Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Consciousness Got Geometry

Speculative Flights of Fancy about the Nature of Reality, Part I 

The nature of consciousness is one of the biggest mysteries facing science. No matter how they try, or how much they insist they have done so, scientists have never been able to explain or get rid of something called the homunculus – the little self inside our brain that actually perceives sensations. Perception is related to, but is not identical with, the electrical signal coursing through the neurons that comprise the organ. 

We can try to explain the color red by looking at wavelengths of certain light rays that we identify with red, or with the effect of these rays of light on the rods and cones of the eye which are translated into electrical signals, which in turn light up certain neuronal pathways in the brain’s occipital cortex.  

None of this, however, explains what red looks like when we perceive it. In fact, we have no way of knowing if all of us are even perceiving the color red with the same appearance. We might all agree that an object is “red,” but we have no way to prove that we are all seeing the object in exactly the same way.

An even stranger mystery is that we often all act in unison, such as when we are in the audience of a football game when our home team scores and we all stand as one and gleefully cheer. At those times, it is as if our consciousness becomes fused with everyone else’s who feel as we do.  Some philosophers and even therapists believe that in fact we are all one  - a sort of cosmic unity that is described in, for example, the Buddhist religion - and that our belief in our own individuality is a delusion.

In this post, I am going to go on a flight of fancy. Nothing in the post is an assertion that what I am talking about is true, or that it should be construed as proof of anything. It is all speculation and conjecture. But it sure is fun stuff to think about.

Clearly, the relationship between the individual and the collective is a very complicated one (a constant theme of this blog and my work). Its elucidation is, in the opinion of many, central to devising unified formulations of human psychology that are useful and pragmatic for inducing patients to change their maladaptive behavior problems . 

Psychoanalytic pioneer Carl Jung seemed to be drawing on mysticism when he spoke of something that he called the collective unconscious. He believed it existed along with a personal consciousness and a personal unconscious.  He thought that the individual, while complete unto itself, was simultaneously indefinite and at one with a more universal consciousness.   

While these ideas may seem theological and internally contradictory, the idea that something could simultaneously exist in two different states is hardly unheard of in science. To steal an oft-used analogy from physics, light has been conceptualized as both a wave and a particle, depending on one's reference point, and acts like one or the other depending on how a scientist observes it.

Family systems therapy pioneer Salvador Minuchen spoke of a concept similar to that of the collective unconscious. He viewed the family in particular as more than an ag­gregate of differentiated individuals, but as an organism in itself. Family members could feel the pulse of the entire group, and experience its demands for accom­modation. He used the Greek term holon to designate those “Janus-faced entities on the intermediate levels of any hierarchy.” (Minuchin, 1981, p. 13).

Many authors have discussed the relationship between interacting holons at various levels, or between systems and subsystems.  This has been termed the “entire matrix of human functioning” by Jeff Magnavita, or “foci within the transactional field.”  Various names have been applied to these foci or levels, but generally they consist of units within a system that interact to make up larger units that become something more than the sum of their parts. These larger units then interact to form still larger units and so on.

In systems of biological entities such as human beings, these levels start with the gene and move up through the cell, the organ, the organ system (in particular the central nervous system), the individual, the family, the subculture, the predominant culture, and finally the entire ecosystem. Magnavita notes that “none of these domains can be ignored without a loss of clarity and clinical potency.”

Consistent with a philosophical position known as Hegelian dialectics, the idea of some sort of unifying underlying principle of existence from which spring forth a mul­titude of individual forms which are smaller and smaller versions of the larger forms, almost but not exactly identical, is inherent in the "scientific" fields of astrophysics and evolutionary biology and is even seen in the arena of political science.

Most Physicists and astronomers believe that there is strong evidence that the contents of the universe are hurtling away from one another at enormous speeds and have postulated that all of the energy of the universe - indeed, the universe itself - was originally a single, infinitesimal, infinitely dense, and timeless point. 

The contents of the universe exploded in the "big bang" and then coalesced into stars, plane-­nebulae, galaxies, and a host of other structures, which are gradually dispersing into finer and finer conglomerates spaced at ever-increasing distances.

In biology, the evolutionary proliferation of increasingly differentiated life forms is thought to have sprung from the single DNA molecule. In the political arena, in­creasingly individualistic ideologies have evolved from - and continue to compete with -more collectivist ideologies.

