Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Amazing Story of Dr. Katze

Most of you know that psychotherapists need to be approved by a state licensing board in order to ply their wares. In California this means that after graduation from graduate school, a person needs to get three thousand hours of experience as an intern under the supervision of a licensed psychotherapist. They must then pass an exam in order to be licensed to practice.

Most states believe that the licensing of psychotherapists will "safeguard the health, safety and welfare of the citizens" of the state. This is a nice thought but does licensing really work this way? As far as I know, there is no research that has unambiguously found that licensing promises professional competence.

This is not true of all professions. For example, if your physician is what is called "board certified" there is a very good chance that she has passed some difficult requirements to reach this level. Psychologists have to jump through demanding hoops to obtain the level of Psychology Diplomate which is equivalent to a board certification.

Even these diplomas on the wall, however, can be bogus. Earlier this year the Attorney General of Connecticut issued an urgent warning to the public about the sale of bogus medical board certifications. Certification boards keep springing up around the country. For example, the Science-Based Medicine website has identified a "Pseudomedical Pseudoprofessional Organization" called the US Autism & Asperger Association (USAAA). The site identifies this organization as a scam because

USAAA Staff, Board of Directors, and Advisory Board rosters are filled with physicians and other professionals who, for the most part, lack real credentials in biomedical research related to autism. What do they have to recommend them? Overwhelmingly, they are parents of children with autism. I find it hard to muster the contempt that I usually feel for people whose pseudoscientific eruptions contribute to horrible outcomes. Instead I feel an almost futile sense of sorrow.

I remember a time in the 80s and 90s in California when increasing numbers of Master’s level students were being certified to practice psychotherapy. Soon, there were too many psychotherapists for the population and these practitioners had to find other ways to stand out from the crowd. To find ways to have an edge over the consumer’s dollar, many psychotherapists signed up for any therapy du jour class that just happened to be available. Many of these new approaches were based on pseudoscience. With more than five hundred unproven therapies available for psychotherapists, it was easy for these psychotherapists to slip into believing they were receiving training in legitimate therapies. The pull of the dollar got them to overlook the fact that there was no evidence their new therapy technique really worked. They believed in it because it seemed to make some of their clients better. These psychotherapists didn’t understand the power of the Placebo Effect and other reasons why people can get better in spite of the specific therapy.

This sad state of affairs came about because many Master’s level training programs gave short shrift to the science of psychotherapy. In a two year degree program there is often not enough time to educate students on the importance of critical thinking and the underpinnings of science for helping people. Consequently, there is wide variability among training programs so it is possible for a person to be poorly trained and still pass a licensing exam. There are psychotherapists today who are licensed and practicing who don’t think that science has anything to contribute to the field of psychotherapy.

In 1991, I presented a paper at the 99th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association about "psychology, mysticism, superstition and the paranormal" in the field of mental health. One of the examples I gave of bogus offerings to the public by psychologists was a licensed psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area who was advertising her services as a "Critter Consultant." If you had a problem with your pet you could take your beloved animal to this person and she would use her special supernatural powers to telepathically deal with your pet. My paper was called, Hungry People Who Buy Imaginary Food with Real Money (let me know if you would like a copy and I can send you a PDF version of it).

All of these bogus therapies, offered by equally bogus credentialing boards, became an irritant to a psychologist by the name of Steve K. D. Eichel. Dr. Eichel came up with a creative way to show the public how prevalent phony credentialing had become. He thought it would be interesting to see if his female companion (who had no college degree or any association with the profession of psychotherapy) could get some fancy psychotherapy credentials. He decided to see if "Dr. Katze, Ph.D." could get some bogus credentials.

Dr. Eichel found a website for credentialing lay hypnotists, paid the application fee and waited. Within a couple weeks his companion, Dr. Katze, was a certified lay hypnotist. The reason they decided on starting with this credential is that most lay hypnosis associations agree to accept without question certifications from other, similar organizations for lay hypnosis.

By using these reciprocity agreements, Dr. Katze was on her way to filling up a wall with impressive sounding and fancy looking certificates. By doing nothing more than sending organizations checks she was able to get certificates from the National Guild of Hypnotists, the American Board of Hypnotherapy, and the International Medical & Dental Hypnotherapy Association. She also became a Professional Member of the American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists.

A dream came true with so little work. If it was this easy, they decided to check out the next level called Board Certification. Now, this is serious. Physicians can practice medicine as soon as they are licensed. If they become "board certified" they are saying to the public they have achieved additional expertise in a specialty field like pediatrics or surgery. We psychologists go to the next level by working for Diplomate status which indicates we have reached the top of our profession.

An organization called the American Psychotherapy Association was originally established "to advance the profession of psychotherapy." Dr. Eichel discovered they offered the powerful credential of Diplomate. When Dr. Katze applied for this certification the American Psychotherapy Association requested both a resume and what is called a curriculum vitae (a listing of graduate classes and post-doc experience). After very little effort the computer was fired up and was able to print out some very impressive looking documents to comply with these document requests. The fake documents provided a long list of previous jobs such as having been a consultant for the bogus "Tacayllaermi Friends School" in New Castle, Delaware.

At this high level of certification, it is customary for the licensing body to request copies of corroborating documents. Although this request was fully expected, the association never asked for transcripts for the universities listed or copies of all the certificates listed, or for any copies of state required licenses to practice. This information is basic and required when applying for Diplomate Status. Additionally, after a licensing board reviews these documents, the candidate is then examined by other professionals in a face-to-face context. None of these were ever asked for. The credentialing board never met Dr. Katze.

The check went out and another certificate came in the mail within a couple weeks — and a very impressive certificate it was. Dr. Katze was now a certified Diplomate because she had passed "rigid requirements" for this status. The certificate was accompanied with a letter of congratulations for her achievement. The letter told her she belonged to a "select group of professionals who, by virtue of their extensive training and expertise, have demonstrated their outstanding abilities in regard to their specialty."

It is hard to believe that anyone without any expertise could accumulate these credentials by merely asking and paying for them, but this is what happened. It is even more inconceivable when the applicant is not a human. Yes, Dr. Katze was the name Dr. Eichel gave to his cat. His last application even gave the organization a hint to this effect by imbedding a clue. Look at the name of the Friends School in the third paragraph above this one and read the name of the school backwards. If you are interested in reading Dr. Eichel’s original article you can find it here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Living In La-La Land

Sit in reverie and watch the changing color
of the waves that break upon
the idle seashore of the mind.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—

If all humans daydream, why is it seen in such a negative light? Why is something so easy and natural seen as a waste of time? How can something so universal to the average human be considered pathological?

It appears that daydreaming can have real benefits:

  • It can make us feel active and energetic by relieving boredom.
  • It can be similar to meditation by activating our parasympathetic nervous system.
  • It might help us be more aware of who we are.
  • It may be a key for researchers in understanding consciousness.
  • It can organize our conflicts into meaningful solutions.
  • It helps to enhance social skills and relationships.
  • It appears to be a wellspring for creativity.

I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering.
—Steven Wright—

One of the first psychologists to scientifically study daydreaming is a retired Yale professor. Dr. Jerome Singer surveyed many different groups of people and found that most people’s daydreams are quite ordinary and not at all unusual. Dr. Singer’s book, The Inner World of Daydreaming, discovered that often daydreaming was a way for the brain to map out goals and doubts. Daydreaming as mental rehearsal can actually help you to be more effective in dealing with what is to come in the days ahead.

I remember years ago working with a woman whose husband was an NFL quarterback playing for a team that had surprisingly made it to the Superbowl. The other team was odds on to win the game easily. However, just the opposite happened. The underdog won the Superbowl game much to everyone’s amazement. Much of the credit went to this quarterback who had the best game of his career. He later told me that he had spent about twenty-four hours prior to the game thinking about nothing but throwing perfect passes. His "perfect" passing, which was not one of his strong points, carried his team to victory.

Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my
accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway
from sunrise till noon, rapt in reverie.
—Henry David Thoreau—

The amount of daydreaming varies a lot from person to person. Some people daydream as seldom as 5 times a day while others might daydream over 175 times a day. One finding of researchers is that people who daydream more than the average person tend to remember more content from their dreams at night.

Creative people also tend to daydream more than the average person. Daydreaming is usually a stream of consciousness that randomly moves from topic to topic. This randomness combined with high frequency is one of the determinants of creativity.

Every child knows how to daydream.
But many, perhaps most,
lose the capacity as they grow up.
—Dov Frohman—

It seems that daydreaming happens more often when we are bored or have no need to focus on the task at hand. How does this information apply to the real world? Some psychologists believe that we might be stifling creativity in our children by over programming their time. One study found that children who watch television at least three hours a day are less imaginative than children who watch only one hour a day. Of course, this study does not tell us which is the chicken and which is the egg.

