explaining these techniques, and I hope many of you will try them out and give feedback in the form of comments here. Negative comments, when techniques seem to not work, are especially interesting. Then we can find out more about what is necessary to include in order to reprogram wonderful minds successfully.
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