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

Share

Book Review: Conflict Is Not Abuse, by Sarah Schulman

I’ve noticed more and more over the last decade that less and less people want to use the phone. I cannot help but draw a correlation between this observation and the ubiquitous rise of digital communication. Email? Sure. Text? Yup. And what’s wrong with this, you might ask? On paper it would objectively appear that text-based communication (particularly including social media) is superior at transferring information without error, if only us pesky humans didn’t make mistakes. And this last part is key: we are not objective, we balance the objective world with our much less easily measurable experiential (or personal) reality; this second reality is informed by our experiences, which are diverse and sometimes punctuated by trauma or loss. When we talk to someone on the phone we are leaving ourselves prone — to fallibility (stammering, going off on a tangent), or having our hesitations read as something we may not otherwise wish to reveal.

I was thinking about these things (and many others) when I began reading Sarah Schulman’s powerful book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. The problem with nearly all forms of digital communication and social media (with the exception of apps like Skype, etc) is that there is no actual dialogue — we aren’t allowed to have the sort of vulnerable conversations that speaking in-person or on the phone forces us into. And, in one of the book’s more important diagnoses, Schulman recognizes this as a key ingredient in the escalation of violence. Instead we are only allowed to trade unidirectional statements, leaving nuance and human connection by the wayside. So, when we have a disagreement with someone via text it becomes easy to pile on them, to vilify them. We can’t see them and there is no way for them to interject. On a social media platform like Twitter, this sort of conflict easily escalates into directing the wrath of groups upon an individual. Continue reading

Share

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.

Share

Book Review: The Therapy Industry, by Paul Moloney

I don’t have a lot of time or head space for reviews of any kind these days, however I try to make an exception for work which deserves attention, if only for sake of better exposure and discussion.

One of these works is the book The Therapy Industry, The Irresistible Rise of the Talking Cure and Why it Doesn’t Work by author Paul Moloney (Pluto Press). I came across this provocative title through Moloney’s recent curation of new book releases on the site New Left Project. What follows is a necessarily compressed review, certainly more so than what you would normally find for this sort of work, and perhaps more succinct than this book deserves.

Let’s stop the bus and draw your attention to the driver. My interest in this book is complex and certainly not unbiased: I’m a relational psychotherapist – it is a career I chose later in life and one whose practice and philosophy I have a deep, evolving respect for. However, increasingly I have found myself dissatisfied with the level of critical discussion about the array of available therapeutic modalities, the politics non-medical practitioners encounter with respect to recognition in an increasingly medicalized notion of mental health, and not least the pecking orders (particularly reinforced by those practitioners who receive provincial health care coverage, those who receive coverage via corporate health benefits plans, and those who receive neither).

I was drawn to this book not only for its stated critical approach but also, perhaps relievedly, that it was written by someone who is a counselling psychologist and lecturer. This is not, in other words, a journalistic view from the outside. Quite selfishly I thus figured that it must have some sort of a happy ending. And, in short, it does, though you need to swallow some hard medicine first.

The gist of The Therapy Industry is that there is a disconnect between the mainstream approach toward treating those with mental health issues and the realities of (at the very least Western) industrialized society which is becoming more and more demanding upon us, economically, socially, and – as a result – psychologically. The system generally available to the public – from awareness campaigns to the attitudes of medical and non-medical practitioners – goes to lengths to make those seeking help feel that the problems they are experiencing are the product of their genes or their own faulty reasoning about the world around them. Or, if the practitioner does recognize that there is a probable cause that is environmental rather than genetic, the prevailing course of treatment is, in essence, mind over matter. According to the book there is, in short, some denial about the more environmental causes in the marked rise of mental health-related issues over the last century. And worse still, if there is clinical – which is to say institutionalized – denial then that doubly disfavours those seeking help. Continue reading

Share

The Dread of Zombies

Everyone is waiting for the zombie genre (in books, television, and particularly film) to whither away like a desiccated corpse. I argue that it’s here to stay – that, in fact, it has stronger legs (ugh) than most other genres of the macabre.