The increasing use of drugs for children decreases daydreaming. For example, children with ADHD who are taking Ritalin are less creative than ADHD children who are not taking Ritalin. On the other hand, people with severe ADHD may daydream so much that they cannot focus on simple but necessary tasks.

"If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician.
I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music.
I see my life in terms of music.
... I get most joy in life out of music."
—Albert Einstein—

What drives the brain to daydream. It seems that daydreaming and night dreaming have something in common. It is a time when the brain assimilates the millions of data bits it continually receives. It must make sense of this chaotic, rambling information and does so during sleep and daydreaming. As with night dreaming, daydreaming helps the brain to solve problems and connect seemingly unconnected pieces of information. This latter function is what creativity is all about — finding the new by connecting pieces of the old. Various studies have shown that highly creative people from Albert Einstein to Walt Disney spent a lot of time daydreaming.

Active daydreaming can help us overcome personal problems. I had a therapy client who came to me because he had become sexually impotent in his marriage. This was before Viagra so we had to find a non-medical solution to his problem. His job was demanding and also involved a lot of daily driving. We found that during these drives, he spent a lot of time daydreaming about this problem and the negative effect it was having on his marriage. Wondering if changing the focus of his daydreaming would work, I asked him if he would like to spend his mental down time daydreaming about seducing and making love to his wife. His answer was not surprising. After doing this assignment not only faithfully but with gusto, he called me back in two weeks and told me he and his wife were having the best sex of their lives.

Reverie is not a mind vacuum.
It is rather the gift of an hour
which knows the plenitude of the soul.
—Gaston Bachelard—

It appears that there is a place in the brain called the "executive network." This area of the brain acts like a switchboard by combining the activity of different brain structures. This network is more sophisticated in adults than in children because it is not fully formed and operational until the early to mid-twenties. Neuropsychologist Dr. Karen Spangenberg Postal claims that we now know enough about this area of the brain so that parents can actually learn how to increase their children’s academic performance.

You can also use daydreaming to help yourself. Since you may already daydream, on average, about one-third of your waking day, why not use it to your advantage? The first step is to reinterpret the value of daydreaming. Instead of seeing it as a sign of laziness or time-wasting, view it as a way to enhance the quality of your life. Once you have given yourself permission to daydream, you no longer have to feel guilty for doing so. After this, you can anticipate and look forward to times of daydreaming. Some people actually schedule daydreaming times – these times can be as short as a few minutes to as long as you want. One final word. Let yourself get lost in your daydreams so that you are the passenger, not the driver. Some research has found that people who are not aware of the daydreaming content can be more creative than people who actively monitor their daydreams.

Thought is the labor of the intellect,
reverie is its pleasure.
—Victor Hugo—

Happy dreaming.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Have a New Husband by Friday

The title of this book is enough to make any woman (and a few men) grab this book off the shelf and start browsing. Psychologist Kevin Leman has written thirty-two previous books for improving relationships between parents and children and husbands and wives. This latest book’s title follows his book for Moms called Have a New Kid by Friday. The subtitle of this book review tells you that you can "change his attitude, behavior & communication in 5 days."

The information in this book is not new but is presented in an engaging, down-home way as if he were in your living room chatting with you over a cup of coffee. The basis of his advice is what we all know to be the extraordinary differences between men and women. He begins by admitting straight up that men and women are different "species." This information is based on not only his decades of clinical work but the enormous research about brain differences between men and women.

His opening salvo will grab most wives immediately. Your husband can’t find the mustard in the refrigerator even when you tell him where it is. Eventually you "sweep" into the kitchen, open the refrigerator and quickly find the mustard. Dr. Leman then asks the rhetorical question, "Why is it that women always win at the lost and found game anyway?"

Every expert on marriage has emphasized that the secret to a successful marriage is communication. In the early days of marital psychology it was assumed that if a man could listen and talk like a woman everything would be just fine. The problem with earlier pronouncements on what makes a marriage tick is that these solutions were presented as obvious self-truths. Eventually, psychology used its scientific skills to study the matter. The pioneering work of psychologist John Gottman in Washington discovered that the key to better relationships is mutual respect. This seems self-evident but the irony is that communication between men and women can get in the way of respect.

Showing your husband respect is basically the core of Dr. Leman’s book, namely that respect trumps communication. That doesn’t mean communication is not important, it certainly is vital to a dynamic and healthy relationship. It’s just that women and men have such drastically different communication styles. Women need to share what they are feeling and are masters at minute details. When men are the recipient of this communication style, our eyes glaze over in about two minutes. When men begin to tune out, women feel they are not respected but then often turn around and respond in ways that are not respectful to their mates.

Men only want the facts and necessary information so that we can figure out things for ourselves. It’s not that we are aversive to details because we are not. Our details make women’s eyes glaze over. A man can get a woman antsy and looking at the clock in a few minutes as we recite the details of a baseball batter’s statistics or the details of an exotic sports car.

Because the communication of feelings is so important women need many friends to do this with. This seems perfectly natural to women. Consequently, they do not understand why we have fewer friends than they do. My wife is continually puzzled that I have "so few close male friends." For many of us men, our friendships are on a different plane.

Men don’t need to talk to each other every day — or even every week or month. We know our buddies are there for us if we need them and don’t need to constantly validate this fact. We men can have many acquaintances but few if any really close buddies. Dr. Leman echoes the experience of many men when he says, "As a guy, I call myself fortunate to have one really good friend..."

We enjoy activities with our male friends which may or may not include talking. We may talk about our troubles but in a way that is different from the "trouble talk" of women. I’m currently getting hassled by my insurance company about getting a fair reimbursement rate for the claim on my totaled car. When I "share" this with my male friends, the only emotion that presents itself is anger. We guys are good at talking about anger, but not so good at talking about disappointment, hurt, and vulnerability.

Dr. Leman reminds us that "Our brains are different, our body chemicals are different, our emotions are different, and we see life from completely different angles." He briefly reviews the research showing us how female and male brains operate so differently. The one that comes up often in the book is how well women can multitask and on well men can stay focused on the job in front of them. Both of these abilities have their assets and deficits but when they appear in a relationship, they can make a relationship volatile in a flash.

In a way, men are simpleminded so we tend to like to have a "job." We understand a job and we know how to focus on it. We don’t need to talk about it or if we do it is goal oriented about the job at hand. When men are complemented on doing something outstanding, our common reaction is that we "were only doing our job."

One of the most dangerous marital myths, says Dr. Leman, came out of the women’s movement when it insisted that men need to be more like women. Many women in the latter half of the twentieth century insisted that apart from out physical makeup, men and women are basically alike. As we now know the vast amount of evidence simply does not support this idea. Yet, Dr. Leman is an equal opportunity finger pointer by reminding men that if they had truly been doing their job correctly this crusade of emotional equality may never have had to take place.

So, if we are that different how can we ever live together harmoniously? Women are masters at relationships while men are as "dumb as mud." Consequently, females need to train us men in how to make a marriage work. Does this mean the author puts all the blame and responsibility for a healthy relationship on women? Not at all. He says this idea that women are the leaders and trainers is based on the notion that each person in a working group should be put in charge of those duties at which they excel.

This seems like a recipe for failure. After all, if men are so clueless when it comes to female relationships how can they change if these deficits are hard-wired? Dr. Leman cleverly tells women it is only a two-step process: (1) find out how men’s brains work and (2) use this knowledge to get them to perform new tricks. To begin this process, every women needs to know four simple pieces of information:
  1. He wants to be a good husband.
  2. He wants to please you.
  3. But he doesn’t know how to do that.
  4. He needs your help.
Later in the book, the author acknowledges that some men do not fit this template. Men who are abusive or men who have severe emotional problems may not be capable of changing. The question then becomes what to do. Not surprisingly, this issue is taken up later on in the book.

The foundation for having a new husband in the blink of an eye is to know and understand what your husband really wants from you. Often we men don’t even know this, so how can we be expected to tell you what we don't know? We don’t have to because the book spells it out in detail. In case you are wondering if I would share this explosive information with you, here it is.
  • Men need to be respected
  • Men need to be needed
  • Men need to be fulfilled.
The rest of the book walks you through each of these concepts by giving many examples of how to use these three principles. A man’s need for respect exists at all levels of society. When I have worked occasionally with teens and young men who have been in trouble with the law, they will often say trouble begins when someone does or says something to make them feel disrespected.

So how do you respect your mate? You do this by accepting a man’s limitations and emphasizing his strengths. We are not good at trying to figure out the important things you are saying to us because you give us too much detail. We need the facts, the headlines. We also get confused when you tell us your troubles because we want to fix it. If you have a problem, our brain immediately goes into fix-it mode so we stop listening. As a woman, you can sense this instantly, so you may try harder to give us more information thereby overloading our brain that is now focused on fixing your problem.

