The Brain & Science – The Problem With Wanting It All

As a psychotherapist, I have taken an interest in the rise of neurobiological research being applied to my field. At first, particularly upon hearing about “interpersonal neurobiology” (or IPNB), I was excited — I was seeing the intrapsychic and biological converge into what appeared to be a fascinating model of understanding human behaviour. But here’s the thing: while I have a deep reverence for the subjective life of the individual, I’m also interested in looking at things empirically, where applicable. Without this latter aspect, I feel we fall prey to magical thinking.

The more I looked into some of the new ideas permeating my field, I became aware of a few things. While certain concepts, such as the idea of neuroplasticity, were taken from science, the more I looked at who was writing about this, the more I noticed that the people applying these complicated concepts to psychotherapy weren’t neurologists or geneticists. One of the oft-referenced authors in the field of IPNB is Allan N. Schore, who is a psychologist and researcher. His books are popular with those looking to harmonize neurology and psychotherapy. And while I respect his multidisciplinary work, I have difficulty with binary conceptions of how the left and right brains work (whereas, supposedly, the right brain is responsible for emotional attunement, the left brain for insight and analysis). Why do I have difficulty with this? Because I asked a neurologist, and they confirmed that this is too simplistic a way to look at the brain.

This is a blog post and not a long-form essay. I could go on. I suppose what irks me is the amount of material being written about a myriad of complex neurobiological research findings that skip over the necessary cautions that are the hallmarks of science. Correlation is not causation. How big was the sample size? Continue reading

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Keep Moving / Being Wrong / Keep Moving

Sometimes I feel that I stand in-between too many things. Un-firm. Undecided. This is in part due to my fond appreciation for not only a lot of disparate topics but also disparate approaches. I believe in the vigour of an approach which involves good research. I also believe that we can lace “good research” with wishful thinking so that the evidence it produces is wishful thinking presented as fact. I believe that there are charlatans who willingly or naively provide a distraction that slows us down. I also believe that we dismiss many things as charlatanism not because they pose a danger but because they conflict with the politics of our personal or professional lives. I believe in intuition. I also believe intuition alone brings us too close to a raw reflexiveness which doesn’t serve long term needs.

So when someone asks me What do you think about x? I sometimes find myself considering a number of things and contexts to understand the question. The drawback is we’ve created a world where this sort of complexity is undesired. Certainly, in some industries and roles, complexity is unnecessary — a prime example would be assembly line work where the task is to simply crank out carbon copy iterations of something already conceived-of and revised to an acceptable standard. If you want to know what roles robots and AI are going to swallow up in the future, it’s those things. Complexity, on the other hand, keeps us guessing, reminds us that there are no set answers, or if there are they are kludges we developed until the next discovery forces us to revise our notions, our presumptions.

In an essay in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Ferris Jabr profiles someone turning to exotic flora in order to stave off our imminent depletion of effective antibiotics. The researcher in question turns to the lore of sometimes ancient civilizations, the extracts and tinctures from nature that one might rightly think come from fantasy, or from a presumably primitive culture. From some pharmaceutical industry perspectives, this is quackery. And yet, in one example, Continue reading

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The Trouble With The Trouble With Physics

I’m on my second attempt reading Lee Smolin’s 2006 book The Trouble With Physics. I am reminded of a similar situation with another book, Joyce’s Ulysses. And, similarly, my second attempt with The Trouble With Physics is not a reappraisal but a confirmation: this is hard to read.

Smolin’s book is making a case for the fact that string theory is a failure; a spectacular failure that its adherents defend with a most byzantine theoretical web; that, because string theory is de rigueur in so many of the top schools, with so many reputations at stake, no one wants to recognize the fact that string theory — an attempt to harmonize the ideas of quantum theory and relativity so that we might understand the foundation of the universe more clearly — is a dead end.

The problem I’m (still) having with the book is that Smolin is writing to an audience that is willing to take a steep (try 90 degrees upward) climb in order to understand the various concepts and theories which not only formed the foundation of string theory, but the issues that weren’t resolved through the original work of Newton, Einstein, etc. Smolin lays out in the beginning various fundamental aspects of how things work that we simply don’t know — instilling early that scientific inquiry is, if anything, about the need for curiosity. However, given Smolin’s densely described approach to get us ready to understand his arguments, and while I don’t doubt the necessity, I think he would need to double the length of his book to do so effectively for interested readers who are not physicists.

