I spent my K-12 life at VSD #37. Today I’m back, doing a “Tough Kids” and suicide prevention workshop at Skyview H.S. Should be fun. Here are the handouts.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-rhyming and I’m not anti-rap.
Truth is, I think rhyming slogans are pretty darn cool. Ask my students, I use them all the time. Here are a few that have been known to slip out my mouth and into a class lecture from time to time:
- A pill is not a skill.
- Get curious, not furious.
- Your goal should be within your personal control
- To function to the best of your ability, you should embrace your multicultural humility
- An alcoholic drink, will not help you think (better)
The benefits of rhyming (and I daresay, alliteration) is that messages emerge with might and mass, which makes them more memorable. What I meant to say here before my alliterative self took over is that rhyming produces a powerful and memorable message. That’s the good news.
The “less good” news (as us therapist types like to say) is that rhyming and alliteration, although clever and appealing, usually don’t capture ALL OF THE TRUTH, and, are often misleading.
All this initial commentary is my way of leading up to my recent critique of the liberal use of a couple of F-words (nope, I’m not talking about “Fire and fury” although that could be an alliterative example of something that’s simply not soothing the simmering psyches of people who need to settle down). Instead, the target of my critique today is the all-too-common utterance, “Fight or flight.”
What follows is an excerpt of a slight rambling rant that was included in my keynote speech at the Montana Prevent Child Abuse Conference this past April.
The context: I had just shown a video of a Harvard professor who happened to mention (without checking with me first) the clever and popular phrase, “fight or flight.” Here’s what came next:
You may not be aware of this, but I’m an official, self-appointed member of the counseling and psychotherapy theories police. I don’t have a badge, but I’ve got a book. What this book means is that I’ve done a little background reading on lots of theoretical concepts, like “Fight or Flight.” “Fight or Flight” – We hear that a lot, even from, as my older daughter would say, that fancy Harvard guy on the video.
The problem with most rhyming concepts is that they tend to oversimplify whatever it is we’re talking about. Take for example, “No pain, no gain.” There’s some truth to that, but that statement probably doesn’t hold for everyone, everywhere.
Well, the troubling truth is that fight or flight isn’t really all that accurate. Stress doesn’t just trigger two behavioral options. There are other behaviors activated by stress, some of which also start with an F, but don’t rhyme so neatly.
There’s Faint. And there’s Freeze. Chronic stress can also increase Feeding; some of us know that first-hand. My favorite stress food comes from places that rhyme with Fakery, so I guess that’s another F word. But, then again, stress can also dull your appetite, so the feeding thing isn’t a universal response.
Then there are the “P” words, like poop and pee. High stress can affect those, sometimes rather dramatically.
But what most people—even fancy Harvard guys—don’t tell you or don’t know, is that much of the Fight or Flight research was conducted on White Males.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the research was actually conducted on White, Male, Rats.
After re-analyzing old data and new studies focusing on female rats and female humans, years ago, Shelly Taylor and her research colleagues at UCLA discovered that for females of the species, there was a tendency toward a different set of rhyming words. The females coped with stressors using a strategy referred to as “Tend and Befriend.” And to further complexify the situation, sometimes males do the tend and befriend thing too. . . although not quite so frequently as the white, male, rats.
The point . . . I know I’ve strayed from it, is that financial and workplace interventions are very good for decreasing child abuse, but IMHO. . . interventions that increase social support and connection (the tending and befriending as methods for helping highly stressed families cope) are equally important . . . and that brings us right back to you and what you can do to prevent child abuse.
Today’s blog is just a reminder that although powerful and memorable communication is remarkably powerful and memorable, it’s usually incomplete, not always accurate, and a function of the speaker’s need or desire to be powerful and memorable. This is just as true when I say “a pill is not a skill” or when other people say other things that make use of rambling and reckless rhetoric of the alliterative or rhyming ilk.
