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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Short Fiction: “There Is This Thing Of You”

I am proud to put new works out into the world. My short fiction piece, There Is This Thing Of You, is something I’ve been polishing for a number of years and I’m happy that it found a home with the online literary journal The Rusty Toque.

While it’s free to read, please consider donating to The Rusty Toque if you like what you see (and please check out the other great authors – like poets Madhur Anand and Eva H.D.)

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An Interview With rob mclennan

I was contacted by rob mclennan (he spells it lowercase, and who am I to argue with this?) to take part in his ongoing 12 or 20 (second series) Q&A. He asks some great (and sometimes challenging) questions about writing, the process, and influences. Any writers out there might find this interesting. Please enjoy.Photo of yours truly

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My Psychotherapy Blog

As some of you (now more of you) know, I recently began a practice as a psychotherapist. I have a website, which gets a fair bit of traffic (allowing that summer is a traditionally slow time of the year), but recently I added an adjunctive blog.

The purpose was to get more of me out there, rather than have people rely on their preconceptions of what a psychotherapist is/does just by staring at my business card. I figured it would help both me and potential clients (including curious onlookers) deal up-front with questions that often go unasked yet which people would like answered.

For example: Do I need to know what’s wrong with me in order to see a therapist? Will I lose my creativity if I see one?

These are some of the things people ask, sometimes in passing, sometimes directly to me. I was inspired to address them, if only so that I could clarify the process of therapy.

That said, it’s a challenge. Unlike this space where I can tear away at preconceptions without concern for who I may be offending, I have to alter the timbre of my voice when blogging for the benefit of those who may be potential clients – it’s not always cut and dry. I ran into this recently with a post I wrote about men and how men tend to have preconceptions about psychotherapy (and how some of this may have to do with the language/imagery predominant in the latest barrage of public service announcements). My partner brought to my attention that what I’d wrote (and published) was in fact meant for this blog, not the one I originally thought it was intended for. So…I went back and changed the voice, as if I were revising a short story.

The lesson? Know your audience. People curious about psychotherapy don’t need to read hard-hitting op/ed-style commentary – the challenge was to go back and revise what I’d done so that, rather than focusing on a political critique of the way society isolates men from seeking help and agitating for personal growth, I retreated/reverted/went back to the more digestible core point of therapy is good for men, too.

Perhaps I will post both versions here to demonstrate how I revised it. In any case, feel free to visit the other blog (and tell your friends).

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The Sky is Falling (Very Slowly), or, Will The Real Science Please Stand Up

The problem with having a belief in something which happens to be provocative (and by provocative, I mean something which is not embraced by the whole and which may be a bit thorny for some) is that, like in most aspects of life, all it takes is a few zealots to make you look like a fool by ideological proximity.

As I pointed out many moons ago (December of 2006!) when it comes to climate change (as opposed to the slightly misleading term global warming), outside of blind ignorance our greatest liability are people who jab an accusatory finger at every natural disaster and scream “You see! It’s global warming! Climate change caused this! If we don’t do something NOW we are doomed as a species!”. For me, it started with Hurricane Katrina, when people (a fantastic percentage of whom had no scientific accreditation) began to suggest that it simply wasn’t an old-school “act of nature”, but rather something to be blamed upon worldwide environmental collapse (as if New Orleans didn’t have enough problems to contend with). It fed into a grand conspiracy theory which gave certain people a quixotic reason to exist: that mankind was the chief culprit all along, and that it was only a question of years to fix it. Cue epilogue of Planet Of The Apes.

On the other (self-evident to the point where I wonder whether it’s worth mentioning) end of the spectrum are the usual assortment of deep-pocketed corporate “carbon monoxide is good for you” state polluters, and knee-jerk libertarian radio hosts who feel that idling their cars is akin to patriotism (and, as an aside, the whole libertarian-patriot thing seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?).

