Take a moment. Breathe in.
Say, “I am…” and the first few things that come to mind. Notice how these thoughts feel. Any words that follow “I am…” have the power to mould and manoeuvre your sense of self.
I am human. I am curious. I am kind. It is perhaps one of the greatest instincts of the human condition to attach ourselves to a sense of identity. This may be rooted in connection, community or companionship. Perhaps identity stems from creation, control, or ceremony. To construct a comfortable and assured interaction with the environment, we tell ourselves (and those around us) who we are. I am not my research, though I am working in the field of sleep science – diagnosing obstructive sleep apnoea in persons living with HIV. This involves tracking the brain patterns of a sleeping patient, as well as their breathing. I am constantly reminded to be humble in my knowledge acquisition.
I am a learner. I am a teacher. I am a neuroscientist. Effectively, this means I study the squishy, convoluted pink organ housed within the skull. This lump of biologically active stuff, which somewhat governs our lived experience, fascinates me so deeply that I am compelled to tell you why it is part of who I am.
As you read this sentence, your brain is making associations between what I write; the sounds in your environment; any aromas wafting past your nostrils; and even the temperature of your body. When you think back to this moment, your brain will recount – within milliseconds – all the sensations activated within you to remind you of this experience.
The average human brain can create about 60 000 thoughts every day!
We can practice calming or stimulating our minds by the type and timing of awareness we employ. I might be so bold as to say this awareness is a series of thoughts. So, what is a thought? A thought is an electrochemical trace that occupies multi-dimensional space in your brain. A thought is the internal experience of how we process external stimuli. This internal experience relates to one’s senses and (new term incoming) somatosensation, or the sensory relationships of our bodies with the space around it – a tickle, an itch, a chill. We even have this epic internal ‘sixth sense’ called interoception – sensing what we feel within our bodies! In some ways, I agree that what we think we can become.
Still, I am more than just my brain’s interpretations of my body’s sensations.
Humans have humanity. We adapt to circumstance and unite in hardship. I am an activist. I am an advocate. I am an ally. I situate myself at the intersection of neuroscience, public health, and social justice. I have more than just a love for science – I have a love for sharing science. This brings me to a chilling (but in no way “chilled”) fact:
In 2020, the Annual Mental State of the World Report showed that 36 % of South Africans are living in mental health distress. Let that number sink in. 36 % is about four out of ten people. I dream of a day where we see this number crumble like the last rusk in the packet. My research aims will likely centre around this dream for as far into our future as I can imagine. This percentage is not the fault of our brains, but a psychosocial consequence of centuries of suffering and oppression.
Restructuring the paradigm of cognitive wellness requires not only inclusion of minority groups, but in fact building new systems with excluded groups at the centre of our focus. While I have an ongoing love-affair with the brain, I feel even more inspired by Black joy, trans joy and accessible places for people with disabilities. As I pursue my neuroscientific dreams, I want to cultivate safer mental health spaces and research outcomes for LGBTQPIA+ people, Indigenous peoples and disabled persons.
There is no quick fix for mental health reform, but I am committed to proactively prioritizing both systemic and systematic wellness. I invite you to ask yourself, “Am I?”.