What is more successful, and the reason I continue to read it, is how Continue reading

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Election Day

[I wrote the following as a Facebook post originally, reacting to various things happening around the Toronto mayoral election]

I’m not a fan of the “election as representation of democracy working” idea. Waiting for an election to engage ourselves in the very public workings of our world is like waiting for the fire alarm to let us know when dinner is done.

I’m not writing this as a call to action. Maybe I am, if you see “call to action” as some very simple public awareness of the society we contribute to (and benefit from).

I have been appalled by the emboldened show of racism during this election. I would like to think that it represents – along with the Ford family – the last hurrah of a particularly old-fashioned and repulsive scourge in our society. However, this morning’s Toronto Sun editorial cartoon kind of pushed me over the edge. I can no longer think of “last hurrahs”, I can no longer “like to think” of optimistic horizons (though being white makes that infinitely easy).

I suppose I’m putting this out there to make it known that it’s important to call this stuff out. That it’s important to do more than roll our eyes and say to ourselves “Well, it’s just the Sun”. I’m saying this as someone who voted today, and of the candidates I voted for two out of three have been targeted in a most ugly and public fashion because of their race and/or perceived ethnic background.

There is what you can do on Election Day, and then there is what you can do in-between. We have to do better than this.

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About Tattoos

Aside

I once saw a man in his late 30s/early 40s walking around a store. He was white and blonde and wore a short-sleeved shirt, not unlike a suburban version of Nick Nolte. As I watched him browsing with his daughter, who looked no older than 5 years, I noticed he had LOVE tattooed on one forearm and HATE tattooed on the other. In that moment I imagined him one day getting into a fight (which I can tell you he didn’t look the type to get into) and thinking to himself “Oh no, I’m hitting him with my LOVE arm!”

One of many reasons I don’t have a tattoo.

 

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The Importance of Self Care

I was reading this article in the National Post, about a psychiatrist whose trained specialty is analyzing and working with violent sexual predators, who recently experienced a breakdown as a result of what is believed to be symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He has worked on cases involving Paul Bernardo, Robert Pickton, and most recently Russell Williams: all of them so-called sexual sadists, all of them convicted murderers.

To put this into context for those reading from outside Canada, each of these convicted – by virtue of the severity and depravity of their crimes – is a poster boy for reinstating capital punishment (which, for the record, I do not support). They have individually terrorized regions of the country when they were active. It’s important to understand all of this due to the nature of being a mental health professional – someone trained to see people as people no matter who they might be or what they might have done – working with people of this description.

The article describes how Dr. John Bradford simply lost his ability to keep the burden of content (and ostensibly the affect of said content) from seeping into his consciousness, whereas before he was able to separate the explicitly graphic information he worked with from getting to him. What stood out in the article for me was the following:

What he wouldn’t realize until he went into therapy was that the videos from his many cases had been gradually taking their toll and they rushed back to haunt him on that long drive home.”

 

In particular, the phrase “until he went into therapy”, which implies that he wasn’t seeing a therapist until this point. Assuming this conjunction isn’t sloppiness on behalf of the writer, I find it appalling that Dr. Bradford could have such a role and somehow not be mandated by his employer (or his governing professional society) to be in some form of regular personal therapy. It boggles my mind, actually.

We live in an odd time when the general public are being told (rightfully) the importance of mental health and not allowing toxic environments to fester within them and yet someone tasked with watching videos of killers’ victims doesn’t walk into a therapist’s office until he is exhibiting signs of PTSD and is forced to take a month off work?

Let me be clear: to my knowledge there is no explicit mandate for said procedure. I am not implying that Dr. Bradford was in any way professionally negligent. I am however suggesting that the past and current culture of psychiatry, with its “detached” experts, should reconsider its standards for those tasked with a specialty like Dr. Bradford. Self care goes both ways: it allows patients/clients/non-professionals to seek help and understanding for their issues; it also allows professionals an opportunity to explore how their work impacts their lives.

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SARS Essay in Torontoist

Torontoist just posted an essay I wrote about this being the 10th anniversary of the SARS breakout in Toronto (which went on to kill 44 people and cost the country $2 billion), and the fact that nothing is being done to commemorate it. That is to say that commemorations are not necessarily celebrations, but can be sober remembrances of mistakes made in our past.

Read it here.

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Kensington Market Essay in BlogTO

For those who don’t live in Toronto, there’s been a lot of discussion about my neighbourhood, Kensington Market, in the news. Much of it is about preservation vs development. I offered to write an op/ed for BlogTO and they published it today. I’m quite pleased that they kept the essay intact (you never know what an editor’s going to do sometimes). You can read it here.

