Category Archives: Writing

The Brain-Based Truth of Donald Trump’s Social Dominance

Snowy Sunset

Although everyone is arguing with everyone else about everything—especially everything involving presidential politics, no one argues about whether Donald Trump can work a room, work up an audience, and dominate a news cycle. Love or hate him, Trump has a special talent.

But what is that talent? How can it be that despite clear evidence of Trump lying at unprecedented rates, despite the small blue wave that swept the House of Representatives this past November, and despite substantial evidence that his policies are not benefiting rural Americans, Trump’s approval ratings continue to hover at around 40%. Given his flirtation with the Russians, his legal problems with the Department of Justice and in the Southern District of New York, and his incessant outrageous and vulgar tweeting, why don’t his approval ratings dip even lower?

Perhaps even more puzzling is the apparent inability or unwillingness of previously powerful republicans to push back on Trump’s wanton disregard for family values and morality. Many of Trumps tweets are, at best, rated PG-13. The fact that Googling “bullshit” and “circle jerk” takes us to commentaries about Trump’s tweets is a testimony to his ubiquitous disrespect for whatever moral codes republicans have retreated behind.

Never mind the well-documented porn star payments, “shithole” references, and stories about bullets dipped in pig’s blood. Unless they’re still commenting on Obama, the Clintons, or other targets designed to distract from rational argument, the collective chorus of outrage among republican politicians is no louder than you’d expect from a band of Buddhists practicing mindful acceptance at a silent retreat.

Sure, Mitt Romney and a few others have occasionally (and carefully) expressed their sickened feelings. And although Bill Kristol and other #neverTrumpers have held forth—even purchasing political advertisings to counter Trump rhetoric—to date, no current republican office-holder has publicly confronted Trump and provided an alternative leadership narrative. What’s up with the formerly assertive republican leaders? Whether we’re watching blank looks from Chris Christie, John Kelly, or Rod Rosenstein, republican power brokers appear frightened, intimidated, and only a meek shadow of their former selves.

What’s the best explanation for Trump’s stable approval ratings and the continued shriveling of republican leadership? You might be inclined to consider favorable economic indicators, or the Fox News phenomenon, or some other rational explanation. But I’m leaning a different direction—toward a theory to explain the irrational.

Like all dangerous populist politicians, Trump is a master manipulator. He can bend minds like psychics bend spoons. Although many—including my father—refer to him as a run-of-the-mill con man, Trump is much more than that. Trump is no expert on the art of the deal; but he’s a wizard at the art of mass hypnosis.

Among others, two Canadian academics, Drs. Erik Woody and Henry Szechtman, have written about how mass hypnosis works. They say it involves the activation of a particular evolutionarily-important part of the brain. They’ve labeled this neural network in the brain as the “security motivation system.” Essentially, the security motivation system is an ancient part of the brain that scans for “hints, inklings, whiffs, and foreshadowings” of danger. The problem, as Woody and Szechtman put it, is that contemporary human brains are now connected to the internet, and the internet is filled with perpetual news, Facebook forwards, Russian bot activity, and political messages. Much of this instant information has hints and whiffs of danger and those hints and whiffs activate the security motivation system. The louder the call of dark, scary, danger, the more activated our collective security motivation systems become. And what do our collectively activated security motivational systems want? Action! Specifically, action leading to safety. All this can direct us to embrace politicians who offer big actions that will hypothetically protect us from danger. Woody and Szectman wrote: “. . . support for politicians promoting bold action [like building a big, impenetrable border wall] is itself an action . . . which may help” de-activate our heightened security motivation.

In contrast to Reagan’s message of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Trump’s message has been consistently about doom, gloom, and danger. His speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention was a bleak frightening portrait of America. But, in contrast to Trump’s portrait of America as under attack from Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists, and international commerce, he simultaneously promised (and continues to promise) to make America great again with big, albeit unrealistic and unfounded, actions.

For a substantial minority of Americans, Trump is a charismatic speaker. He ramps up crowds to an emotional fever-pitch. He combines extremes. On the one hand, America is under attack from Mexicans, Muslims, and Democrats. On the other hand, he—and only he—can offer a future filled with beauty, safety, and financial success. As he speaks, he sometimes riffs like a hypnotist employing a specific hypnotic induction procedure called the “confusion technique.” When he employs this strategy, Trump’s words barely make sense. He offers a rhythmic narrative absent any real content. Take this example from the 2016 campaign trail:

You are going to be so proud of your country. Because we’re gonna turn it around, and we’re gonna start winning again! We’re gonna win so much! We’re going to win at every level. We’re going to win economically. We’re going to win with the economy. We’re gonna win with military. We’re gonna win with healthcare and for our veterans. We’re gonna win every single facet.

We’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning. And you’ll say, “Please, please. It’s too much winning. We can’t take it anymore. Mr. President, it’s too much.” And I’ll say, “No, it isn’t!”

We have to keep winning. We have to win more! We’re gonna win more. We’re gonna win so much.

