Lets Celebrate World's Mental Health Day!

One day when I was about 12 I had a panic attack that I might be losing my mind. Before that moment I had perceived my mind as a reliable source of somewhat clear thoughts in accord with what other people like my Mom, Dad and a history teacher I respected thought of reality outside my mind. But suddenly I became aware that the clarity of my thoughts was only a thin veneer covering up the other side of my Mind that was dark, sinister and capable to spin out of control.

- I will go mad if I don't watch out, - I thought. The only way I knew to watch out was to watch my mind. So I started to scrutinize my mind and it's products. Between pretty keen observations (the neighbor's jacket is thorn, he must had a fight with his other neighbor again) and rational learning (the Thirty Years War took place from 1618 to 1648) it managed to mix in some thoughts that were a bit off and needed an additional attention:

- How valid is this thought about running away from home and living in a forest eating moss?

- How about this thought to continue swimming away from the beech until I reach Sweden? 

- Should I follow this thought of jumping from the roof of a building to see if I can fly?

Somehow in the light of my examination the thought of swimming 150 km from Kurzeme to Swedish Island Gotland (150 km) lost it's appeal. Of course, swimming in cold water made me feel invigorated and powerful, and Sweden had always emitted irresistible glow of a forbidden fruit, but the rational part of my mind reminded me that the Baltic Sea was filled with Soviet military boats looking for potential defectors swimming to the West. Any defector would be shot, then fished out, identified, and then whole family plus the dead defector would be shipped to Siberia to be eaten by swarms of mosquitoes and bears. The thought of harming my family sent me back to the sandy beach of Kurzeme.

Turning lights on to my mind has been my strategy of staying sane. Talking to other people about my thoughts and feelings has been very helpful, too, to identify the ones that are perceived as scary and irrational by other people.

I am happy that we are celebrating World's Mental Health Day on October 10th! It helps us all to understand better mental illness and helps to erase stigma attached to it. If we were not afraid to be stigmatized for speaking about our condition we would be more open about it and seek help before it is too late.

Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival is screening my feature film "Rocks In My Pockets" as part of their Mental Health Day program on Monday, October 10th at 2 PM, at AK Bell Library Theatre in Perth.

MK Gallery is also screening "Rocks In My Pockets" on October 10th, at 7 PM in Milton Kaynes, UK, to celebrate the Mental Health Day and to incite a conversation around genetics, stigma and hope in the face of mental illness. 

If you are curious about the film, please take a look at the trailer:

Happy Mental Health Day!


Research II

When they tell you children are like angels - blank pages in books of purity and innocence that Life and Devil start to write on their dark messages in black ink around teen age - please do not believe them. Every fool who has held a newborn baby knows children scream when they want something. They scream for food, love, affection and toys. When they grow up they learn to push aside their competitors - other babies, small dogs and a-month-old kittens - to get to the desired goods.

One important thing about children you should really know -  scientists confirmed recently that besides being cry-babies babies are also racists. If you read that article you'll find out the reason why:

The idea of in-group bias is well established in behavioral science, and it has its roots long ago, in humanity’s tribal era.

From the moment they are born, children learn to distinguish between the people in their group and the outsiders. It only gets worse as children grow (until their Prefrontal Cortex develops and as adults they become aware of their bias and learn to correct it). Which brings me back to my story about school uniforms.

In Russia a school uniform for girls looked like this:

While in Latvia it looked like this, a whole class:


- Ah, - you'd say. - I see no big difference! Its just a uniform!

Well, it's easy for you to say. The eyes of 8-year olds are like those of an eagle, discerning the smallest difference from the furthest distance, anything that would give them clues to start an abuse of The Other. Have you ever tried to enter a classroom, full of 8-year-olds, dressed in the wrong uniform? On September 1st, after my return from Sakhalin to Latvia, I did just that and instantly was tagged as The Other. When the teacher asked me to introduce myself to the class, and I said ... :

- Hi, my name is Signe Baumane. My family recently moved to this town from Sakhalin...

... the 35 of my future classmates detected Russian accent in my Latvian speech which gave them permission to hate me. After 1941 Latvians considered Russians as representatives of occupying powers and harbored quiet but bitter resentments towards the privileges and entitlements the newly arrived Russians enjoyed. Of course, being a second class citizens in his/her own country no Latvian could express openly their hostility towards any Russian. But I was a perfect target - a Latvian speaking with a Russian accent. And so the bottled up resentment was unleashed on me.