In the same vein and even more startling is how ubiquitous fractal geometry is in nature. A fractal is a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is, approximately, a reduced-size copy of the whole shape.  This property is called self-similarity. Fractals appear similar - though not quite identical - at all levels of magnification. 

Object exhibiting fractal geometry

Natural objects that appear as fractals include clouds, mountain ranges, lightning bolts, coastlines, snowflakes, various vegetables (cauliflower and broccoli), and animal coloration patterns. In biology,the branching patterns of trees and ferns are fractal in nature. Each time the plant branches into smaller branches, the new branches are all at approximately the same angle with the larger branch from which they spring, and at each node point, the same number of branches emerges.  

Fractal cloud formation

If there is such a thing as a collective unconscious, maybe it has a sort of fractal geometry that can explain the relationship of holons of various sizes and complexities to the whole.

The ubiquity of fractals was a recent discovery made initially by computer animators, of all people. Until they discovered the principle of self-similarity, they found that they had difficulty producing animated movies in which such things as clouds and mountains appeared realistically. After the discovery, their animation looked far more realistic.

Something similar to fractals appears in the seemingly unrelated field of the history of human culture. In his landmark book Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm noted the and evolution of human culture in which the individual emerges as a free, separate, and potent being from early times during which individuals were pretty much interchangeable. 

In Europe and in some of its colonies, for example, culture has evolved from primitive tribes whose functions were limited to hunting, gathering, socialization, and reproduction, to the early city-states of Greece and Rome, to feudalism, to the Renais­sance and the Reformation, to the democratic and capitalistic ideals of the American and French Revolutions, to the Indus­trial Revolution and the refinement of the concept of division of labor, and finally to the present technological society.

As culture evolves, human beings have become less dependent on the envi­ronment and more able to express their uniqueness.

A good way" to understand the relationship of cultural evolution to the individuation of members of a culture is to think in terms of the phenomenon of interconnectedness. A culture that evolves to a new level allows a loosening of the bonds of the individual to all larger holons (the family system, the ecosystem, and so on) at each stage of individual development. Young adults in feudal society, for instance, were more similar in their level of differentiation from their society to modern 10 year olds than to modern young adults.

Of course, the process of cultural evolution is not a smooth one, nor does it proceed at the same rate everywhere in the world. Different societies can be at very different stages at the same point in history. As civilizations rise and fall, the level of inter-connectedness between individuals and the collective can ebb and flow.

Fromm discussed the level of individua­tion and freedom in the evolving feudal system of the Later Middle Ages and how this changed with the Renaissance. During medieval times, artisans were organized into guilds with rigid rules, which to a major degree blocked competition among the members of the profession. A class system with a pecking order developed, with bound­aries that were, for the most part, impermeable. People not only were fixed at one level socially but seldom wandered geograph­ically.

A person was iden­tical to his role in society; he was a peasant, an artisan, a knight, and not an individual who happened to have this or that occu­pation. The social order was perceived as a natural order, and being a definite part of it gave a feeling of security and of be­longing." He goes on to state that "awareness of one's individ­ual self, of others, and of the world as separate entities, had not yet fully developed.”

So, to sum up, over history individual consciousness seems to have evolved out of a more collective sense of consciousness, with individuals becoming more and more dissimilar from one another as cultural evolution progressed.  

So maybe consciousness has fractal geometry. As time progresses, a more unified collective consciousness splits into smaller and smaller units, very similar to but not identical with the larger units from which they sprung.  Consciousness got geometry!!

In part two of this post, I will offer some more bizarre and hopefully fascinating speculation about the relationship between consciousness and what it is that people are conscious of – what they perceive as external reality. Is reality something that is wholly constructed by each of us and not really independent of our perception of it, or is there an external reality independent of consciousness?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Looking Back on an Abusive Childhood from an Adult’s Perspective

I recently read a book by a woman who independently discovered a technique used extensively in a form of psychotherapy called schema therapy. Schema therapy was devised by my colleague Jeff Young.

Beth Louise, the author, writes that she had spent years “…trying to fool myself.  Hiding from my past, from myself, and from everyone else…Trying hard to fake it. Trying hard to survive.  And to forget. Always trying, but never quite getting there.”