Ashley Feinberg of Gawker, described this verbal dispatch from Trump as: “His best Howard Dean impression if Howard Dean had been given a whole lot of cocaine and also a thesaurus with just the word “winning” followed by the word “winning” again in progressively larger fonts.” Not surprisingly, Woody and Szechtman described it differently, noting nuanced differences between the oral and written word:

Through repetition, this type of communication stays “on message,” almost to the point of caricature. More importantly, it presents no line of argument or supporting material whatever that would call for higher thought. Such communication, which can be effective in person, is similarly effective when replayed on media as video [or audio]. By contrast, it becomes ineffective in print, where its paucity of intellectual content is painfully obvious. (p. 14)

Most observers agree, Trump is best when on the stump. When it comes to governing or foreign policy or role-modeling moral behavior, Trump is less effective. On the stump Trump uses other hypnotic methods, beyond the previously mentioned confusion technique. He continually pounds away messages about current dissatisfaction, combined with an orientation to the future. Under him, future life will always be better, more beautiful, a Shangri-La for the masses. He uses the words “believe me” and “trust me” like a mantra. Even though nearly every rational person in the U.S. knows they should quickly run away whenever a salesperson (or con-man) says “trust me” Trump’s hypnotic reverie has weakened the rational mind to the point where the words believe me and trust me actually work. As Roger Cohen opined in the New York Times,

Tolstoy wrote of “epidemic suggestion” to describe those moments when humanity seems to be gripped by a mass hypnosis that no force can counter. . . . We find ourselves in such a moment.

But there is a countering force. There always has been. And there always will be.

Let’s go back to Woody and Szechtman, and their ideas about the brain’s security motivation system.

When activated, the security motivation system directs humans toward actions that enhance safety. When looking for safety, nearly always, humans follow their evolutionary noses. And where do their evolutionary noses point . . . toward the person with the most social dominance.

Think about it. Who can keep us safe? Then, think about Trump’s hulking figure looming in the background as Hillary Clinton speaks in one of the televised debates. Then, think of what he has (wealth and property) and think of what he offers in his hollow narratives (winning, beauty, and safety, so much winning).

Republican politicians are cowed like never before. They can’t match Trump’s verbal skills and hypnotic persona. They can’t match his wealth and connections. And republicans have historically been motivated by fear. Trump’s presence activates their security motivation systems. On their own, most White, male republicans fear immigration. On their own, most White, male republicans are drawn to wealth and power. For them, Trump stokes their fears and activates their security motivation system in a way that goes back to primitive human thinking: “Save yourself” . . . is the irresistible unconscious motive that weakens republicans. Open conflict with Trump is too dangerous. Alone, individual republicans don’t have the verbal or financial prowess to compete with Trump. So, they slink into the background and do what frightened people have done since the beginning of time—they follow a socially dominant and powerful leader.

The answer to the problem of Trump is simple, but not easy.

There are two roads to countering a socially dominant, hypnotically adept bully. Both roads necessarily include an alternative socially dominant discourse. How to get there? Republicans, if they can find their courage, might band together to push back against Trump. This would be risky. And the outcome is dicey.

The other road is to latch our trailer to an alternative socially dominant political figure. The hazard here is we could end up jumping from the socially dominant frying pan into the socially dominant fire. Consequently, we need to be very careful when selecting the socially forceful leader who can take on Trump and win. Perhaps of greatest importance, along with powerful messaging, to ensure safety of all Americans, our new leader needs to have two characteristics that Trump lacks and that make Trump dangerous. We need a leader who can be a team player (and not just deputize family members) and we need a leader who is able to experience and express compassion.

Methods for resisting and awakening from a hypnotic trance exist. They begin as all things begin, with awareness. Now is the time to wake up. Listen closely as I count backward from five to one. When I get to the number one, you’ll awaken, you’ll stretch, look around, and realize that finding an alternative socially dominant and yet compassionate leader is urgent.

5

4

3

2

1

You can wake up now. If you stay asleep, you face a greater danger. If you stay asleep, you may act in ways that are incompatible with your deep values. If you stay asleep, you may need forgiveness, because although you will act, you . . . will . . . know . . . not . . . what . . . you . . . do.

The End of Mental Illness, Part I

Irrigation Sunrise

For years I’ve planned to write a scintillating review of the words and phrases I now, as a wise and mature adult, refuse to use. The “c-word” (expelled in 1976) and “r-word,” (out forever in 1980), and “n-word” (never used) are notable, but they’re old and tired targets that most self-respecting people in the 21th century have also banished.

BTW, I got rid of tireless in 1988 (who doesn’t get tired, especially after the birth of a child, an all-nighter, or a long day’s work?). On a related note, I got rid of countless in the early 1980s, when, while studying statistics, it became obvious to me that everything was countable, unless you got too tired or too lazy to do the counting. But, even then it didn’t make much sense to just stop counting or to lose track and suddenly declare something countless. More than anything else, the word countless struck me as lazy. I would go with the lazy explanation for countless were it not for the fact that I also eliminated lazy from my vocabulary about 15 years ago when I read about Alfred Adler’s description of people who are lazy as not lazy, but instead people whose goals are beyond their reach and consequently, they experience discouragement (and not laziness).

More recently, I’ve grown weary of “the new brain-science” (how can it be that the media continues to refer to science from the 1990s as perpetually “new” but somehow the pleats in my pants have become so “old-fashioned” that I can no longer wear them in public?). On a related note, neurocounseling and neuropsychotherapy would be on my list for potential banishment, but because they’re new terms that people invented (along with polyvagal), purely for marketing purposes, they can’t be banished, because quite conveniently, I refuse to acknowledge their existence.

