Belief is the Most Powerful and Dangerous Tool Humans Have

Humans are amazing creatures. We have such powers of adaptability and such incredible forces of will that we are able to make the impossible possible.

As my friendly, neighborhood Spiderman is fond of recalling, With great power comes great responsibility. What is missing from this statement is the fact that everyone has great power and thus everyone has an enormous responsibility to use that power wisely. For better and for worse, you can make the impossible possible.

Owning the Theory

I recall a conversation I had long ago with my father. I was either fourteen or fifteen, I think, and the two of us were sitting on my mother’s bed in her bedroom where I used to live. It had been a rough day caused by the turbulence of many mood swings and anger over schooling.

It was after noon. My father had come uptown (he made a special trip to see me that day) so we could talk about things. The conversation was probably long, but I only remember two bits of it right now.

At one point, we spoke about the medications and how much I detested them. We bainstormed on what could be done, and after a while we concluded that there was only one way that I would be able to free myself of them: do what they do for me physiologically by myself.

Bipolar Disorder Has a Physical Root

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness which has physical roots. The brain of a bipolar person is literally physically different than the brain of someone who is not. One of the differences is in the mixture of the chemicals that the brain swims in.

A bipolar person’s brain is swimming in a bath of chemicals that have various different levels of neurotransmitters which cause the symptoms bipolar disorder is so known for. In other words, our brain’s chemical makeup is literally different from a “healthy” person’s brain. Since these neurotransmitters (chemicals) are actually physical molecules, bipolar disorder can be said to have a physical root.

My Personal Bipolar Brain

I was taking lithium and depakote at the time. Depakote is a medication which increases production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, if I remember correctly. Dopamine is one neurotransmitter which makes people feel happy and content. (In fact, surges of dopamine are exactly what taking drugs such as heroin cause in the brain.) Lithium is a mood stabilizer and, I think, it causes increases in seratonin levels. Seratonin is another neurotransmitter with a similar effect as dopamine.

Long story short, my brain was literally missing physical components it needed in order to function well. The only way to ensure that I would function properly and ultimately be happy and healthy was to give it these physical things that I did not have on my own. That is why I needed medication.

The Bipolar’s Catch-22

When I recognized that I am bipolar, I naturally started thinking in circular logic. Since I couldn’t trust my own emotions to be accurate representations of and responses to incoming stimuli, every time I was confronted with a choice of any sort I started asking myself “Is this really based on what happened or is it based on my bipolar disorder’s mutation of it?”

The nasty problem with bipolar disorder is that it is an illness which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once I’d asked myself that question, I had to ask myself the same question about the answer I had just provided as an answer to the first question. “Was my evaluation really based on what I felt or was it based on my bipolar disorder’s permutations of my feelings?” This is a never-ending cycle that causes one to second-guess oneself all the time (and for good reason).

At its root, this second-guessing is caused by the fact that my brain doesn’t have a working set of the physical stuff it needs to make an emotionally aware and informed choice. There is no way around this except to give my brain these things, but the only way to do this is through medication. Since I didn’t want to take medication, there seemed, at first, to be no solution to this problem.

Moods Change the Brain’s Chemical Balance

Then it occured to us that since moods were caused by physical things (changes in the levels of neurotransmitters and chemicals in one’s head), changes in mood also changed the physical makeup (the balance of chemicals) in the brain. This means that when I was sad there was literally something different in my head than when I was happy twenty minutes later.

The Magic Twenty Minutes

Twenty minutes is actually the approximate time it takes for the chemical bath in the brain to drain and be replaced by an entirely new chemical bath. This is the physiological basis for the reason why a short, fifteen to twenty minute “cool-down” period is so effective in changing people’s attitudes towards things, such as when they fight. After this period, their brain literally has different stuff in it. In the case of bipolar people, it means our moods have been “refreshed” and we are starting from a blank slate as far as our impulsive emotional responses are concerned.

So since my moods change the physical makeup of my bain, it was logical that controlling these moods would mean that I could control the balance of neurotransmitter levels inside my head. By controlling moods well enough as to orchestrate the same levels of neurotransmitters which the medications gave me, I would be able to effect the same change as I had been getting with the medication without actually taking the medication.

Of course, this brings us back to the problem of the chicken-and-the-egg, to our catch-22. In order for this to work, I needed to create the proper chemical balance in my head without having the proper chemical balance in there to start with and without having the physical chemicals I needed to give myself said balance. What to do?

Journey Towards Self-Awareness and Control

Like I said at the start of this entry, humans are amazing creatures. We can make the impossible possible. The only way out of the dilemma of my bipolar disorder versus its need for medications that I had was to make the impossible possible.