Our strength is we really want to love you but the only way we know how to show this is by doing things for you. Our competitive nature screws this up by thinking that bigger is better. We don’t get it that leaving you a short love note after we head off to work can be more important than blowing several hundred dollars on a dinner at an expensive restaurant.

I cannot do justice to how all of this plays out in the book. You need to get it, read it, study it and use it. None of the skills in the book are beyond the abilities of any women. Women are powerful (as compared to men) in a relationship but they often don’t know how best to use this power.

From personal experience, I can tell women that if you use the suggestions in this book, you will have your man more willing to meet your needs. Because of our emotional blindness, we may not even know we have changed. We will probably think you have made a dramatic turnaround yourself when all you have done is tweak a few knobs and twiddled a few dials in our very simple brain.

What might your result be from following the advice from this book? Perhaps this was best summed in a novel written in 1859. The famous novelist, Mary Anne Evans (better known as George Eliot), wrote a romantic novel called Adam Bede. In Book Six, Chapter 54, Adam and Dina pledge their love for each and seal it with a kiss. George Eliot then comments on the event with a familiar quote that has been used at countless weddings. "What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life — to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?"

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Rabbit In the Hat

With the exception of people within the magic community, most individuals are unaware of the role magic has planned in the history of the human race. When ancient peoples were confronted with the magic worker they took for granted the explanations about how the event took place. Almost universally, the explanation depended on paranormal or supernatural forces.

Two of the favorite demonstrations by magicians in the Middle Ages included (1) throwing a rope into the air and have it completely suspended by "nothing" and (2) dismembering an animal and then "raising the animal from the dead" by putting all the limbs and parts back together. A Chinese magician in the 14th century went a step further and combined these two effects by having a boy climb a length of leather strap that was apparently hung from the sky until the boy vanished. When the magician called for the boy to return at once, he refused. Angry, the magician climbed the leather strap and vanished. Spectators soon saw the boy’s body parts fall to the ground. The magician came back down and reassembled the parts. When he was finished, he kicked the body and "the boy stood up, complete and erect." All of this was observed and reported publically by an eye-witness.

Magicians have probably existed since the dawn of time. A story called "Bel and the Dragon" was written sometime in the second century B.C. The Persian king, Cyrus the Great, had a buddy named Daniel — who is the same Daniel from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. It seems Cyrus (whose god was Bel) was trying to convince Daniel (whose god was the Jewish god) that Bel actually came to the Persian temple at night and ate food left by the faithful. To prove his point he took Daniel to the temple holy chamber, showed him the room, left the food and proceeded to completely seal off the room so nobody could enter in the evening. Being of a more skeptical nature, Daniel, unbeknownst to the king had sprinkled a fine powder on the floor around the food. The next morning when Cyrus and Daniel entered the room, Cyrus said, "Aha! See? All the food is gone. Case closed." Then Daniel softly piped up (after all he was addressing the king) saying, "But, your majesty, look at those footprints on the floor. Let’s follow them from the food and see where they lead." Sure enough, they lead to a cleverly concealed door. When Cyrus had his men force the door open they looked in upon a group of priests feeding their faces with the god’s food. Cyrus was so angry, he killed the priests and tore down the entire temple.

We could go on and on about people through the ages fooling their fellow citizens through trickery. Now, you can imagine that if you could kill and resuscitate a person or make people think a god had eaten an offering, you would have enormous status and power. We have an immense amount of documentation about religious leaders such as priests and shamans using simple trickery — magic tricks — to get people to believe in their supernatural powers. Given the proper circumstances most of us are gullible. Prior to the Scientific Age, it was common knowledge that magicians could only perform their amazing feats through the help of devils and supernatural forces. Because of this belief those who performed these "miracle" were either venerated or feared. The latter group sometimes ended up dead.

Magicians have always used a two-part system for their magic: the Effect and the Method. Audiences only see the Effect and if the magician is really good, they will never know the Method. The test for all magicians, ancient and modern, is to separate the Effect from the Method so convincingly that nobody can figure out the Method. Although there are many ways to do this, one of the most common methods is called misdirection, both mentally and physically.

Experienced magicians also know that the belief system of the audience may determine whether the Method must be simple or complex. For example, modern magicians find it much easier to do the same trick as a pseudo-psychic than as a professional magician. They work much harder to fool their colleagues.

Neuro-scientists have found networks in the brain that are specifically adapted to provide humans with magical explanations for events they cannot explain. For example, a recent experiment was done with intelligent, college-educated people who thought their use of a voodoo doll had caused a study partner to have a headache. They did not know that the study partner faked the headache, so they assumed that something about the voodoo was actually affecting another person.

Magicians have always been a closed, secret society who passed on their secrets from generation to generation. The magician's oath has always insisted that anyone outside the magic fraternity was not to be let in on the secrets. For example, a club in Los Angeles called the Magic Circle is a confidential and exclusive club for magicians to gather. Outsiders may only enter through the sponsorship of a magician member. The society has a Latin motto: Indocilis Privata Loqui. I suppose it could be loosely translated, "keep your mouth shut."

In the 16th century the first magic book was written. Since then, there have been thousands of books written revealing some of the deep secrets employed by magic workers. Even today, anyone can walk into a magic shop and buy any book on magic. You can buy dozens of magic books on the Internet.

Yet, many people today still believe that any procedure they cannot explain must have a supernatural explanation. Religious healers use trickery to get people to think they are working miracles through the power of their god. Even highly intelligent people can be deceived about this. Many years ago, the prankster, Uri Geller, performed his paranormal feats to an audience of scientists at the Stanford Research Institute. He completely convinced all but one of the scientists that he had paranormal powers. The lone wolf was a psychologist and magician who was able to help unmask Mr. Geller’s tricks.

Today, professional magicians seldom claim supernatural powers and openly admit their trickery. Even though they fool people, the audience knows it’s a trick. But, what would happen if the magician convincingly told the audience he or she was performing these feats through the power of a supernatural entity? Several magicians have done this in the last century in order to educate people to the power of suggestion. After presenting themselves as having paranormal abilities and showing people miraculous feats, they then blow their cover and explain they are merely magicians. One such performer told me personally that after he made his presentation and confession, one audience member complained that they didn’t believe him. They suggested the magician was really paranormal and either didn’t want to admit or it or just wasn’t aware of his paranormal abilities. Amazing!

Another example of highly intelligent people being fooled by magicians are scholars who study ancient history and try to explain the role of miracle workers in various cultures. For example, one of the greatest New Testament scholars living today is Professor of New Testament in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Professor John Meier has written the definitive book on the historical Jesus. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus is a massive four-volume work that is seen by his peers as an "extraordinary achievement." In this remarkable work, he must deal with the miracles of Jesus and, as any good scholar would do, he attempts to define a miracle. His definition has three parts, the second of which states that a miracle is "an event that finds no reasonable explanation in human abilities or in other known forces that operate in our world of time and space."

The problem with this definition of a miracle is the fact that only professional magicians are capable of deciding if a miracle "had no reasonable explanation." Unfortunately, nobody every bothers to ask them. It does no good to check with other competent scholars who are not magicians. For example, sociologists study groups of people and their behavior. When they see a shaman, for example, perform a "miracle" they tend to take the experience at face value. This position is understandable because magicians are trained to perform the "impossible."

Problems arise when scholars do not take into account the complexities of the human brain. As was mentioned above, most people are by nature gullible given the right conditions. Humans also have the tendency to ascribe paranormal or supernatural explanations for events they find inconceivable. Our fallible memories also give the advantage to magicians. People who watch stunning magic tricks usually remember exactly what the magician wants them to.

Magicians have a skill they call "patter." As they talk to you during the trick they plant information into your mind that gets you to see and remember things that never happened.

Magicians love to hear people describe what they think they saw as they watched a magician perform. Once this eye-witness declaration is made to others, the phenomena of the urban legend kicks in. Researchers who study urban legends have shown that information received from a source that is perceived as reliable is usually accepted unconditionally. So if a friend tells you that a magician made a card rise from the table into thin air and the friend confirmed no strings were attached to the card, you would be inclined to accept this explanation — even though this is highly likely not what actually took place.

Magical thinking is all around us. Athletes who don’t change their socks before a game believe this behavior helps them play better. Gamblers are notorious for devising little rituals to help them beat the odds. Science has even shown that petitionary prayer only produces results no better than chance. Yet, religious people swear that their prayers for others really work.

