Bob Schwartz

Category: Psychology

Don’t Play the Madman’s Game (Heart of Darkness)

In the face of current events in America, it is easy to say something heartfelt, progressive, outraged, rational and clever. I am tempted, but decline and leave that to other more articulate voices.

Instead, what I want to say right now is this: don’t play the madman’s game. Social and political situations are real and affect the lives of many, and we want to make things better, for ourselves and others. But loud and powerful lunatics can quickly draw us into their craziness, even as we think we are doing the right thing by criticizing, resisting and opposing. Before you venture into the heart of darkness, try to be sure of your own light.

Note: Some literary and film folks may recognize the reference to “heart of darkness.” It is the title of a Joseph Conrad novella, which was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. In unsettled times, in strange lands, charismatic and crazy leaders may emerge, not so much products of the environment as reflections of it, or at least part of it. Read or reread Heart of Darkness, watch or rewatch Apocalypse Now. “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”

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Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation

What if someone lies in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence? What if that person really believes what he is saying?

Confabulation is the construction of false answers to a question while genuinely believing that you are telling the truth.

This mysterious phenomenon usually accompanies neurological or cognitive disorders, and the puzzle of it has been the subject of some study among researchers. In his book Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation, William Hirstein takes this study further than it has gone before:

“Both a neuroscientist and a philosopher, William Hirstein writes from his unique vantage point with great scholarship, precision, and clarity to tackle some of the deeper mysteries of the human mind. Brain Fiction is full of profound insights, and I recommend it to all who wish to better understand our human nature.”

—Fredric Schiffer, M.D., Harvard Medical School, author of Of Two Minds

Here is a description of the book:

Some neurological patients exhibit a striking tendency to confabulate—to construct false answers to a question while genuinely believing that they are telling the truth. A stroke victim, for example, will describe in detail a conference he attended over the weekend when in fact he has not left the hospital. Normal people, too, sometimes have a tendency to confabulate; rather than admitting “I don’t know,” some people will make up an answer or an explanation and express it with complete conviction. In Brain Fiction, William Hirstein examines confabulation and argues that its causes are not merely technical issues in neurology or cognitive science but deeply revealing about the structure of the human intellect.

Hirstein describes confabulation as the failure of a normal checking or censoring process in the brain—the failure to recognize that a false answer is fantasy, not reality. Thus, he argues, the creative ability to construct a plausible-sounding response and some ability to check that response are separate in the human brain. Hirstein sees the dialectic between the creative and checking processes—”the inner dialogue”—as an important part of our mental life. In constructing a theory of confabulation, Hirstein integrates perspectives from different fields, including philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology to achieve a natural mix of conceptual issues usually treated by philosophers with purely empirical issues; information about the distribution of certain blood vessels in the prefrontal lobes of the brain, for example, or the behavior of split-brain patients can shed light on the classic questions of philosophy of mind, including questions about the function of consciousness. This first book-length study of confabulation breaks ground in both philosophy and cognitive science.

A sample chapter can be read here. A couple of brief excerpts:

Why then does confabulation happen? Confabulation seems to involve two sorts of errors. First, a false response is created. Second, having thought of or spoken the false response, the patient fails to check, examine it and recognize its falsity. A normal person, we want to say, would notice the falsity or absurdity of such claims. The patient should have either not created the false response or, having created it, should have censored or corrected it. We do this sort of censoring in our normal lives. If I ask you whether you have ever been to Siberia, for instance, an image might appear in your mind of you wearing a thick fur coat and hat and braving a snowy storm, but you know that this is fantasy, not reality. In very general terms, the confabulating patient lacks the ability to assess his or her situation, and to either answer correctly, or respond that he or she does not know. Apparently, admitting ignorance in response to a question, rather than being an indication of glibness and a low level of function, is a high-level cognitive ability, one that confabulators have lost. ‘‘I don’t know,’’ can be an intelligent answer to a question, or at least an answer indicative of good cognitive health….

Young children sometimes confabulate when asked to recall events. Ackil and Zaragoza (1998) showed first-graders a segment of a film depicting a boy and his experiences at summer camp. Afterward the children were asked questions about it, including questions about events that did not happen in the film. One such question was, ‘‘What did the boy say Sullivan had stolen?’’ when in fact no thefts had taken place in the film. The children were pressed to give some sort of answer, and the experimenters often suggested an answer. When the children were interviewed a week later, the false events as well as the suggested answers had been incorporated into their recollections of the movie.