To finish, I’ll leave you with what Shelly Taylor said back in the year 2000, as excerpted from our forthcoming textbook, Counseling and Psychotherapy in Context and Practice (John Wiley and Sons, 2018). This particular excerpt ends with brief comments from us that also, in case you are wondering, might be relevant to the recent Google manifesto brouhaha.
Stress researcher and social psychologist Shelly Taylor made a similar contribution when researching the well-known fight or flight phenomenon (Taylor et al., 2000). She and her colleagues wrote:
A little-known fact about the fight-or-flight response is that the preponderance of research exploring its parameters has been conducted on males, especially on male rats. Until recently, the gender distribution in the human literature was inequitable as well. Prior to 1995, women constituted about 17% of participants in laboratory studies of physiological and neuroendocrine responses to stress. (2000, p. 412)
Reanalysis of existing data and new research revealed significant differences in the ways in which females and males respond to stressful situations. Taylor and colleagues (2000) concluded:
We propose a theory of female responses to stress characterized by a pattern termed “tend-and-befriend.” Specifically, we propose that women’s responses to stress are characterized by patterns that involve caring for offspring under stressful circumstances, joining social groups to reduce vulnerability, and contributing to the development of social groupings, especially those involving female networks, for the exchange of resources and responsibilities. We maintain that aspects of these responses, both maternal and affiliative, may have built on the biobehavioral attachment caregiving system that depends, in part, on oxytocin, estrogen, and endogenous opioid mechanisms, among other neuroendocrine underpinnings. (p. 422)
The preponderance of the research suggests that in fact, that White male ways of being aren’t always normative for females, or even for all males. There are physical and psychological similarities between females and males, but there are also differences. In this case, it would be inappropriate to make the case that a typical male fight-or-flight response is superior to a typical female tend-and-befriend response. There is likely an evolutionary benefit to both stress-related behavior patterns (Master et al., 2009; Taylor & Gonzaga, 2007; Taylor & Master, 2011). Sometimes differences are just differences and there’s no need to advocate for one sex-related pattern as superior over another (although if they feel threatened by this information, white male rats are highly likely to fight for their position…or run and hide in little holes in our cupboards). In this case it seems clear: Neither behavior pattern represents psychopathology…and neither will always be the superior response to threat.
Sorry to say, I’ve been irritable the past couple days. If you don’t believe me, just ask my internet provider . . . or my editor . . . or ask me about my upcoming book deadline. There’s evidence everywhere for my irritability and impatience. You might even see evidence for it in this short excerpt from our forthcoming Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy textbook. In fact, you should read this now, because I’m pretty sure it will get censored before appearing in our text.
Here you go.
You may be aware of popular books describing and delighting in the differences between female and male brains. Here’s a short list, along with my snarky comments:
- The essential difference: Male and female brains and the truth about autism (Baron-Cohen, 2003). Baron-Cohen is an autism researcher. His book allegedly, “. . . proves that female-type brains are better at empathizing and communicating, while male brains are stronger at understanding and building systems-not just computers and machinery, but abstract systems such as politics and music.” Comment: It’s so good to finally understand why most of our politicians are smirky White males who look like Baron-Cohen (heads up, this statement is sarcasm).
- The female brain (Brizendine, 2006): Brizendine is a neuropsychiatrist. Her book is touted as bringing “. . . together the latest findings to show how the unique structure of the female brain determines how women think, what they value, how they communicate, and who they love.” Comment: In Delusions of gender (2011), Cordelia Fine reduces Brizendine’s arguments to rubble. Nuff said.
- Teaching the female brain: How girls learn math and science (James, 2009). Comment: It’s hard to know how this book could be more than two pages given that there’s extremely sparse scientific evidence to support what this book’s title implies.
- Female brain gone insane: An emergency guide for women who feel like they are falling apart (Lundin, 2009). No comment. I couldn’t bring myself to read beyond this book’s title.
- The male brain: A breakthrough understanding of how men and boys think (Brizendine, 2011). Comment: The main breakthrough finding is that when you sell a million+ copies of your first book, a sequel, with similar drama, but equally slim scientific support, is essential.
