The Brain’s Stupidity and the Mind’s Wisdom

by Matt B. on October 13, 2014

According to Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, OCD generates “deceptive brain messages” that cause us to lose touch with our true selves. In my case, the disease does so by erasing the difference between the meaningful and the mundane. By OCD’s lights, no experience is ever trivial; everything is high-stakes and high-intensity.

Rough Transcript

Hi everyone. So today I’m going to talk about a couple of things but before I do I want to say a few words about some feedback I’ve received.

One of my listeners has let me know that occasionally things can be rumbly. So I’m going to do my best to organize this podcast a little bit more tightly and to flow a little more smoothly.

I’m also going to work to stay out of the weeds as much as I’ve been in them. I do appreciate that describing this episode in as much details as I’ve done can be useful for people with OCD. I know for me when I read really good descriptions of OCD there’s this ecstatic feeling of recognition that I feel, somebody else knows what this is like and I’m hoping that I can offer something like that some of the folks out there. But I do appreciate that if you don’t have OCD and you’re just kind of curious trying to learn a little bit more. It could be a little bit confusing to go into as much details as I have.

So I’m going to work to find a better balance there. And then finally, I’m going to do my best to provide some more sign posts to let you know what’s coming, what’s going to be included in any particular episode and to try to provide some markers along the way.

The thing about OCD is that it works in cycles it’s this perpetual return this perpetual cycling and in a whole set of concerns and I suspect that talking about it is going to work the same way. I certainly have found that when I write about it. Each of the essays that I’ve managed to write so far has been an effort to chew on a problem from a slightly different angle or kind of attack it from a slightly different direction. So that’s how this seems to go, it’s never a matter of seeing it all at once and perfectly and clearly in solving a problem. It’s more like progressive, inch by inch change over time.

So with all that said, today I want to talk about a few things two things. First, I’m going to pick up on the distinction I made last time between the way OCD fears feel and the way other experiences feel. And then; secondarily I’m going to talk about a book by Jeffrey Schwartz, a doctorate in California who focuses on OCD, who has written a book called “You Are Not Your Brain” and I’m going to talk a bit about that book and some of his ideas in relation to something I’ve been thinking about recently which is this idea of OCD and the marginal moment.

So I’ll explain all that as we get in to it. But first; to pick up on the distinction that I raised last time between the way OCD fears can feel and the way other experiences, even fearful experiences can feel. This is an interesting distinction because on one hand OCD always, at least to me always feels like OCD. Every OCD episode contains this germ, this quality, this tone that it’s perfectly recognizable because every other OCD experience has it. And really know other experiences have it so at that level or from that perspective you might think, well alright, if you’re uncertain whether the messages you’re getting from your brain are OCD messages or more genuine messages perhaps you could just look for that quality that feeling that whatever it is that x-factor.

But of course in the moment, the problem the difficulty there and the reason that’s not so easy to do that is because in the moment when you’re having OCD experience or at least when I am, what the OCD is doing is telling you that it’s real experience you’re having. It doesn’t come packaged as sort of obviously fragile and obviously silly green messages. It comes packaged as the real thing. So even though I can recognize that something about it is similar to every OCD experience I’ve ever had, you might say the packing tape or the message on the wrapper is, this is real this is urgent this requires action and response right now. And those of course are the invitations to the compulsion so the distinction I’m describing is the sort of thing that it’s very easy to recognize after the fact in the moment it’s incredibly difficult. It feels like the most subtle distinction one might – you couldn’t even imagine and often times I don’t even remember to look for it because I’m so overwhelmed and so swamped by the alarm bells that are going off.

In the aftermath when I’ve calm down and the fears subsided a little, I’m a little bit more capable of rational thinking, analyzing the situation a little less emotionally but in the moment fear is just driving all the cognition. It was very difficult to make this subtle analytical points. That said, it does help when I had this insight the other night recognized that something I was going through felt exactly the same as a million of the other episodes I’ve been through. There were something calming about that. It didn’t make the episode subside immediately but it did have a mitigating effect and that was gratifying.

I tend to find that my episodes that it goes best if I can sort of kept them right away. If I can detect some note of falsity, some note of OCD over activity in at the beginning before the thoughts of formed their armies and recruited their legions of mercenaries and descended on my mind and started raping and pillaging all my thoughts and emotions.

If I may be able to get in there sort of before that’s all happened I can sometimes sort of nip it in the bud. But of course sometimes they don’t manage to do that. And that’s alright too because catching it late recognizing these episodes a little later is certainly better than not recognizing them at all. And for me healing has been about two things, seeing the onset of these episodes a little earlier but also being gentler on myself when I don’t, when I find myself entirely caught up in an episode and thrown and kicked around and beaten up.