Psychologists continually study how our brains deceive us into distorting and manipulating reality. People who are born with a natural knack for magic (similar to having a knack for music, sports, or writing) have been responsible for producing miraculous events for thousands of years. These folks have been intuitive enough about human nature to take advantage of brain deficits a long time before science can explain them.

Knowing that magicians have always had the ability to fool even the most intelligent people must keep us humble in declaring that we have all the facts about incredulous events regardless of what we call them: magic, impossible, or miracle. Any experience of this kind is never fully understandable without the knowledge of the professional magician. That knowledge is securely locked within the fraternity of magicians. The only way anyone can penetrate this inner circle is to take the time and make the effort to become a certified magician. All other attempts to understand anomalous experiences is based on incomplete understanding.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"You have offended my honor, Sir"

By now, you’ve all heard about the ruckus caused by Joe Wilson (whose given name is Addison Graves Wilson), the congressman from South Carolina who called the President of the United States a liar to his face in public. The public place was the United States Congress which eventually included the entire world via television and the Internet.

No one is perfect and people can make major mistakes, like insulting someone. The usual procedure in a civilized society is to own up to the mistake and make a heartfelt apology. This is exactly what Joe Wilson did when he admited his behavior was wrong. Soon after the President’s speech the White House received a call from Joe. He apologized for his "inappropriate and regrettable" comments. Administration officials who took the call expressed appreciation for the apology and commented that this country needs "a civil discussion" to which Joe Wilson agreed.

This is the way we are supposed to handle human peccadillos. That exchange should have been the end of the matter — a regrettable incident put on the shelf and forgotten. Just the opposite has happened. Unfortunately, the apology was not the end of the story but the introduction to a larger story.

Our country once again displayed its amazing propensity for polarization. On one side the majority of people think Joe Wilson had crossed the line. His behavior was unacceptable and a poor model for this country's children. Others believe that Joe Wilson did the right thing. After all, freedom of speech is what makes this country great. In fact, Joe has become a folk hero to some people in this country for his courage in speaking out and representing the thoughts and beliefs of people who are afraid. Not only has he become a hero to some but they have used their pocketbooks to affirm their support. Soon after calling the President a liar, Joe received over one million dollars for his upcoming election.

Maureen Down, columnist for the New York Times, reported that supporters began wearing T-shirts and waving signs with brave slogans such as "Stand with Joe," "Joe 2012," and "Joe was right." What a lovely democratic display of free speech. Other more powerful people joined the applause. A congresswoman from Minnesota publicly declared, "Thank God for Joe Wilson." The executive of the American Liberty Alliance was thankful that finally someone had become brave enough to openly display "a defiant attitude."

These displays of bravado emboldened others to voice their well thought out opinions at an anti-Obama rally in Washington recently. Placards emphasizing civil discussions made such statements as "Trade Obama back to Kenya;" "We came unarmed (this time)" and "Bury Obama with Kennedy." At least we don’t need to be concerned that all this rancor might be tinged with racism.

Predictably, popular Obama-haters quickly became soloists in the choir. Rush Limbaugh threw more fuel on the flames of national loathing and bitterness when he said, "Every sentence out of the president’s mouth is a lie and what’s he [meaning Joe Wilson] supposed to do?" So now we know what the civil discussion looks like that Joe Wilson agreed was needed for our nation.

A disciple of Michelle Malkin’s blog threw his mouth into this civil discussion when he left a post reading, "I’d far rather be in Joe’s company than the presence of gutter-mouth Obama and his thugs." At least it’s nice to finally understand what the new definition of civil discourse means.

It seems this groundswell of support for Joe has given him a slight springiness to his step. He talked with reporters a few days after his heroic behavior and when he was done talking with them, he happily signed his autograph on a picture of his heroic outburst. Some of Joe's Congressional colleagues suggested that he also needs to apologize to them because he not only insulted POTUS but denigrated the dignity and decorum of the Congressional chambers.

Well, this was to much for someone who now believed in his heroic status. Here is what Joe said when asked on Fox news if he would apologize to his colleagues. "I apologized one time. The apology was accepted by the president and the vice president. I’m not apologizing again." Sounds like a hero to me.

Actually, Joe Wilson is carrying on a time-honored tradition in South Carolina politics. For a century and a half, lawmakers from South Carolina have displayed their own version of civil discussion. Historian Lewis L. Gould has written countless books including The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate. He says that Congress has seen these special civil gifts over the years from South Carolina members of this exclusive club in the form of "beatings, fistfights and wrestling matches."

This section of the country began its special contribution to Congressional decorum in 1856. Preston Brooks was a Democratic congressman from South Carolina who took umbrage at a speech made by a colleague, Senator Charles Sumner. Brooks went to the Senate chamber in what onlookers must have thought would be a verbal confrontation. Instead Brooks beat the living daylights of Sumner. Sumner tried to hide under a desk. Brooks attacked Sumner so violently that he ripped the bolted desk from the floor. He continued the attack with his stout wooden cane until Sumner, blinded by his own blood, staggered up the aisle, then collapsed and fell into unconsciousness. Did this stop Brooks? Nope. He continued beating Sumner until he busted his cane. Only then did he stop and walk out of the chamber.

Gould goes on to list other incidents by congressmen from South Carolina. In 1902 a Senator by the nickname of Pitchfork Ben Tillman decided to move debate to another level. He wanted to teach another senator a lesson in civility so he began a brawl by jumping over four chairs and starting a fistfight. In 1964, favorite son, Strom Thurmond initiated a shoving match which quickly turned into a wrestling match that lasted a full ten minutes. More civil discussion.

Those of us who have been parents of young children have dealt with trying to teach our children that violence is not the format for dealing with conflict. I can’t imagine how much harder this is now that our elected leaders, media people, and the rabid rank and file have decided that getting in someone’s face is now the accepted method for managing disagreements. "But Dad, Congressman Wilson called President Obama a liar and became a hero."

Parenting is going to get harder as long as attention and support is given to people in this country for being belligerent, lying, demonizing anyone who disagrees, and accepting uncritically everything they hear. We now have a large segment of our population that is governed and motivated by fear. It takes only a minute or two on the Internet to see and listen to a flag-waver who says, in all seriousness, "I’m so scared because our President is a Muslim and they are taking over our country." When I was growing up, Joe McCarthy (another fine example of an elected official) spread similar rumors and fears through the populace except it was the Communist devil that was spooking everyone.

In one of her columns, conservative writer Kathleen Parker reminded us that congressmen and other men of integrity in the nineteenth century had a specific, civil and honorable method for ending acrimony. In 1882, a gentleman by the name of Mr. John Goode insulted another gentleman, Mr. Bailey by calling him "a liar." Ahhh — such biting language. Ms. Parker then relates what a writer for the New York Times described as the ultimate solution for personal insults among men of honor — a duel. The writer declared that "Nothing but blood can wipe out this insult."

What a great idea. A method to settle disagreements once and for all. President Obama could approach Joe Wilson telling him he demanded satisfaction from Joe for being dishonored. The President would then signal this demand with a time-honored insulting gesture such as slapping Joe across the face with a glove.

Next, the President would pick his weapon and choose the field of honor. The only problem here is that dueling is illegal. Being a clever species, humans in the last hundred years have devised substitutes for dueling and it’s called sports. Can anyone deny that football or soccer are just duels without swords or bullets? Even a baseball thrown at a batter’s head is a form of a duel.

However, one of the more violent sports is basketball. Some commentators believe the NBA is more violent than other sports because the players are in continual contact. To make matters worse basketball players wear no padding or equipment to protect themselves. Some NBA coaches are convinced that basketball is as much of a contact sport as football.

After President Obama slaps Joe Wilson with a glove, he could declare the weapon of choice is a basketball and the field of honor would be the White House basketball court.

So let’s begin a new tradition. We could start it at the highest levels of our nation and use the Trickle Down Theory of Sport Economics to eventually move it to grade schools and kindergarten. It could be used to corral the craziness that has begun to grip our nation. Violence would be short-lived with the results being unequivocal.

The duel between the President and the Congressman would be a game of one-on-one basketball and could be televised nationally. Special uniforms would be designed for the participants with taxpayer’s money. On one side of the gym would be bleachers for the Obama haters while everyone else would be in the opposite bleachers. Naturally, all fans would be screened for other kinds of weapons.

Who would we have for referees? The Supreme Court, of course. All of these smart people would be given a written test on basketball rules and probably all of them would pass. Those who got a perfect score on the rules test would have to shoot free throws. The justice who hit three straight ones from the foul line would be eligible for the referee job. In case more than one justice mastered this heroic feat, they would keep shooting (not dueling) until the one with the most successive sinkers would win. Of course, the referee would not wear stripes but rather a distinguished jet black outfit.