- Unleash the power of the female brain: Supercharging yours for better health, energy, mood, focus, and sex (Amen, 2014). Comment: Better health, energy, mood, focus, and sex? I want a female brain!
The dangers of over-stating what’s known about the brain is significant, but nowhere are the dangers bigger than when you’re talking about sex and gender. Over time, physical differences between females and males have nearly always been used to justify systemic mistreatment of females (and limitations for males, as well). Some examples:
Plato didn’t think women were created directly by God and so they didn’t have had souls.
Aristotle thought women were deficient in natural heat and therefore unable to cook their menstrual fluids into semen.
Gustav Le Bon (1979) concluded that women’s intellectual inferiority was so obvious that no one could contest it. He wrote: “All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women, as well as poets and novelists, recognize today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man” (see Women’s Brains by S. J. Gould). Le Bon purportedly based his ideas on Broca’s measurements of 6 female and 7 male skulls. Not surprisingly, Le Bon strongly opposed the whole idea of educating women.
More recently, over the past 30 years, I’ve seen and heard and read many different descriptions and explanations about female and male brain differences. Nearly always, there’s the same old story: Women are more “right brained” and intuitive and less “left brained” and rational. Of course the actual brain hemisphere research is sketchy, but the take home messages are much like Baron-Cohen’s and Brizendine, which happen to be much like the philosophy of the Nazi Third Reich, which is that girls and women are well-suited for working in the kitchen and the church, and especially good at caring for children, but that women had best leave politics and the corporate world – where steady rationality is essential – to the men.
All this reminds me of the time my daughter, then a senior in high school, was shown a film in her science class depicting the female brain as structurally less capable of science and math. She came home in distress. We showed up at school the next day. What do you suppose happened next? We’ll leave that story to your imagination.
Genderizing the brain marginalizes and limits females, but it can also do the same for males. Take, for example, this quotation from “Dr.” Kevin Leman.
“Did you know that scientific studies prove why a woman tends to be more ‘relational’ than her male counterpart? A woman actually has more connecting fibers than a man does between the verbal and the emotional side of her brain. That means a woman’s feelings and thoughts zip along quickly, like they’re on an expressway, but a man’s tend to poke slowly as if he’s walking and dragging his feet on a dirt road.” (pp. 5-6).
Just FYI, even though my emotional quotient is just barely dragging along Leman’s dirt road, I can quickly intuit that what he wrote is sheer drivel. It’s not partial drivel because . . . as Cordelia Fine might say, “He just made that shit up.”
Seriously? Am I making the claim that male and female brains are relatively equivalent in terms of empathic processing? Yes. I. am.
Using the best and most rigorous laboratory empathy measure available, empathy researcher William Ickes found no differences between males and females in seven consecutive studies. However, based on a larger group of studies, he and his colleagues acknowledged that there may be small sex-based differences favoring women on empathy tasks. It should be noted that he and his research team (which includes females who may be more limited in their scientific skills than Baron-Cohen) offer at least two caveats. First, they believe that females being raised in social conditions that promote a communal orientation may account for some of the differences. Second, females are especially likely to be better at empathy when they’re primed, directly or indirectly, to recall that they (women) are better at emotional tasks than men. The converse is also true. When men are primed to think all men are empathic dullards, they tend to perform more like empathic dullards.
What all this boils down to is that females and males are generally quite similar in their empathic accuracy, not to mention their math and science and language abilities. It appears that the minor observable differences between females and males may be explained by various environmental factors. This means that if you want to stick with scientific evidence, you should be very cautious in making any conclusions about brain differences between females and males. To do otherwise is to create what has been eloquently termed, a neuromyth.
In summary, the safest empirically-based conclusions on sex- and gender-based brain differences are:
- The differences appear to be minimal
- When they exist, they may be largely caused by immediate environmental factors or longer-term educational opportunities
- To avoid mistakes from the past, we should be cautious in attributing female and male behavioral or performance differences to their brains
- If and when true neurological differences are discovered, it would be best if we viewed them using the Jungian concept of Gifts differing (Myers, 1995).