Or, perhaps I am giving political overtures to something that was more simple: I was awkward, ugly, quiet, not very bright and my Mom was a teacher at the same school (kids of teachers were also hated - they were perceived as having unfair advantage).

Whatever happened on that first day, I was not able to shake off the tag of The Other for the next 10 years, however I tried. Observing my sufferings stemming from social exclusion my Prefrontal Cortex grew to develop bias against populars. 

But wait, I just watched Blank on Blank interview with Kurt Cobain (animated by Pat Smith) and he said: " i felt so different so crazy" in school. Curt Cobain? You'd think in high school he was an incarnate of the populars, no?

Most of my friends felt different and crazy in school, excluded from the popular circles. But WHERE are those populars? Perhaps the people we perceived as populars also felt miserable and excluded? Have they lived to tell their tale?





Neuroscience of Dreams

For my new feature film "The Marriage Project" (WIP title) I did mountains of research (it actually seemed like a Kilimanjaro of research, am still mentally drained from that brain effort) in the fields of anthropology and neuroscience. I wanted to explore the idea of how we as human beings are influenced by biochemical processes within our bodies while carried away by near mystical experiences of falling in love. 

While doing the research of course I had conversations with my human fellows about this research. Some of them expressed great hostility towards the idea that any of their actions might be a collections of chemical and neuron chain-reactions.

- I am more than just my body! - they proclaimed. - I have dreams. I sometimes have feelings of something Divine touching my Magical Essence. Don't reduce me to chemicals!

Indeed, chemicals lately have been getting bad rep, with Bernie Sanders leading the fight against Big Pharma and media exposing presence of bad chemicals in our food.

But some chemicals actually make us human. And being a human without being aware of own chemical undercurrents means to be at mercy of those unmentionable chemicals. Like a string puppet who doesn't know and doesn't control what it is going to do, like eating a whole chocolate cake on an impulse.

Those objecting-to-be-just-chemicals humans hostile to my research were onto something. It made me think of what is human spirituality and why our need for feeling Divine Creature's touch on our Magical Essence survived the trials and tribulations of Evolution.

A recent article in Aeon "Dreams and Revelations" by Patrick McNamara examines neurochemistry of dreams, and what is it about dreams that make them such potent vehicles for the supernatural.

From the article:

"We know that rapid eye movement sleep (REM), when eyes move rapidly back and forth under closed eyelids, is the phase when we have the most vivid dreams. REM is associated with heightened levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine (associated with reward and movement) and acetylcholine (associated with memory), as well as a surge of activity in the limbic system, the amygdala, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, all areas of the brain that handle emotion. Conversely, there is lowered activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that handles personal insight, rationality and judgement; likewise, the neurochemicals noradrenaline and serotonin, involved in vigilance and self-control, are regulated down. The very low levels of serotonin allow steady release of the excitatory transmitter glutamate, which overstimulates the brain activity thought to underlie the cognitive and perceptual effects of hallucinogens. In other words, in REM sleep, our emotional centres are overstimulated while our reflective rational centres are impeded or narrowly refocused on issues of emotional significance. We are left free to ponder the endless meanings of the emotions and interactions that we experience but we do so with wildly fluctuating levels of reflective insight."

And it reached conclusion:

"Where does all this leave us today? On one hand, the link between REM dreams and spiritual experience disturbs some religious people because they fear it suggests that religion is nothing but delusional dreaming and hallucinations. On the other hand, the connection upsets some die-hard atheists, who dislike the idea that spirituality is rooted in our biology – that it is functional and adaptive, and central to who we are."

As always, the truth is between the two extremes.

Meanwhile, some of my own dreams are so strong that I have a hard time believing for a few days that flying over Manhattan with the help of my Magic Scarf actually didn't take place. But the feeling of being powerful wears off in 72 hours. The interpretations I have for my dreams are highly practical, without any sense of Supernatural or Divine: Shit means money. Babies mean trouble. Dogs mean friends. 

As a biochemical creature I am trying to make my life simple and humble. Divinity is busy touching more worthy biochemical material than me.