There’s something really crucial about being able to forgive myself for having gotten caught up in all that. That seems like one of the most central features of real healing. So all of this talk about the difference between OCD experience and what we might think of is real or authentic or true or genuine experience brings me to some things I’d like to say about Jeffrey Schwartz. Jeffrey Schwartz is an author of a couple of books about OCD; one is called “Brain Lock” and the other is “You Are Not Your Brain“. Those are the books I’m familiar with anyway. I’m actually reading thru “You Are Not Your Brain” at the moment and Schwartz make some really interesting points that I’d like to touch on for a moment because they relate to some things I’ve been thinking about for quite a while.

The first really dramatic point that Schwartz makes is that the method that he has worked on developing is distinct, he says from other methods of OCD treatment in a couple of ways. He talks briefly about exposure therapy, targeted behaviour therapy and then he also talks about my mindfulness practices which had been more and more prominent in Western culture generally but also in the treatment of anxiety disorders over the last couple of decades. And he says, “While both of these types of treatment are incredibly valuable and useful they are limited because they don’t emphasize the distinction between your true self and the falseness of the OCD messages that you’re getting from a brain that’s short circuiting enough. They don’t make that distinction enough between the real you and the deceptive version of you that OCD tries to sell you on.”

And this is interesting to me for a bunch of reasons, both personal reasons that have to do with the difficulty of managing OCD but also as a more abstract philosophical question, the metaphysics of the self kind of a perpetually [unintelligible 8:00] interesting topic to me. So I want to say a couple of things about the distinctions he makes and blend in some thoughts of my own.

Schwartz more than any other author on OCD, that I’ve read makes a pretty clear distinction between what he thinks of as the brain and what he thinks of as the mind. For Schwartz, the brain is automatic processing machine is the thing that does things you might say dumbly or unconsciously, now that’s not a derogatory way to talk about it.

Our brain is crucially who we are but he thinks of it as displays that learns and generates activity and behaviour without much reflection really without any capability of reflection. That capacity for reflection he thinks is reserved to the mind, to our conscious processes and it’s there he says that, “We can think about or we can reflect and discover something about who we truly are, what we really value, what we really hope to accomplish, what we really intend to do with our lives”. And in that sense there is one level the brain and the mind are obviously working together, the mind is nothing other than a product of the brain. On the other hand, however the brain has this way of learning habits and patterns that may not be particularly good for us and may not be particularly in concert or concordant with the values that we really hold.

OCD behaviour’s a perfect example of that, when we learn to ritualize we do so because our brain is doing what it always does it’s doing what it can to help us feel safe in the moment and you can imagine you can understand just thinking about evolutionary history why it would be necessary for us to have mechanisms to solve problems in the very short term to create feelings of security to overcome immediate threats.

The problem with OCD though is that it creates a whole bunch of false threats and when the brain responds to those threats with compulsive behaviour, it begins to create patterns that actually constrict our lives and reduce the space in which we get to operate. And ultimately, cut into and make it difficult to enact the values that we really have and that the ways we’d really like our lives to look. So that’s for me a really useful way to think about the distinction between the brain and the mind.

So on top of these distinctions, Schwartz also talks about the deceptive messages that come from our OCD brains and what he calls “The Wise Advocate.” This voice you might think of it as a voice or presence in our mind that’s actually looking out for us, looking after us and seeking to protect us and our best interest as our best interest in mind.

Now of course for me if I think about this stuff at a metaphysical level I wonder, well is there actually any thing there I’m pretty sceptical of ideas of souls or permanent metaphysical entities. But in a way, all of that those abstract considerations feel pretty unimportant here. I think he’s pointing to something that experientially is true regardless of whether it can be defended at a abstract philosophical or metaphysical level.

I think he’s right that there is some voice in us at least I can say this is true from my experience. There’s something in us that knows that when we give in to OCD driven compulsions and fears when we obey those deceptive messages coming from a brain that’s not wired particularly well.

We know that we’re not serving our selves particularly well. We know that we are being caught up in patterns that are ultimately harmful for us and there’s a part of us that I’ll again I’ll just speak for myself. There’s a part of me that’s crying on my behalf that’s going through some heartache because he’s watching me so caught on the tumble dry torture cycle and that I don’t know how to get off. It’s that advocate that I think Schwartz wants us to tune in to a little bit better and he’s got a whole method that I’m not yet expert enough in to convey or talk about but a method that’s basically designed to get us to recognize deceptive method messages earlier and tune in a little bit more fully to the Wise Advocate has to tell us about our interest our true values, our real goals. And so in a way, you know Schwartz’s making a distinction between a false you; which is a portion of you that OCD likes to paint. The one that’s full of devastatingly self critical messages that’s constantly threatening you, and making you feel small and weak and vulnerable and pathetic and deserving of nothing better than this kind of life. And the real you, the one that this basically decent and monster accomplished things in the world than wants to be good to others. That distinction between what he calls the false you or the way he talks about it in the sense of a false you and a real you reminds me of something’s I’ve written about before and some thing that I’ve encountered in lot of Buddhist texts.

