Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Golden Rule was RIGHT.

Once again, social psychology scores big with elegantly-designed research proving that you've been right all along.

This month's issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports on a study that looks at what your description of others says about you. As you likely had already figured out, participants in the study who rated their peers positively (trustworthy, emotionally stable) reported greater life satisfaction, less depression, and better grades. On the other side, people who thought negatively of others were more likely to be disagreeable, antisocial and narcissistic.

Short, non-clinical version: if you're spending all your time going around saying what an asshole everyone is, you're probably an asshole.

I can't help but think of the behavioral implications of this research. After all, one of the things I get paid for is to help people change their behaviors. And, there seems to be a pretty strong message here that just happens to jibe completely with one of my core therapy philosophies. To whit: spend as much energy as you can in a constant attempt to put love into the world, as that love tends to come back to you when you need it the most. Science is backing me up! Describe your peers, your coworkers, your children, and complete strangers in the most positive, loving way possible, and you'll be seen as worthy of that love.

Scientific American provides a little summary of the research, just in case you don't subscribe to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

From the archives

Here's a piece I wrote last year. I was a television producer for years before going back to school and joining the dark side as a psychologist.

It is my first night on the job. The mesmerizing thrum, thrum, thrum of the generator powering the Jaws of Life fills my consciousness, drugs me. I am thinking that if I ever made a movie of this, that generator sound would provide a hypnotic audio bed. A light rain falls. I stand on the cold pavement of interstate 84, at the mouth of the scenic Columbia Gorge, and I watch a woman die.

If it bleeds, it leads. I had been in the newsroom for an hour or so, trying to fit in and not say anything stupid. I was the new guy, a lowly news department grip. I knew the rudiments of the job -- hooking up the cable that snaked from camera to heavy 3/4 deck, holding a boom mic, crouching down to stay out of the shot, shutting up and staying invisible. Refinement of those skills would eventually take me under massive hydroelectric dams, into the inner sanctums of government, and to front-row vantage points at events for which no amount of money would provide a ticket. For tonight, though, I was the new guy.

If you want to feel safe in your car, it's probably best to never witness the immediate aftermath of a high-speed collision. Glass and metal and plastic and gas and antifreeze and blood and rain, shiny on the pavement, formerly a car and a person. The studied, false calm of an emergency crew. The voyeuristic professionalism of a couple of TV news crews. The last artifacts of a life.

Looking back, the gleeful tone in the news director's voice was a clue to what would eventually drive me from commercial news into public television and eventually away from professional bystanding entirely. "Looks like there might be a fatality!"

I stand in the rain. Long ago, my friend happened across an accident in which a woman was terribly injured. My friend was unable to do anything but hold her hand, and offer her comfort, and provide a human face to gaze upon in her last minutes of life. When I talk about this, I wonder, will I want to remember what it was like to just watch?

A shooter pointed at me, pointed at the gear, and we get ready to leave. I grab batteries, blank tape, microphones, my assigned deck. Simple things, but forget just one and the entire shoot is ruined. I'm jacked up like a fighter entering the ring. The new guy. We throw everything in the van. We race to the scene.

The generator stops suddenly and imbues the scene with an eerie silence. The onboard lights of the tv cameras cast a hard shadow on the dead woman's bloodied face. I find that I'm strangely cut loose from reality in this moment, disembodied, floating above the scene just watching. The sound of the generator was the only thing keeping me attached to the ground, and I no longer have that ballast. I float, wondering if the woman's soul is leaving her body, wondering if she has children. Pieces of shattered windshield give way to an infinite field of stars. Up there, I feel somehow an important part of all of this, there to record her death so it doesn't go unnoticed.

No one talks much on the way back to the station. The reporter is writing his v/o in a little notebook. The shooter calls in with our time of arrival. Back at the station, the news director kills the story in favor of something far more interesting than a single life extinguished on a rainy night in the Gorge. I unpack my gear.

