At the beginning of March I read the following article in the NY Times about research into what makes athletes great: How To Grow a Super-Athlete
The main crux of the piece talks about the powerful effect a substance called myelin has on our brain. Myelin is a fatty substance that forms around our neurons. It provides insulation to the neurons in much the same way that rubber coats an electrical wire. The reason this substance is of greater and greater interest to scientists is the effect it seems to have on the circuits it protects in the brain. Somehow myelin doesn't just insulate neural paths, it also drastically improves the efficiency with which they conduct the electrical signals that comprise our very thoughts. In other words, the more myelin you have built up around any particular neural path, the faster, and more efficiently will the thoughts and actions associated with that path occur.
As scientists learn more about the role of myelin in cognitive functioning, one thing is becoming clear: constant repetition of a certain skill or thought builds up the myelin layer around the associated neural pathways. Building up this layer improves the efficiency with which signals travel down a given neural circuit. Therefore a person who consistently practices at any skill (swinging a golf club, playing the piano, learning to speak a different language) will experience a gradual improvement in their performance at the given task. For example (put very simply) a novice golfer gradually becomes more skilled at swinging the club with consistent skill as the myelin layer becomes thicker around those neural paths which control the action of swinging a club.
So what does swinging a golf club have to do with overcoming the trauma of our past experiences? A lot. As a matter of fact, I think understanding the role of myelin in brain functioning can explain a great deal of why we often feel the way we do, and why it takes so long to heal.
To speak in a purely mechanical way, every thought we have and every feeling we experience is comprised of the firing of certain neural paths in response to stimuli. For example - If we see a picture of a cute puppy, our "sappy" circuits kick in and something inside of us goes, "awwww". We don't consciously process this reaction, it just seems to happen automatically.
More complex actions have an appropriately complex learning curve. Remember what it felt like to learn how to drive? The first few times you operated a car you might have felt overwhelmed by the amount of information you had to process all at once in order to operate the vehicle safely. Observation of traffic conditions, the necessary motor skills of combining proper foot work on the pedals with hand work on the steering wheel (and shifter if you learned how to drive a stick-shift), anticipation of other people's actions, and learning the physical reactions of the car itself all combine to make for what can be a stressful experience for most people. No one gets behind the wheel of a car with an instinctive skill to operate the vehicle with "automatic" efficiency. But over time, as we learn and practice the skills of driving, we can eventually get to a place where the skills of driving seem "automatic". I would argue that what happens in this instance is that we are building up the myelin sheath around those neural circuits that all interact and combine to allow us the skill to drive a vehicle safely.
Think about our emotional struggles. How many times have we all struggled with pain and anxiety that seemed uncontrollable? How often do we worry and fret that we don't seem to be in control of our own feelings? It seems to me very likely that just as we develop the skills of driving with "automatic" skill, we develop "automatic" reactions and emotions as a result of prolonged exposure to trauma and chaos. In my own life, I experienced feelings of abandonment and loneliness over and over again as a child. Now, as an adult, I recognize the ease and rapidity with which my fear of abandonment arises whenever I get close to another person. It's "automatic" in just the same way that my ability to react to other cars on the road is "automatic".
I think that it's very possible that the repetitive exposure to emotional and physical trauma builds up the myelin sheaths around those neural paths which are associated with such phenomena as depression, anxiety, stress, etc.
It seems to me that almost all of our struggles with depression, anxiety, anger, and the other emotions that we fight to gain some level of control over, all the challenges we face to establish a different, healthy sense of self reflect how hard it can be to develop new pathways in our own minds. Learning how to love oneself, learning how to trust other people, learning how to be open to the joys of life are themselves emotional skill sets in much the same way that learning how to drive is it's own skill set.
So why does it seem so damn hard for so many of us to fight through our pain? This is where the nature of myelin comes into play I think. Studies show that myelin somehow allows the electrical impulses that travel down the neural paths to "jump" from one place to another. In other words, in those places where the myelin sheath is thickest, thoughts and actions seem to happen with an almost instantaneous efficiency. Now pretend for a moment that instead of being taught how to swing a golf club Tiger Woods had been abused repeatedly for a number of years. I'd be willing to bet you that all of the skill he has brought to bear on the game of golf would have been transformed into a titanic self-hatred with an efficiency and strength that many of us would recognize.
For most of us, feelings of abandonment, rage, fear, or sadness were reinforced so many times by so many experiences that these feelings arise within us with an astonishing efficiency. Oftentimes we take this as evidence that we are horribly broken in some way. We are depressive and sick and flawed and unable to escape the predicament of our own sadness. But that's just not true.
I truly believe that every single one of us can, with sustained effort and skilled care from well trained therapists (or perhaps lets call them tutors), break free of the cycle of automatic negative thinking and escape the haunting memory of our abuse. The automatic thoughts of self hatred and seemingly uncontrollable instances of anxiety and fear could be nothing more than manifestations of myelin development along neural path which reinforce negative emotions. This does not mean that there is something inalienably broken about us. This does not mean that we are neurochemically so screwed up that we can't recover. This does not mean that the myelin sheaths already built up doom us to an existence of pain and suffering. If a man can learn a new task at work, he can learn to love himself as well.
What does this mean for those of us who struggle with extreme emotional distress? Two very important things. One - we can indeed set out to learn a new set of emotional skills, if we choose to do so. There is no scientific research that I am aware of that states that it is impossible for a normal, otherwise healthy adult to learn new skills. Second - the learning of the new emotional skills necessary for healthy, loving behavior requires significant time and effort.
If we can accept that loving oneself is a skill which must be learned in much the same way that one learns how to drive a car (although the former skill can seem infinitely harder at times), we can perhaps begin to see a way through our inner darkness. Perhaps we can take a step back from our self-hatred and disdain and give ourselves a bit of a break.
Although I think this theory gives cause for hope to many of us who allow a fatalistic ennui to overwhelm us, I do not think it points to any simple solutions. The work that is required to rebuild new neural paths is substantial and time consuming to be sure. Also, the development of new skills does not in any way reduce the presence of myelin around older neural pathways, as far as I know. This means that even if we make great progress in our healing, we must acknowledge that there will always be the temptation or the magnetic draw to fall into old patterns of thinking and feeling. Much as a person never really forgets how to ride a bike once they've learned how to do it, so a depressed man will never quite forget how to fall into that path of self-negating thinking and feeling. The hope is that, in time, a sufficient alternative emotional structure can be built within the mind to at the very least offer an alternative way of seeing one's self and the options one has spread out before them.
Hopefully, given enough time and effort, new myelin sheaths can protect and improve new patterns of thought and behavior which have a profoundly positive and joyful aspect to them. There is no reason that I can see to assume that once a depressive always a depressive.
In any event, I wanted to share this with you. I hope it gives you something to ponder. I will be happy to hear from anyone with more experience in the fields of psychology, biology, and/or neuroscience if I've misinterpreted the current understanding of the role of myelin, or if some of my conclusions are unsupported by current scientific data.