- Consistent with Cordelia Fine’s excellent recommendation in Delusions of Gender, we shouldn’t make things up—even if it means we get to sell more books.
This is a draft “Brain Box” for the feminist theory and therapy chapter from our forthcoming Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy textbook.
Feminist therapy is about connection.
So is neuroscience.
Neuroscience involves the study of synaptic interconnections, neural networks, brain structures and their electrochemical communications.
Feminist therapy involves egalitarian interconnection, empathy, mutual empathy, and empowerment of the oppressed, neglected, and marginalized.
As a highly sophisticated, interconnected entity, the human brain is metaphorical support for feminist theory and therapy. In the brain, cells don’t operate in isolation. In feminist therapy in general, and relational cultural therapy (RCT) in particular, isolation is unhealthy. Connection is healthy.
Healthy brains are connection-heavy. Whether humans are awake or asleep, brain cells are in constant communication; they problem-solve; they operate sensory and motor systems; they feedback information to and from the body, inhibiting, exciting, and forming a connected, communicating, community.
Using modern brain research as a foundation, Jordan (the developer of RCT) described how empathic relationships can change clients:
“Empathy is not just a means to better understand the client; in mutually empathic exchanges, the isolation of the client is altered. The client feels less alone, more joined with the therapist. It is likely that in these moments of empathy and resonance, there is active brain resonance between therapist and client (Schore, 1994), which can alter the landscape and functioning of the brain. Thus, those areas of the brain that register isolation and exclusion fire less and those areas that indicate empathic responsiveness begin to activate.”
Jordan is talking about how therapist-client interactions change the brain. Many others have made the same point: “It is the power of being with others that shapes our brain” (Cozolino, 2006, p. 9). In her review of RCT theory and outcomes, Frey (2013) emphasized that “research on mirror neurons, the facial recognition system, lifelong neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and the social functions of brain structures” (p. 181) supports feminist theory and feminist therapy process.
Neuroscience research is supportive of feminist therapy in ways that are both real and metaphorical. There is unarguably great potential here. However, before we wax too positive, it’s important to heed a warning. Beginning with Plato (at least) and throughout the history of time, the main way in which physical (or brain) differences between the sexes have been used is to marginalize females and undercut their viability as equal partners in the human race (see Brain Box 10.2). With that caveat in mind, let’s respect feminism with some multitasking: Let’s celebrate the positive parallels between human neurology and feminist theory, while simultaneously keeping a watchful eye on how neuroscience is being used to limit or oppress girls and women.
The plane vibrated, shook, rattled, and lost altitude. Passengers gasped. The seatbelt light illuminated.
Our pilot had said, “We’ll be having a few bumps.” But when I look out the window, I don’t see bumps. But the name doesn’t matter. A rose or bump by any other name still smells like nausea.
Those so-called bumpy plane rides usually trigger, for me, a mental image of turbulence ripping the wings off the plane. Then we all crash and die. This isn’t a helpful mental image. I know that.
Having repeated images of falling out of the sky to certain death has been unpleasant, but motivating. I’ve been motivated to work on countering turbulence with meditation, deep breathing, and calmness. I’m happy to report that I can keep my heart rate at under 60 beats per minute through the bumps. Is it dissociation or coping? I don’t care. Nausea is minimal and instead of dread and anxiety, I feel accomplishment. I decided that if I’m going to crash and die, I might as well be relaxed.
Until a couple months ago, I was sure I’d worked out the best method ever for flight turbulence. But then, during a particularly series of bumps from Portland to Missoula, I learned how babies fly.
The bumps started. Gasps followed. Then, about three rows ahead, I heard a mom comforting her toddler. I was expecting the typical, “It’s okay . . . we’ll be fine . . . hold my hand.” But this particular mom cranked the ball out of the park with Just. One. Word.
The plane transformed from gasps to chuckles.