The thing is this, panic aside: I do believe in climate change. All that shit turning to water north of us (that would be the Arctic ice) is a sign. Much less lachrymose is all that science, provided by all those scientists, which pretty much confirms that, yes, climate change is real, and that, yes, human industry is a variable in its occurrence. The issue of how the future is looking as a result of climate change is less clear. The problem is this: remember those largely non-scientific people blaming Hurricane Katrina on climate change? The ones telling us that if we don’t do something NOW then the world’s a goner? They got a lot of attention; the cameras kept rolling. This was probably just a knee-jerk reaction of mass media which was (and is) delighted to scare the public any chance they get (it keeps ratings up). Well guess what: some scientists found that if they used the same sort of seismic analogies and kept the ticking clock of doom just a few minutes away, not only would they get attention, but they could get funding.

Inevitably, it had to end – the speculative bubble that is. You can only say that we have five more years to change the world for five years until people start asking why societies haven’t collapsed like the finale of an Irwin Allen movie. And then someone or some group hacked into the records of some climate scientists and found that some of them were acting like jerks, that some of them didn’t want to play nice with their facts (unlike all those journalists and columnists we read). To me, this was heart-breaking, because it allowed both honest sceptics and partisan political hacks alike to pull a j’accuse and call it Climategate (seriously, I look forward to a world without the silly and dated gate suffix) and call the science itself into question, as opposed to the questionable actions of a few. Some have hinted that the bad publicity fall-out could set climate science back by a decade if increased public persecution gets worse. However, I feel this is as likely as, well, the world ending in five years.

The good news is that the world hasn’t ended; neither our world, nor the world of science. If anything, reading today’s op-ed by Margaret Wente in the G&M, even people who previously took every opportunity to deny the existence of climate change are now looking at things plainly: no pro trumped-up worries about imminent global catastrophe, and no con lefty/green/hippy bullshit stereotypes. If anything, perhaps bringing those few scientists into the spotlight has, post whatever-gate, calmed everyone down a notch. Perhaps enough so that we will be able to parse our language into something which does not use fear as a means of persuasion. Perhaps so that we won’t dilute the meaning of words like green and sustainable to homeopathic degrees.

I believe (or at least I hope) we can find an entry-point where we can use science and research rather than propaganda and fear to motivate ourselves to improve our prospects (that is, both human prospects and business prospects, two things which have not always shared mutually fulfilling goals). It is heartening to see that there may be an X-Prize for fuel/energy production, similar to what was done for sub-orbital exploration. I’d also like it if we could reboot the message of environmentalism with a good ‘ol back-to-basics mantra of: use less (as in packaging, unnecessary products, natural resources). I will be happy, even if it is all a hopelessly lost cause, that we go down working on something together as opposed to a Purgatory of scoring political points against ourselves.

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For *’s Sake

It’s been one of those battle-cries of mine the last while. Everything in the world, culturally-speaking (and I don’t necessarily mean high culture) seems to be evaporating into mindless bullshit.

The AV Club – a site I admittedly have a love/hate relationship with already – just posted an interview with actor Paul Giamatti. In the opening summary, the interviewer describes the plot of his latest film, which reads like a counterscript of 1999’s Being John Malkovich and yet there is no mention of this parallel anywhere in the article, something even Entertainment Tonight would do. The interviewer talks about this upcoming film with Giamatti as if it and his role – the John Malkovich role, if it were Being John Malkovich – were just soulless objects to be discussed out of necessity. In other words, it’s just like any other media-junket interview, like something you would read in InStyle or Chatelaine. Not that those examples are b-a-d, but when you pride yourself as better, especially savvy, tongue-in-cheek better, you shouldn’t even be in the same postal code as InStyle or Chatelaine if you want to retain your reputation.

The Motley Fool – again, a site previously known for being savvy, even though they deal with the stock market – now reads like Ain’t It Cool News, complete with arguments which, under rational analysis, seem completely idiotic and antithetical to what one would assume is their mission statement (ie. being different than the rest of those brain-dead-and-short-sighted Money sites).

Oh, and CNN. Not that they’ve ever been more relevant than a Reuters news ticker, but they’ve gone from mediocre to stupid by allowing one of their show hosts, Lou Dobbs, to continuously question the origin of Barack Obama’s citizenship, a paranoid suspicion virulent in the libertarian/right-wing fringe of the U.S. that has been repeatedly disproved (read: he doesn’t want Johnny Foreigner running and ruining the most-possibly-greatest-country-ever-in-the-world).