As I lie in my bed later, unable to sleep, a forgiving rain washes away the last of the blood and the antifreeze.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Saturday, February 19, 2011


She sits across from me, drawn, gaunt, eyes red, and tells me that she can't sleep in her dorm room without her cat. When I ask her why, she tells me that it is only because of her cat that she can tell the difference between a night terror and something that she should really be afraid of. She sees ghosts. She is sensitive to the presence of things that should remain in other worlds. If her cat remains unaffected, the ghosts aren't real, and she can feel as safe as she is capable of feeling.

That afternoon I will write a letter asking that she be allowed to keep her cat with her. I won't explain exactly why.

In the early days of mining, men sent deep into the earth to hammer out coal would bring a caged canary with them. The canaries, prized for their delicate metabolism, would begin to sway uncertainly on their perch in the presence of trace amounts of methane or carbon monoxide, gases that presaged untimely death by suffocation or explosion. The sight of a dying canary sent the wary miners clawing for the surface. My client's hope was that her cat could keep her safe from fates even more horrible than a lack of oxygen or a cave-in triggered by an underground blast.

Many of my clients come to me bearing such cages. They scan the environment, hypersensitive to that clue that will remind them of just how unsafe their world is, the clue that will send them clawing for the surface, scurrying back to bed and under the covers and safe for another day. They miss classes and end relationships based on the swaying of a canary. They avoid the harsh glare of life, the seeped methane of distrust, the carbon dioxide of a poisonous memory. They live underground, their days dimly illuminated with the faltering beam of headlamps and dingy lanterns. There are days when I feel that to convince them to let the canary fly free is just too jolting and unkind, and I sit with them in the dark, and we watch the canary breathe, both of us mindful of the fragile respiratory rhythm of life.

There are those glorious days when we watch an unfettered flight, the canary soaring, striving to be more than a simple harbinger. I love those days, but I value them the same as the other days, as they are all part of the miner's life. The cage is never discarded, as there will be more descents into darkness. Canaries are easy to come by, a dime a dozen, and as often as they have failed to do their jobs they are still the closest thing to trustworthy that many will ever find.

And on some days, that's enough.

Pain, the brain, and the power of expectation

012508 love hatePhoto credit: Me!

A recent study in the journal Science Translational Medicine has caught the interest of pain patients, physicians, and anyone interested in the complex interactions within the human brain. Bottom line: the effects of pain-killing medication can be boosted, or dramatically lowered, simply by manipulating expectations.

In the study, mild pain is administered to healthy people. The average study participant rated their initial pain at a 66. Without their knowledge, a potent painkiller was administered, and their rating went to 55. After they were told they were being given medication, the rating dropped to 39. The effects were just as strong in the opposite direction. With the painkillers still being administered, participants were told to expect pain, as the meds had been withdrawn. Their pain rating shot up to a 64.

As both a psychologist and a pain patient, I'm used to that stunned reaction that people get when they grapple with the somehow-amazing fact that the mind and the body are inseparable. After three decades of dealing with the complex rhythms of my own pain, I have a never-ending pool of empathy and understanding for my fellow sufferers. Like it or not, we're all part of a club, holders of a wealth of shared knowledge, imparters of well-wishes and comrades in battle. Any pain patient can tell you about the surging tides of pain management - the crests of hope and the cold-sea troughs of discouragement.

Healthy college students sense increased pain when their expectations are manipulated. Imagine what it's like for someone who has dealt with their pain for years and faced a series of discouraging attempts at relief. Hopelessness, those of us in the mental health business know, is a monster, capable of increasing suicide potential, ruining relationships, and hanging dark heavy weight on ordinarily functional people. The good news is that something as simple as hope can do the opposite.

Sometimes, in the face of any kind of pain, whether it's from a physical injury or a more intimate emotional scar, it's easy to forget that no one can manipulate our expectations more powerfully than we ourselves can.