Chess as therapy

 

 

 

There’s been a debate in Norway for years about whether or not chess is a sport. We would probably never have had this debate if Magnus Carlsen had not appeared. The Norwegian player, who is still not more than 27 years old, has been a grandmaster since 2004, world champion since 2013, and FIDE has ranked him as the world number one since July 2011.

A lot of people that hardly knew what chess was has become interested in the ….. Yes, what is chess exactly? That’s what people can’t agree on. Personally, I think the whole debate is silly, and I don’t understand why anyone would want to be associated with something that sick. I must admit I have some prejudices regarding sports, and a lot of it stems from my rather ambivalent (and possibly ambiguous) relationship with football. I loved this particular sport as a child, and I still found a lot of joy in it during my teens and young adult years, but I see it mostly as a parasite today. It steals a lot of resources, and makes the body weaker. That’s what happened in my hometown where the politicians supported the local team with millions of NOK while the budgets for schools and retirement homes were drastically reduced.

I still think, even when I leave my town out of it, that football is too much a drain on the resources. That explains why my position is somewhere in the middle today, and why I can never fully support it without feeling a little bad. My point in this post is that I like chess, and whether we compare it to physically demanding activities or not, it is undoubtedly fascinating to watch. I like the World Championship streaming from the newspaper VG. They have a panel consisting of Hans Olav Lahlum (a historian, crime author, politician, and known chess player), Simen Agdestein (chess coach, grand master, and author), and Jon Ludvig Hammer (chess grand master, currently ranked 89 in the world).

So why do I write about chess on a blog that deals with neurodevelopmental disorders? I have always seen chess as therapeutic, something that could be beneficial to people with these challenges. There are many reasons for that, such as what this does to the brain. I have said it before, and do it gladly again. The brain is conservative. It likes doing what is has done before, in the exact same way. It can be persuaded, however. When you force the brain to do something new, it wants to solve this new challenge, and it does so by creating new synapses in the brain. I have written about ballet before, which has a good effect on the brain for the same reason, but chess works too.

This quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a useful reminder:

Always do what you are afraid to do.

That’ll develop you. I already knew some of the benefits, but this became clearer to me when I was watching the FIDE World Chess Championship on VG TV last Friday. The panel briefly referred to players that had talked to their chess pieces. One of the members of the panel mentioned a player that had been most upset with his Knight (hourse) once because this had lost him his game. It was said humorously, but Agdestein added that talking to your chess pieces could be beneficial. It occurred to me that this would be a lot like cognitive therapy.

In cognitive therapy you talk to yourself, you use your inner voice as a conversationalist. The idea is to give yourself alternatives, to oppose automatic, negative thoughts that frequently bring you down. Imagine that you see someone on the street, someone you know. This person doesn’t return your smile or greeting, which is a situation our inner voice may very well interpret in the worst possible way. “Did I do something wrong, something to offend this person? Doesn’t he/she like me? Why not? Is there something wrong with me? Am I stupid, boring …… ?” The possibilities for totally wrong information are endless, and as these thoughts tend to visit us often, we could conclude that there must be some truth to them.

Cognitive therapy is about thinking. Is your inner voice being realistic? It isn’t most of the time, and after your own voice has presented a more reasonable solution, your inner voice will see it too. When these chess experts were talking about this, it made me think about chess as therapy. It’s about allowing the thoughts to engage in a process. Players have to be able to explain to themselves, to reason logically why they want to make a certain move. You can do so by talking to the pieces (not out loud of course). This can also be used to block thoughts that would only be in the way. There’s a limit to how many moves ahead you can think, but players that can plan up to 20 moves would have an advantage. This reminds me of cognitive therapy. What would happen if I do this and that?

Magnus Carlsen is known for being able to see solutions others can’t. He’s capable of winning a game that even the most advanced computers say is a draw. He thinks ahead, and sometimes finds solutions, which I suspect is why he occasionally goes on playing when winning appears impossible. That strategy has worked on a few occasions, such as during the Carlsen-Anand championship, where the computers concluded with a draw in two of Carlsen’s wins. He clearly found a path to victory, but most of the time even Carlsen has to accept that he can’ get a strong enough advantage against his opponent. Chess tells us that we need to focus on the situation at hand, but also consider possible scenarios for the future.The game develops creative and critical thinking, and many find it recreational. It recharges our batteries. In short, there are many reasons to choose this form of low-tech activity.

