I’m not really waking up out of a three-year stupor, but I am finally posting after about three years, maybe four! The reason I haven’t posted has everything to do with the fact that I was in another graduate school program, earning my Master’s in mental health counseling so I can earn my license and work independently. Well, I finished my degree in August, 2021, but there have been so many other things going on, as well, including getting married in July, 2021, becoming an instant-parent of two kids – one is 15 and the other is 8, both currently identify as boys. My wife and I have also taken on helping care for my 6-yo nephew a few days a week, as well! Then, of course, there’s been this global pandemic for the past two years! So yes, as my favorite teacher (middle school English) once said, my life is never boring!
Here is a photo of us from our wedding. I am wearing a custom pink suit. It was a magical day, very beautiful and right in the lull in the pandemic when we initially thought it might be over, after many people got vaccinated and right before the Delta variant began to spread rampantly. It was a very hopeful day, full of love and joy!
In any case, I’ve continued to work and see clients while I’ve been in grad school and throughout the pandemic. I just wanted to post a short “I’m back!” post or at least “I’m not dead yet!” post to say I am here and I will be posting more brain-related material. I’ve been meaning to post about neuroinflammation since before the pandemic, but it’s even more relevant now. Let me say one thing: neuroinflammation is not just part of the etiology of neurodegenerative diseases as much of the literature (and biopharma) seems to be focused on – it’s likely part of the etiology of every brain-related disorder/disease/challenge/issue/whatever from epilepsy and migraines to depression, anxiety, psychosis, ADHD, etc. Whether or not it is the only cause is an open question and I would suggest that it probably is not for many challenges/issues, but it is likely part of the etiology, whether it be an initiating cause or a consequence of some other initiating cause (such as genetic or epigenetic susceptibility, traumatic brain injury, diet, drugs, etc.). I will write a post but it’s likely going to have to be a series of posts about neuroinflammation since it’s a huge topic and I’m very interested in it.
As the sea turtle slowly makes its way to the beach to rest, it soaks in the sun and restores its energy. When it’s ready, it returns to the sea to explore, find food and a mate. Like the sea turtle, I’m slowly making my way back into the blogosphere to share my knowledge and ideas about the human brain and consciousness. I already found a mate, so no more need for that!
I’ve been applying to grad school programs again (for counseling so I can earn my mental health license so I don’t need to work under someone else’s mental health license), which I’m learning is a lot different now that I’m 42 (well, in two weeks) than when I last applied to grad school when I was 21-23. It’s not just that everything’s online now (including the entire programs to which I am applying), but I’m different, too. The thing is, 20 years ago I had no idea what it would be like during and after grad school. One might say that I was naive, but I think it’s more accurate to say that I was inexperienced, and now I am experienced. Obviously, I’m not experienced in everything, or else I wouldn’t need to go back to grad school, but I’m definitely significantly more experienced in life than I was 20 years ago. So when I had an interview (an online group interview) with the first program for which I applied in December, I found that my honest answers were different from the honest answers of my fellow applicants who were much younger than me. It’s not that I don’t think they were being honest, but I do think that they couldn’t be as honest as me due to not having as much experience.
For instance, one of the questions that was asked was “how do you deal with negative feedback?” Well, first, I should’ve asked the faculty member what she meant by that question because it didn’t become apparent to me until the end of the interview that it was a question about how we deal with feedback from our mentors/teachers/superiors, and not what I took it to mean which was someone complaining about me or saying something negative to me about me. So my answer was that my first instinct is to feel a little defensive (as I assume most people feel since that’s often how they behave), but that I’ve learned to take a step back and try to understand if I agree with them or not and if it’s something I need to change, but that I generally understand that negative or positive feedback usually says more about the person giving it than necessarily about the person receiving it. As you might guess, the others in the group basically said that they love negative feedback and use it to grow and become better people, blah blah blah. I could’ve said that (and I probably would’ve choked on it in my throat because of the heavy b.s. and brown-nosing factor), and I probably would’ve said that 20 years ago when I didn’t want anyone to know that I had any imperfections (as if they couldn’t see them, anyway). Now I am confident that even with my imperfections, I’m no worse than anyone else, and I am still a good person, so I wasn’t shy about admitting that I don’t like negative feedback. Had she asked how I deal with “constructive criticism”, which is what I think she was trying to ask, then my answer would’ve been closer to what was clearly the “correct” answer.
Anyway, I was not accepted into that program and I’m 99% sure it was all because of that interview when I was being honest. Now, mind you, I’ve been rejected from things before so it’s not that I’m unable to grasp that I can be rejected, but this was truly a surprise because I understand that interviews like this for grad school are often just as much about selling the program to us as it is about selling ourselves to them. To be fair, I had already decided that I wouldn’t continue with the program since I hadn’t checked the price before I applied (it was a free application, so I half-whimsically applied without investigating the logistics too carefully) and it’s over $100k for the 2.5 year program! Holy moly that’s expensive and not worth it since the median income for a licensed, professional counselor is in the mid $40k range. I think it’s pretty insane to put that kind of debt on someone who’s never going to make that kind of money!