It didn’t take a minute. Not even 10 seconds. The effect was immediate. No longer were we enduring a bumpy flight. We were transported to a fantastic amusement park ride.
I turned to the burly man next to me (I always get seated by another burly man; they like to put us in pairs) and said. “Wow. That’s cool.”
He was smiling. The toddler was laughing. The mom was oohing and ahhing. Several other passengers joined in.
Later, I realized that in the midst of my admiration, I had forgotten all about breathing and meditating and tracking my pulse. Instead, I learned an even BETTER METHOD. Not only did this mom transform the flight for herself and her baby, she transformed it for everyone.
It was SO GOOD, I just had to share it with you.
Pass it on.
In honor of Joseph Wolpe, let’s start with mental imagery.
Imagine you’ve travelled back in time. You’re in your first week of high school. You look around and notice that one of your classmates is named Mary Jones.
Mary is an ordinary girl with an ordinary name. Over the years, you don’t notice her much. She seems like a nice person, a fairly good student, and someone who doesn’t get in trouble or draw attention to herself.
Four years pass. A new student joined your class during senior year. His name is Daniel Fancy Pants. Toward the end of your senior year, Daniel does a fantastic Prezi presentation about a remarkable new method for measuring reading outcomes. He includes cool video clips and boomerang Snapchat. When he bows at the end, he gets a standing ovation. Don’t get me wrong. Daniel is a good student and a hard worker; he partnered up with a college professor and made a big splash. Daniel deserves recognition.
But, as it turns out, over the WHOLE four years of high school, Mary Jones was quietly working at a homeless shelter; week after week, month after month, year after year, she was teaching homeless children how to read. In fact, based on Daniel’s measure of reading outcomes, Mary had taught over 70 children to read.
Funny thing. Mary doesn’t get much attention. All everybody wants to talk about is Daniel. At graduation, he wins the outstanding graduate award. Everyone cheers.
Let’s stop the mental imagery and reflect on what we imagined.
Like birds and raccoons, humans tend to like shiny things. Mary did incredible work, but hardly anyone noticed. Daniel did good work, and got a standing ovation and top graduate award.
The “shiny-thing theory” is my best explanation for why we tend to get overly excited about brain science. It’s important, no doubt. But brain imaging isn’t the therapy; it’s just a cool way to measure or validate therapy’s effects.
Beginning in at least 1924, when Mary Cover Jones was deconditioning fear out of little children, behavior therapy has shown not only great promise, but great outcomes. However, when Schwartz (and others) showed that exposure therapy “changes the brain,” most of the excitement and accolades were about the brain images; exposure therapy was like background noise. Obviously, the fact that exposure therapy (and other therapies) change the brain is great news. It’s great news for people who have anxiety and fear, and it’s great news for practitioners who use exposure therapy for treating anxious and fearful clients.
This is all traceable to neuroscience and human evolution. We get distracted by shiny objects and miss the point because our neural networks and perceptual processes are oriented to alerting us to novel (new) environmental stimuli. This is probably because change in the form of shiny objects might signal a threat or something new and valuable. But we need to stay focused in order to not overlook that behavior therapy in general, and exposure therapy in particular, has been, is, and probably will continue to be, the most effective approach on the planet for helping people overcome anxiety and fear. And, you know what, it doesn’t really matter that it changes the brain (although that’s damn cool and affirming news). What matters is that it changes clients’ lives.
Exposure therapy, no matter how you package it, is highly effective for treating anxiety. This statement is true whether we’re talking about Mary Cover Jones and her evidence-based counterconditioning cookies or Francine Shapiro and eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR). It’s also true whether we’re talking about virtual reality exposure, imaginal exposure, massed exposure, spaced exposure, in-vivo exposure, interoceptive exposure, response prevention (in obsessive-compulsive disorder) or the type of exposure that acceptance and commitment therapists use (n.b., they like to say it’s “different” from traditional classical conditioning exposure, but it works, and that’s what counts).