All this silly ranting about words makes me sound like a crank—even to myself. But as I get older, I find that worries over sounding like a crank are, in fact, more motivating than worrisome. Indeed, I’m embracing my intellectually snooty crankiness as evidence that I’m fully addressing the crisis inherent in Erik Erikson’s seventh psychosocial developmental stage: Generativity vs. Stagnation. Yes, that’s right, instead of stagnating, I’m cranking my generativity up to a level commensurate with my age.

In contrast to all these aforementioned banished or unacknowledged words, most people (who are otherwise reasonably intelligent) continue to use the term mental illness. As a consequence, the words mental illness have now risen to the coveted #1 spot on my billboard of eliminated words.

My preoccupation with avoiding term mental illness isn’t a news flash, as my University of Montana students would happily attest. For well over a decade, I’ve been explaining to students that I don’t use the term mental illness, and warn them, with what little roguish power I can muster, that perhaps when handing in their various papers throughout the semester, they also, at least for the time being and so as to not irritate their paper-grader, ought to follow my lead.

In my social life, whenever mental illness comes up in conversation, I like to cleverly state, “I never use the term mental illness unless I’m using it to explain why I never use the term mental illness.” This repartee typically piques the interest (or ire) of my conversational cohort, usually stimulating a question like, “Why don’t you ever use the term mental illness?”

“Wow. Thanks.” I say. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Three main cornerstones form the foundation for why I’ve made a solemn oath to stop privileging the words mental illness. But first, a tangential example.

This morning, once again, I’m awake at 3:30am, despite my plan to sleep until 7:00am. I know this awakening experience very well; I also know the label for this experience is insomnia, or, more specifically, terminal insomnia, or more casually known as, early morning awakening.

After this particular early morning awakening, I briefly engaged in meditative breathing until my thoughts crowded out the meditation. Having thoughts bubble up and crowd out meditative breathing is probably a common phenomenon, because neurotic thoughts, spiritual thoughts, existential thoughts, and nearly any thoughts at all, are nearly always far more interesting than meditative breathing.

A favorite statement among existentialists is that humans are meaning makers. As with many things existential, the appropriate response is something my teenage clients have modeled for me, “Well, duh.” Channeling my ever-present inner-teen, I want to respond to my inner-existentialist with a pithy retort like, “Yeah. Of course. Humans are meaning makers. Maybe we should talk about something even more obvious, like, we all die.”

What I find fascinating about the existential claim that humans are meaning makers is that existentialists always say it with gravity and amazement, as if being a meaning-maker is a profoundly good thing.

But, like life, meaning-making is not all good, and sometimes, not good at all. As I lay in bed along with my early morning awakening, it’s nearly impossible not to begin wondering about the meaning of the dream that woke me up (there was a broken anatomical bust of Henry David Thoreau in a small ocean-side creek at Arch Cape, Oregon); even more engaging however, is the so-called lived experience of terminal insomnia, and so my middle-of-the-night dream interpretation gets pushed aside for a more pressing question. “What’s the meaning of my regular waking in the middle of the night?” My brain, without consent, calls out this question, in an all-natural and completely unhelpful lived meaning-making experience. The explanations parade through my hippocampus: Could my awakening be purely physiological? Could it be that I missed my daily caffeine curfew by 30 minutes? Perhaps this is the natural consequence. But if so, why would I awaken now, after falling asleep as my head hit the pillow and sleeping for 4½ hours, instead of having a more easily explained experience of initial insomnia.

Of course, the most common explanation for early morning awakening is neurochemically filed in my brain and easily accessible. Without effort, I recall that terminal insomnia is a common symptom of clinical depression. I’ve known that for about 40 years. Now, by 3:45am, the various competing theories have completely crowded out my breathing meditation and will settle for nothing less than my full attention.

Is my terminal insomnia simply a product of the half-life of caffeine, or a full-bladder, or primary insomnia? Or is it something even more malignant, a biological indicator of clinical depression? Do I have a mental disorder? Although that might be the case, after briefly depressing myself with the contemplation of being depressed, I also begin refuting that hypothesis. My memory of taking an online “depression” test emerges, along with my score in the mild-to-moderate depression range. I might have believed the online questionnaire result, had it not been conveniently placed on the website of a pharmaceutical company and had it not culminated in the message, “Your score indicates you may be experiencing clinical depression. Check with your doctor. Lexapro may be right for you?”

Given that I’m absolutely certain that Lexapro isn’t right for me, the pattern analysis and search for deeper meaning breaks down here. I am a meaning-maker. I woke up at 3:30am. Now it’s 4am and I’m still awake. So what? It happens. When it does, I like to get up and write. It’s productive time. My stunning meaning-making conclusion is my usual conclusion: believing that I have a mental disorder is unproductive; in contrast, believing that I’m creatively inspired to write at 3:30am is vastly preferable and consistent with what Henry David Thoreau would want me to do in this moment.

What does all this have to do with eliminating the term mental illness from the human vocabulary?