DSM-5: Paranoia

DSM-5

I did not think that I would be returning to the DSM quite so soon after my recent post.

The caveat in my last post about the DSM bears repeating. Mental health is a serious issue. Using diagnostic tools and terminology merely for entertainment and “pop psychology” can be careless. On the other hand, these tools can help provide insights that may be useful, particularly when the subject and the subject matter are very important or even critical.

Non-professionals talk loosely and colloquially about paranoia. The DSM approaches this clinically and scientifically:

Paranoid Personality Disorder

Diagnostic Criteria

A pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four (or more) of the following:

  1. Suspects, without sufficient basis, that others are exploiting, harming, or deceiving him or her.
  2. Is preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends or associates.
  3. Is reluctant to confide in others because of unwarranted fear that the information will be used maliciously against him or her.
  4. Reads hidden demeaning or threatening meanings into benign remarks or events.
  5. Persistently bears grudges (i.e., is unforgiving of insults, injuries, or slights).
  6. Perceives attacks on his or her character or reputation that are not apparent to others and is quick to react angrily or to counterattack.
  7. Has recurrent suspicions, without justification, regarding fidelity of spouse or sexual partner.

Diagnostic Features [selected]

They suspect on the basis of little or no evidence that others are plotting against them and may attack them suddenly, at any time and without reason.

They are preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of their friends and associates, whose actions are minutely scrutinized for evidence of hostile intentions.

They may refuse to answer personal questions, saying that the information is “nobody’s business.”

They read hidden meanings that are demeaning and threatening into benign remarks or events. For example, an individual with this disorder may misinterpret an honest mistake by a store clerk as a deliberate attempt to shortchange, or view a casual humorous remark by a co-worker as a serious character attack.

They may view an offer of help as a criticism that they are not doing well enough on their own.

Individuals with this disorder persistently bear grudges and are unwilling to forgive the insults, injuries, or slights that they think they have received.

Minor slights arouse major hostility, and the hostile feelings persist for a long time.

Because they are constantly vigilant to the harmful intentions of others, they very often feel that their character or reputation has been attacked or that they have been slighted in some other way.

They are quick to counterattack and react with anger to perceived insults.

A Creative Pseudonymous Psychological Analysis and Case Study of a World Leader

I have been thinking about Freud. As one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis, he and others published case studies that anonymized, and some would say took creative liberties with, their patients. One could say that analysis as practiced, developed and publicized by Freud and others is in fact a creative process.

Artists outside clinical psychology have also enjoyed the freedom to create and play—in the best sense—in the field of psychology and analysis. There are hundreds of examples: the paintings of Dali, the movies of Hitchcock, and so many more. (In some of these, Freud himself even plays a prominent role. The novelist D. M. Thomas in 1981 published The White Hotel, an extraordinary and unforgettable melding of Freud’s analyzing a patient with the surreality of the Holocaust. As a side note, The White Hotel, which has fascinated movie producers for decades, is now considered the ultimate great novel that will never actually be filmable or filmed.)

In this vein, what if professionals and creatives both were to devise case studies—entirely veiled and pseudonymous—of someone presently powerful and famous? Might that be revealing in ways that other profiles might not? Might such studies fill in the blanks in a personal portrait that is still quite mysterious and confounding?

Above all, might these case studies be true art? As I’ve written before, in the right hands, poetry and all the other arts can indeed be insurgent.

DSM-5: Antagonism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

 

DSM-5

Mental health is a serious matter and mental health practitioners are serious professionals. These are not to be treated lightly and off-handedly.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is the “bible” of the mental health profession: “a classification of mental disorders with associated criteria designed to facilitate more reliable diagnoses of these disorders.” It is not a reference to be thrown around and used casually by non-professionals.

The DSM can nonetheless be fascinating, especially when certain strong behavioral traits observed in others seem to closely match the traits and possible related disorders referenced in the DSM.

With the above caution and caveat, here are selections from DSM-5 about the Personality Trait Domain of Antagonism. More from the DSM about the way this may or may not relate to Narcissistic Personality Disorder will follow in a subsequent post.

