Can acid dissolve the social isolation of autism and Asperger’s syndrome?

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An inability to intuit other people’s thoughts, emotions and intentions in their eyes is a hallmark of autism and Asperger’s. Photograph: Lior Mosko/Flickr

Aaron Paul Orsini felt utterly alone in the world: emotionally numb and devoid of any sense of connection with anybody, including himself. Sunk deep in depression since his teens, he spent much of his time alone in his bedroom, as he puts it, “trying to figure out how the game of being human worked … I kept going to therapy. I kept reading books. I kept working at my desk job. I kept trying new medications. I kept failing, time and time again, with the simple act of identifying the emotional needs of myself and others.”

He spoke to his therapist about his struggles to maintain contact with friends and make new ones, “and how even one-on-one moments felt very confusing at times. I was physically close to people such as my girlfriend, but still very much emotionally distant, from her, myself, and really, everyone in my life.”

At 23 he was at last given a diagnosis that made sense of his tortured efforts to connect socially: autism spectrum disorder. But while the revelation was intellectually interesting, he says, it left him in precisely the same bind: unable to make sense of his own emotions or others’, “feeling irretrievably broken” and increasingly having thoughts about ending it all. Continue reading “Can acid dissolve the social isolation of autism and Asperger’s syndrome?”

Dreams, meditation and psychedelics: a manifesto for lucidity

alone bed bedroom blur
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“The life of one day is enough to rejoice. Even though you live for just one day, if you can be awakened, that one day is vastly superior to one endless life of sleep.”

Zen master Dogen

Awake or asleep, “Am I dreaming?” may be one of the most important questions you ever ask yourself because, sooner or later, reality has a way of catching up with delusions and fantasies. There’s going to be a rude awakening.

Dreams are so convincing while you are in the midst of one. For all you know you could be dreaming right now. How do you know this is actually happening, that you are wide awake reading these words on a solidly, physically existing electronic device? You could be fast asleep dreaming the whole thing.

It is not difficult, in principle, to determine whether or not you are dreaming. There are plenty of readily available tests. Of course the classic is to pinch yourself. Another is to try pushing your finger through the palm of your hand. A popular though less discrete method is to jump into the air to check whether or not gravity is working as it should. Or you could scrutinise a clock or watch face: if the numbers are jumbled or the hands are moving too fast or too slow – or in the wrong direction – the chances are you’re dreaming. As you read this, are the words behaving themselves on the page? Are they making sense?

Anyone dreaming? Continue reading “Dreams, meditation and psychedelics: a manifesto for lucidity”

Grownups with imaginary friends may be more prone to hearing voices

Woman reading on beach
People who have a tendency to hear auditory hallucinations may experience fictional characters in books as more vivid and real. Photograph: Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr

As a child, did you have an imaginary friend? Studies have found that up to two thirds of seven-year-olds play with invisible friends, but it turns out a surprisingly large number of adults also have fantasy companions.

In the biggest online survey of its kind, conducted by psychologists at the University of Durham in the UK, 7.5% of people claimed to have had one as an adult. The same people were also more likely to report experiencing auditory vocal hallucinations (AVHs) or “hearing voices” than those who had never had an imaginary companion. A second, lab-based study conducted by the same psychologists backed up the findings, raising the possibility that the two phenomena – hearing voices and fantasy friends – share the same underlying brain mechanism. Continue reading “Grownups with imaginary friends may be more prone to hearing voices”

Meditation brightens mood by pumping up dopamine levels

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Happy Christmas! Image: pixabay

In an age of instant gratification and limited attention spans, why would anyone take up meditation? Perhaps for its soothing, stress-busting effects? Focusing on their breath or a mantra, even beginners start to notice the calming influence of their body’s “relaxation response”, the physiological flipside of the adrenaline-fuelled fight-or-flight response. Among other things the relaxation response slows respiration and heart rate, eases muscle tension and lowers blood pressure, and the changes are associated with a quieting of the brain’s “default mode network”, responsible for mind-wandering, rumination and worry.

But can that really be the whole story?

A peaceful mind is a wonderful thing and for many this is the biggest incentive to meditate regularly – not least for those of us prone to anxiety and depression – but there is another, related benefit that has received scant scientific or medical attention: meditation can be pleasurable, even ecstatic. In the Buddhist meditation known as jhana, for example, the early stages are characterised not only by feelings of peacefulness, but also joy and happiness. Continue reading “Meditation brightens mood by pumping up dopamine levels”

This is the happiness of the Buddha

Buddha statue in Vietnam

Last weekend, a few months after the publication of Siddhartha’s Brain in Dutch, I gave a lecture about the science of mindfulness to a very polite, attentive audience at the wonderful Brainwash Festival in Amsterdam. Here’s a transcript.

Ladies and gentlemen, each and every one of us here will face two key problems in our lives. The first problem is that as creatures of biology, particularly when we’re young, we spend lots of time and energy pursuing the pleasures of sex, money, social status. And as biological creatures we also invest a lot of energy trying to avoid pain and unpleasantness.

For most people, this is what they mean when they talk about the pursuit of happiness. But pleasures never last and sooner or later, as we get older, we’re all going to experience the pain and unpleasantness of ill health and ageing. It’s just a fact of life.

So that’s our first problem, and I’m sure none of this is news to you.

The second problem is much more surprising and counterintuitive, but is just as important. The second problem is that we think way too much. Every second that we’re awake, our lives are dominated by what’s going through our minds. Continue reading “This is the happiness of the Buddha”

Surely there’s a middle way between drugs and psychotherapy for treating mental illness?

Xanax and Valium pills

Do you have Valium? I’m worried I won’t be able to sleep again tonight.” In truth, when I sent this text to a friend late one afternoon last April, I was more than worried. I was petrified. I hadn’t slept for three nights and knew perfectly well my mental health was deteriorating. Continue reading “Surely there’s a middle way between drugs and psychotherapy for treating mental illness?”

Meditation research: from “career suicide” to mainstream science

Meditating at sunset

“Disbelieving and hostile” is how Herbert Benson describes the reaction of fellow cardiologists at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s when they learned he was studying the physiological effects of transcendental meditation. They thought he’d sold out to the hippies. “I had to conduct two careers at that time,” the 80-year-old told me over the phone from Boston. “One as a cardiologist and the other as ‘my crazy thing’.” At one point there was a real possibility he could be thrown out of Harvard. Continue reading “Meditation research: from “career suicide” to mainstream science”