Now, one of the arguments I can imagine hearing is: well, Matt, in a 24-hour newsday (whether on TV or the Internet) when people expect constant information there inevitably has to be weaker material. To which I say: I understand, but I’d settle for less information over less hours (if need be), if it means the information will be consistent and better. After all, you are what you eat, and in this day and age we feed on media in an astonishingly unconscious and voracious manner.

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Language and Meaning

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

I was reading the New York Times Sunday Magazine last weekend and caught this article, written by Michael Pollan, about the rise of agricultural diseases. In it, he begins with bemoaning the decreasing power of the word “sustainability”, seeing as it has been turned impotent; yet another zombiefied corporate catch-phrase designed to make what one does appear useful even when in practise the reality is much more ambiguous.

There is a biting summary of this phenomena in the second paragraph of Pollan’s article:

Confucius advised that if we hoped to repair what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of the names.” The corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their proper names, he maintained, and its renovation begins with the reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts. So what about this much-abused pair of names, sustainable and unsustainable?

I sat at the breakfast table, thinking about this paragraph. It stunned me, because my awareness of the philosophical questioning of language – its power to distort and clarify – didn’t extend as far as back in time as Confucius. To read it made me understand that this conflict – the fight to keep language from becoming a meaningless putty in the hands of technocrats – has been going on probably since the dawn of communication. It wasn’t until reading, of all people, Confucius – that old aphorism-spewing chestnut – speak about it that my understanding of the conflict was deepened.

The two writers who outlined this conflict most beautifully for me were Wittgenstein, quoted at the top (from his treatise, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and John Ralston Saul, who rallied against the rise of technocrats most effectively in his books Voltaire’s Bastards, and The Unconscious Civilization. Each fulfilled a means of illuminating the power of language in a way that was neither impractically academic nor precious. Saul warns about how the images and words we share can be/have been actively distorted by those with corrupting self-interest. Wittgenstein’s very philosophy is about the parsing of truth and falsity (or senselessness, as he would put it) in how we use language to construct a world view.

With the discovery of Confucius’ addition to this subject, I now have more to research and reflect upon. I suppose I’m fascinated with this subject, and for reasons I don’t think are trivial. We are beset by corrupted means of communication every day: images that lie as well as they seduce, thoughts withheld from publication/broadcast because of vested interests. And yet, most importantly, I believe it’s also language that can save us – the very tools used to fool us can be used to liberate.

I suppose one of the first questions I have is whether there are more than a handful of people out there who give a shit, or whether this is a pursuit (non-Quixotic, I insist) only a begrudging elite will ever have interest in following. Sometimes I’m haunted by the words of writer William Sturgeon, who – when asked if it was true that he thought 90% of science fiction was crap – answered that, actually, 90% of everything is crap. What haunts me is how this somewhat off-the-cuff pronouncement translates into the percentage of everyday people who truly care enough about things like this. It’s important to me that people understand that the corruption of language (visual, textual, audible) is not simply an academic concern, and that it’s possible to put up an effective, civil defense against it.

Update: For more on Confucius and the “rectification of names”, please see this link for some context.

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Is It Not Ironic

i·ro·ny
n.

1. The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.

2. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.

3. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect.

4. Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs: “Hyde noted the irony of Ireland’s copying the nation she most hated” (Richard Kain).

5. An occurrence, result, or circumstance notable for such incongruity.

I’m not a language fascist, however if there is one word which has been cataclysmically abused to the point where the government should step in with tasers, it is the misuse of the word “irony”.

In case your eyes glazed over the definition posted above, allow me to further define the word by demonstrating what irony is not. First, let’s start with the most common misperception. Irony is not coincidence – no, not even a sad coincidence, as boldly defined by Alanis Morissette in her song, “Ironic”:

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think

Actually, I don’t think that’s ironic. Because it isn’t. What she’s describing is a series of unfortunate circumstances. Mind you, renaming the song “Unfortunate Circumstances” wouldn’t work – doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

The thing is, I can excuse Alanis for this. I can do this because she’s a musician and not someone whom I should, by her profession, necessarily hold in high regard as regards the use of English language (lest I use the same linguistic measuring stick against Led Zeppelin and Muddy Waters).