Personality trait: A tendency to behave, feel, perceive, and think in relatively consistent ways across time and across situations in which the trait may be manifest.

Personality trait facets: Specific personality components that make up the five broad personality trait domains in the dimensional taxonomy of Section III “Alternative DSM-5 Model for Personality Disorders.” For example, the broad domain Antagonism has the following component facets: Manipulativeness, Deceitfulness, Grandiosity, Attention Seeking, Callousness, and Hostility.

Antagonism: Behaviors that put an individual at odds with other people, such as an exaggerated sense of self-importance with a concomitant expectation of special treatment, as well as a callous antipathy toward others, encompassing both unawareness of others’ needs and feelings, and a readiness to use others in the service of self-enhancement. Antagonism is one of the five broad personality trait domains defined in Section III “Alternative DSM-5 Model for Personality Disorders.”

Manipulativeness: Use of subterfuge to influence or control others; use of seduction, charm, glibness, or ingratiation to achieve one’s ends. Manipulativeness is a facet of the broad personality trait domain Antagonism.

Grandiosity: Believing that one is superior to others and deserves special treatment; self-centeredness; feelings of entitlement; condescension toward others. Grandiosity is a facet of the broad personality trait domain Antagonism.

Deceitfulness: Dishonesty and fraudulence; misrepresentation of self; embellishment or fabrication when relating events. Deceitfulness is a facet of the broad personality trait domain Antagonism.

Attention seeking: Engaging in behavior designed to attract notice and to make oneself the focus of others’ attention and admiration. Attention seeking is a facet of the broad personality trait domain Antagonism.

Callousness: Lack of concern for the feelings or problems of others; lack of guilt or remorse about the negative or harmful effects of one’s actions on others. Callousness is a facet of the broad personality trait domain Antagonism.

Hostility: Persistent or frequent angry feelings; anger or irritability in response to minor slights and insults; mean, nasty, or vengeful behavior. Hostility is a facet of the broad personality trait domain Antagonism.

Philip K. Dick, Now More Than Ever

Philip K. Dick color

Pretty much every day now, my head spins, just a little. My head does not usually and chronically spin, but it does these days. I find myself not so much trying to make sense of some things, but trying to determine whether there is or will appear some appropriate and constructive response. So far, nothing.

Today, however, I did think about Philip K. Dick. I wrote a little about Dick a while ago. To say he was just a science fiction writer is not nearly enough. Some of his many books and stories have been turned into a number of successful movies (Blade Runner, Total Recall, etc.) and now into an excellent TV series (Man in the High Castle).

The reason for his books being so adaptable, and for his loyal and committed readers, is that Dick was a visionary, some might say a prophet. He was also psychologically and cognitively different. The two parts often go together.

The reason I’m thinking about Dick is the possibility that those of us who are confused about what is going on are being far too rational and far too narrow about all of it. Maybe what we need is a much bigger and stranger vision. Maybe to understand madness, we all have to try to be a little mad ourselves, or pretend to be. Just a thought.

Anyway, Dick suffered through some mental illness and/or religious experience late in his life. Some would say Dick was a bit of a madman. Or a visionary or a prophet. In any case, if we want to know what the future might look like—or for that matter what the present looks like—we can do no better than look at it through Dick’s eyes.

Writer Jonathan Lethem has written some fine appreciations of Dick. This is from Lethem’s Introduction to Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick:

Dick’s great accomplishment, on view in the twenty-one stories collected here, was to turn the materials of American pulp-style science fiction into a vocabulary for a remarkably personal vision of paranoia and dislocation. It’s a vision as yearning and anxious as Kafka’s, if considerably more homely. It’s also as funny. Dick is a kitchen-sink surrealist, gaining energy and invention from a mad piling of pulp SF tropes—and clichés—into his fiction: time travel, extrasensory powers, tentacled aliens, ray guns, androids, and robots. He loves fakes and simulacra as much as he fears them: illusory worlds, bogus religions, placebo drugs, impersonated police, cyborgs. Tyrannical world governments and ruined dystopian cities are default settings here. Not only have Orwell and Huxley been taken as givens in Dick’s worlds, so have Old Masters of genre SF like Clifford Simak, Robert Heinlein, and A. E. Van Vogt. American SF by the mid-1950s was a kind of jazz, stories built by riffing on stories. The conversation they formed might be forbiddingly hermetic, if it hadn’t quickly been incorporated by Rod Serling and Marvel Comics and Steven Spielberg (among many others) to become one of the prime vocabularies of our age….