Mental Illness Lacks a Suitable Professional Definition

Mental illness is a term without a professional or scientific foundation. Even the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t use mental illness in its latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The World Health Organization doesn’t use it either. I pointed out this fun fact while attending a public journalism lecture at the University of Montana. I asked the journalist-speaker why she used “mental illness” when the American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organization don’t use it. Initially taken aback, she quickly recovered, explaining that she and other journalists were trying to put mental health problems on par with physical health problems. That’s not a bad rationale. Mostly I want mental and physical health parity too, but what I don’t want is an assumption that all mental health problems are physical illnesses and therefore require medical treatments. Besides, whenever people make up (or embrace) non-professional and scientifically unfounded terminology to further their goals, their goals begin to seem more personal and political and less pure. In the end, I don’t think it’s right to make up words to negatively classify a group of fellow humans.

A side note: The American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organization are not left-leaning bleeding hearts; they would happily use mental illness if they felt it justified. Back in 2000, the authors of the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual explained their reasoning:

The term “disorder” is used throughout the classification, so as to avoid even greater problems inherent in the use of terms such as “disease” and “illness.” “Disorder” is not an exact term, but it is used here to imply the existence of a clinically recognizable set of symptoms or behavior associated in most cases with distress and with interference with personal functions. Social deviance or conflict alone, without personal dysfunction, should not be included in mental disorder as defined here.

Broadly, my first reason for refusing to use the term mental illness is that it’s not used in the definitive publications that define mental disorders. It’s too broad and consequently, unhelpful. If mental illness isn’t good enough for the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization, it’s not good enough for me.

Mental Illness is Too Judgmental

When asked about diverse sexualities, Pope Francis summarized my second reason for not using the term mental illness. He famously responded, “Who am I to judge?” I love this message and believe it’s a good guide for most things in life. Who am I (or anyone) to judge (or label) someone as having a mental illness?

You might answer this question by recognizing that I’m a mental health professional and therefore empowered to judge whether someone has a mental disorder; I’m empowered to apply specific mental disorder labels (after an adequate assessment). Sure, that’s all true. But I also have a duty to be helpful; although the communication of a diagnostic label might be helpful for professional discourse, insurance reimbursement, and scientific research, I don’t see how it’s helpful to categorize a whole group of individuals as “the mentally ill.” Hippocrates founded medical science. His first rule was “Do no harm.” As fun and entertaining as diagnosing other people and myself may be, I’ve come to the conclusion that doing so is often more harmful and limiting than good.

Think about it this way. Would it be any LESS helpful for us to delete the words “the mentally ill” and replace them with “people with mental health issues?” I think not. But you can decide what fits for you.

To the extent that it’s helpful to individual clients or patients, I’m perfectly fine with, after an adequate collaborative assessment process, diagnosing individuals with specific mental disorders. I believe that process, when done well, can help. What I’m against is using a broad-brush to label a large group of fellow humans in a way that can be used for oppression and marginalization. Why not just say that everyone has mental health problems and that some people have bigger and harder to deal with mental health problems. As Carl Jung used to say, “We’re all in the soup together.”

Mental Illness Resists De-stigmatization

Mental illness and its proxies, mental disease and brain disease, are inherently, deeply, and irretrievably stigmatizing. I know several different national and local organizations that are explicitly dedicated to de-stigmatizing mental illness. My problems with this is that the words mental illness are already so saturated with negative meaning that they resist de-stigmatization. The words mental illness instantly and systematically shrink the chance for therapeutic change and positive human transmorgrification.

If you look back in time, you’ll find that mental illness was created by people who typically have a political or personal interest in labeling and placing individuals into a less-than, worse-than, not-as-good-as, category. The terminology of brain disease and brain-disabling conditions are even worse. What I’m wishing for are kinder, gentler, and less stigmatizing words to describe the natural human struggle with psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems. If you’ve got some, please send them my way. I need help in my tireless efforts to let go of my crankiness and embrace hope, especially when I wake up in the middle of the night.

 

Top Blogs for 2018

JSF Dance Party

Reviewing the past is a bit easier than predicting the future; so despite my love predicting what will happen tomorrow, today’s blog is about yesterday.

Last year was rough. Nearly everyone agrees on that, although I suspect that finding consensus on who to blame for last year’s roughness would make fodder for unpleasant argument rather than agreement.

In the midst of all this disagreement, I decided to see which of my blogs garnered the most interest. That’s sort of like picking out blog posts that were agreeable reads.

I recognize that this info might only be of interest to me. Then again, this is a blog and blogs are traditionally about whatever interests the blogger. Sorry about that. There’s no peer review. Apparently I submitted this post to myself and it passed my rigorous editorial review.

First, a look way back to late 2011 when this blog started with what one of my favorite topics: the amazing Mary Cover Jones. https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2011/11/25/a-black-friday-tribute-to-mary-cover-jones-and-her-evidence-based-cookies/

Back then, in 2011, I had a total of 1,522 blog “hits” with the top blog being a very short “26 Years with Rita” message. https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2011/12/30/26-years-with-rita/

In 2012, the first full year of JSF blogging, there were 15,486 hits, with the favorite new 1,167 hit post being “Two Sample Mental Status Examination Reports.”