I also like chess because it’s so easy to start a game. I can play anywhere, whether I have access to electricity or not. I prefer silence when I play, but I like more social board games as well. I highly recommend games like Arkham Horror, Elder Sign, Battlestar Gallactica, Firefly, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, King Domino, and the many variations of Munchkin.

Incidentally, there is something called chess therapy. There is an interesting article on Wikipedia worth reading.

Advertisements

On navigataing through life

I’d far rather be happy than right any day.
And are you?
No. That’s where it all falls down, of course.
Pity, said Arthur. It sounded like a rather good lifestyle otherwise.
Douglas Adams

I used to follow Megan Tan’s podcast. She cancelled it in August 2017, but all the 47 episodes are still available online. The podcast was interesting because I could relate to many of her experiences and views of life. Her main theme was how she as a millennial could navigate through her 20’s, after having graduated from the university.

This blog has a similar function. I maneuver through life as an adult NLD’er, and in addition to writing some posts that others may find interesting, this blog is a useful tool to me. I develop thoughts and ideas while I write, and it makes me see things clearer. In a way that’s what researchers do as well. A hypothesis is an assumption or a guess, and if one succeeds in confirming the hypothesis, it becomes a theory. In fact, there’s a fair amount of speculation in science, which may be why it’s so hard to replicate the findings in social science studies, but they search for answers like Megan Tan and I have done.

When I write about maneuvering it’s both about identifying my personality, and about figuring out what works for me. It’s frequently the same thing, because I function better as the person I am. I recently came across an interesting article in Psychology Today, Changing Your Sense of Identity. The author writes about how actions can change our personality, especially early, painful experiences. That could lead to what Lisa Firestone calls an accidental personality, a situation where the person may not know who he/she is. Changing a personality or the way we think can be a positive thing, and Firestone suggests five actions that could help. We can fight the critical inner voice that many of us have. We have as adults more choices in terms of who our family is, and if our original family fails to give us the supportive environment we need, we could choose to spend more time with people that will give us that. She also suggests seeking meaning, which could mean that we ask ourselves how experiences in the past changed us, and acknowledge that they may have turned us into someone we are not.

I grew up in the nearest of these low rises. It was a tough environment that affected people differently.
I grew up in the nearest of these low rises. It was a tough environment that affected people differently.

I think it makes sense to think about how we are, who we are, and how we came to be who we are today, and if the conclusion is that we need to change, how we can make life better. There is nevertheless a but in this. I wasn’t convinced when one story after another about children being encouraged to make dramatic changes emerged. It used to be seen as prejudicial to assert that homosexuality, and even gender, was a choice. You were born gay and couldn’t choose to be something else. We appear to have moved passed the “born in the wrong body-debate” because it seems to be about choices now. We can choose the orientation and gender that feels good, and I get the impression that it’s accepted to change multiple times through life. I’ve seen many of these stories being shared on autism and NLD support groups on social media, and the point is that we have something in common, but I think this is a misunderstanding. I ask myself how much we are helping these kids.

It may be sensible, as the personality can be affected, but I’ve never heard anyone ask whether or not that was the right decision. There are quite a few individuals that struggle with the decision they made, for example sex change. Society encourages children who feel different, who doesn’t fit in, to change identity. The idea is that those who felt like outsiders, like they didn’t belong, can feel a belonging they have never done before. I’m sure that works if it was the correct decision. This is not a post against “the law of change of legal gender” from 2016, which gives people the right to identify as the the gender they feel they are, but I suspect that many emphasize too much on happiness. Being happy sometimes is natural, but not all the time. I happen to believe that we need all emotions, including those we find uncomfortable.

I started this post with a quote from the science fiction comedy A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I must admit that I’d like to focus on happiness in some cases where I don’t. I still think it wouldn’t be natural, or even healthy, to be happy all the time. I seek a life of meaning, which entails periods of happiness, and without unhappiness the rest of the time. The absence of happiness is not the same as unhappiness or suffering to me. I believe that pursuing meaning will give a more stable life than pursuing the best possible experiences and feelings, because people tend to think that they should have them all the time.

