Mental Associations – Matter!

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In their book Buddha’s Brain; The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, & Wisdom (2009), authors Rick Hanson, PhD and Richard Mendius, MD observe:

“When two things are held in mind  at the same time, they start to connect with each other.” 

Think of this in terms of good news/bad news. First, the good news. Hanson and Mendius write:

“Positive experiences can…be used to soothe, balance, and even replace negative ones. When two things are held in mind at the same time, they start to connect with each other. That’s one reason why talking about hard things with someone who’s supportive can be so healing: painful feelings and memories get infused with the comfort, encouragement, and closeness you experience with the other person. 

These mental minglings draw on the neural machinery of memory. When a memory–whether implicit or explicit–is made, only its key features are stored, not every detail….When your brain retrieves a memory, it does not do it like a computer does, which calls up a complete record of what’s on its hard drive (e.g., document, picture, song). Your brain rebuilds implicit and explicit memories from their key features, drawing on its simulating capacities to fill in missing details….And your brain is so fast that you don’t notice the regeneration of each memory.

This rebuilding process gives you the opportunity, right down in the micro-circuitry of your brain, to gradually shift the emotional shadings of your interior landscape….Then, when the memory leaves awareness, it will be consolidated in storage along with those other associations. The next time the memory is activated, it will tend to bring those associations with it. Thus, if you repeatedly bring to mind negative feelings and thoughts while a memory is active, then that memory will be increasingly shaded in a negative direction….On the other hand, if you call up positive emotions and perspectives while implicit or explicit memories are active, these wholesome influences will slowly be woven into the fabric of those memories.

Now for the bad news. If two things, held in mind at the same time, begin to connect with each other, consider the downside of association. In his book, The Brain That Changes Itself (2007; definitely a book worth reading), Columbia University psychiatrist and researcher Norman Doidge, MD gives one such example from Internet pornography’s effects on the brain. In a chapter entitled “Acquiring Tastes and Loves,” Doidge writes:

“The current porn epidemic gives a graphic demonstration that sexual tastes can be acquired. Pornography , delivered by high-speed Internet connections, satisfies every one of the prerequisites for neuroplastic change….During the mid- to late 1990s, when the Internet was growing rapidly and pornography was exploding on it, I treated or assessed a number of men who all had essentially the same story. Each had acquired a taste for a kind of pornography that, to a greater or lesser degree, troubled or even disgusted him, had a disturbing effect on the pattern of sexual excitement, and ultimately affected his relationships  and sexual potency.

None of these men were fundamentally immature, socially awkward, or withdrawn from the world into a massive pornography collection that was a substitute for relationships with real women. These were pleasant, generally thoughtful men, in reasonably successful relationships or marriages….A number of these men also reported something else, often in passing, that caught my attention. They reported increasing difficulty in being turned on by their actual sexual partners….When I asked if this phenomenon had any relationship to viewing pornography, they answered that it initially helped them get more excited during sex but over time had the opposite effect….Their sexual fantasy lives were increasingly dominated by the scenarios that they had, so to speak, downloaded into their brains, and these new scripts were often more primitive and more violent than their previous sexual fantasies. I got the impression that any sexual creativity these men had was dying and that they were becoming addicted to Internet porn.

The changes I observed are not confined to a few people in therapy. A social shift is occurring….The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor. Not all addictions are to drugs or alcohol. People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running. All addicts show a loss of control over the activity, compulsively seek it out despite negative  consequences, develop tolerance so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation for satisfaction, and experience withdrawal if they can’t consummate the addictive act. All addition involves long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic change in the brain.”

Because two things held in mind at the same time begin to connect with each other, it is ironic to think that chemical messengers such as dopamine (excitement) and oxytocin (bonding)  become triggered more by the titillation (pseudo-intimacy) of images and objects than the real thing. 

Mental associations do matter. 

 Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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