Fast forward to 2018. Overall there were 156,811 hits, with the hottest post–by a landslide with 62,647 hits being. . . drum roll: “Two Sample Mental Status Examination Reports.”  https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/08/10/two-sample-mental-status-examination-reports/

The second most popular post of 2018 was:

The wildly popular 2015 post (with 14, five star likes) “Constructive vs. Social Constructionism: What’s the Difference?” and 11,691 hits. https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2015/12/05/constructivism-vs-social-constructionism-whats-the-difference/

The top three new posts from 2018 were:

#1: “Bad News in Threes” https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/06/08/bad-news-in-threes-kate-spade-anthony-bourdain-and-the-cdc-suicide-report/

#2: “The Diagnostic Clinical Interview” https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/02/27/the-diagnostic-clinical-interview-tips-and-strategies/

#3: “New Journal Article” https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/03/09/new-journal-article-conversations-about-suicide-strategies-for-detecting-and-assessing-suicide-risk/

Okay. That’s enough self-reflection. Soon and next, I’ll be posting my 2018 New Year’s resolution. Here’s to hoping that happens soon.

And for now, before we run out of January. . .

Happy New Year!

 

 

Predicting the Future of Psychotherapy and Counseling

Eta Cow Pi 1979

Ever since my sisters and I experimented with our Ouija board back in the 1960s (and possibly before), I’ve been fascinated with prediction. It seems, in retrospect, I should have been able to predict that, in 1985, I would decide to do a dissertation on personality and prediction.

The results were stunning. My discovery? Human behavior is notoriously difficult to predict. Although, to be honest, because hundreds of previous researchers had already made this remarkable discovery, it’s probably more appropriate to call it a re-discovery.

Slamming into the prediction is difficult reality hasn’t stopped me from loving prediction. Not even close. But that’s predictable too. Most people ignore reality; instead we prefer to fool ourselves into believing our own idiosyncratic magical thoughts and wishes. And so even though I incessantly brag about my ability to predict the future, I secretly recognize the truth; most predictions, similar to my annual March Madness picks, are mostly wrong, most of the time.

But the end of 2018 is near. And you probably know what that means.

It means people become more predictable. That makes this particular moment in time (late December) an unparalleled opportunity to accurately predict the future. On that note, I offer you my late 2018 and early 2019 predictions:

1. Right around December 24, families from around the world will gather together with love in their hearts. Many of these families will simultaneously experience both love and dread, partly because there will be predictable conflict around current politics and past family dynamics. But hey, that’s love.

2. Toward the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, the media will be preoccupied with “the best of 2018” and “predictions for 2019.” Will Mueller and Trump meet at a D.C. Starbucks for an amiable chat about whether to trade a witch hunt for a presidential resignation? Will Rudy be one of the top “Baby names” for 2019? Will White Nationalists suddenly discover (or rediscover) that Jesus was a Jewish person who loved diversity? All that and much more is coming your way.

3. And this, according to leading astrologists, “Capricorn rules the governmental structures of society: politics, church, monarchy, big corporations, monetary system, and macroeconomics.” Well. That’s obvious. What’s less obvious is that the pesky presence of Uranus and Pluto means there will be continued government instability; on the other hand, Jupiter is on it’s way, which signals a potential calming of emotional turbulence, as well as new prospects for romantic love. I should note that every year the astrological forecasts are the same: Romantic love may be in your future.

4. Rita and John SF will publish a short, new article on the future of psychotherapy and counseling. Wait. That already happened. Our fancy new article about the future was just published in the Psychotherapy Bulletin. You should know that, in this article, we don’t say anything about astrology, Ouija boards, or politics. However, we do construct a future scenario of what psychotherapy and counseling will be like in the year 2068!

I know this article isn’t as exciting as predicting romantic love in your future, but if you go to the link below and scroll down to page 7, you can read about the future of psychotherapy in an article with the fancy title: “Recursive and emerging themes in psychotherapy: Past, present, and future.” Here’s the link:

https://societyforpsychotherapy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2018-Psychotherapy-Bulletin-Volume-53-Number-4.pdf

And here’s the official citation: Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2018). Recursive and emerging themes in psychotherapy: Past, present, and future. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 53(4), 7-12.

One more prediction: March Madness is coming . . . and this year, I’m more certain than ever, my bracket will be perfect.

My Closing Argument: Take a Breath, Check Your Moral Compass, and Vote for Checks and Balances in Government

California Street FootbridgeTrust me.

As the election closes in, I’ve been obsessed with perusing the literature on mass hypnosis. Trust me happens to be a rather common phrase among stage hypnotists and used car salespeople.

Then, this morning an unusual word popped into my brain.

Demagogue

Believe me, really, I thought of demagogue first thing this morning. Funny coincidence, did you know that Donald Trump used the words, “Believe me” 40 times in the 2016 presidential debates?

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Demagogue:

A demagogue (from Greek δημαγωγός, a popular leader, a leader of a mob, from δῆμος, people, populace, the commons + ἀγωγός leading, leader) or rabble-rouser is a leader in a democracy who gains popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the common people, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation. Demagogues overturn established customs of political conduct, or promise or threaten to do so.

I can’t help but wonder, maybe every century or so, a natural-born demagogue comes along. It’s possible.

You already know I’m referring to Donald Trump. He is, unarguably, a talented, master manipulator. We can all agree on that. Go ahead and match up Mr. Trump with the preceding definition of demagogue. See what you think. You’ll see a match like you’ve never seen before.