Not, say, like a nationally broadcast television journalist. Say, like the anchor of CBS Evening News, Katie Couric:

[September 13th, 2007]
COURIC: And now this sad footnote from Iraq. Two Army paratroopers who recently wrote an article that was critical of the war effort were killed this week. Staff Sergeant Yance Gray and Sergeant Omar Mora were part of a group of seven who authored a piece entitled “The War as We Saw It,” published in The New York Times last month. The group wrote that for Iraqis, quote, “engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act.” Now, ironically, Gray and Mora were killed along with five other soldiers not in combat, but when their cargo truck overturned during a routine trip in western Baghdad.

It goes without saying that this is tragic, but it’s not irony, unless Ms. Couric believes being stationed for combat in Iraq was not foreseen as being dangerous in the first place. I’ll let the folks at Media Matters question this last point.

Speaking of Iraq and bad communication, after 9/11/01, we were told – and I don’t know who was the first to coin this, not that it matters, because like so much that has happened since then, everyone just bent over and agreed to it like submissive pets – that it was “the end of irony”. And while I hope this daft phrase will be preserved as an example of world-class naivety, it seems we’ve never gotten a handle on this word, which is sad. It’s sad because I feel that this proclamation, made just over seven years ago is yet another example of the phrase, “the first casualty of war is truth”. To pronounce that any word or behaviour is no longer valid abdicates a necessary freedom of communication.

Conspiratorially, I wonder sometimes if irony, a formidable weapon when used knowledgeably, hasn’t had it’s meaning and usage watered down intentionally. Why? Well, we seem to be very prolific at being ironic and affecting irony in our popular discourse without ever troubling ourselves to actually identify it (or for that matter question our dependence upon it when it comes to things we care about). Indeed, sometimes it seems we are incapable of showing reverence for anything without irony poisoning the well. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of irreverence when it is used to desaturate those things in life we take too seriously – but if everything portrayed on television, in films, in our books, becomes increasingly ironic (without the audience bothering to know what irony is, or worse still, without an opinion – reverent or not – to begin with) then does that not somehow conjure the image of a society that is becoming more wilfully deluded?

I hate ending things with a question, so I’ll just say that I try to hope for the best, knowing that – in the long run – when it comes to understanding the great frustrations of humanity, you are often left on your own to figure out the truth. And even then, sometimes there’s nothing that can be done for anyone other than yourself.

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The Vocabulary of Conflict: Afghanistan and Iraq

If there are two things I’ve avoided mentioning since the inception of this blog, it is Iraq and Afghanistan. For anyone who has casually surfed a blind selection of blogs in their spare time, I think you can understand why I’ve chosen not to get involved in the often mephitic atmosphere of this debate. It’s chaotic and reflects the lack of clarity in the wars themselves.

Six Canadian soldiers were killed yesterday by a roadside bomb. The media refers to these bombs as IED’s (improvised explosive devices), following the vocabulary of military spokespersons. In response to these latest deaths, here is an excerpt to more effectively demonstrate this vocabulary, from the Globe and Mail:

The Taliban’s increasing use of roadside bombs has also taken a toll on civilians, Brig.-Gen. Grant said. “They have managed to kill six great young Canadians today, which is an absolute tragedy,” he said. “The other part of this is that they’re killing lots of Afghans. They’re attacking the weak, they’re killing women, they’re killing children, they’re killing policemen. These are not the tactics of anything other than terrorists.”

[…]

Asked whether this represents an “Iraqization” of the conflict, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Trudel, who serves as chief of staff for the Canadian headquarters in Kandahar, shook his head.

“Not particularly,” he said. “It indicates a loss of control by the insurgents.”

Canadian troops faced insurgents in the farmland southwest of Kandahar city last year in the largest battles Afghanistan has witnessed since the collapse of the Taliban regime. Those fights have taught the Taliban that it’s fruitless to openly confront the Canadians, Lt.-Col. Trudel said.

“The fact that we’ve lost a lot of soldiers from IED attacks indicates a success, in the sense that our conventional operations have succeeded against the Taliban,” the chief of staff said.