In the end, let’s embrace and love and cheer brain imaging and neuroscience, but not forget the bottom line. The bottom line is that exposure therapy works! Exposure therapy is the genuine article. Exposure therapy is pure gold.
Mary Cover Jones is the graduate of the century; she’s the bomb. Because of her, exposure therapy has been pure gold for 93 years. And now, we’ve got cool pictures of the brain to prove it.
Note: Mary Cover Jones passed away in 1987. Just minutes before her death, she said to her sister: “I am still learning about what is important in life” (as cited in Reiss, 1990). We should all be more like Mary.
This morning the clock said 3:51am. My lungs felt refreshed. Then a memory from last night bubbled up. You know how they do.
Rita and I discovered mold in our garden. It was yellow and green and it shared its spores with my lungs before we recognized or best option: retreat inside to formulate our battle plan in response to the attack of the multicolored mold.
Google was waiting. All the postings were about White mold or Black mold, or even yellow dog-vomit mold. Nothing fit our mold. I read with great and trepidiacal interest of a U.K. man who died from inhaling compost mold; my lungs were burning. Not good.
But sleep came.
Then 3:51am came.
And then the thoughts came.
At 3:52am it seemed odd that I could hear my pulse in my ear on the pillow. It seemed fast. That U.K. man had a rapid pulse. I could either choose to lift my head and take my pulse and while waiting for the digital clock to move to the next minute, or I could look at my fit bit. But my fit bit is charging. But I decide, anyway, to roll over and grab it and attach it to my wrist and look at the pulse rate. It flashes, 113. Not good. I check again, 112. Not good. Not normal. I compulsively check again, 111. The fit bit is probably still adjusting, now it’s 109. Stop checking, the voice in my head says. Let it be. Let it settle. Thirty seconds later, it’s 55. I am normal again.
At 3:54am, I find another troubling thought. Today is July 14, 2017. My Theories text revision is due in 31 days. I have five more chapters to revise. That’s six days per chapter. Plus references. Plus table of contents and preface and . . . . Not good. I’m a bad author.
At 4:12am, I’m up, turning on the computer. I’m a bad author and a bad husband and a bad father and a bad friend. All I do is write meaningless drivel that maybe 12 people a year will read and then immediately forget. Forgettable, I am. Even my own students can’t answer my pop theories quiz questions when they drop by my office. I wonder why they don’t stop in so much anymore.
Good thing I’m revising CBT today. God and Albert Ellis know, I sure as Hell need it.
One of today’s content areas is called, Thinking in Shades of Gray. It’s a description of a cognitive technique to help people get out of destructive, irrational, and maladaptive black-white (aka polarized) thinking. It’s boring. Of course it’s boring. Shades of gray? It’s a technique to help with depressive thoughts. I can hear the Albert Ellis voice in my head. WTF? You work with depressed people and you teach them how to think in shades of gray. What the Holy Hell are YOU thinking?
Later this morning, as I ride through Lower Grove Creek with yellow flowers and the Beartooth Mountains looming, I stop for a photo. There are no cars, no deer, and not even a trace of fungal spores. Just me and my breath and my bike and the yellow flowers and shades of gray, black, and white rising above. Why are there no colors in the shades of gray activity? There’s more to our thinking (and our client’s) thinking than black, white, and gray. Today, with the wind in my face and Tippet Rise to my starboard, I want to be an art therapist. “Let’s put a little yellow there,” I say. And the yellow grows into gold and happy breaks out.
But sooner or later, you and I know. We. Know. The yellow will catch dust and lose its sparkle and turn to mold, until a future morning at 3:51am, when a red seed of awareness gets planted among the anxiety bushes and purple flowers bloom, replacing the moldy browned-up yellow, and then we will remember. We have been here before. And it was wondrous and terrible and everything in between.
At that point, it’s not a bad idea to find your fit bit, take your pulse, and embrace the ever disintegrating now that is morning. You have your next 31 days and I have mine. Let’s meet somewhere in the middle and celebrate the next disintegrating now with all the passion and monotony we can muster. You know we can. We’ve done it before.