Tomorrow, the democrats will mostly vote for democrats and the republicans will mostly vote for republicans. The question, for those in the middle, is whether you believe and trust that Mr. Trump is employing his vast skills of manipulation for the good of America. I doubt it, but maybe that’s just me.

My Montana connections tell me that the Trump played “Sympathy for the Devil” to crank up the crowd at his October 18 Missoula rally. The lyrics begin, “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.” You can find the rest of the words online. But just in case you don’t have time, I’ll share this: when Mick Jagger sings the lines, “Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints. As heads is tails . . .” it gets hard to break free of the song’s powerful grip. But at the same time, somewhere, down deep, it’s also hard to imagine that Mr. Trump is looking out for the welfare of the average American citizen.

No question, Mr. Trump is fantastic at conjuring up fear, division, and hate. He’s also a master at giving his listeners permission to think and act on their least morally upright and most unhealthy thoughts and emotions. Believe me on this too. After all, this is the guy who, at one of his rallies, said, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”

Often I’ve heard Trump supporters say, “I like him because he says what everyone is thinking.” The problem is that although Mr. Trump’s extreme and judgmental statements may resonate with his audience, embracing a philosophy where acting on or sharing all of our thoughts is encouraged is nearly always a very bad idea. In fact, I think it might be the opposite—along with shooting refugees who throw rocks—of what Jesus might recommend.

The truth is (and you should trust me on this because I’m a psychologist), some thoughts (and some emotions) are simply not ready for prime time. Convincing listeners (as Mr. Trump does) to follow their coarse, uncensored thinking toward action is a common magic trick of someone who’s goal is to produce a mass trance or hypnotic state.

He might as well be telling people, “Trust your thoughts. and trust me. You know in your heart and mind there are many things to fear, but I will keep you safe. I know your thoughts, your thoughts and my words are as one, bring them together and all will be well. Trust me, I will keep you safe. And you will keep me safe. Because you feel anger and fear and because I’ve so helpfully pointed out the enemy, we know what we need to do. Maybe some of you 2nd amendment supporters will take care of it for me. We share common fears and anger and thoughts and actions and we can move forward together and you can let me take care of the rest of what’s important. Trust me. Trust me to do that for you. I can do it better and bigger than anyone else has ever even thought of doing it.”

The big question is, how to break the demagogue’s hypnotic spell?

Unfortunately, the big answer is . . . it’s very difficult.

Step 1: Hang on tight to reason and rational analysis. A hypnotic state requires suspending rational thought, therefore, it’s essential that messages from the demagogue not be accepted without critical analysis. Seek input from alternative viewpoints. Don’t just trust me. Don’t just watch MSNBC and Fox News. Find content from the middle . . . and then fact check that too.

Step 2: Get out of the heightened and focused state of arousal. Hypnotic trances are states involving hyper-focus. If you’re feeling activated all the time, take time to meditate, reflect, walk around the block, and talk to your neighbor about life and death and health (instead of politics). The truth is that you don’t “need” the demagogue on either end of the political continuum. What you need is balance.

Step 3: Listen for the “Trust me” card. Right now, in this state of questionable news and Russian bots, it’s tough to determine who to trust. If you’re feeling that, then get out your favorite moral guidelines—it doesn’t matter whether your favorite moral guidelines include the Dalai Lama or the Sermon on the Mount or the Eightfold Path or the Ten Commandments or the Koran. Take your moral guide and then place what Trump is saying right next to it. Is Trump saying something consistent with what’s in your guide? Does your moral guide say anything about holding children in cages? Or does it say something like “Let the little children come to me.”

This brings me to my closing argument.

Now is a good time to stop and take a breath. Break free from the aroused state of hyper-focus. Consult alternative views.

If you do, you may recognize that most democrats are not members of an angry mob. You may also recognize that most republicans are not White supremacists. Democrats, republicans, independents, (and yes, even libertarians) are your neighbors. Love them.

Now is a good time to shake yourself free from someone (anyone) who tells you what you should fear, how you should think, and for whom you should vote. After shaking yourself free, embrace your moral guide.

If you need a more obvious voting tip, consider voting for a balance of power. Right now, we need the checks and the balances to do what they do—to provide checks and balances so one person cannot wield too much power. This is especially true when that one person keeps repeating the words, “Trust me,” because . . . and you know this in your heart . . . that’s never a good sign.

 

Everything You Already Knew About Sex (But were afraid to talk about)

SistersI’ll never forget the night my sisters saved my life. I was 12-years-old. My sisters were babysitting me while my parents were out. They said, “Sit down, we’ve got something serious to talk about.”

I was a compliant little brother. But because my sisters enjoyed dressing me up like a girl, as I sat down, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to get all dressed up again. To my surprise, their serious topic had nothing to do with girls’ clothing and everything to do with what’s underneath girls’ clothing.

They pulled out a gigantic book. In our family, it was called the DOCTOR book; we only got it out when someone was sick. I started to worry, mostly because I wasn’t feeling sick.

They opened the book and showed me anatomically correct pictures of naked men and women. Then I started feeling sick. While looking at various body parts they explained the relationship between male and female sexual organs. I remember thinking “There’s no way this is true.” My sisters, one 17 and the other 14, suddenly looked much older and wiser. I quickly I was not the smartest person in the room (but I already knew that). They explained: “Mom says it’s Dad’s job to tell you about sex stuff. But Dad’s too shy to talk about it. So tonight, we’re telling you everything.” And they did.