When later on she had children of her own, she felt the past welling up inside her, and the memories returning. At some point she took out a pen and wrote a letter to the child of her past - from the perspective of her adult self. She envisioned herself as an observer of that child rather than as that child.  She was not reliving the past, but observing it.

When the process became too painful, she would stop it temporarily, but then return to the disturbing images. She continued on this path and found it extremely healing. Since she was already a writer, she soon found that she had a book that others might be interested in. The resulting manuscript is now available as an e-book, In Shadow and Strength. Her hope is to “inspire others to forge their own paths towards healing.”

Her writings capture in a remarkable way the thoughts and emotions that take hold of a child who is in the middle of a spiral of abuse and neglect.

Reading it, victims of abuse can learn a powerful new technique to help themselves come to terms with their past, while non-victims can better appreciate the terror, guilt, helplessness and uncertainty experienced by abused children everywhere.

Little did she know that the process she had discovered was already a very powerful therapy technique - one that is central to schema therapy. In therapy, however, the therapist takes more of a leadership role by using “guided imagery.” He or she sometimes accompanies the patient on their “trip,” and may even have the patient imagine the therapist in the picture commenting on the action or talking to the participants.

In various sections of her book, Ms. Louise reveals how a child can come to believe that her environment is somehow a normal one, despite observing other children and parents interacting in a healthier family.

She talks about the feeling that perhaps there is something wrong with you, the victim, and how this belief can lead to a sense a guilt about somehow being responsible for what is happening to you. How this guilt can also serve to protect the image of the abusive and neglectful parent.

She reveals how a former abuse victim may go through life hiding her guilt, shame, and trauma, so that others might think there is nothing at all wrong. How doing so makes her feel herself to be a fraud or an impostor. How she believes herself to be counterfeit.

She brilliantly describes the child’s belief that, even when the parents are acting in a loving way, the good times are really just manufactured for the benefit of outside observers, and how they therefore felt phony.

She tears the shroud off the absolute terror and helplessness that comes from living in a chaotic environment with a highly unpredictable, depressed and angry mother.

A beautifully written book without any hint of sensationalism or exhibitionism, I highly recommend In Shadow and Strength.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Random Thoughts and Random Quotes: Parenting

Today's post comes courtesy of my Facebook Page - some random ideas, as well as some snide remarks, about the perils of parenting that I've been collecting and or making up.

Caution:  If you find yourself getting defensive when you read an item rather than just thoughtfully disagreeing with the sentiment expressed, this might mean that you are feeling guilty about the job you are doing or have done as a parent. If so, keep an open mind.  You may very well have a good reason for disagreeing, but on the other hand, you just might learn something.

I would particularly like to acknowledge and thank advice columnist Carolyn Hax, blogger pediatrician Claudia Gold, and parenting columnist John Rosemond for their amazing insights and way with words.

John Rosemond

Here's a useful retort for parents to use after being criticized by other parents for not making things easier for their adult kids all the time: “I know, right? Why couldn’t he stay safe in my basement playing video games!”

"...There are no parents more difficult to deal with, no parents who defend their children with greater ferocity, no parents more blind to reality, no parents more irrational, than the parents of bullies. They are world-class enablers and terrorists all rolled up into one. The apples don't fall far from the trees." ~ John Rosemond

The reason ADHD is more common in males has been discovered!! According to an article by Dr. Mary Seeman in the September issue of Psychiatric Times, evolutionary biology shows that boys naturally have more impulsivity, aggression, and high energy than girls. She goes on to state, "These sex traits, which served to establish social dominance among males early in the evolution of our species and aided the cause of sexual selection, are now a handicap and require therapeutic intervention." Wow, so now we know that the reason that ADHD is more common in males is "boys will be boys."

"Recently I saw several children who had been diagnosed with ADHD but for whom medication "didn't work". One mother told me about her own struggles with untreated depression. Another child spent weekends with an actively drinking alcoholic father. A third child quietly spoke with her mother of being frightened when she pulled her hair and hit her." ~ Claudia Gold M.D.