If Dick, as a bearded, drug-taking Cal-i-fornian, might have seemed a candidate for Beatdom (and in fact did hang out with the San Francisco poets), his persistent engagement with the main materials of his culture kept him from floating off into reveries of escape. It links him instead to writers like Richard Yates, John Cheever, and Arthur Miller (the British satirist John Sladek’s bull’s-eye Dick parody was titled “Solar Shoe Salesman”). Dick’s treatment of his “realist” material can seem oddly cursory, as though the pressing agenda of his paranoiac fantasizing, which would require him to rip the facade off, drop the atomic bomb onto, or otherwise renovate ordinary reality, made that reality’s actual depiction unimportant. But no matter how many times Dick unmasks or destroys the Black Iron Prison of American suburban life, he always returns to it. Unlike the characters in William S. Burroughs, Richard Brautigan, or Thomas Pynchon, Dick’s characters, in novels and stories written well into the 1970s, go on working for grumbling bosses, carrying briefcases, sending interoffice memos, tinkering with cars in driveways, sweating alimony payments, and dreaming of getting away from it all—even when they’ve already emigrated to Mars….

Whether or not he was ready for the world, or the world ready for him, he longed for a respectable recognition, and sought it variously and unsuccessfully throughout his life. In fact, he wrote eight novels in a somber realist mode during the 1950s and early 1960s, a shadow career known mainly to the agents who failed to place the books with various New York publishers. It’s stirring to wonder what Dick might have done with a wider professional opportunity, but there’s little doubt that his SF grew more interesting for being fed by the frustrated energies of his “mainstream” ambition. Possibly, too, a restless streak in Dick’s personality better suited him for the outsider-artist status he tasted during his lifetime….Here, from an introduction written for Golden Man, a collection of stories assembled in 1980, Dick reminisces:

But I think you should know this—specifically, in case you are, say, in your twenties and rather poor and perhaps becoming filled with despair, whether you are an SF writer or not, whatever you want to make of your life. There can be a lot of fear, and often it is a justified fear. People do starve in America. I have seen uneducated street girls survive horrors that beggar description. I have seen the faces of men whose brains have been burned-out by drugs, men who could still think enough to be able to realize what had happened to them; I watched their clumsy attempt to weather that which cannot be weathered. . . . Kabir, the sixteenth-century Sufi poet, wrote, “If you have not lived through something, it is not true.” So live through it; I mean, go all the way to the end. Only then can it be understood, not along the way.

Free Your Mind and the Country Will Follow

free-your-ass

Free Your Mind and the Country Will Follow

They say
All tactics
No strategy.
They say
All strategy
No tactics.
They say
No strategy
No tactics.
None of it matters
Without a mind
Clear and open
As the ocean.

This was inspired by listening to Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (born 1969, reborn 1983). The title is adapted from an album by Funkadelic (above), Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow (1970). In politics and life, the point exactly.

Making America Crazy Again: How to Survive and Thrive After the Election

make-america-crazy-again

You don’t want to hear this, but things may get crazier after the election.

If Hillary Clinton wins, she will be the least liked, least trusted President to ever take office. All the assumptions and suppositions about how the Clintons’ good intentions have been mixed with and compromised by expedient centrism, ambition, greed, secrecy and overall ugliness have been confirmed.

Progressives who tried an insurgency within the Democratic Party will learn that if they have a place at the table, it will be set with modest meals, if not mere crumbs.

Republicans will be gleeful at the prospect of obstructing everything and unwinding anything, without much of a plan of their own. Their glee is misplaced, since there is no Republican Party left, not one recognizable as such. Instead, it is merely the shaky platform for another set of would-be Presidents to start jockeying for position as the candidate in 2020.

And then of course there’s Donald Trump, whose hat should have first read Make The GOP Crazy, then Make The Election Crazy, and finally Make America Crazy Again. He is good at each of these. There is no doubt, whatever form his public pathology takes, he will help make 2017 a year we will not forget, just as 2016 is an election we will not forget, no matter how we try.