At some point in their explanation that night they explained that a “rubber” was a condom and a condom was a method of birth control and that my penis could get big and send out little invisible tadpoles that could get girls pregnant. Suddenly, I understood several jokes that my fellow seventh graders had been laughing about the week before. My sisters were providing knowledge that was essential to the social life of adolescence. But maybe more than anything else, I remember them saying: “Sexual intercourse is very special. You only have sex with someone you really love.” That philosophy may not fit for everyone, but it’s worked out pretty well for me.

If you’ve got children, you should put your fears and shyness aside and directly discuss sex and sexuality with them on an ongoing basis. If you don’t, you can bet they’ll learn about sex anyway, indirectly and from other people, like their cousin Sal or a pornography website. Given this choice, most parents decide, despite their discomfort, to talk about sex with their children.

In contrast to what I got from my sisters, sex education in America is generally a crapshoot. With social media, the internet, and television’s preoccupation with sexual innuendo, it’s easy for children to absorb less-than-optimal sexual ideas. In a National Public Radio interview, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Andrew Hudgins spoke about his sex education from jokes:

“One of the things I talk about in the book [The Joker] is what I learned from the taboo subjects my parents never told me about: sex. So I learned about it from jokes and had to figure it out backwards. … It’s very much a hazard. And because you get a ton of misinformation, you get a ton of misogyny built into your brain at a very early age when your brain is still forming and it can cause long-term complications.” (from NPR interview, Weekend Edition, Saturday, June 8, 2013)

In contrast to Hudgins, I got lucky one evening 49 years ago. I didn’t get any misogyny built into my brain. Instead, I learned about sexuality and relationships from two people who deeply cared about me and whom I respected. I’d love to be able to clone my sisters into universal sex educators so they could magically educate all the boys in the world on how to respect women, which, in the end, is much more important than being able to accurately find a vagina in the big DOCTOR book of life.

Teaching children about sex should begin early. There are many natural opportunities for discussing sex with your children – including television, grocery store magazines, and, more often than we like, politicians who engage in questionable sexual behaviors. Other opportunities occur around ages four or five, when young children begin talking, sometimes excessively and inappropriately, about poop, pee, penises, and vaginas. Although addressing such topics with your children can be uncomfortable, you should begin this process while your children are still interested in listening to you. About 10 years later, when your children begin thinking about sex from a different perspective, they may be slightly less impressed with what you have to say.

Of course if you’d rather not deal with the issue, you can always use the approach my parents used. Just give me a call. I’ll put you in touch with my sisters.

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For more information on sex education and parenting, you can check out our Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast episode on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2 or Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

Memories of Memorial Day: How to Use Memory Re-consolidation to Cope with Pain from the Past

Green Shadow II

Back in the 1970s, I remember singing the lyrics to, The Way We Were, along with Barbra Streisand. Using my best falsetto, Barbra and I crooned, “Memories, light the corners of my mind.”

These lyrics aren’t technically correct. But then Barbra and the song’s lyricists, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, didn’t have access to modern brain scans. Based on neuroscience research, it would have been more accurate for Barbra and I to sing, “Memories, light the center of my mind.”

Memories live deep within the brain. If you could magically poke your index finger down through the top center of your skull, you still couldn’t quite reach your brain’s memory structures, the hippocampus and amygdala.

Memories are a fascinating electrical, molecular, cellular, and inter-structural phenomenon. I won’t be providing scientific details about memory, because then I’d have to write something about how the interaction of glucocorticoids and noradrenaline in the basolateral region of the amygdala can modulate the strength of memories in the hippocampus and other brain areas . . . and by then our fascination with memory would doubtless give way to boredom and sleepiness.

Speaking of sleepiness, it’s metaphorically accurate to say that most of our memories typically just lay around dozing in their hippocampal bed until awakened. Not surprisingly, some memories are lighter sleepers than others; they can be easily awakened. Sometimes, when sleeping memories are rudely awakened (triggered) they tend to be rather grumpy and unpleasant.

Here are three examples:

Say you’re creeping around on Facebook. You see an old high school photo from 25 years ago. The visual stimulus of the photo is a memory trigger; several related images and narratives pop into your mind. These images and narratives aren’t grumpy or unpleasant. Instead, you feel warmly nostalgic. This is an example of a visual trigger that activates a mildly pleasant set of associated memories.

In contrast, if you’re a veteran who has experienced war trauma and you hear firecrackers on the 4th of July, your consciousness may flood with vivid, multisensory memories. These memories could link to deep emotional pain. This is an example of an auditory trigger that awakens or activates disturbing memories—memories that you might prefer to put back to sleep.

Now, think of the smell of coffee in the morning. For me, the scent of coffee is neutral. No clear memories are activated. But, when coffee smells are combined with the aroma of bacon on the griddle, I have instant flashbacks to my Grandma Lucy making breakfast. This is an olfactory stimulus triggering a pleasant memory. I see my grandma’s grey hair, pulled back with bobby pins. I can see my own small hands touching and feeling the textured floral pattern on her white milk glass china as I wait for breakfast, watching her. I hear the pop of bacon sizzling. I can imagine the pain I might feel if I get too close to grandma’s griddle. I instantly know the past and future of this memory. First, Grandma Lucy peeled the bacon apart, dangling each piece before laying them on the griddle. Later, she’ll save the bacon grease, for another purpose. She was like that. Another emotion emerges. I feel sad. I miss her.

