R.I.P. Alice Miller

Psychoanalyst Who Laid Human Problems to Parental Actsis Dead at 87. “Dr. Miller caused a sensation with the English publication in 1981 of her first book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” Originally titled “Prisoners of Childhood,” it set forth, in three essays, a simple but harrowing proposition. All children, she wrote, suffer trauma and permanent psychic scarring at the hands of parents, who enforce codes of conduct through psychological pressure or corporal punishment: slaps, spankings or, in extreme cases, sustained physical abuse and even torture.

Unable to admit the rage they feel toward their tormenters, Dr. Miller contended, these damaged children limp along through life, weighed down by depression and insecurity, and pass the abuse along to the next generation, in an unending cycle. Some, in a pathetic effort to please their parents and serve their needs, distinguish themselves in the arts or professions. The Stalins and the Hitlers, Dr. Miller later wrote, inflict their childhood traumas on millions.” (New York Times obituary)

Miller stopped practicing psychoanalysis, convinced that the relationship between the analyst and patient replicates the oppressive and abusive parental relationship. Of course, Freudians would say that that is a product of the patient’s ‘transference’ to the analyst of their attitudes toward powerful figures from their formative years, and that working with the transference forms the basis of the analytic ‘cure’. But Miller felt it was a real and inescapable power relationship as well, or instead. Reading Miller, for many, connected them with notions of victimhood and oppression in their lives and irrevocably altered their attitudes toward rearing their own children.

“They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

Image of the human head with the brain. The ar...

Next Big Thing in Literary Theory: ‘At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is a providing a revitalizing lift.

Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.

The brain may be it. Getting to the root of people’s fascination with fiction and fantasy, Mr. Gottschall said, is like “mapping wonderland.” (New York Times )

Magnetic manipulation of the sense of morality

A chimpanzee brain at the Science Museum London

‘When making moral judgements, we rely on our ability to make inferences about the beliefs and intentions of others. With this so-called “theory of mind“, we can meaningfully interpret their behaviour, and decide whether it is right or wrong. The legal system also places great emphasis on one’s intentions: a “guilty act” only produces criminal liability when it is proven to have been performed in combination with a “guilty mind”, and this, too, depends on the ability to make reasoned moral judgements.

MIT researchers now show that this moral compass can be very easily skewed<. In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they report that magnetic pulses which disrupt activity in a specific region of the brain’s right hemisphere can interfere with the ability to make certain types of moral judgements, so that hypothetical situations involving attempted harm are perceived to be less morally forbidden and more permissable.’ (Neurophilosophy)

Does this scare you?

“It’s Self-Defeating Behavior That Done Them Wrong”

100% Acrylic Art Guards by Agata Olek / Dumbo ...

“Of all human psychology, self-defeating behavior is among the most puzzling and hard to change. After all, everyone assumes that people hanker after happiness and pleasure. Have you ever heard of a self-help book on being miserable?

So what explains those men and women who repeatedly pursue a path that leads to pain and disappointment? Perhaps there is a hidden psychological reward…” (New York Times )

Depression’s Upside

On the Threshold of Eternity

Wonderful behavioral science writer Jonah Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist) writes for the New York Times Magazine on the idea that depression may be adaptive. It is not a new idea; I have followed the intriguing literature about possible evolutionary reasons for the persistence of depression ever since I was a psychiatric resident troubled by how readily we in the field want to obliterate any signs of the condition whenever our patients present with it. Some theories have focused on the advantages of resource preservation, given the social isolation, decreased motivation and lessened self-indulgence the depressed person displays. It has also been suggested that the depressive alteration in cognition, in the direction of impaired self-esteem, decreased sense of efficacy and control over one’s circumstances, and pessimism , may actually be more realistic, at least in some circulstances, than the rose-colored glasses with which we usually walk around.

But recent research adds neuropsychological evidence of increased brain activity in depressed patient in regions of the prefrontal cortex associated with problem-solving, proportional to the degree of depression. It is certainly not the whole explanation, as critics counter, because some of the maladaptive impact of depression, including poor self-care, impairment in childrearing, increased susceptibility to other illness, and last but not least suicide, will outweigh the problem-solving advantages it might confer. Furthermore, there are many different kids of depression both in terms of precipitant and symptomatology. At one extreme, a person may become depressed in response to an acute recent loss (or even a future anticipated one); on the other hand, some people can develop either a dense acute depression or a smouldering chronic one without substantial stresses or losses. The imprecisions in both the lay person’s use of the term depression and its more technical clincal utilization muddy the waters in this regard.

Still, it is worth asking why a condition that is so painful and takes such a heavy toll would persist if it were not at least some of the time of some use… and whether, at least some of the time, we do more harm than good in leaping to treat it. Except, of course, the unequivocal good done to the pockets of the shareholders and executives of the pharmaceutical companies, reaping the profits from the explosive growth in antidepressant sales of the last few decades. (New York Times Magazine)

Can you really be “addicted” to shopping or using the Internet?

Heroin bottle

“Despite the scientific implausibility of the same disease—addiction—underlying both damaging heroin use and overenthusiasm for World of Warcraft, the concept has run wild in the popular imagination. Our enthusiasm for labeling new forms of addictions seems to have arisen from a perfect storm of pop medicine, pseudo-neuroscience, and misplaced sympathy for the miserable.” — Vaughan Bell (Slate)