We could hold tryouts for members of Congress to become cheerleaders. They could develop their own cheers that would represent their constituency. One side would have cheers like, "Kill him, he’s a liar." The other side might have a cheer along the lines of, "Money solves all social problems." This new political spectacle might even be bigger than world soccer. Las Vegas could contribute a significant percentage of gambling winnings to help ease the national deficit.

The loser of this faux duel would have to leave his job. Either Joe Biden would be president or South Carolina would be out a congressman (although Joe Wilson could keep all the money he made from being a hero). Does anyone know if Obama or Wilson have played basketball before?

Let the Game Begin.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What Good Is Research...

Someone asked me recently what good is scientific research if "scientists are always changing their minds?" This is an honest question and one that many people wonder about. Unfortunately, the question, itself, is imbedded with several misconceptions about science.

When scientists "change their minds" it is not the same as when the rest of us change our minds. We can change our minds for many reasons. Our emotions might override our reason. This is something we learn to do in childhood. Children will often tell their best friend they "hate" them because the other child may have taken a toy without asking and won’t give it back. Our physical sensations can also take control of our intelligence. Maybe someone who would like to go shopping changes their mind because they are having a panic attack about going.

The influence of others can get us to change our minds. It can be from a trusted friend or family member. People in authority can easily get us to change our minds, especially if they speak with a great amount confidence and certainty. Con artists can get us to part with our money even though we don’t want to.

Science tries to avoid all these methods for mind-changing. Science began and still is dependent on only one source for change. Scientists rely on data or information that is reliable and valid. This information is collected in a highly systematic fashion so as to eliminate other sources of error. A simple example would be finding out the outside air temperature. Whatever instrument a scientist would use to measure temperature would need to be reliable and valid. To be reliable, the instrument must be able to accurately record the same temperature each time it is used. If it were an electronic thermometer and were turned off after every reading and then turned on to a different temperature, this would not be a reliable reading.

A valid measurement means that an instrument reads what it is meant to read. If the electronic thermometer was giving the same reading each time it was turned off an then on (reliable) but the results were really reading air pressure, then the thermometer would not be a valid instrument for deciding what the temperature was.

For an idea to be accepted, a scientist must collect data for a long time, sometimes decades. Then she must make sense of the data usually with complicated statistics. The next step is to turn it into a paper for acceptance in a professional journal. This is not an easy task. The papers are accepted or rejected by experts in the same field who read the article before publication and criticize it unrelentingly. Often the readers send it back to the author asking for corrections of mistakes they have found. When the readers are satisfied the paper contains the correct methodology and has come to conclusions warranted by the data, the paper is finally published in what is called a peer-reviewed journal.

When the article is finally published, the media may pick it up if they think the findings might be of interest to the general public. This can cause problems because the published paper is not the end point. Once it is published, the entire scientific community gets to study it, analyze it, and criticize it as they choose. Can you imagine your most cherished ideas going through a process like this?

Next, other scientists in the same field of interest will collect similar data and analyze it from a different perspective to see if they get the same results. If they do, then the scientific community is a bit more convinced the original ideas are acceptable. The end result is always based on the data, not what the scientists think. Until the data speak loud and clear, scientists will disagree on its meaning. Even then, with time, even newer data may come along and modify the earlier conclusions.

The average person would have difficulty with such a process regarding their most heart-felt beliefs. We often identify with our beliefs so much that our beliefs define who we are. For someone to come along and challenge our beliefs often feels as if they are attacking us personally. Imagine what it would be like if really smart strangers were constantly asking you to validate your beliefs and maybe even asking questions you might not even understand? Having a thick skin is a prerequisite for being a scientist.

Okay — let’s take a look at some of the research that psychologists have conducted recently. Growing older seems to have more disadvantages as the years proceed. Are there any advantages? It seems there might be, namely experience. What could experience possible offer seniors when memory seems to be less efficient and reflexes slow down? Let’s pick an occupation where age would seem to have no benefits over youth. How about being an air-traffic controller? This is a job where being alert, having quick reflexes and a good memory would seem to be paramount. Two psychologists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign decided to look into this question. They compared older and younger ACTs on fairly complicated tasks involved with the job. They also looked at simple mental abilities. What they found was that even though the younger people had an advantage regarding cognitive abilities, the older controllers, because of experience, were able to mentally compensate for mental agility that had declined due to age. It appears the older, more experienced people could do their job just as well at the young 'uns along side of them.

How important are grandparents? Other than spoiling children and being free babysitters, what do they offer to grandchildren? It seems they offer a lot, especially to children who are being raised in single-parent families. There also seems to be an advantage for children in step-family households. A study that looked at 1,315 adolescents found that spending time with a grandparent could offset the negative effects of not living in a nuclear family of origin. Specifically, these adolescents had fewer behavior problems and were more pro-social than teens who were not able to have a grandparent to stay connected with. The researchers suggested that maybe grandparents can offset any negative effects of children struggling with the effects of losing an intact set of parents.

Our DNA is involved in every aspect of our lives. This mechanism that Darwin didn’t know about is being more understood each day. Is it possible that traumatic events can have an effect on our DNA? In other words, can our genetic makeup be effected by what goes on around us? Many lay people think our DNA is like an unchangeable script that determines and drives our behavior. Continued research is showing that this is not so. A study at the University of Montreal looked at the DNA of people who were suicide victims and had also been abused as children. They found these people "exhibited changes in the DNA of the hormonal stress gene NR3CI." These changes had an effect on how the gene operated or how it was "expressed." Similar changes were not seen in a group of people who had not been abused as children or people who had died of natural causes. This is another corroboration of how our DNA can affect us as it is modified by what happens around us and to us.

Sometimes our kids look like one of us. Sometimes they don't. Parents are often at a loss to explain how their kid doesn't even resemble anyone on the family tree. So what, you might say? As I keep reminding you, psychologists love peeking into areas of human behavior that might appear insignificant and trivial. Dutch psychologists wondered if these differences might have any effect on any aspect of family life. We know that some men are overly concerned whether or not a child is really theirs. It seems that fewer women have this concern. When the researchers studied ninety Dutch parents, they found that Dads can indeed be affected by the possibility that they may be raising someone else’s child. It seems that Dads were more emotionally connected with their children if they believed their kids looked like them. Perhaps male brains have evolved this way over time because of a number of issues such as inheritance matters and the continuation of the family line.

"Girls gone wild" is an expression describing the hormonal chase that takes place in college age youth. With nature demanding that babies be made as soon as possible, it is common knowledge that college males are continually prowling for female sexual partners. Enter alcohol. It is an age-old assumption that booze can loosen up the most reluctant female in order to delight a male’s fantasy. How true is this? As with so many psychology studies that explode common myths, research at Loyola University found that college females were way off target in how much they believed their male counterparts expected them to drink. They asked males how much they would like girls who they were dating to drink. Then they asked the girls how much they thought the boys wanted them to drink. The results were surprising. It seems the girls were overestimating how much the boys actually expected. In fact they found out that the majority of the girls overestimated this by as much as fifty percent. This finding was not just a curious case of wrongful second guessing. The researchers also discovered that this inaccuracy can lead to dangerous behavior. The young women who were poorest at estimating how much they were expected to drink were more likely to binge-drink and to experience the associated negative consequences of alcohol.

Impulsiveness is something that many people have experienced. Like all human behavior, the frequency and intensity of this characteristic will vary from person to person. Sometimes, when we see this in young children it can either be cute or drive us to distraction. A study at the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Center along with the University of Montreal were interested in the following question: what might be the downside of early impulsiveness as these children age? They studied five-year olds and then went back and looked at their behaviors six years later. They found a relationship between early impulsiveness (inattentiveness, distractibility and hyperactivity) and a higher likelihood of involvement in gambling behaviors. The eleven year olds were more likely to play cards, bingo, or video poker. Although these kids were not throwing money at these games, the researchers saw a tendency in that direction because they were engaging in "gambling-related activities." If this research holds up, then it would be even more important to use psychology tools such as behavior analysis to teach children more control over their impulsive behavior.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Civility costs nothing...

Have humans always treated each other like Americans are treating each other? Why have we given up on gently talking to and politely listening to each other?

I was reminded of these questions the other day when I received a comment on one of the past articles posted on this blog. You may not know that when people post comments about articles, I have the ability to reject them or allow them to be posted as a comment. My job is accept all comments that I don’t agree with and would like all comments to automatically be posted.

The only two criteria I have for not allowing comments to be posted are quite reasonable. The first is some form of identification. Public discourse is not possible if you don’t know who you are talking with. Therefore, people who make comments but don’t identify themselves will not see their comment appear on the blog.

Any comments that demean other people are also rejected. This second criteria means that comments must be polite, respectful and reasonably rational. Unfortunately, the most recent comment has violated both of these standards. Before explaining this further, I’m interested in putting this comment into a broader context.