In honor of memory science, it’s important to note that each of the preceding memories may be more or less historically accurate. Even more important is the likelihood that these memories, like all memories, have changed, shifted, and evolved over time.

How can memories change? Isn’t it true that humans have an experience and then store a record of it in their brain, ready for later retrieval? Not exactly.

As it turns out, new memories are more fluid than solid. Following a memorable experience, memories stay unstable for somewhere between a few minutes and a few hours. New memories are in flux and shaped or degraded by additional new experiences that immediately follow. More remarkable is the fact that, even after storage, every time memories are pulled out (or retrieved) they return to an unstable or vulnerable state, until they re-stabilize or reconsolidate. And when they reconsolidate (a process that involves cellular protein synthesis), they can include new, different, or less information. This is how and why memories change over time.

For many Americans, Memorial Day is an intentional memory day. For example, yesterday there were flowers, speeches, and flag waving. Yesterday, you were probably in the company of family, possibly kneeling at a gravesite, perhaps celebrating the life of someone whom you loved and lost.

Memorial Day is a memory trigger. It’s a time set aside to honor the lives of men and women who died in service of our country. It’s natural and good to engage in this honoring ritual. People also honor non-military family members with flowers and graveside visits. But, amidst the celebrations, as is often the case, the emotional side of life gets short shrift. Typically, we celebrate and move on, despite the fact that it’s equally natural and good to honor the grief that we feel in response to Memorial Day celebratory rituals.

It might have been the 21 gun salute or the color of the flowers or the taste of the potato salad or the smell of your uncle’s cologne. Whatever the case, yesterday you probably had old memories awaken and stroll past you in an internal memory parade. Some of these memories may have been neutral. Others may have been pleasant. Still others, felt angry, sad, guilty, or lonely.

But memories are open to change, and that fact begs for intentionality. What I mean is that we should all have a plan for Memorial Day (and then a plan for Memorial Night). Not only do we need plans for how to celebrate, we need plans for dealing with the raw emotions that Memorial Day can trigger.

I wish I could offer up a simple method for helping you to deal effectively with Memorial Day memory activation and reconsolidation. But you (and everyone) are a unique entity with layers of fantastic idiosyncrasy. Nevertheless, here’s a quick glimpse into the emerging science of memory reconsolidation.

In one research study, participants were exposed to negative emotional memories from watching a trauma film. The next day, these memories were re-activated using a trauma-photo from the film. Then, after a 10 minute-break some participants played a game of Tetris, while others didn’t. The results: Over the next seven days, the participants who played Tetris after having traumatic memories re-activated, experienced significantly fewer intrusive trauma-related memories. The implications? Maybe the Memorial Night solution is to establish a Tetris-playing ritual.

But painful memories are complex and unique. What works for one person, might not work for another. As Drexler and Wolf (authors of a 2018 scholarly review) were inspired to write, “Indeed, when the activation of selective L-type voltage-gated calcium channels or GluN2B-containing NMDA receptors in the hippocampus was prevented before retrieval, thus blocking memory destabilization . . . the interfering air puff had no effect” (p. 15). Reading this led me to conclude that reading more of Drexler and Wolf’s article might serve as another possible memory disrupting intervention to employ during the reconsolidation period. I’m guessing, if you’ve made it to this point in this blog, that you’re inclined to agree.

From a practical perspective, it’s good to know that, generally, memory reconsolidation can take up to six hours. And so, in addition to Tetris and reading intellectual research papers, there are other reasonable strategies you can use to facilitate healthy memory reconsolidation, not just on Memorial Day (or Night), but any time of the year—as long as you’re within the six hour memory consolidation window.

  • Talk with a trusted friend or counselor about the emotions you’re experiencing. Even better, don’t just talk about your emotional pain, but also talk about and focus on the strengths you have for coping with your challenging emotions.
  • Engage in a physically strenuous activity. This could involve some sort of strenuous physical activity like cycling, running, yoga, or weight-lifting.
  • Ritual is good. This could involve a culturally appropriate spiritual activity like going to a sweat lodge or attending a religious service.
  • Writing is a common and effective method for expressing emotions. In particular, writing about your loss in ways that are meaningful to you can be therapeutic.
  • There may be no better way to deal with problematic emotions than engaging in positive helping behavior. Alfred Adler called this social interest. When you’re triggered, consider ways in which you can shift the spotlight away from yourself and toward fostering wellness in others.

Memorial Day is an intentional memory day. We created it and we celebrate it. But you can have other, self-created memory days. And what we know about memory and the disturbing emotions that can accompany memories, is that they present us with an opportunity. Some researchers call this an opportunity for “updating.” Recognizing this opportunity and intentionally engaging in healthy and soothing behaviors when difficult memories are activated is good guidance. This might be Tetris. It might even involve singing along with Barbra Streisand in your best falsetto. The point is that we have power, albeit limited, to update our activated memories . . . and so I wish you the best in finding intentional and healthy ways to soften your painful memories. It’s the honorable thing to do.