This idea of good in nature that underneath the confusion and the roses that dominates so much of our day to day and moment to moment thinking, there is this more basic nature, this Buddha nature inside us.

This basic goodness and decency and compassion towards ourselves and others and that is no doubt a topic for another podcast and maybe ten podcasts, the relationships between Buddhist psychology and OCD thinking.

I’ve obviously indicated that something that’s been pretty important in my life. I’d like to explore it more but for now I just want to make a smaller point which is that it’s exactly this distinction I think between the false you and the real you the fake you and the real you that helps explain why OCD experience can be so confusing and I think it’s linked to this idea of the marginal moment that I’ve mentioned earlier.

So what I mean by marginal moment is a great deal of a time when this OCD compulsions or this OCD obsessions this OCD driven intrusive thoughts arrives the message is something incredibly important is going on. Something that has huge stakes and huge consequences and you really need to pay attention. And often, it’s sending those messages amidst the most mundane inconsequential daily activities. I can be clipping my toe nails or cutting my food up for dinner, these moments that we do these activities that we’ve done thousands of times and will do thousands of times again, moments that you might think of as really marginal to our lives not unimportant but in which nothing really hangs in the balance either.

This isn’t your wedding day we’re talking about. It’s not your college graduation or the first lecture you give as the professor or anything else like that. This are not the seminal memorable moments of our lives. They’re the everyday moments that we have thousands of and what OCD likes to do is to suggest that actually what’s going on in this moment; that twinge felt in your finger, the spasm you felt in your eye, the momentary curiosity, about whether you’re particularly good person, or whether you shouldn’t have said that thing to your friend earlier that these aren’t in fact marginal moments that these are central moments, these are crucially important moments.

These are moments that will make or break the rest of your life and enormous consequences for everything that’s going to come afterward. And it’s that move that OCD makes in this attempt to push this sort of really marginal experiences to the center of your world. Just to the center of your vision and make you believe that they are as important as the wedding day, as important as spending the last few minutes of someone’s life at their bedside sharing a few intimate words with them. That’s what OCD’s doing all the time. It’s creating the sort of false urgency and because it does that, it attempts an actually often successfully, it succeeds in getting us to believe that our real selves are in question, are at stake, right?

So remember what Schwartz talks about is how what the brain does is typically really automatic processes it’s not a conscious organism at least in terms of the way some of these processes work at a physiological level. That conscious stuff happens in what we call the mind. And it’s the mind that the repository of our values of the things that we believe most deeply. But here what’s happening is that these automatic habitual learned responses these compulsive cycles that the brain just learns sort of dumbly in order to protect us from momentary feelings of danger.

These automatic processes are scaring up so much fear and creating such a sense of moment of importance of [16:44 gravitize??] in the moment that we begin to feel like actually our true self are at stake. Our deepest values are at stake, right?

That’s so often how OCD feels to me in the moment, right? I’m clipping my toe nails say, and I’m not sure, do I clip this one a little tighter? If so, am I in danger of cutting myself or cutting them too short? And all of sudden as I begin in wondering and musing and then obsessing and then compulsing around this questions I begin to feel like all of my deepest values are in involved, right? My values, around learning to let things go along with experience to sort of be in the moment. My values about not forcing things, my values about seeking to call my own perfectionism in to question and be a little more happy with imperfection. My desires to be gentler with myself, right?

All of a sudden this tiny moment in which I’m just clipping my toe nails has become this prism and this testing ground, it’s crucible for everything I care about most deeply. And so all of a sudden even though it’s all the cycle began because I was responding to some deceptive messages about the threats inherent in clipping my toe nails, all of a sudden my real you is at stake, my false you has sometimes my false self has somehow invoke my real self and I feel like everything about myself is on the line.

And so as a result, it becomes incredibly difficult to let things go to sort of recognize that, “Oh this is just OCD experience these are just deceptive messages from the brain” because it no longer feels like crazy talk it now feels like a really intense moment in which all of my profound commitment to my deep values are on the line. I’ve got to make some decisions and those decisions will reflect both who I am and who I am capable of becoming. So that’s a first pass at dealing with theme that I think is going to come back and play a role in this podcast again and again. And perhaps sooner than later as I continue reading through Schwartz’s work. In the meantime I’d love to hear from you and I will talk to you soon.


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