Fighting Internal Demons

At the end of the talk with my father, he stood up and walked towards the doorway. He sighed heavily. Then he stopped and turned around, with both a genuinely sympathetic and understanding expression on his face. He said, Oi, vey, vey, my boy is fighting with his internal demons.

Fighting, or perhaps taming, my internal demons has been what my entire life has always been about. In fact, I think that most people’s lives focus around this issue, but I was lucky enough to have a parent who correctly addressed this issue directly and made it the top priority in my formative years. The process is long, hard, bloody, cruel, depressing, but ultimately rewarding. It’s also not even close to being over.

This battle with my own demons is the process of making the impossible possible. It’s what has enabled me to stay largely self-aware a good deal of the time, which is necessary to maintain a semblance of control over my moods so I can control, more or less, what kinds of chemicals are in there at any given moment. It’s literally the impossible fight for me to win.

Hope Everywhere

But I do have hope. Today, after my squash game with my uncle, I came home and was reading Greg’s blog, when I came upon this entry of his linking to several video clips of mind tricks.

One of the clips addresses the issue of the power and danger of the human being’s ability to believe things head-on, and that was what inspired me to write this entry. In fact, dangit, I meant to be working on my site and now I’m late for a party. See what you did, Greg? ;)

Stuff like this always reminds me of the incredible power we hold over our own lives. That makes me happy. Stuff like this also always reminds me about how many people give that power up so easily, often without even knowing they had it in the first place. That makes me sad.

4 replies on “Belief is the Most Powerful and Dangerous Tool Humans Have”

  1. Fascinating…. and entirely illogical.
    Question: is it FAITH you’re talking about? Because if it is, then something clicked differently than I meant ot intended… Nevertheless, your truths are valid, as are mine. Thanks for sharing, for acknoledging, and mostly for bing strong.
    Love you
    Aba

  2. “When I recognized that I am bipolar, I naturally started thinking in circular logic. Since I couldn’t trust my own emotions to be accurate representations of and responses to incoming stimuli, every time I was confronted with a choice of any sort I started asking myself ‘Is this really based on what happened or is it based on my bipolar disorder’s mutation of it?’

    The nasty problem with bipolar disorder is that it is an illness which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once I’d asked myself that question, I had to ask myself the same question about the answer I had just provided as an answer to the first question. ‘Was my evaluation really based on what I felt or was it based on my bipolar disorder’s permutations of my feelings?’ This is a never-ending cycle that causes one to second-guess oneself all the time (and for good reason).”

    I have a totally different way of looking at this — and would be curious what you think. I had a discussion with a friend of mine a couple years ago about a quote she had read, which said that women are less rational than men (and their statements are more likely to be based on emotional whims) because they have menstrual cycles. If a woman seems unusually critical of herself or of everyone around her, she may just be on her period, and her opinions are more likely to change when her internal chemicals do — thus exposing her inherent irrationality. My take was very different (and more convenient to my ego…) I said that the menstrual process would do nothing to create irrational thoughts, merely expose them. If a woman’s chemical cycle (and mood, and related opinions) were to be frozen at one particular time of month, she would become more consistent and thus appear to be more rational — while in fact, she would be just as controlled by a (now lifelong) emotional whim as she was before. I said, in fact, that variations in your internal chemistry, that happen in an obvious and regular way, could to make you more rational than you would be otherwise. When it’s that clear how your changing chemical state affects your mood, you can learn to take that into account when you form opinions. In fact, the experience of a wide range of moods could give you more perspectives on the same idea, and force you to be more rational if you decided to come to a consistent conclusion.

    I later took CBT classes for dealing with depression, and they taught a similar attitude towards emotions. If you want to know the true answer to a question, they said, just add in your current emotional state to all your other pieces of evidence, and you can generally come up with something pretty good.

    So to make it basic, this is my thought: if you have been forced to acknowledge that your moods (and often first and second impressions of the truth) are caused by unwanted chemicals in your brain, you are more likely to be able to develop actually rational thought than you would otherwise. Thus, eventually at least, you should be MORE able to trust your own opinions than the average human being. It’s not a Catch-22 but rather a possible escape from it. I know that I’m much more confident of “knowing what I really want” after going on some number of different psychological medications. So tell me what you think.

    :)

  3. Ok. Whoa. Bipolar disorder is more than just feeling happy or sad. It also includes paranoia and delusion. And it is quite difficult when one is delusional to factor in “hey, am I really feeling/seeing/hearing this or is it my bipolar disorder?” Straight mood change, yes. But bipolar is more than just mood. And for those symptoms, behavioural therapy can be beneficial but I would never espouse facing that head on without medication. It’s foolhardy.

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