Saturday, April 11, 2009

Brain lock

Okay, this is the last post (at least for a while) about the brain. This one is about brain lock, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The chapter I've just finished is called "Brain Lock Unlocked" in the book, The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (2007).

Many of my skydiving friends will recognize the phrase "brain lock" because it is often used to explain what sometimes happens to us in freefall when we cannot remember what we are supposed to do next. It also is used to describe the brain process that doesn't allow us to move on to the next thing, such as continuous hand washing, or as Doidge says, doesn't allow us to turn our mental page. This is what happens: you make a mistake (or get exposed to germs), and you get a nagging sense that something is wrong, and then you get anxious about it and try to correct the mistake. When you have corrected the mistake, your brain moves onto the next thought or activity, and the mistaken feeling and the anxiety disappear.

But in OCD, even though you have corrected the mistake (washed the germs off your hands, for instance), the anxiety doesn't stop, so part of the brain mechanism stays in the "on" position and you get brain lock. I distinctly remember (with a good deal of embarrassment) a skydive where I was supposed to take a particular position after the initial formation, and I could not remember what it was, although we had rehearsed the skydive numerous times on the ground. Two of the people on the skydive helpfully tried to point to my position, but I was at a total loss, and we could not complete the formation. On the ground, afterwards, we discussed what had happened, but it was definitely brain lock and nothing could move my mind past that spot.

The reason all this is so fascinating to me is that I and most of my siblings seem to have some form of OCD in our basic behavior. We all tend to be good at our jobs because we are detail oriented and scrupulous in our lives. Just take a look at the definition for the word:
scrupulous (of a person or process): diligent, thorough, and extremely attentive to details. Very concerned to avoid doing wrong.
Uh-huh. I recognize that, and I see it in every one of my siblings. I know that scrupulosity (isn't that a great word?) can become OCD if the brain becomes stuck in any part of the process. The good thing, and the reason I wanted to put all this down in the blog, is that now there is a recognized treatment for it. It's a four-step process, and works with great success if a person is motivated.

Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, author of Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior, offers the following four steps for dealing with OCD:

  1. RELABEL – Recognize that the intrusive obsessive thoughts and urges are the result of OCD.
  2. REATTRIBUTE – Realize that the intensity and intrusiveness of the thought or urge is caused by OCD; it is probably related to a biochemical imbalance in the brain.
  3. REFOCUS – Work around the OCD thoughts by focusing your attention on something else, at least for a few minutes: DO ANOTHER BEHAVIOR.
  4. REVALUE – Do not take the OCD thought at face value. It Is not significant in itself.

Source: Westwood Institute for Anxiety Disorders

The book I'm reading now is probably the last of these self-help books about the brain that I'll be reading for a while. Although it's all incredibly fascinating, I need to integrate and process what I've learned. I know my ability to reach saturation is very high, but then so much of it doesn't stick in my memory. And if I put the book down to come back to it later, I don't do that. I just move on, and one day I'll see the book with all those bookmarks sticking out of it, and maybe I'll pick it up, wondering why I ever put it down.

Ah yes, the plastic brain. My brother says he has a silly putty brain, not a plastic one. His status update on Facebook the other day:
Buz Stewart would not be just a nothin' his head all full of stuffin' his heart all full of pain, he would dance and be merry, life would be a ding-a-derry, if he only had a brain.
And I can't even LOOK at those words without the tune coming into my head. I sure do love my siblings!


  1. Do you think we all have the potential for OCD? I think we might just have...I'm ok for the most part, but I do seem to overcheck that I've turned off cookers and lights etc. before I leave the home. It started when my boys were small and I was afraid that if I didn't double check those things, that we wouldn't have a home to come home too. Now I have a check list. I say it through as I leave the house and then I shut the door on it!
    Blessings, Star

  2. What was the movie with Jack Nicholson? As Good as it Gets?
    Have you read Oliver Saks's "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat?" He has written several others as well, but I really liked that one.
    This is fascinating stuff, the brain. I'm afraid if I was still skydiving, I'd be brainlocking more and more. I went to the grocery store earlier today with a written list of six items. The one item on the list I needed MOST was laundry detergent. Guess which one I forgot? Oh well, just plan a big-way and put me in the base...

  3. Yes, I do think we all have the potential for OCD. When I saw As Good As It Gets, I recognized those habits immediately. The book says that if you do one good check and then when you have the feeling you should go back, do something else, and it will begin to release yourself.

    Sometimes in the plane on the way up, I'll go back over my pack job: yes, I stowed the brakes, I unstowed the slider. Did I cock the pilot chute? Oh no, I forgot! No, I remember... and send little shivers through myself. So then I mentally go over my emergency procedures. Is that a bad thing?

  4. Those four steps look way too hard. But you also mentioned saturation, so can't I just drink beer?

    Retention seems to be the growing concern for me (and I'm no longer referring to beer or my prostate gland). I simply can't seem to integrate new information very efficiently these days, and it's apparently due to leakage. (I never should have mentioned beer.)

    But I seem to have retained at least one nice new insight recently, and since it spoke very clearly to my concern about poor retention of information (particularly when reading the Bible), I'll share it here. It's from a fairly liberal Christian book called "Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally" by Marcus J. Borg...

    "...a sacrament is commonly defined as a mediator of the sacred, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced...Virtually anything can become sacramental: nature, music, prayer, birth, death, sexuality, poetry, persons, pilgrimage, even participation in sports, and so forth...For many Christians the Bible sometimes becomes sacramental in private devotional reading. As with the practices mentioned above, the purpose of devotional reading is not acquisition of content. Rather, it is openness to the experience of God addressing the reader through a phrase or verse, openness to a sense of the Spirit present within."

    I've always been frustrated that I can't remember more verses or passages, but Borg is basically saying (it seems to me) that I shouldn't be worrying about that. Reading the Bible can be (and possibly should be) just a relationship thing between God and me.

    Likewise, if I can't remember the contents of a novel I'm reading, so what? I'm not reading to acquire content so much as to experience the lives of characters. So that's also a relationship thing. An experiential thing. And experiences can be repeated as often as needed, isn't that right all you skydivers out there?


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