I read an absurd story in the paper earlier this week. A 69 year old man from the Netherlands is going to court to change his identity to a 45 year old, and  I believe he used the gender fluidity as an argument (they can, so why can’t I?). I don’t know whether he was serious, or wanted to expose the whole reasoning as flawed, but some might say that he wasn’t more absurd than men competing in women’s sport without making any gender changes. There have been a few cases in the USA concerning sports, employment/promotion (affirmative action), shelters and the use of dressing rooms.

Ultimately, this is about what is the best way for the individual to navigate through life. What I most of all don’t like about the attitude today is that society more or less urges children to make choices without considering underlying causes and possible consequences. It’s almost like we are telling children: “Why don’t you give it a go and see what happens.” In other words, it’s an experiment, and as it was a decision the child made, we are not responsible. I think it’s necessary to think about and reflect on the changes before making them. I believe in seeking a deeper meaning, as Lisa Firestone put it. That would probably have a better long-term effect. Happiness versus meaning is an interesting question that I may explore further in a later post.

Less alone together

"I thought no one could use someone like me". A poster encouraging people to become collection box bearers.
“I thought no one could use someone like me”. A poster encouraging people to become collection box bearers.

I’ve seen a few billboards and Facebook ads recently promoting an annual fundraiser on the public broadcaster NRK. They give a whole Sunday to an organization, and people all over the country knock on doors and ask people to put money in a collection box. It was the Norwegian Red Cross two years ago, UNICEF Norway last year, and The Church City Mission this year. This is an organization that does a lot of good for marginalized people. Their target group tends to be alcoholics, drug addicts, and people that for different reasons don’t have the skills to function. They sort of end up on the outskirts of society, and in Norwegian we frequently refer to this group as the people that fall outside.

The slogan for this year’s fundraiser was “less alone together”, and some of the people The Church City Mission (CCM) has helped were used to get the message out to the rest of us. The message was that they wanted to create a warmer and more including society, and I wholeheartedly support that idea. There’s no doubt that we need a society that doesn’t break people. The CCM aims to create an environment where people can communicate across barriers, such as generations and cultures. I have written about the human library before, and that is essentially what they suggest in Norway too. What CCM is trying to accomplish is admirable, but there is a but here.

The CCM is, as the name indicates, a Christian organization, which gives it a mandate or order to help the people that need it the most. Some call them the weak, but in this context weak means having difficulties functioning or consistently showing the stability needed to manage alone. It doesn’t make you weak if you are one of those, and let’s not forget that there is something about modern life that makes it harder and harder to be an “insider.” I support this fundraiser, but there are a lot of people that are not included.

Many people feel betrayed by the authorities. This is evident in special education and in the Norwegian Child Protection Service, which has been controversial for many years. Narcissistic Norwegians don’t consider criticism, as we don’t really have any peers, and even after international coverage, such as the BBC documentary Norway’s hidden scandal, the government is still saying that Norway is world leading in protecting children. Some have to pay a high price for that protection.

When The County Governors supervise/probe the CPS in the municipalities they find a lot of deviation. A Norwegian newspaper had an article about this in April this year. They had looked at all the county probes and found that 44 municipalities had failed to follow up 75 percent of the foster-children. They simply didn’t know how these children were doing. This is consistent with studies showing that the majority of foster-children with a psychiatric diagnose don’t receive treatment while in foster-care, which is probably why the drop out rate in school is much higher for foster-children compared to the general population. There are similar studies and statistics showing the same for psychiatric patients in general, minorities, and seniors. There are a lot of great things about Norway, but it makes me upset knowing that we have a better chance than most countries to create the best possible society. Yet we fail.

