When I first read Dr. Harry Tiebout’s description of the alcoholic mind, I got a shock of recognition. T.he “characteristic[s] of the typical alcoholic” he describes are uncomfortably close to the way my mind worked when I was drinking. Even more uncomfortable is the idea that those characteristics are still around now, after years of recovery. I’m a member of a group that believes just that. Tiebout’s alcoholic mind is alive and well every day when I wake up and can rear its head at any moment during the day.
“But surely,” a small voice of denial says, deep within me, “surely I’m better now. After all, I’ve worked hard and long to improve my thinking. Has all that work gone to waste?” After many years of daily work, I think I have an answer to that question: “well no, but…”
A bit of philosophy here. I think that, at the physical level, my psyche is all about wiring. I think the spiritual nature of humankind shows up in the world through the architecture of the body, including the brain. I think that God speaks to us through a set of connections between brain areas. This is just God manifesting in the physical world. God is more than manifestation, however. God is an agency that causes the manifestations in the first place. Where that is located and what its full nature is are mysterious question marks in my mind.
I think that I came out of the womb with a certain degree of wiring, but also with an enormous blank slate of disorganized brain cells , just waiting to be molded into a human personality, living in the body of an adult. An infant’s brain at birth has a huge number of undifferentiated brain cells – neurons – the basic building blocks of wiring in the brain. As an infant matures, millions of connections between these neurons are formed. As development continues, most of these connections are discarded, leaving behind the architecture of the growing mind-in-brain.
“Brain development, or learning, is actually the process of creating, strengthening, and discarding connections among the neurons; these connections are called synapses. Synapses organize the brain by forming pathways that connect the parts of the brain governing everything we do—from breathing and sleeping to thinking and feeling. This is the essence of postnatal brain development, because at birth, very few synapses have been formed. The synapses present at birth are primarily those that govern our bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, eating, and sleeping.”“Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on the Human Brain.” https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/brain_development.pdf
This process is driven by two factors, heredity and environment. The environment includes all your experiences, how you were treated, and generally what happened to you. The human brain reacts to these things by forming ideas and memories which are expressed as connections between neurons – wiring. How we end up as people depends on how our wiring ends up.
I don’t know about you, but I came out of childhood with a lot of wrong ideas about myself and the world. Those ideas were formed by my experiences, and the way I reacted to those experiences. I remember that the world seemed an intolerable place to be. I sought relief from this pain in drugs and alcohol. Those chemicals, and the experiences they brought with them, further altered my brain’s pathways.
Based on my life experience, I believe that strong wiring in the brain never goes away. I think we can change our behavior and even our personalities because we can make new pathways – new connections – between areas of our brain. But the old pathways remain in place. Given the right conditions I can find myself using them instead of the new ones. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states that “the alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink.” Without work, and the grace of God, I can be lost in my alcoholic thinking at practically any time.
That solves the mystery of how I can still recognize myself in Tiebout and yet have made tons of progress in mental development by working on myself in sobriety, under the care and direction of a Higher Power. In the language of recovery, I have built a new character which I maintain by spiritual means and constant treatment. In the language of neurons, I have created new pathways, which I can reinforce and keep active through practice. My old character is still there and it can show up when stress of some sort causes me to let up on my spiritual program of action. In terms of brain connections, I can jump the traces of my new thinking back into my old ways of thought in a heartbeat. I need continued vigilance and a spiritual practice to stay out of trouble.