Imaginative experience and rebuilding the brain


In 1986, the course of neurologic treatment changed forever when Mark Block, one severely spine-injured young man, chose “imp-possible” over “impossible” and, every day, spent hours imagining how it would be to walk again, imagining his “wires” getting hooked back up again, riding a wave of inner certainty that can only be called a gift.

 

He mentally rehearsed endlessly. Day after day after week after month.

 

And then, months into his care, he told the nurse, “Watch this,” and made his foot twitch. The first nurse dismissed it as a spasm. The second or third nurse got the doctor.

 

The doctor stood over the foot — really close — and said, “Do it again.” Twitch.

 

“Again.” Twitch.

 

“Again.” Kick.

 

One of the great moments in medicine.

 

Upon discharge, he walked out of the hospital.

Some of the meditations from my pain psychologist are visualizations. They’re made for a mass audience, not for people with chronic illness generally or CRPS specifically, so a certain amount of tolerance with the language is required. (At one point, the narrator says, after a pregnant pause, “Looking good.” Oh for heaven’s sake.)

Fortunately, she’s dropped pearls of wisdom about what’s important in these exercises, so I’m (naturally) mulling over a new set of scripts which attain those ends a wee bit more gracefully. (Of course, the files will be freely available to download.)

The key point is, it’s important to imagine what it feels/looks/smells/sounds like to be really well, really functional, really active, really smart again. Here’s the lowdown:

  • It’s not just a set of images, it’s a multisensory experience that I imagine as clearly as a good memory.
  • It’s important to do so vividly and frequently.
  • It’s important to think of imaginative experience as a good working hypothesis, rather than a hopeless quest or pointless daydreaming.

That’s key. Making it seem real, and not dismissing it afterwards. Over and over again.

That’s how the brain is persuaded — molecule by molecule, link by link, cell by cell — to give up its current structure, which pins so much of the neuro-anatomical, neuro-chemical and neuro-endocrine dysfunction in place.

Then, in many cases — and with suitable support from nutrition, psychological care and physical activity — it’s possible to reverse-engineer a healthier, more functional neuro-setup.

It takes time. It takes dogged persistence. It takes a vivid imagination — which can be developed, if it’s not already there. (Like getting to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.) Last but not least, it takes a smidgen of luck.

The imaginative experiences, if all goes well, help your neurological structure leap the chasm between what it is and what it should be. It’s an enormous leap of faith to get started, let alone keep going for as long as it takes to rewire such an astoundingly complex structure.

Of course, inner resistance and outer events are liable to leap out and knock us off track, because that’s what they do… and we have to find ways to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and get back on track as soon as possible.

It’s a huge job, inside and out — all that leaping.

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But it’s not impossible.

I’ve been mulling experiences that I can imagine failing to do with my current body, but remember doing with my healthy one.  I think I’ll write them out (word-painting at its most precise) and build really great imaginative experiences to come back to, again and again.

Running; sailing; riding; studying; traveling; writing complex books; lecturing on neurology, pain, and healing — you know that’s what I’m thinking about.

What would your imaginative experiences be? What would you leap the chasm for? What could you immerse yourself in, week after week, month after month, maybe year after year, for the chance of pulling yourself up to it?

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I have a feeling my list will change with time. As I sit with these imaginative experiences, I’ll see which ones really keep on giving, and which ones were better in theory than practice — and, of course, I’ll find the one I haven’t thought of yet, which will turn out to be key.

At the moment, the hard part is coming back to reality afterwards. That can really suck. But there are ways to deal with that — instant distraction, for instance — and the more I think it over, the more I think it’s worth it.

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2 Replies to “Imaginative experience and rebuilding the brain”

  1. its like mirror box therapy, which I found a great benefit. yep try anything, but this does work. I wouldn’t say im gonna climb a mountain by thought, but I will give it a damned good try.

  2. In retrospect, I wish I’d been less self-blaming when I wrote this. I still thought I was unable to focus because I wasn’t trying hard enough. (That’s just silly! I was giving it everything I had.)

    I was dealing with a brain that had acquired, through CRPS, the kind of structural and chemical alterations that are found in a brain with ADD.

    Once we started treating the ADD, it became not only attainable, but often very satisfying, to do these meditations without interruption.

    /headdesk/

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