I have nonverbal learning disability (NLD/NVLD), and I am familiar with the challenges many others have expressed, such as the 20 year old aspie girl that posted a question on a net forum. She described a childhood with bullying, exclusion, and in later years she experienced loneliness, isolation, criticism, and rejection. Growing up as different isn’t easy at all, which is why I don’t like the neurodiversity crap. Being so-called high-functioning isn’t much easier, and if I’m polite this has to do with motivation. It’s hard to motivate or convince people to do the right thing, to respect us. It works if you can press the right buttons, and find the internal motivation each individual already has. If you don’t succeed, any call to be more including or accepting could quickly be more like an order. People don’t like being told what to do.

It’s a tradition for the government to give money to this fundraiser, and they gave NOK 40 million ($ 4,8 million) this year. I’m more impressed with action. I’d rather have authorities that commit to helping people. I want them to show that they actually want people, even those that have some challenges. What we have now is a society where being sympathetic isn’t profitable. It’s a very cold, hostile environment. Many of us have tried to fit in, to do what is needed to be included. That is a stressful life that has worn many of us out.

It’s not that I don’t support this fundraiser. It troubles me, because I know that it could easily have been me. I could have “fallen outside,” but I also want to point to the wider problem. There are marginalized people most people can’t see, not even the church. Many see the obvious, but fail families. Sadly, the church fails too.

You can help science

I have mentioned Jodene Fine, researcher at the Michigan State University, in previous posts. I became aware of her a few years ago when she discovered the first anatomical evidence that the brains of children with NVLD/NLD may develop differently than the brains of other children.

A research groups in Italy has since done a lot of the new research, and Jodene Fine is working together with them on a new project. They have translated a questionnaire that the Italian team developed, and this will be used in the USA. They are also working on a questionnaire for adults, and then the rest of the world will be invited to take part. I’m going to participate and I encourage other NLDers to do the same. This is very important research. In fact, it’s what we have all been waiting for. We need more research and when scientists want to do the work, we should help them.

This is the blurb provided by Jodene Fine:

Do you have a child under the age of 18 with NVLD/NLD?

The Fine Neurodevelopmental Laboratory at Michigan State University is conductig a research project to better understand the development, medical history, family history, education, psychosocial adjustment, and needs of children with Nonverbal Learning Disability.

Our aim is to learn the unique characteristics of your children and family in order to better define and serve the NVLD/NLD community. The survey takes bout 30-40 minutes to complete and is done on a computer. You can be completely anonymous, or you can provide your personal contact information if you want to be alerted to the findings and other related studies.

Dr. Jodene Fine is a researcher who has been devoted to working with children and families in this community. If you would like to participate, please email Dr. Fine’s lab at finelab@msu.edu. Thank you!

I will come back with more information about the adult questionnare when it’s ready.

I found strength in weakness

Holly. I like symbols and pass this every day. Holly, or Christ thorn translated from my language. reminds me of Christmas, and the dramatic voyage of Joseph and Mary. It's a story about courage and hope.
I like symbols and pass this every day. Holly, or Christ thorn translated from my language. reminds me of Christmas, and the dramatic voyage of Joseph and Mary. It’s a story about courage and hope.

I have reflected lately on why I started blogging about NLD and ASD. I was thinking consciously of my writing when I started eight years ago. Writing was a tool I used to explore the diagnose, the world, and myself. I used it to understand the world and to help me find my place in it. I’m still trying to make sense of things, but the blog has gradually turned into a breather, a little escape from the world. sort of my man cave.

I edited a few of my posts and wrote a 70 000 word manuscript that I sent to the biggest publishers in Norway, but I put the project aside after my latest rejection in May this year. I planned to come back to it later, because I’m working on a novel a the moment. I did a lot of work on it this summer, but find it hard to concentrate at the moment. Having problems focusing and living in a small apartment with a family makes it hard to find my own space. So that project is hibernating as well at the moment, but there will be a solution within a couple of weeks. We’re moving to an apartment where I’ll get an office, so the work environment should improve.

I haven’t given up my NLD-project. The publishers didn’t see the potential in what I was trying to do, but hopefully I can show more when I have edited my script. In a way it’s my challenges that helped me write. I was never a brilliant student. I studied hard at all hours of the day, but I was still far behind the other students. My writing was pitiful, but I developed it later, and my blog was especially useful. I found something positive when I thought everything was lost, and I’m quite optimistic today. I feel pretty good about life and I believe the field of NLD is making some progress too.