It feels good to work on my non-fiction chops, and even better when something gets published.

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About Blame, Shame, and the Sacred Altar of Individual Responsibility

[This originally started out as a post on my psychotherapy blog, but became so lengthy and opinion-laced that I figured I’d put it here.]

One comment I hear, particularly in op-ed sections of newspapers, is that as a society we are becoming “soft” (ostensibly because we are beginning to encourage children to discuss their emotions throughout public school life, and not just when they get in trouble or are victimized). Within this same argument is the contention that, thanks to people like me (mental health professionals), everything that is perceived to be wrong with the individual is to be blamed on other people or institutions. Thus, the contention is that individual responsibility is somehow being sapped of its strength.

I see no need to blame anyone for anything. If a client’s parents were too strict when they were growing up, it’s enough to explore it (and its effects) until such a time as the context of those events have a present-day meaning which will allow the client to lead a healthy, durable life and move on. My interest is with the client: their health, their well-being. I have no use for encouraging, casting, or redirecting blame. That is not within the philosophy of the modality of psychotherapy that I am trained in. It is certainly not within my personal philosophy. There’s not much to be gained from vilifying people and things.

Something to note is that many forms of victimization carry with it, primarily, shame (though other feelings may follow closely, like anger). The shame of not being able to avoid the caretaker who struck you. The shame of not being able to speak out about the racial discrimination you experienced in school. The shame of being sexually preyed upon by a coworker. Shame is a very deep hole to climb out of. Just talking about shameful experiences can retraumatize some clients – that is, put them right back in the original emotional context which first scarred them.

Survivors of abuse often feel responsible for their victimization, regardless of how little agency they had at the time they were victimized. In other words, if we are to talk about blame then we should talk about victims of abuse walking around blaming themselves. One of the tasks of therapy is to move the finger of blame away and to look at what has happened to a client with clarity, without an agenda. Then and only then can the process begin of assisting the client out of that deep hole I previously mentioned; assisting by paying close attention, sharing, talking. The client does the heavy work and I’m there to help in every way I can.

I cannot think of something which better defines individual responsibility than someone recognizing that something deep down within them needs to change, and undertaking the time and effort (and pain, and, yes, in the case of working with a therapist, money) to rework their understanding of themselves, to lift themselves to a higher point of view – and all that this entails both in the therapeutic space and in the outside world.

If by “soft” critics mean weak, then the individual who helps herself is not “soft” – she is not weak. She does not blame herself as she once did. She has taken control of herself and has worked hard to build awareness, and through awareness resiliency.

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The Pause Button

I don’t believe our identities ever settle, to become static. This isn’t to say that they fly willy-nilly like laundry in a windstorm. There are two great wheels: the one inside of us and the one outside. Both move forward regardless of our individual philosophies.

The outside wheel is time. It is the inevitable movement of progress, the passing-on of events, linking like the teeth of a sprocket on a bicycle chain. Whether we stand still or keep moving, this wheel keeps turning.

The inside wheel is our own development: our learning, the expansion of our comprehension of things, as well as our personal growth. It also keeps moving, again, whether we stand still or move.

Development is growth, and growth is sometimes painful, especially when we suspect we have been travelling on a path which does not intuitively serve our needs any longer. The temptation can be strong to “hit the pause button”; to stop looking at how the outer wheel affects the inner wheel, the learnings contained within their interplay. I’m not sure if it would be fair to call this wilful ignorance, but some would.

I’ve known people, particularly those from school, who seem to have “hit the pause button” at some point in their late teens or early twenties: they dress the same, they obsess about the same music, they ask the same questions they asked at that age – it can seem as if they are exist in a still photo of a past universe. I speculate that they see the larger wheel, the world, turning (one cannot wilfully blind oneself from seeing this), but don’t wish to acknowledge that the inner wheel, identity/personality, still turns and evolves also.

It makes me sad, and yes I realize that is a judgement. I don’t wish to categorize people since we live in a society which already puts such an emphasis on a divisive winners/losers binary. It makes me sad because I have a relational tether to those who are in this way: I know what it’s like. It’s also quite common.

I could speculate all day about whether this is fear-induced, shame-induced, whether (from a psychoanalytically informed perspective) there is a concern about narcissistic rupture at play in this. All I know is that it exists, and that the temptation for some to “keep things the way they are”, regardless that this is kind of impossible, has a strong lure.

 

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