And so, some suggestions for getting on with our lives, not just surviving, but thriving, after the election.

  1. Religion, spirituality, philosophy, or something like them. Principled views of reality and the world can be very helpful. There is nothing inherently wrong with making stuff up as we go along. Except that when the wind blows, which it does pretty much all the time, and sometimes with hurricane force, we might want to have something to keep us steady.
  1. Media diet. When I see the ad for that cheeseburger with six strips of crisp bacon on top, something in me wants one. Except I don’t eat cheeseburgers any more, don’t eat bacon anymore, and if I did, I don’t think it would be in that particular configuration, since I plan to live a long and healthy life. The news media, even the supposedly respectable ones, are mostly offering us the equivalent of 1-pound burgers with an entire package of bacon on top, hour after hour. If you don’t want to be crazy unhealthy, please watch what you eat.
  1. Learning. You don’t have to learn about anything or anyone. You can learn exactly as much as you need to get on with your life and through the day. If you do choose to be interested in something, including public affairs, do try to learn and discern. We have spent the past year in a storm of misinformation and disinformation, lies and nonsense. That is not going to stop after the election. In fact, it could get worse, hard as that is to believe.
  1. Silence.

Cigarette Ads Circa 1960: Size Matters

TV Guide - July 9 1960

Above is an ad from the back cover of TV Guide from July 9, 1960. It is for Parliament cigarettes. The image shows a man (judging by the hands) measuring a cigarette with a ruler, while a woman looks on with a mysterious, Mona Lisa-like expression. Is she thinking about taste? About how “your lips and tongue never touch” the filter? She is also holding a cigarette. Hers is lit and smoking.

In 1957, journalist and social critic Vance Packard published his groundbreaking bestseller The Hidden Persuaders, “the first book to expose the hidden world of “motivation research,” the psychological technique that advertisers use to probe our minds in order to control our actions as consumers.” Chapter 8 is entitled The Built-in Sexual Overtone.

Since then, discussions about the role of psychology in advertising have continued unabated. Setting aside those discussions, it can be said that sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette, a ruler is just a ruler, etc. On the other hand, every picture tells a story. So what’s the story here?

Political Insanity Defense

People have watched enough criminal trials on TV to know about the insanity defense—or actually defenses, since it differs state to state:

THE INSANITY DEFENSE

  • What are the legal standards for insanity?

Each state, and the District of Columbia, has its own statute setting out the standard for determining whether a defendant was legally insane, and therefore not responsible, at the time his crime was committed. In general, the standards fall into two categories.

About half of the states follow the “M’Naughten” rule, based on the 1843 British case of Daniel M’Naughten, a deranged woodcutter who attempted to assassinate the prime minister. He was acquitted, and the resulting standard is still used in 26 states in the U.S.: A defendant may be found not guilty by reason of insanity if “at the time of committing the act, he was laboring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.” (emphasis added) This test is also commonly referred to as the “right/wrong” test.

Twenty-two jurisdictions use some variation of the Model Standard set out by the American Law Institute (A.L.I.) in 1962. Under the A.L.I. rule, a defendant is not held criminally responsible “if at the time of his conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law.” (emphasis added) The A.L.I. rule is generally considered to be less restrictive than the M’Naughten rule.

Some states that use the M’Naughten rule have modified it to include a provision for a defendant suffering under “an irresistible impulse” which prevents him from being able to stop himself from committing an act that he knows is wrong.

Three states — Montana, Idaho, and Utah — do not allow the insanity defense at all.

PBS Frontline: A Crime of Insanity

What if—and I know this is far-fetched and fantastical—some political candidate was suffering from what some of the states call “mental disease or defect”? Could that candidate claim no responsibility for behavior on or off the campaign trail? No responsibility for behavior in office, if by some chance elected?

Such a candidate might claim—and again, far-fetched and fantastical—that ISIS will be taking over the United States if he is not elected. That Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is part of a “secret deal” and a vast conspiracy to defeat him. That he, the candidate, is a savior, and that he and he alone in all the world is capable of saving the nation.

This is fertile territory for legal, psychological and political scholars, as far-fetched and fantastical as it may be.