Some people think Americans have become more uncivil and rude than necessary. For example, this summer the media has reported such bad behavior in local town hall meetings. Town hall meetings have a long history in this country. They began in New England and were examples of "direct democracy" in action where people could gather to discuss and decide issues of interest such as politics and health concerns. Each person was respectfully given a chance to speak while others listened and responded.

For the most part, these town hall meetings were courteous except for vocal minorities who believed their point of view was so correct that any means justified their behavior. Shouting, pushing behavior got a few people arrested for assault. I find it hard to believe this could be called democracy in action.
We also see this rudeness on television talk shows and hear similar behavior from the so-called shock jocks. Shouting instead of listening, name-calling, making comments unsupported by the facts are becoming more common. This lack of social graces could be written off if it weren’t for the fact that it improves ratings. It improves ratings because more people are watching.

Why do so many people find this kind of interchange so fascinating? Why not watch professional wrestling or cage fighting? Are we entering a new era where we are redefining what democracy is all about? Have we become a people who want to open our screaming mouths while keeping our minds closed to opinions that bother us?

We have been a nation that has been proud of our ability to settle our differences with civility and respect (oh well, the civil war only happened once). Now, some people have even said publicly that since they have a president they didn’t vote for and don't agree with, then he deserves to die. Our country was founded on the concept of free speech but it seems that freedom of speech only belongs to those who agree with us.

Sociologists are telling us of increased incivility in the work place. This often takes the form of an intimidating boss or supervisor. These people will display angry outbursts, degrade employees publicly, and even threaten them. Research at the Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management at the Technion Institute in Israel found that managers who display public anger and have temper tantrums are perceived as getting better results than those managers who treat subordinates with dignity. This unacceptable bullying behavior may work — and result in promotions — because the corporate ethos often identifies these bosses as people "who gets things done."

Another more recent venue for uncouth and graceless behavior is the Internet. In years past, people would rant by sending a letter to the editor of the local newspaper but they would also identify themselves by signing their name. This way everyone could know who was saying what. Scientists are always disagreeing with one another but they are fully identified as to their speciality and academic affiliation.

With the Internet and the ease of having a platform for anyone to make their thoughts public, we are seeing a new form of rudeness and incivility called "flaming." The website WiseGeek defines flaming as,

the often deliberate act of posting or writing messages on Internet bulletin boards and message groups that have the intent of insulting or creating dissent within a group. An Internet flame is often filled with coarse language and personal insults. It is meant to hurt people’s feelings, get them fired up, and not to further conversation on a personal issue. It is never conversational, but it may be meant to upset an entire group, provoking conversation about someone’s flame
or on the practice of flaming in general.

What can make this even worse is not providing any identification by those who flame. Anonymity increases a person’s capacity for informational mischief. Anyone can put written information that consists of unsubstantiated accusations and bully tactics on the Internet and not have to take personal responsibility. The flamer can hide under a cloak of invisibility.

Even when anonymous people give criticism or feedback it can be done in a way that is not constructive. Some people believe this behavior also offers protection which would be absent if it were done in a face-to-face situation. Internet users who use cyberspace and are mean-spirited are called trolls within the Internet community.

Much more could be said about this but it brings me back to the start of this blog. As I mentioned, anonymous blogs and blogs that are disrespectful are rejected on my blog. Disagreements, no matter how severe, are encouraged. Here is what happened.

Someone who was afraid of being known publicly decided to respond to one of my blogs. They very cleverly signed their name, Anonymous. As if I wouldn’t have known this. To make matters worse, they did not even write a single thought of their own but cut and pasted the opinions of others who had a different perspective from those presented in my blog article. They used about a half dozen different sources to present their comments — I’m assuming, to present their beliefs about the matter.

Here is the disrespectful part. They sent twenty-three (yes, 23) emails beginning at 1:28 in the afternoon and continuing throughout the day into the evening. The last one was sent at 7:49 pm. The first seven were sent within the first hour.
Then twenty minutes later, it started again. Three more the next hour. Another 20 minutes went by and ten more cluttered my inbox the following hour.

Twenty-five minutes later the deluge slowed to a dribble: only two more showed up. Then two hours later the coup de grace was delivered with the twenty-third email.

My immediate reaction was the phrase running through my head about "having a life." Then I was puzzled why someone would take almost seven hours to send me quotes by other people. Talk about double anonymity. First, there is no name and then no thinking. This person is really afraid of something.

I’m still wondering what the point of these twenty-three emails was about. Was it a contest to see who could get the most people to agree on a specific point? This is the way junior high kids argue. Presenting a dissenting case does not rest on how many agree with you. It based on the evidence and rationale a person can bring to bear rather than finding people to quote.

Was this an attempt to overwhelm me with the opinions of Ph.D. writers who we all know are really smart. I was overwhelmed alright, but not as it was intended. My email box was cluttered and I had to waste my time reading this stuff.

Maybe the invisible Anonymous wanted me to feel badly for posting the article. Disappointingly, I did not drop to my knees in chagrin over having written such a bad article.

I’m almost finished with this rant. I don’t know if this person stumbled onto my blog, read one of them and was so incensed that they had to waste half a day trying to overwhelm me with the thoughts and ideas of other people.

Anonymous, if you are reading this, please don’t waste your time and my time again with such foolish antics. If you have something to say, use your own brain, name, and say it. If you are respectful I will put anything you have to say personally (except a lengthy diatribe) in the comments section.

Send me a comment, Anonymous, and tell me who you are and what you think about this article.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

What Do Psychologists Do?

Some people, when they think of psychology, think of a counselor talking and listening to someone with problems or feeding a pellet to a rat after it has run a maze correctly or teaching university classes. Others, more rarely, think of that old dinosaur, psychoanalysis. Although these things are part of psychology (the psychoanalysis part is dying a well-deserved death) they are only a very minor part.

Anyone in college knows that psychologists are teachers and researchers in the academic world. Another group of psychologists work in settings like hospitals and mental health clinics. In the latest survey only twenty-nine percent of psychologists were employed in stereotypical jobs such as research, counseling, testing or education. Another twenty-one percent worked in the health care system. Less known are those psychologists who work in other settings such as government, businesses, industry, nonprofit organizations.

Some psychologists work with other psychologists, some work with non-psychological scientists, and a few work independently. Collaboration with other professions helps psychologists contribute to almost every part of our society: politics, military, engineering, computer science, legal, medicine, schools, business and even economics. One psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, even received a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.

To give you an idea of the wide range of psychological specialities, here is a partial listing of the kinds of psychologists out there. If you are interested in finding out more about any of these specialities, just click on the link.

Cognitive and perceptual psychologists
Developmental psychologists
Educational psychologists
Engineering psychologists
Evolutionary psychologists
Experimental psychologists
Forensic psychologists
Health psychologists
Industrial/organizational psychologists
Sport psychologists
Neuropsychologists (and Behavioral Neuropsychologist)
Clinical Neuropsychologist
Quantitative and measurement psychologists
Rehabilitation psychologists
Social psychologists

It might seem strange that a psychologist would work with the federal government. However, most people don’t know the US Congress has several psychologists. The first was in 1993 when Ted Strickland from Ohio was elected to the House of Representatives. Today, psychologists are politically active not only at the federal level but also in many state governments.

Psychologists also act as consultants to government agencies. Psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, who is a cognitive psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, is a consultant for two federal agencies. He is an advisor to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Committee. In his free time he chairs the Risk Communication Advisory Committee with the Food & Drug Administration. He is committed to using psychology to help government make policies and procedures more useable and efficient. Four years ago he explained to Congress how they could improve their communication with the American public.

You may have heard of Sport Psychology. This relatively new field of psychology began in Germany in 1920 with the founding of a laboratory devoted to sport psychology. Since then sport psychology has developed its own journals and training programs around the world. As you would expect, sport psychologists spend a lot of their time helping coaches and athletes with performance enhancement. They also try to help younger athletes discover ways in which physical activity can improve personal development. Sport psychologists are often former athletes, some of whom participated professionally in their sport. Dr. Roland Carlstedt who used to be a professional tennis player, coach and consultant is now the head of The American Board of Sport Psychology. His goal is to put sport psychology on a more scientific footing by minimizing guesswork and opinions about how to make athletes perform better.

Have you ever heard of a Violent Crime Resource Specialist? This is Dr. Kristen Beyer’s job description. She is a psychologist who works for the FBI conducting research on child abductors who murder and those who are serial murderers. She also is a counselor for the FBI employee-assistance program. Working alongside trained agents, Dr. Beyer helps them with any significant behavioral aspects of a case and can often provide them with valuable input based on her psychological expertise.