I can understand the publishing houses. They have a colossal amount of scripts to read. It was unfortunate that I didn’t get feedback, because it would have been useful to know what they liked and didn’t like. I still think my book has potential. It’s a very personal project. It’s partly about who I am, what I am. I have tried a lot of different professions, but everything turned out to be wrong. I don’t know if I can call myself a writer either. The word could be used as a synonym for author, but technically it’s just someone who can produce written words. I can call myself a writer no matter how the quality of my text is, but I’d like to be an author people want to read.

In terms of non-fiction the publishing houses are looking for content of course. They want the manuscript to present something new, new material or new ideas about an old material. It’s also important to have a voice, because it won’t do you much good if you are not the right person to tell the story. I have heard quite a few knowledgeable speakers that shouldn’t have given their own presentation. That’s just the way it is. We don’t have all the skills we want. I don’t know yet if that’s me as well, but I believe both voice and content can develop into something.

NLD has struggled with anonymity for a long time. It’s not easy for any voice to be heard, but I want to try again. A search for nonverbal learning disability on Amazon gives you a list of 133 books. I don’t think the only Norwegian book on the topic is available on this site, but I like that book. It’s not enough, though. It was written by professionals, for professionals. It’s important with more books, but also from people with the diagnose.

Research tends to focus on children, but many of us grew up without a diagnose. We had the difficulties the literature describes, but we had to manage alone in a world that didn’t know NLD existed. It may not help with professionals that know, or think they know, either. Many of them have expectations. We need to behave in accordance with their textbooks from university. There are also the consequences of not functioning. Other conditions have so-called delayed injuries/reaction (cancer treatment can be brutal on the body for example). That seems like e relevant NLD-term as well. Life can be brutal when childhood is over, and long before. Imagine feeling different. It could be that you feel that something is wrong, that you don’t fit in. You can see that you are unable to do the things everyone else can, but you don’t understand why.

I was one of the many trying to figure things out. I wanted to understand life, and myself. I wanted to understand why I wasn’t like everyone else, why I constantly failed, but I didn’t really have a chance the first 42 years of my life. It hasn’t been easy the last 8 years either, but getting a diagnose helped. I could start making sense of the world, and find my place in it. That is demanding work as an adult, because changing a stable, fixed personality is complicated. That’s why we have to start early, and that is a part of my project. I want people to know that there are things that can be done. A diagnose like ASD or NLD doesn’t mean you can’t have a good life. You can, but it will require a lot of effort from yourself, your family, teachers and health care professionals.

We need voices, and I hope to develop a publishable one. We could always need more, so I encourage others to write too.

New NLD research makes me optimistic

The view from a hill I enjoy walking to shows a part of my town. White matter is the network of roads between the houses/grey matter.
The view from a hill I enjoy walking to shows a part of my town. White matter is the network of roads between the houses/grey matter.

I’m quite busy at the moment, but when things settle down I intend to read a book Jodene Fine suggested recently. She’s a professor and researcher at Michigan State University. I wrote her, and about her, three years ago. I was optimistic when Fine published research suggesting that the brains of children with NLD are different than other children, including aspies. I thought this was going to be the start of something we haven’t seen yet, widespread research. It wasn’t.

I mailed Jodene Fine again recently and received an encouraging reply. She told me that a group of NVLD scholars are meeting regularly to try to write diagnosis criteria for the new round of DSM. That’s very encouraging, and perhaps it should have been done a long time ago, because as Fine admitted in her response, getting funding for NVLD reserarch is quite hard. Not because this field doesn’t deserve attention, but because it’s not included in DSM or ICD. Incidentally, WHO released ICD 11 in June 2018, but it won’t come into effect until January 2022. That’s because all member states will need the time to translate the document and train health care professionals.

The group that is currently working on the criteria are trying to change the name from NLD/NVLD to something like Visuospatial Processsing Disorder, which makes a lot of sense to me. I have speculated in some previous posts whether diagnoses like ADHD, ASD, and NLD had something in common. They are different, no doubt about that, but it appears to me that they may have some things in common. Some people refer to autism as a connectivity syndrome, which means that the different parts of the brain don’t work as well together as they should. That tends to overload the brain cognitively and emotionally. Things take longer time for these people and they get exhausted.