Where to start…

1) These roadside bombs – sorry, IED’s – are not, historically speaking, the “tactics of terrorists”. They are the tactics of guerrillas. Crashing planes into buildings and floating boats laden with explosives into aircraft carriers are tactics of terrorists. There is more than a semantic difference between the two classifications; when you paint civilian-based militias as terrorism you are admitting a loss of control and belying a critical problem with the military operation at-hand. See: Corsica.

2) If by “Iraqization”, the journalists mean “people who were under a tyrant who barely kept a fractious mix of misplaced ethnicities (largely due to Western colonial folly) under control and who now are now occupied by Western forces (yet again) whose motives increasingly speak more about global economics than humanitarianism” then there are some similarities. However, the way in which the term is implied in the article suggests that the “tactics of terrorism” are being imported from Iraq, which itself is an interesting bit of circular logic given that Afghanistan is the only one of the two countries that had anything to do with the destruction of the World Trade towers.

3) To suggest that the killing of six of our soldiers (along with civilians and police) represents a “loss of control” by the insurgents is perhaps one of the more grotesque distortions of military logic I’ve read (recently). Sounds to me as if the insurgents are in control if by their actions they are disrupting the lives of its citizenry and the work of the soldiers who have been put there to resurrect what is becoming the Romantic dream of a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

All things considered, no matter how passionate or well-reasoned your opinion, it simply isn’t enough to oppose either of these wars, at least not anymore. Three or four years ago, perhaps. However, there is a marked difference between the two conflicts. With Afghanistan there was, at the very least, a reason for NATO troops to get involved; it was, after all, the training ground for Al-Qaeda and, considering the devastation of 9/11/01, arguing for a military response was not an irrational (ie. purely emotional) action. Iraq, however, was and is a debacle of historic proportions. It would depress me to recount just how ill-conceived (and corrupted) the decision to invade Iraq was. There are many other sites out there which can do a better job of summing up the horrible negligence of the latter invasion.

One thing I will mention, and I do so on behalf of my countrymen who are stationed in Afghanistan, is that, failing “success” – itself a contentious ideal in any war – the blame for the lack thereof can be directly attributed to two factors:

1) Iraq. If the United States and Britain had not diverted (and thus fragmented) their troops so that they were intervening [or invading, whichever way you wish to see it – I’ll leave the Semantics of Conflict essay for another day] in not only one but two countries, NATO would’ve had the maximum available response in order to accomplish whatever goals there were in the Afghanistan mission. Instead, by pulling troops out of the latter and into the former, they hobbled the efforts of the only justifiable military action of the two and endangered both.

2) Although there are 37 countries involved in the NATO/ISAF deployment in Afghanistan, there is a disproportionate amount of Canadian troops on the frontline in the most tumultuous areas (read: Kandahar), despite repeated calls for other participating countries to commit troops for support. Say what you will about the Afghanistan mission (and again, a lot of contentious arguments are to be had), it angers me to see such reluctance on behalf of other participating countries: either you’re there and fight or you should rightfully leave. You simply can’t have it both ways on the battlefield.

Canada has a tragic history of its soldiers being used as gun-fodder in armed struggle, most notably in the trenches of WWI. This perhaps explains why we did not involve ourselves in Vietnam or Iraq; though we have our share of military controversies to deal with (much of it due to financial stagnation and federal meddling), we have generally learnt not to follow into armed conflict when the goals of the coordinating military power (usually the US and/or England) are suspicious. The difference this time is that our public is looking very critically at the war in Afghanistan, asking the right questions, and putting pressure on our politicians to ensure that this latest involvement does not devolve into the sort of pandemonium currently underway in Iraq.

I would be lying if I thought the current plan in Afghanistan was particularly clear or that our politicians (and some of the bureaucratic upper ranks of our Armed Forces) had the best interests of our soldiers, Afghanis, or the reputation of Canada in mind. The former Soviet Union went bankrupt as a result of their involvement in the 80’s, with the U.S. funding, arming, and training the civilian insurgency. The shoe is on the other foot, with Russia and China supplying the insurgency via Iran. Whether we call them terrorists or not, vocabulary alone is not enough to soften the blow of rising casualties in a conflict sorely in need of clarity.

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