The dread of zombies imagined – the tiredness some of us feel with each iteration (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Walking Dead, Zombieland) – is understandable. Less understandable than with vampires, but understandable still. There are too many zombie and zombie-like (for the record, 28 Weeks Later is not, strictly-speaking, a zombie film, yet it more or less qualifies itself by virtue of many shared) themes in books, shows, and movies these days. But I would argue that it’s because – due to our increased connectedness to each other via the Internet and social media – we are exposed to real life zombies. Thematic zombies. Metaphorical zombies. And the exposure stands to increase.

A shitload of people voted for a complete ass to be the mayor of Toronto. A shit. Load. Mind you, not many who lived downtown did. Still, it was a rout. People like me – people who prize intelligent discourse over pot shots, people who would prefer to be ruled by someone with an informed conscience rather than a bullet-list of to-dos – were incredulous. It didn’t even matter what quadrant of the political spectrum Rob Ford occupied: he was the last person any reasonably well-informed person would have wanted. And yet he won in spades.

Thematic zombies. Metaphorical zombies. The dread of zombies.

Who voted for him? Who can say that they “understand” him? Are they too not also zombies by virtue of his succession to the throne of city council? Faceless, nameless, godless, conscience-less hordes hefted Mr. Ford to office, and we stand here still – a year later – asking ourselves just what the hell happened, watching the circus of political buffoonery before our eyes.

Lest this become a solely personal treatise, isn’t this the same for everyone? Aren’t we witnessing “zombie activity” in other guises: large groups of seemingly nameless, faceless, godless, conscience-less hordes blindly enabling things we fundamentally disagree with but are powerless to dispell? For me it’s the rise of Rob Ford, for others it could be the Occupy movement. For others still, it could be the revolution in Tahrir Square. The massive, faceless but powerful other. The faceless, godless, conscience-less hordes…with agency.

Thematic zombies. Metaphorical zombies. The dread of zombies.

No, it is not going away. Make popcorn.

Share

Guilt By Association

An article I wrote back in March of 2010 (“I’ll Show You Stupid”) is getting a lot of steam, it seems. Nice to see new visitors. It’s nice to look back at something I’ve written in the past – the good stuff at least – and see that my instincts were well targeted. In the case of this particular article, it was about the dangers of denigrating (political) others on the basis of how intelligent they come across; the danger was that such actions back-fire more often than not. It mentioned a certain former governor of Alaska.

I’ve been thinking and discussing the subject of elitism quite a bit lately. There are many subtleties in the way we use the word “elite”, but when used in its current populist political form, what people are particularly referring to are those who are educated. Plain and simple. I’ve spent many an hour, day, year, working with and speaking to people who are very educated and worldly, and I must say that they desperately need to get organized if they are to live up to the hype of being the human whippets they are made out to be.

This last October, Toronto voted for a populist mayor – a champion of the surrounding suburbs – who played the “elite” card quite a bit. Regardless that the man is a millionaire from a millionaire family, that he went to Carlton University, he was able to parlay the us-versus-them thing quite well. Helps that he coaches football and is built like a linebacker and probably looks exactly as he did in high school. Thing is, by all rights, he is an elite. Meanwhile, the target of his vitriol, the downtown intellectuals that I hang with (I swear I don’t do it for this reason) – the people who think bike lanes are safe and that public transit is important – are positively victimized by the very thing they are accused of. You see, I think the intelligentsia failed Toronto, just as they typically do most civilizations: where were they (hell, we) during the ten months of the pre-election hype? Where were they when a candidate capable of beating Ford needed to be picked (I don’t think anyone really supported Smitherman – for *’s sake, he adopted a child six months before the election, how responsible is that?). Well, the “elites” were chattering amongst themselves, refuting Ford’s populist bullshit as just that. What everyone forgot is that elections are competitions and without a competitor we ended up with the bully from high school as our hall monitor for the next four years.