Some people will complete a doctoral degree in a specific field and then, instead of practicing their profession, will write about it. Some journalists who comment on legal issues, medical questions, or science problems have Ph.D.’s but really enjoy educating the public about their specialty area. One such person is psychologist, Laura Helmuth, Ph.D. who decided to look at psychology from the outside rather than the inside. She became a science writer specializing in the many areas that psychology touches. She now writes articles from a psychological perspective for the prestigious Science magazine.

Who would have thought a psychologist would be working for Microsoft? Paul ElRif, Ph.D. is one of a several psychologists at Microsoft who call themselves "usability engineers." These psychologists work with software developers to help make software easier to use. Dr. ElRIf does this by collecting information on what end users need and how they behave when using certain software. His data is collected through the use of customer roundtables and focus groups. The human element provided by Dr. ElRif helps the software developers make a product less mysterious and more accessible to those of us who use software (are there any people left who don’t use it?)

What do you suppose a psychologist does for a police department. Police psychology gained prominence years ago with the Los Angeles Police Department. Today there is a department within LAPD called the Behavioral Science Services unit. This department, headed by psychologist Dr. Debra Glasser, not only provides counseling for personnel and their families, but is involved in life and death matters that face law enforcement on a daily basis. Her team of psychologists are present during hostage negotiations, SWAT call-outs and are members of the Critical Incident Response Team. They also engage in ongoing research projects related to law enforcement.

Technology and education seem made for each other. Almost every school has computers. Students take notes on laptops, get class assignments through the Internet, and stay in touch with classmates using their cell phones. Psychology is making contributions in the field of technology and education. Dr. Marita Franzke used to work in the usability lab of U.S. West before they were taken over by Qwest but now is with Pearson Knowledge Technologies. Her research deals with helping people to learn better through the use of computers.

We all know that NASA is about space exploration: spacecraft, robots, rockets and all that high tech stuff. What about the human element? When we watch important space events, we see lots of people sitting behind consoles anxiously awaiting some technical outcome. When it occurs there is a lot of high fives, laughing and breaking out of the bubbly. Psychologist Robert McCann works at the NASA-Ames Research Center but is not one of those people at the console. His expertise in human information processing has allowed him to work on projects such as how pilots can best use a Head-Up Display in a cockpit. These "HUDs" project a picture of the instrument panel onto a glass panel mounted on the inside of the windshield. Consequently, a pilot does not have to look down and away from what is happening outside in order to see and read the aircraft instrumentation. Originally many difficulties had to be worked out because of human perception and how it works. Dr. McCann and his colleagues were able to use the psychology of perception to overcome these problems. Does he like his job? He loves it and believes that "unusual career paths can end up in very rewarding directions!"

So what do psychologists do? The is answer is just about anything that involves humans. Think of something humans do, whether mundane or critical and the likelihood is that a psychologist is lurking close by.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Nothing Is Better than Something

Imagine you have gone to your physician and were told you needed a specific medicine to help you get better. Then your doctor told you that if the medication wasn’t working you could make it stronger by diluting in water. You were told to keep diluting it until there was only one molecule of the medicine left in the water. You were told this small amount of the medication would be extremely strong and would cure what ailed you. Would you have some misgivings about this advice? Most people would leave immediately, never go back and probably report the doctor to the medical board.

Yet, there are people who believe this kind of "medicine" really works. It’s hard to imagine this but millions of people swear this system has helped them with their medical problems. This treatment is called homeopathy. For many people homeopathy is a misunderstood concept. People often think homeopathy describes a remedy that uses natural herbs. This is not what homeopathy is. Regardless of this misconception, it is a popular treatment. If you Google "homeopathy" you will get over a million and a half hits most of which are favorable to homeopathic medicine.

Let me give you some background on what homeopathy real refers to. It was invented in the late eighteenth century by Samuel Hahnemann. He based homeopathy on a philosophy that believed all illness and disease was caused by "disturbances of the life force." Hahnemann lived during a time when the germ theory was just beginning to be understood. Humans had always wondered why people got sick and many ideas over the millennia had been advanced as to why people fell ill.

One of the more common theories on why people got sick was based on the idea that life could only be fully explained on the basis of a mysterious form of energy inherent to all living things. This strange force had nothing to do with the laws of physics and chemistry, however. People who held this view thought a healthy person was one in whom these forces were in balance. One became unhealthy when the forces were out of balance.

Hahnemann believed this vital force could be affected by internal events (like a person’s thoughts) or by circumstances outside an individual. He called this the "law of susceptibility." To cure this imbalance he devised a method based on the notion that "like cures like." In other words if you had a headache, the cure would be based on anything that would give you a headache. If Hahnemann could find a piece of bark or a root that would cause headaches he would then make a potion from it.

Hahnemann observed that if he swallowed a small amount of cinchona bark he would experience symptoms similar to malaria. Cinchona bark is used to produce quinine which in turn is an effective drug for the treatment of malaria. Aha! He thought he had found the miracle cure. Cinchona bark must have the vital force for curing malaria because in high enough doses it can cause malaria (it can’t).

To create the proper medicine for an illness he would find something that could cause symptoms similar to the illness. He would then dilute the chosen substance so much there was not enough toxicity left in the solution. He reasoned that the more he diluted a substance, the more powerful it became because the dilution would make the vital force even stronger. If this was true, then the more he diluted it, the stronger it became. Of course, he had no evidence this was true, it just seemed like a good idea to him.

This Principle of Similarities became the foundation for homeopathy. So, if rotten meat brings on nausea to the point of vomiting, then a solution with trace amounts of rotten meat, he declared, will cure nausea.

How much do homeopaths dilute their curing solutions? More than you can imagine. If you are really sick then serious dilution would be a lengthy process. A very small amount of the first dilution would be diluted again and again. This would be repeated until the initial substance barely existed. What remained would be equivalent to one drop of the cure diluted in all the water on earth.

Homeopathy proponents also believe that literally anything can be a potential remedy. Dr. Harriet Hall, a retired Air Force flight surgeon is convinced that homeopathy is absolute nonsense. When it comes to finding absurd things to act as a cure, her favorite is "eclipsed moonlight." She ponders as to how it is collected in order to prepare the remedy. Let me know if you find how out to harvest eclipsed moonlight.

What keeps this pseudoscience alive is that homeopathic practitioners and their patients swear these treatments work. Of course, swearing and belief do not a treatment make. There are many reasonable explanations why homeopathy "works." One of the strongest reasons is the power of the placebo. Since a placebo can be so effective, a treatment is not considered legitimate by the scientific community unless it can produce effects significantly greater than a placebo treatment would provide.

This is a very stringent standard because people can think a treatment is helping them when, in fact, it is the result of placebo. For example, a study was done where two groups of people were given either morphine for severe pain or an inactive placebo. Here’s the astonishing part. The people getting the "nothing" treatment were told they were getting a powerful new painkiller. The researchers were shocked to find out this group got just as much relief as the group who actually got morphine.

Placebos have been studied so extensively that we now know there is a pecking order of effectiveness. Some placebos work better than others. Here is a list of which placebos work better than others. It looks something like this (This list is taken from "The Placebo Effect" by Harriet Hall in the Skeptic magazine, Volume 15, Number 1, 2009):
  1. Placebo surgery works better than placebo injections.
  2. Placebo injections work better than a placebo pill.
  3. Fake acupuncture also works better than a placebo pill.
  4. Pills as capsules work better than pills as tablets.
  5. Big pills work better than small pills.
  6. The more doses a day, the better.
  7. The more expensive the pill, the better it works.
  8. The color of the pill makes a difference.

This doesn’t make any rational sense and we only partially understand how a placebo works. So far we know it works and it can work very well. When studies of homeopathic treatment take into account the results of the placebo, homeopathy is left standing naked.

What about "all the studies" supporters of homeopathy quote that show how legitimate homeopathy is? We must realize there are studies and there are studies. It is very easy to do sloppy science. This kind of science can verify all sorts of crazy notions. Consequently, only well-designed studies are acceptable.

To illustrate this point, we can observe the career of Edzard Ernst who is a physician and the world's first professor of complementary medicine. He used to be a passionate support of homeopathy. Then he began to do research. He and his team of researchers have published over 700 papers in scientific journals on alternative medicine. After fifteen years of studying homeopathy, he has concluded that "the evidence points towards a bogus industry that offers patients nothing more than a fantasy." Strong language from someone who used to be inside the camp.