This actually brings me to another honest answer I had that probably was to my detriment – the faculty member asked what our biggest obstacle to success is and my first (and most truthful) answer was MONEY! MONEY! MONEY! Because I wouldn’t need to go back to school and get a degree in counseling if I had enough money to sustain me so I could give everyone neurofeedback for free! I probably would still need to get my mental health license, but I wouldn’t need to worry about the cost of going back to school! Alas, I am not independently wealthy, and thus, I need to charge for my services, etc. But after I said that money was my biggest obstacle I said that I also have a more self-reflective answer since I know that’s what they’re looking for and I went on to talk about how “focus” has been an issue for me in my life which my grad professors brought up and then my post-doctoral mentors reiterated. (Of course, what they really wanted was for me to do nothing other than research at the lab all day every day because that’s the expectation – and one of the reasons I left research – which I tend to think is rather unhealthy, especially for someone like me who has a lot of different interests and abilities.) Anyway, I still stand by original answer and I know everyone knows it’s the gosh-darn truth. Money is almost always the biggest obstacle to doing what you want to do in this life, which is how I define success. For instance, going back to grad school is going to cost a lot of money and I’m making my choice of which program to go into based largely on the cost of the program due to not being able to take on such massive debt.
So I was thinking about how my honest answers have changed over my lifetime so far, and I think it’s something we need to consider when we ask others to be honest with us. The less mature, less experienced people are, the less likely their honesty will be all that true. They will be as honest as they can be, but it may not even be their truth. So we just need to be aware of that and maybe adjust our expectations when we ask different people for their honest answers.
I got in a bit of a comment war on facebook yesterday because I got fed up with the snarkiness of the anti-vaccinations-triggering-autism crowd (a.k.a., the anti-anti-vaxxers, although I’m not an anti-vaxxer). Yes, the studies show that there is no widespread association between vaccinations and autism. However, on an individual basis, there does seem to be a connection of some sort, or else why on earth would it have become a controversy in the first place? If even one child developed autism or autistic characteristics (and, thus, they were diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum) as a consequence of vaccination, then I think we have an obligation to understand that connection. The main problem of this controversy is the implication of a widespread association between vaccination and autism. The research has unequivocally demonstrated that vaccines to do not cause autism in any significant proportion above the overall incidence of autism. However, this does not mean that a very small population of people (likely with a genetic or epigenetic susceptibility) may be triggered to develop autistic characteristics as a consequence of vaccination (and the immune response that it causes). However, I don’t want to discuss the particulars of this debate. This blog post is not about the epidemic of people not vaccinating their children due to fears of autism. This blog post is about a different epidemic that I think is possibly just as concerning: the epidemic of medical doctors not listening to the patients and essentially “gaslighting” them.
The term, “gaslighting”, is relatively new to me. I honestly wish I had heard of it years ago because it would’ve made me feel more sane having an actual term for the phenomenon I was experiencing with certain friends and exes. “Gaslighting” refers to when someone essentially tells you that what you experienced did not actually happen; it basically undermines your reality. This is what the Encyclopedia Brittanica says about “gaslighting”:
“Gaslighting [is] an elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or “gaslighter,” on a single victim over an extended period. Its effect is to gradually undermine the victim’s confidence in his own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him pathologically dependent on the gaslighter in his thinking or feelings.”
Interestingly, the term is actually derived from the 1944 movie, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (including Angela Lansbury’s screen debut). In the film, the main character, Paula (Bergman), is slowly driven insane by her newlywed husband, Gregory (Boyer), who manipulates her reality in order to drive her insane so he can steal her cache of hidden jewels.
In this post, I’m not suggesting that doctors are intentionally trying to drive their patients mad by ignoring their reality or second-guessing it or trying to re-write it into a reality they can more easily explain, but I think they do it unintentionally for very selfish reasons, such as not wanting to appear like they don’t have all the answers. I believe there is a widespread problem with medical doctors and many in the medical establishment either ignoring their patients or part of what the patient tells them or trying to manipulate their patients’ stories into a story that fits their explainable paradigms. I think this is a very dangerous problem that pushes people through the cracks of the healthcare system. In fact, people die from this type of behavior.