Carolyn Hax

What many child psychiatrists don't seem to know any more: " are notorious for having different sets of behaviors for different environments. Just ask the dismayed parents who have watched their otherwise stubborn kids magically fall in line with the rest of the class when they enter a school or day-care environment." ~ Carolyn Hax

On parenting teenagers: "Invariably, micromanaging results in four problems: deceit, disloyalty, conflict, and communication problems." ~ John Rosemond

"Parents make sure homework is returned without error, drill their kids on upcoming tests to the saturation point, and then complain if teachers do not give the grades they think their kids deserve. By that point, it's hard to tell whose grades they are." ~John Rosemond

"If you want your children to improve, let them overhear the nice things you say about them to others." ~ Dr. Haim Ginott

When was the last time you heard a mom tell a kid to get out of her hair for an entire afternoon by saying, "It's a nice day; go play outside!"?  My generation used to hear that all the time, and we were the better for it (paraphrasing John Rosemond).

"Today's mom watches her every child-rearing step lest she commit some egregious and apocalyptic parenting faux pas that will certainly doom her child to a life spent sleeping under overpasses, or worse, not going to Harvard." ~ John Rosemond

"'Good' parenting, apparently, is trying techniques on your kid that were never used on you, even though you still turned out just fine. 'I think TV is bad, I won't let my kids watch it.' Outstanding. But how do you explain how you watched 5 hours of TV a day for thirteen years straight and still turned out ok?" ~ The Last Psychiatrist

"I'm not ADHD; I'm just naughty" ~ formerly medicated foster child on the TV newsmagazine 20/20. Out of the mouths of babes...

On "because I said so" as a valid reason to give to a child: "If a child does not like the decision a parent makes, the child will not like the parent's reason. No child has ever said, "Dad, I gotta hand it to you...when you explain yourself like that, I can't help but agree!" ~ John Rosemond

A study that appeared in the journal Pediatrics revealed that 8% of pediatricians felt they had adequate training in prescribing antidepressants, 16% felt comfortable prescribing them, but 72% actually did." ~Claudia Gold

Boston Globe Headline: "ADHD rates low among Latinos - Findings baffle health researchers." Could it be that Latino parents are more likely to still demand that their children respect them?

Parents of out of control child: "We've tried everything!" That's the problem. They did not stick with anything long enough for it to work but ran willy nilly from one disciplinary measure to another. (paraphrasing John Rosemond)

"HGTV hosts a show on decorating for Halloween that shows new ways to turn the simple joys of childhood into a needlessely expensive way to keep up with the Joneses. Suburban one-upmanship. Now that's really scary!" - Kevin McDonough

With stepparents these days, the emphasis is no longer on parent, but on step - someone to be walked on. The stepparent is effectively disempowered by the "real" parent. The "real" parent enables the child's disrespect of rules as well as of the stepparent. (Paraphrasing John Rosemond).

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Tragedy of Thomas Szasz

Thomas Szasz

The following is a mini-obituary for Thomas Szasz, M.D. from the National Review on October 15, 2012. He died at the age of 92 on September 8, 2012.  He was the author of a book called The Myth of Mental Illness in 1961, in which he argued that there is no such thing as schizophrenia or any other severe mental illness, and that all people mislabeled in this manner should be free to wander the streets, no matter how mentally impaired they may seem to be.

He later undermined any credibility he might have had, which was precious little to begin with, by throwing in his lot with Scientology by serving as spokesman for their Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights.

The obit expresses my sentiments exactly.

"Like most people whose writings do great harm, Thomas Szasz started with a plausible-sounding principle, but instead of using it to clarify his thoughts, he made it the center of his worldview, bending everything else to fit while he ratcheted up the overstatement. Szasz’s governing notion was that psychiatry is not just an inexact branch of medicine, not just a discipline subject to misuse, but nothing less than a gigantic fraud, useful only for keeping inconvenient people under control.

“Mental illness did not exist. It was merely a myth, on par with witchcraft, exploited by those in power to control the masses. By denying the existence of what everyone could see with his own eyes, Szasz threw out the baby with the bathwater, and included the tub and plumbing fixtures for good measure. The 1960s spirit of “only the mad are sane” romanticism, and the 1970s post-civil-rights hangover, gave his pernicious doctrine a long shelf life.

“With his sharp mind, Szasz could have helped curb psychiatry’s abuses and excesses; instead, his charismatic nihilism led to the usual overreaction (most notably the draconian policy of deinstitutionalization, unfortunately still very much with us) and ensuing counterreaction (nowadays he is widely and correctly considered a crank). Dead at 92. R.I.P."