If you are interested in what logic is used by supporters of homeopathy to maintain that it is an effective treatment, you only need to browse the writings of Louise McLean who is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Natural Health. You can find her writings here. You will find an article called, "Homeopathy Facts List – 54 Facts." As you read through this article of "facts" you may quickly realize the "intellectual bankruptcy of the homeopathic belief system." Here are some examples (my comments are in parentheses):

  • FACT 10: Outcomes of homeopathic treatment are measured by the LONG TERM curative effects of prescribing and complete eradication of the disease state. (Like scientific medicine is only concerned with short term effects? All measurements of long term effects from homeopathy have found no significant effects.)

  • FACT 20: In 200 years, there has never been a single homeopathic medicine recalled, unlike pharmaceutical medicines. (That’s because homeopathic "medicines" are not regulated by any government body. Therefore, they cannot be recalled. The FDA doesn’t regulate treatments that don’t work.)

  • FACT 30: The Homeopathic Hospitals are clean, with friendly, well informed staff. The patients are generally pleased with their treatment unlike many orthodox National Health Service hospitals. (She is obviously comparing the best Homeopathic Hospitals with the worst British Hospitals. Even if this were true, I’m not sure how this proves that homeopathy works.)

  • FACT 40: Homeopathy can never be properly tested through double blind randomised trials because each prescription is individualised as every patient is unique. Therefore 10 people with arthritis, for example, may all need a different homeopathic medicine. (This is merely an excuse for why all double blind tests of homeopathy have failed. It would be easy to design a test for each of the 10 people who needed 10 different homeopathic medicines. Supporters of homeopathy need to do this if they really want to be accepted as legitimate. I wonder why they have not done so?)

  • FACT 50: Hundreds of famous people throughout the past 200 years have enjoyed the benefits of homeopathic medicine. (Hundreds of famous people in the past 200 years have believed in witchcraft, psychics, or other foolishness. The belief of intelligent people is hardly a reliable standard to finding truth. Some of the most gullible alive are members of MENSA.)
What really keeps homeopathy alive is that it is supported by nice people; humans respond to what nice people say. If you were to visit a homeopath you would probably find it to be a very pleasant experience. He would sit and patiently listen to you as you tell your personal story. You might not get this much attention from your MD. The homeopath would make you feel special because he would pick out a "special" treatment designed just for you which would make you feel special. The remedy would be inexpensive and would most likely have little or no side effects (how could there be side effects when there is nothing to cause it?). You would tell your friends that you were very reassured because the homeopath had been interested in you as a person.

Who wouldn’t want to experience this atmosphere along with medical treatment? Scientific medicine could use more of this relational aspect in their treatment. Many of my clients tell me they will change physicians if their physician treats them poorly. Excellent.

The Gold Standard (double blind studies) for deciding what works and what doesn’t is the Gold Standard for a good reason. It minimizes human error and bias that is built into all human researchers, practitioners, and those of us who use treatment services. Hopefully, homeopathy will eventually go the way of bloodletting and purging. Philosopher Daniel Dennett at Tufts University has said that treatments based on "mysterious stuff" need to be relegated "to the trash heap of history." Amen.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Nobody Can Explain Love

Years ago when I became interested in science and would attempt to explain all the exciting things we can learn through science, it was not uncommon to get the rejoinder that "science cannot explain everything" (no scientist ever said it could).

The example that was often given to explain this belief was love. "Science will never be able to explain love." Of course, the human race has made this blunder ever since the dawn of science. Every time some says "Science will never be able to . . ." the prediction inevitably fails.

During my early years, grownups tried to convince me that a car could not be built to exceed sixty miles an hour. Even if the technology could pull this stunt off, I was told the human body would not be able to stand the force of such speeds. At the beginning of the twentieth century the idea of putting someone on the moon was laughable. There is a very long list of common bonehead statements like this and they are the result of our limited imagination. Science fiction writers and other novelists, like Ursala Le Guin, have been able to envision future human achievements that seem incredibly far fetched.

"Nobody can explain love." Like so many statements that have put constraints on scientific endeavors, this one is about to be thrown into the historical dustbin. Love is so powerful, so universal, so . . . unexplainable. Its mystery is probed in poetry, novels, movies, daily conversation and now by science.

You are probably already aware of the fancy tools scientists are using to peer into our brains. The human brain may be the most complicated thing in the universe and we are just barely beginning to understand how it works.

A recent study was conducted at State University of New York, Stony Brook. The researchers studied college students who had recently fallen in love (maybe we should call universities and colleges "love factories.") and the effect it was having on their brains. They watched the brain's reaction when these people were shown pictures of their beloved.

Sure enough, as soon as they glanced at the picture, a specific part of their brain lit up like fireworks. The interesting part is that this part of the brain is the same one that gets lit up for cocaine and nicotine users. It gets flooded with the brain chemical dopamine. We know that dopamine flooding is so rewarding that humans will do almost anything to make it happen.

Another love chemical in the brain goes by the tongue twisting name of isphenylethylamine. It is easier to call it PEA which scientists do. PEA is produced by the brain and is a naturally occurring amphetamine. These chemicals work in tandem. Amphetamines cause brain synapses to release this little, tiny spray of dopamine into the brain. There's the buzz — the same high after someone snorts a line of cocaine.

Using cocaine is illegal, smoking cigarettes should be illegal, but love will never be illegal. Many of my clients have told me that they have kicked highly destructive habits after they have fallen in love. A female client was relieved of her depression when she fell in love; a male client stopped having panic attacks when he fell head over heels for the "most beautiful woman" he had ever seen; a teenage client "cured" her bulimia when she met the perfect boy. And so on.

Guess what happened when these relationships ended? The dopamine no longer overrode the other chemicals that were making these people's lives miserable. This may be why some people have so many relationships. After one fails, they need a fix, another love fix. Some people who are not so intensely caught up in the cycle may still complain they just can't live by themselves and are continually on the prowl for someone to fill that emotional/chemical void.

This is not to say that we should have to enjoy being alone. After all, we are social creatures and find comfort and meaning within relationships. However, the people I have known who enjoy their relationships the most are the ones who are comfortable being by themselves.

Dr. Helen Fisher is a researcher in this field who did a similar experiment with a simple revision. She also showed her subjects a picture of another person who was neutral. You can probably guess the first picture released all the chemicals and the second picture did not get the same response. That is what happened.

Another research project wanted to find out what the brain chemistry was like for couples who had been together for many years. They chose couples who had been married for at least twenty years and said they were still deeply in love. Not surprisingly, their brains also showed increased levels of dopamine. However, something else was discovered.

Have you ever heard older couples talk about how love is even better after the initial burst of chemistry begins to subside? When I was younger, my friends and I thought this was laughable. All we knew was the dopamine high. Well, these scientists found that older love birds had another chemical in their brains called oxytocin. This brain chemical is often called the "cuddling chemical" because it helps new mothers make milk and be more capable of bonding with their babies.

Another brain chemical is released when we start experiencing puberty. Do you remember your days of pre-teen infatuation? How could we forget. This state of mind is caused by still another drug called norepinephrine. Because this is the first experience of a love chemical, pre-teens get jolted by this strong drug and think it is The Real Thing. Not that it doesn't feel good. It is just the brain's way of getting young people together to learn the social skills needed for The Real, Real, Thing (dopamine and associates).

There is no question that love is the result a drug. Anyone who has been addicted to this drug and then done something incredibly stupid will not deny its power. Science and human experience know that love is such a powerful experience that it can completely override common sense and rational decision making. When hit with this emotional genie we can go hungry, avoid sleep and cause our friends to shake their heads in disgust and confusion.

So what does this all mean? Has love now been relegated to something so mundane as a drug? Has science taken away the mystery and excitement of falling in love? I don't think so. Knowledge is always better than ignorance. Do astronomers yawn and become bored when looking at a beautiful galaxy or nebula in their telescope? Most certainly not. They go back again and again to gaze at these heavenly wonders. Do English professors stop reading because they have the ability to dissect and discuss the fine points of an author's work? The opposite is true. They have a deeper appreciation of what they are reading. How about musicians? Does their knowledge of the link between music and neurology of the brain lessen their love of music? Not at all. This type of knowledge enhances the music. Even religious people who read the Bible can have a more profound experience of its contents when they begin to understand the insights of professional scholarship from the last two hundred years.

So in summary, this is what love is about: oxytocin makes you want to cuddle and touch; PEA gets your juices and energizes you to lose sleep; dopamine makes you crave more of what you have; and norepinephrine makes you have sweaty palms and a pounding heart when you are near to or even think of that really special person.

Although we have only mentioned a few brain chemicals, Dr. Mary Cochrane at the University of Buffalo says there are many more chemicals involved in romantic love. Her article, Psychologist Says Neurochemical Processes Explain Romantic Attraction explains what those other chemicals are.

Additional Reading:

Fisher, H. (2004). Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. (Holt Paperbacks)

Regan, P. (2008). The mating game: A primer on love, sex, and marriage. New York: Sage Publications.