The point I’m trying to make (casually, and without credentials because this is a blog and I’m not a journalist) is that the so-called elitists are too busy looking at subtlety, too busy drawing examples from the history of civilization to actually stick their necks out and actually pick a candidate. In short, intellectuals hate making decisions and would rather prefer to show off how much they know about things. That’s how we end up with Rob Ford as mayor. That’s how we ended up with Stéphane Dion leading the Liberal party, or allowing members of the Reform Party to vote twice (if they belonged to both parties) in the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Alliance parties. The intellectuals – the so-called elites – were busy sitting on the sidelines trading notes, impressing each other with witty barbs.

And this is why I have a stake in the whole “elite” argument. In a sense, yes, they are the enemy. Not because they want anything, or that they are organized enough to have an agenda in the first place, but rather because they don’t know what they want for anyone other than themselves and most of them are too afraid of being politically active. In other words, they should know better, should do better, but they don’t. And as a result they doom the viability of the very life they live.

Share

Why You Should See "SUCK" (And Why It Shouldn’t Have To Be On DVD)

In 2008/9, I worked on the indie feature, SUCK. It’s a rock-and-roll vampire road-movie comedy directed by Toronto’s Rob Stefaniuk and produced by Capri Films’ Robin Crumley. For a low-budget feature (and I realize that’s not the best way to preface a compliment) SUCK is well-written, well-cast, funny, and in places very funny.

However, despite being well received at both the Toronto International and South-By-Southwest Film Festivals, it was denied any interest in a theatrical release by Canadian distributors. The longer I waited for someone to pick it up, the more I wondered what the problem was. Sure, you could argue that vampire films have saturated the market lately, but that’s seeing things from the late-summer of 2010 (SUCK was completed over a year ago). It was a no-brainer, even for a limited release: who wouldn’t like a rock vampire comedy w/ cameos by Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, and Alex Lifeson (among others)? It’s the sort of smart-but-not-overly-self-conscious effort which seems perfectly balanced for a theatrical audience.

Nothing happened. Well, actually, less-than-nothing happened: a lot of crap was released in Canadian theatres instead. Crap like the widely-released and quickly forgotten Gunless, which begged the question: if nobody is interested in seeing Westerns in theatres, what could possibly have been the selling point of a comedy-romance-Western with (as you might have guessed) no gunfighting? The answer is that it doesn’t matter: this is Canada, and film distributors prefer to release crap like Gunless and GravyTrain than anything which could hold an audience’s sustained interest. Evidently, the point of film distribution in Canada is to go through the motions.

Well, it’s too late for Canada. While SUCK secured a limited theatrical distribution in the U.S., it’s out on DVD here (the US DVD release is September 28th). This means it will only be screened here through niche film festivals. While that’s not a bad thing, it pisses me off that a funny, well-produced film (rare creature that is) should be all but abandoned after a successful festival run. This situation is certainly not helped by SUCK‘s (pardon the pun) anemic website: it makes no mention of any upcoming film screenings, DVD release dates, or even contact information. Who the hell is the site for? This is what happens when you don’t have a distributor to help with publicity. Not even the local indie journals can help: NOW Magazine completely omits any mention of it, as a film or DVD release. How’s that for hometown support? Thankfully, The Toronto Star’s Peter Howell is the only mainstream film critic to put the DVD release of SUCK on public record (in glowing terms no less…and slagging Gunless ).

I want people to see this film. Not because I worked on it, not because I want to punish producers who keep banking on dead-brained populist Paul Gross vehicles, but because this is a worthy film. It’s not Sophie’s Choice, it’s not going to change your life. But you’ll laugh. I just wish it had been allowed the opportunity of a theatrical run, which it so clearly deserved. It works better in a theatre than on DVD: with a pumped-up audience rather than in the controlled confines of your livingroom. That said, I will be pleased if, by my writing about it, one more person will see this movie than if I hadn’t.