I haven’t read anything about that concerning NLD, but when I read about white matter, I wonder if there is a similar thing going on. A popular description I read once referred to white matter as the subway of the brain, connecting the grey matter from different regions of the brain with each other. You definitely want a lot of it, and you want it to be fast. NLD isn’t Asberger syndrome, but I believe it’s a syndrome, which means it’s a group of symptoms that together cause the challenges. The end result might be the same, a problem with communication and mentalization, understading different situations.

It’s not that I need NLD to be Asberger, but it seems wrong to me that children growing up for the most part have to manage without any help, which is hard to accept. Some like the view that these diagnoses are a natural variation in the human genome, but I believe that to be a damaging position. Growing up with ASD, NLD, and ADHD is very hard. The world is confusing to many of us. It frequently doesn’t make any sense at all. There is good news, though. Life isn’t over. Most people with these challenges can have good lives, but it’s important to start early. I was diagnosed at 42 and have found that it takes a lot of effort. The personality is quite stable, and I sometimes wonder if that is a defense built into our brain. Some have more resilience than others, but it is possible to beat overwhelming odds. It may be a disadvantage that adults find it so hard to change, but this can also help us not giving up on life.

It was encouraging to hear from Jodene Fine. I leave you with an Italian study by some scholars Jodene Fine has worked with. In this they tested two groups of children, one with NLD and one with Dyslexia. The test showed that the NLD-children struggled more with the visuo-constructive version of the test, while the Dyslexic children struggled more with the perceptual part. It sounds to me like we are making progress, and this might be the start of an official diagnose. I plan to come back with more information later.

I eat a lot of medicine

Cup of tea. I'm with C.S. Lewis who said that you can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough. I like adding spices to my tea.
I’m with C.S. Lewis who said that you can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough. I like adding spices to my tea.

Science is amazing! I love science, but science also has a problem. It’s hard getting research funded, which is a major problem in NLD research. That’s because it’s not included in DSM 5 or ICD 11. Science is also competitive and no one wants to publish a study that won’t get headlines.

Scientists are not supposed to draw conclusions that are not supported by their findings, but we know that probably happens. That’s why you can find headlines about studies that try to replicate other studies, and fail to get the same results, which is an important requirement. Many studies are small, and as interesting as they may be, the conclusion may not mean much until another study has confirmed the findings.

I was surprised when I looked at nrk.no late last night. The state broadcasting corporation (basically our PBS and C-Span) had an article about a study they presented as groundbreaking. It was a study stating that eating a lot of fat and sugar could lead to depression. This was the conclusion after researchers in Britain, Spain and Australia had examined  41 previous studies looking for a link between food and depression. The Guardian  also wrote about this study.

NRK also asked Norwegian researchers for a comment, and they were not yet convinced that diet was relevant. I’m not that surprised because I’ve come across that attitude here before. It’s one that drives foreigners crazy, which I totally get. It’s an attitude or extreme skepticism to anything and anyone foreign. I encounter this among health care professionals as well. They trust Norwegian research, and some are updated on international studies, but I frequently encounter opposition and resentment. B 12 injection is a good example. I had heard that some had tried that with good results, but I talked to a dozen GPs before I met with one that was willing to consider it. The others had said that it wasn’t necessary and a couple of them even claimed that they were not available in Norway. Then I talked to a doctor that was more pragmatic. He felt that getting an overdose was more or less impossible, and he had read research about a positive effect on Alzheimer patients, so he wanted to try it.

Some of the most fascinating research in recent years has to do with a link between the gut and the brain. There are neurons in the gut and these are connected  to the brain through the nervous system. I recommend  this article in Healthline, and its footnotes for further reading. As a result of this information this family has been conscious of diet in recent years. Dieting to us doesn’t mean eating less than we need, losing weight, but we use food and activities as a way to function better. That makes food medicine. I’m not anti-medicine, but I am anti-unnecessary medicine. My comorbid conditions are mild enough that I manage without medicine, but I recognize that some need drugs.