A 20-year-old rugby teammate of mine passed away from a brain aneurysm last month. She had been suffering from some medical issues – all of which I do not know because I was not close enough to her – and I gathered that she had been seeing many doctors about these issues. When I saw her last in October, she looked like she may have had a stroke because she seemed to only be able to speak out of half of her mouth – it reminded me of how my Grandma spoke due to paralysis in half of her face (due to a surgical accident when the surgeon accidentally severed her facial nerve on one side). The issue is that it was a change in degree, not a binary change (i.e., appearing after not being there at all). What I mean is that since I met her two years ago she had this side-mouth way of talking, but it was more severe in October than previous times I’d seen her. I honestly am pretty upset with myself for not pressing harder about my concerns, but I did ask her if she was doing alright, health-wise. She told me that she wasn’t and that she was seeing many doctors, so I was hopeful that somebody was dealing with this concern. Then two months later, she’s dead from a brain aneurysm. At the funeral, her mother hinted at a pending fight with the healthcare system, that there may be lawsuits coming, and that the doctors didn’t listen to their cries for help, didn’t give them the care or tests that they asked for. If she had an MRI, there is a pretty decent chance that they could’ve seen a growing aneurysm and done something about it like surgery. Part of the story is that my teammate was a person of color and working class, and she was on Oregon’s medicaid, OHP (Oregon Health Plan). In general, people of color (and other marginalized people) and working class people do not get the same level of care as white people from the middle and upper classes. It’s a very sad reality. It must change. Universal healthcare would help change this reality, although it wouldn’t be all that needs to happen to help change it – doctors need to be aware of their biases and to actively try to counter them.
I have another friend who is very large, technically considered “obese” according to her BMI, although she is also very muscular and strong, which is always missed if you use BMI as the sole measurement for obesity. She has a lot of chronic pain issues with incidences of syncope and other malfunctions in her autonomic nervous system. She has spinal and cranial MRIs showing all sorts of pathologies that could explain at least a large fraction of her symptoms, but the doctors have predominantly focused on her weight, as if that’s the primary reason for her problems. It has taken her over eight years for a medical doctor to take her seriously enough to finally look beyond her weight! I was helping her investigate her health issues last year and I even attended a couple of doctor’s appointments with her and witness firsthand how disrespectfully the doctors treated her. I even had a neuroscience textbook with me and had to correct the spinal surgeon when he said that the bladder has nothing to do with the spine. It turns out that the nerves that innervate and control the bladder travel down the spine and exit the spinal column around the same regions in which she was having pain and which show pathologies in the MRIs. He ignored me despite the fact that I just proved his statement wrong. I am not an M.D., so I do not get the same level of respect for my knowledge and intelligence from M.D.s as other M.D.s do, despite my expertise in molecular, cell, developmental, and biochemical biology (MCDB) and my ability to perform and comprehend medical science and research.
There is a growing contingent of medical doctors that are changing the way they interact with their patients, but in general I am not impressed – in fact, I’m pretty concerned about the general attitude of medical doctors towards their patients. “Bedside manner” can refer to many types of communication, but what I’m particularly concerned with is doctors listening to their clients, believing that their clients are telling you the truth as much as they can tell it, and having the self-esteem and curiosity to investigate further when they don’t have a ready-made answer to the patient’s problem. Scientists tend to have more curiosity about the unknown, whereas I think medical doctors tend to want to portray a sense of all-knowing and security about what they know, but this leaves little room for growth – of medical science, of knowledge, of character, etc.
We all need to work together to hold our medical doctors accountable for listening to our stories, for putting in the effort into our healthcare. If they do not listen and they are not curious about what ales you and invested in finding it out when it does not fit into one of the diseases or disorders they know, find a new doctor who does.
Kurt Othmer from EEGInfo created a video response to a report out of McGill University that was published in June in The Lancet Psychiatry (which is not open-source) that dismisses the effects of all EEG neurofeedback as due to the placebo effect. Kurt describes how it is not possible for the effects that we see in the clinic to be due to the placebo effect – he cites some original research on cats (when was the last time you saw a cat do what you wanted them to do?) to current research with addicts showing a significantly higher retention rate in treatment recovery programs when the treatment is combined with neurofeedback. He also discusses how we can modulate the effects of the neurofeedback during a session, using the specific example of modulating a headache – making it better and making it worse in the same session by changing the response frequency (the brainwave at which the brain is training).
This video is worth watching, especially if you have doubts about the effects of neurofeedback and are worried that it may not be worth your investment:
Dr. Jen received her Ph.D. in Molecular, Cell, Developmental and Biochemical Biology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2005. She then served as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at San Francisco from 2005-2010, then as a postdoctoral fellow at Celgene Corporation from 2010-2013.
Dr. Jim received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Rochester in 1977. He worked as a scientist at Xerox Corporation until his retirement as a Principal Scientist in 2007. He trained as a neurofeedback practitioner using the Othmer Method in 2011 and has been working with clients in collaboration with Dr. Carol, his wife, since late 2011.