Share

I’ll Show You Stupid

Possibly the worst tactical mistake you can make, politically, is to make fun of an opponent’s lack of intelligence. I say this because not only is there an influx of politically active people on the world stage who fall under the category of “lacking intelligence”, but there is an absence of memory about how publicly scorning such people only empowers them (and, most importantly, voters).

It’s hard. When someone says something completely false – and stupid – the well-educated person’s knee-jerk instinct is to say “You’re an idiot”. Fair enough. But, it’s the taunting that backfires. For example, look at Sarah Palin. I think she represents a necessary evil in American politics: a self-elected Voice of The People who campaigns on the rather wispy argument that the US is run by a bunch of elitists who don’t understand “real Americans”. It’s all a bunch of crap (by elite, do you mean they have an education? don’t you want the people running your country to have an education? to have seen something beyond the borders of your own country for sake of perspective? who the hell are ‘real Americans’? does this imply ‘false Americans’?), but it serves its purpose. And what do her critics – who, to be fair, constitute most of the people on the Earth – do? They make fun of her.

She’s an idiot. A moron.

The problem is, she’s a moron who appeals to a growing number of disenfranchised people who are looking for a proud, politically and morally uncomplicated banner to wave proudly over their heads. And yes, we can argue about why this is and who the supporters are, but – not to say that history is a 1:1 reflection of the future, because it’s not – history has shown that history doesn’t give a shit about those questions. Reflection happens in the future – that is, after we politely chortle to ourselves at all the nonsense of Palin, her “Tea Party”, and her scads of uncivilized minions. That is, after they take the next election.

The elitist/commoner non-argument (it’s a ploy, really) is as old as politics itself. We’ve had something very similar (and thankfully, tamer) happen in Canada. Our current government is a coalition of reformer factions who merged in the late 90s/early 00s to take over the Canadian Progressive Conservative Party (this would be the same as if the current “Tea Party” took over the Republican Party). They removed the word Progressive from the name and lead the country as a minority government. They too campaigned (and still do, whilst in power no less) as the party of the People, as an alternative to whomever stands against their policies (aka “the elites”). It’s old hat.

Before they came into power, they – as the Alliance Party – tried very hard to unseat the ruling Liberal government (tangent: can you imagine if the US had a party called the Liberal Party?). Their leader was a man named Stockwell Day, who rode onto the scene (quite literally) on a Sea Doo. He was all charisma and commonality. But as time wore on, people found that his reformist ideas weren’t very deep and a lot of the people in his party were either yahoos or – elitists? – began distancing themselves away from him. The chrome on his veneer began to chip away and the man became a running gag; the Prime Minister of the day, Jean Chretien, joked openly that he preferred having Day in opposition (as to suggest his chances were that much better to win elections against the Alliance). Long story short, all it took was a few years, a “unite the right” movement, and a new leader who could streamline (that is, squelch) internal strife and you had a winner. That is to say, the toppling of a government.

I suppose what I’m saying is this: making fun of people like Sarah Palin because she doesn’t come across as polished, or sophisticated, or well-educated is ineffective. All you manage to do is inflame the passions of people – many of whom may have been too lethargic or apathetic to vote in the first place – so that they start creating local campaign offices. There is nothing like being intellectually offended to raise someone’s ire – anyone’s, no matter where or how they were raised. Raise the ire, that is, so as to make them active agents on behalf of those scorned by the “elites”. Agents of “change”.

George W. Bush was publicly derided by intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike in almost every conceivable medium and venue, yet he served two four-year terms as President of the US. If you want to take down the likes of Palin, take her down as you would take down Reagan or Thatcher – that is, as an opponent worthy of debate, worthy of your concern. To do less would be to knot your own noose.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share