Health Bites: Medical Student Musings on Mental Health
October 19, 2020
Three ways brains are really normal
Neuroplasticity is a pretty sweet idea. It’s the brain responding to the patterns of thought and action we do and feel. This seems eerily similar to the bones in our body, which have their own plasticity. They do not form their strength out of nowhere, the bone tissue must be loaded (not like $$$ loaded, but walked on with body weight, loaded) to grow into the right shape and function. Similarly, we must load our brains with the right tasks to be given the right mental strength to get through adulthood okay.
If you’re sad one moment and happy the next, relaxed in one moment and stressed in another, then you are not necessarily LESS healthy than someone who is always happy. There is a positivity trap to mental health that says that the goal of a good brain is to be consistently happy. Our stomach also gets stuck in a trap of too much of a good thing… we get used to being full of food almost all the time! There can be benefits to putting your body through discomforts that initially feel crazy but actually have significant upsides.
It’s totally normal to get addicted to the fruits of the 21st century. It’s not a weakness of your whole character to be stuck on a TikTok scroll, or addicted to sugar, or addicted to porn. There are things in this world that can exploit your attention. If The Social Dilemma hammered anything home, it’s that technology has not yet overcome human strengths, but somewhere along the way it has gained the ability to overcome human weaknesses. That doesn’t make you weak by any means! It’s a normal brain responding to things in the world that are not normal. Which brings us to…
Three ways the world is not normal for our brains
When was the last time you were truly bored? Literally nothing to do, nothing stimulating you, nothing immediately in front of you. Like a true blissful holiday, not some PoS online lockdown? Not nearly as much as I think we should (that’s the answer I’m getting at). Being bored might be lame, but it used to be much more common. To be without boredom is NOT normal. Constant stimulation is NOT normal. Truly relaxing can take bravery and vulnerability. This is when physical stillness, mental stillness, and the most coveted ‘value stillness’ engage in healing.
Being closer than we ever have to easily accessible pleasure is also not normal. The dopamine-reward system in your brain has an appetite and the anticipation can be greater than the pleasure itself! A fact that anyone who has experienced intimacy with other humans would understand (sorry Engineering students, just ask a med student what that’s like when we crash your Revue in a few days). Being so close to pleasurable YouTube clips and Instagram hotties at any moment on our phones lowers the threshold at which we excite the dopamine-reward system which stokes a fire seeking hot novelty. In a world so close to pleasurable stimulus our brains can be pushed further out into weirder and weirder novelty seeking kinks.
One last thing… a sugary sweet stimulating world understandably can make the brain sick when it has indulged beyond capacity. This is one reason why I choose to believe there is a mental health epidemic in the world’s wealthiest countries. If you do not give yourself the same sympathy, spare a moment to think that diabetes comes from a similar mechanism as mental ill-health; when we over fuel ourselves with sugar, the biology that sought out that sugar is overwhelmed, at which point the body becomes chronically dysregulated in terms of sugar. Have you overfuelled yourself with mental stimulation? Has the biology in your brain been overwhelmed? Have you become chronically dysregulated in your focus, i.e. procrastinating by reading a student magazine…? Please just go and study.